Listen here to an audio introduction to the First District Agricultural School. Narrated by Professor Mark Trout.
The First District Agricultural School’s was founded on April 1, 1909, when Arkansas Governor George W. Donaghey signed Act 100 creating and funding four agricultural schools. The First District School was to serve citizens of the state’s northeast region.
To locate a school in their communities, towns had to raise money matching the state appropriation. T. A. Turner headed a Jonesboro committee that outbid offers from Greene County and Mountain Home. As a result, the school was built on 442 acres of farmland a mile and a half east of Jonesboro.
During 1910, the school’s board of trustees employed a principal and oversaw construction of campus and farm buildings. Victor C. Kays served as the school’s head for thirty-four years, providing continuity in leadership that contributed to stability and growth. The school also benefitted after 1917 from the generous patronage of board member Robert E. Lee Wilson, the richest planter in northeast Arkansas.
The first semester began October 3, 1910, with 189 students in seven rooms of the Old Elks Lodge in Jonesboro. Campus buildings were not finished until the spring of 1911. Students followed a practical curriculum emphasizing vocational agriculture and home economics and such core subjects as were necessary for a high school degree.
Many students came from poor families and worked to pay for their education. Tuition was free, but boys worked on the farm and girls in the dining hall to earn the cost of monthly room and board. Strict rules governed student behavior at work, in the classroom and dormitories, and off-campus.
Extracurricular activities included literary societies and sports. The four agricultural schools’ athletic teams in the earliest years were often called Aggies, but each school adopted a unique name. After the First World War, the Jonesboro football team was named the Indians.
Jonesboro, like the other agricultural schools, built facilities in the early years that were large enough to permit the institution to evolve into a residential college. The school began as early as 1918-1919 to offer some junior college level course.
Two trends encouraged the change to full collegiate status. In the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, Congress funded vocational agriculture and home economics instruction in the nation’s regular high schools. Students no longer had to leave home to attend specialized agricultural high schools. In addition, Arkansas began to improve its public education. Special Act 223 of 1923 assigned the agricultural schools responsibility for training teachers for the state’s rural schools. Act 45 of 1925 provided each agricultural school with a junior college name. Jonesboro’s became State Agricultural and Mechanical College, First District. With Act 222 of 1933, it became the first agricultural school to convert to a four-year institution and was renamed Arkansas State College. Act 3 of 1967 also made it the first former agricultural school to attain university status as Arkansas State University.
For more information about the First District Agricultural School at Jonesboro, see Lee A. Dew, The ASU Story: A History of Arkansas State University, 1909-1968 (1968).
Arkansas State University, Jonesboro, Arkansas http://www.astate.edu/