By KENNETH BRIDGES | For The Arkadelphian
For many years after statehood, Arkansas had few schools and no colleges. More settlers came to believe that developing institutions of learning was the way to promote the future strength and prosperity of the state. As such, civil leaders in the state’s Masonic lodges organized St. Johns’ College, the first college in Arkansas.
In the 1840s, leaders of the Masonic orders in Arkansas began planning to build a college to make up for the state’s serious deficiencies in higher education. In December 1850, the state legislature granted a charter to the Masons to begin St. Johns’ College. As a Christian organization, Masonic lodges typically dedicated their buildings to St. John the Evangelist or to St. John the Baptist. Masonic leaders noted that naming the college after both these important early figures in the faith seemed appropriate.
However, while St. Johns’ was the first college chartered to operate within Arkansas, it was not the first to actually open. Financial problems plagued the effort for several years. During that time, Cane Hill College and Arkansas College, both in Washington County, had already opened. George C. Watkins, president of the college’s board of trustees oversaw the beginning of construction on St. Johns’ College’s main building began in 1857, and by 1859, classes had begun. Enrollment, however, remained small.
The college was located in what is now MacArthur Park, on the eastern edge of downtown Little Rock. The main building was an impressive three-story brick building. The design and grand entranceway was similar in appearance to the design of many larger churches at the time.
St. Johns’ offered a complete education in the classical liberal arts and sciences as well as military-style training. The college also offered training for telegraph operators, an important skill in the 1850s and 1860s.
The Civil War caused a massive disruption for the college, one that it never recovered from. The war disrupted travel, and most of its existing students and potential students joined the military during the war. As such, college leaders decided to close the campus for the duration of the war. After Union forces seized the city in 1863, the site was turned into a hospital by the U. S. Army.
The army returned control of the site to the college’s trustees in 1867, and classes resumed that fall. However, all of the assets that the college had were in Confederate money, which became completely worthless when the Confederacy surrendered in 1865. As classes resumed, the college was effectively bankrupt while facing new competition.
After the Civil War, new colleges began to open across the state as a flowering of higher education bloomed across Arkansas. The University of Arkansas opened in 1871 and quickly became the largest and most prestigious university in the state. Several smaller private colleges also opened, adding to the pressures St. Johns’ was facing.
In 1878, the Masons ended their financial support of the college. One of the college’s professors, Leo Baier, was given control of the institution at this point. The college’s fortunes began to rebound with 142 students enrolled by 1881 just before Baier’s retirement. In spite of determined attempts by Baier’s successor, W. J. Alexander, the college did not have the funding to stay open. St. Johns’ College closed forever in 1882.
Nothing remains today of the college as the buildings were totally destroyed by fire in 1890. Although the St. Johns’ effort failed, Masonic lodges across Arkansas would continue to give generously to private schools and charities across the state. Today, more than 40 colleges and universities operate throughout Arkansas.
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