(Excerpted from James F. Willis, Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School’s Centennial History, 1909-2009, pp. 35-36)
On one of the coldest days of the winter, January 3, 1911, seventy-five students registered for classes on the unfinished campus. The board and five faculty members welcomed them to the institution still under construction; several years would pass before work was completed. Marvin Williams, who had already worked for Burleson to ensure that the farmland would be ready for the next planting season, was the first to register. He later recalled that students in the two dormitories in that first session had to get by with candles and wooden heaters in each room and chopped their own firewood. The buildings did not yet have electrical wiring, and the school’s steam heating system was designed only for Old Main where classes were held. With the erection of a large water tower, the dorms did have a communal bathroom that included showers on each floor. But it would be a year before dorm windows were screened.
Not only the buildings, grounds, and farm were works in progress. Other elements of the school that required attention included the curriculum, library, and faculty; extracurricular organizations and athletics; administrative governance and finances; cooperation and coordination with the state’s other educational institutions and their governing bodies; and the school’s relationship with surrounding communities. Moreover, the new school lacked those ineffable elements of spirit and tradition that give educational institutions a sense of community and a shared identity.
There were few direct models to emulate, for Arkansas was a leader among states then experimenting with this kind of agricultural school. The school borrowed practices from existing educational institutions, both public secondary schools and colleges. Some students arrived with high school degrees; others still needed instruction at the primary level. Little wonder then that some would think of TDAS as a high school and others, including some of its students, would refer to it as “our college.”
Students performed physical labor in some campus construction and all of its operation. Some work in the fields was related to agricultural classes and was unpaid, but for most tasks, students received ten cents an hour. Many students came from poor families and had to earn their own way. Tuition was free, but Marvin Williams could afford to attend only by working at the school almost all his free time. He earned the ten dollars required each month for room and board and several small fees for each term. He and other male students plowed, planted, and picked the crops from the fields; fed and watered the mules, cows, hogs, and chickens; swept the buildings; planted trees and flowers; mowed the grass; and built some of the barns. Female students usually worked in the dining hall and kitchen where it took several of them two hours just to peel enough potatoes for a day; there were few labor-saving devices for cooking in those days.26 Almost 60 percent of students enrolled in the 1912–13 school year were reported to depend in part upon the student labor fund to attend TDAS. Most were from relatively poor farm families in Columbia County and other rural areas in Southwest Arkansas. When Williams had exhausted his personal funds, Hainan H. Holtzclaw, an agricultural teacher, and his wife saw much promise in the raw young man and came to his rescue. They provided Williams a room in their home for several months. During dining meal hours, he later recalled they “gave me cultural training I needed so badly.” Fifty years later, Williams, by then a senator in the Mississippi legislature, would still write with emotion about their “kindness and consideration.”