(Excerpted from James F. Willis, Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School’s Centennial History, 1909-2009, pp. 134-37)
Magnolia A&M was the only college in the state that did not eagerly seek New Deal grants and loans to construct new facilities. By 1941, the other campuses had more and bigger buildings and other structures, but they also had accumulated more debt. In that year, President Overstreet proudly pointed out that his institution’s fiscal conservatism had given it the lowest annual debt repayment of any of the state’s schools. It was $9,940 compared with Monticello’s $21,880 and Russellville’s $40,618. When New Deal opportunities first appeared in 1933, [President Charles A.]Overstreet and the board of trustees, as then constituted, feared that the risks outweighed the benefits. The board instructed Overstreet to investigate the possibility of getting a loan for dorms and classrooms, and his negative report told the board what it probably wanted to hear. He stated an obvious need for facilities but declared the school ought not to seek from pride and ambition to keep up with other institutions. He pointed out that “low cost” was A&M’s greatest attraction in a region where there were four colleges and three junior colleges competing for students. His survey of students, he said, revealed opposition to higher room charges that would be necessary to pay off building loans. The board voted unanimously to “postpone indefinitely” any loan application.”
Magnolia’s city leaders, however, sought to reverse the board’s decision. They believed that construction would promote the school’s long-range viability. More immediately, it would give a needed boost to local employment and business activity. They pointed out that the Monticello and Jonesboro schools [Arkansas Agricultural and Mechanical College and Arkansas State College] had each already obtained $185,000 from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Local Magnolia physician Dr. Parks W. Smith, who was an A&M trustee, lobbied fellow board members to reconsider.
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When Governor [Marion] Futrell appointed Camden attorney J. Emmet Gaughan to replace [N. C.] McCrary, it changed the balance on the board in favor of applying for New Deal loans. Overstreet prepared a new report outlining the school’s needs—two dorms, an administrative building, a new heating plant, and sewer work costing an estimated $250,000. The board cautiously decided, however, to apply for a $140,000 loan and grant ($77,000 to be repaid) for two dorms housing 120 students, a new cafeteria in the wing of one of the dorms, and the conversion of the old dining hall into a library. Bonnie Davis apparently resigned from the board rather than vote for the loans.
After the PWA [Public Works Administration] approved the application, the board hired the Wittenberg and Delony architectural firm of Little Rock to plan the new buildings (this firm would plan every additional campus building for the next fifty years). Its design called for two brick buildings, two stories tall, of almost identical appearance located at each end of the south side of the east-west road bisecting campus. With WPA [Works Progress Administration] labor, the dorm work took from March to November 1936. The newest girls’ dorm with the new cafeteria in one wing faced Caraway Hall and was named for Mary H. Nelson, then retiring as dean of women. The newest boys’ dorm faced McCrary Hall and was named to honor William R. Cross, recently deceased businessman who had headed fund-raising that brought the school to Magnolia in 1910. After minimal remodeling, the old dining hall became the library in February 1937. This building was never named for an individual.
Another small building was erected during the 1939 fall semester when NYA [National Youth Administration] training boys constructed a brick student union on the campus’s northwest corner between the library and tennis courts. It housed a lounge, snack bar, post office, and a bookstore. It cost the school only $6,000 for materials.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built a lake—Lake Constance—on the farm’s northeast corner. Dean [E. E.] Graham had used student labor in 1927 to dam a small stream, creating a four-acre fishpond stocked with smallmouth bass and white perch. But the dam and spillway soon broke. He persuaded the CCC camp director to rebuild the lake as a conservation project, and the CCC in 1935–36 completed a bigger and stronger dam. The lake expanded to covertwenty-six acres with an average depth of four and one-half feet. The CCC camp engineer named it after his daughter, Constance, and officially opened it for use by college students and employees in April 1937. Without proper supervision, the lake attracted intruders and at least one person drowned. The college sought to turn Lake Constance over to the State Game and Fish Commission, and, failing that, later drained it.
The final and largest New Deal structure at A&M was a new administrative building and auditorium named for Overstreet after his retirement in 1945.
He dreamed of applying for $700,000 not only for an administrative building but also a new heating plant and two more dorms. The board, however, in 1939–40 applied for a $300,000 grant and loan from the PWA and the RFC [Reconstruction Finance Corporation] for both administrative and physical education buildings. Rising costs permitted construction of only Overstreet Hall. There was a debate over the most desirable location, whether on the campus’s north or the south side. The south side won out, and Overstreet Hall would provide the first view of campus for people coming from the city. For better or worse, that choice blocked the familiar sight of Old Main atop Aggie Hill.