(Excerpted from James F. Willis, Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School’s Centennial History, 1909-2009, pp. 31-32)
Columbia County’s leader of the Farmers Union, James E. Rogers, delivered news of Magnolia’s opportunity to bid for the third district’s agricultural school. As a member of its board of trustees, he likely proved an advantage to the city throughout the selection process. The prospect of getting the school was first discussed at a public meeting of the Columbia County Farmers Union in early September 1909. Three weeks later, “an enthusiastic meeting” of local leaders was held at the county courthouse. William R. Cross, a civic-minded insurance agent, was elected chairman of a committee to raise funds. Its other two members were local businessmen William H. Warnock and James O. Hutcheson. Despite a promising start, Cross, an imposing figure, six feet six inches tall, nonetheless found it difficult to maintain momentum. He called meeting after meeting but got little positive response. His persistence would be rewarded in the years that followed; local citizens generally accorded him the principal credit for the school’s presence in Columbia County. By mid-February 1910,the committee had raised only $8,000 in pledges, far short of the $40,000 in cash and two hundred acres in land that Governor Donaghey and the board of trustees declared was required as a minimum bid.
Fortunately for Magnolia, no other town had raised that amount. The board of trustees was forced to retreat and announced that it would accept competitive bids. When trustees met in Camden on March 5, 1910, five cities—Camden, Hope, Magnolia, Mena, and Stephens—had submitted bids by that deadline. At that point, Magnolia’s representatives offered two hundred acres and $20,000. Its committee had in hand only $15,000 in pledges. The board encouraged towns to raise their bids while trustees visited each location to assess their suitability based on other criteria listed in Act 100. Magnolia’s agricultural school committee vigorously solicited more pledges.
The board met in Little Rock on April 7 to make its final decision. The Magnolia committee chartered a railroad car for the trip to the state’s capitol. More than forty civic leaders who had $26,000 in pledges from Columbia County and a petition signed by two thousand citizens attended. The board allowed presentations only by delegations that had previously bid, turning aside late bids by Bingen and Prescott. Learning that their bid was not the highest, Magnolia’s leaders decided to take the risk of pledging $35,000 in cash and three hundred thirty acres worth $10,000. Mena’s bid of $40,000 and 200 acres was the highest. In the eight secret ballots of the board, Mena surprisingly received only one vote. The contest boiled down to Hope versus Magnolia even though Hope’s bid was many thousands of dollars lower than Magnolia’s. In the final balloting, a board member who apparently had been casting votes first for Camden, then for Stephens, switched to Magnolia, creating a three-to-two majority. The decision quickly became unanimous. Board President James T. M. Holt said later that “great weight” was given to the fact that there were “751 farmers” among those pledging from Columbia County. The school after all was for farmers and their children.
After adjournment, the board attended the discussions on agricultural education in sessions of the Conference for Education in the South. This annual regional convention of philanthropists, reformers, and educators held in Little Rock for the first time met to honor the state’s advances in education. The conference’s theme, “Making the Rural School Educate for the Farm,” brought enthusiastic schoolmen from all over the South.
Magnolia’s continuing fund-raising was essential and went well. Local banks agreed to loan the full amount needed based on notes of supporters. Final pledge records, carefully preserved by W. R. Cross, contained the names of 1,440 individuals from the city or county, a remarkable demonstration of community support. They constituted 46 percent of the white adult males, the only group targeted. African Americans were excluded from the school, and few women had independent incomes. The effort seemed all the more remarkable in light of difficulties encountered by other agricultural schools. Local taxes were required to complete fund-raising in two of the other three districts obtaining one of Arkansas’s new agricultural schools. To recognize Columbia County citizens’ outstanding effort, Cross proposed that the school should be named for the county, but the board refused, pointing out that Act 100’s selection of Third District Agricultural School precluded any change.