Melson, Ingram, Boyd, Townsend … these are much more than familiar names on buildings and plaques around the UWG campus. Their roots go deep in our community and are closely linked to UWG. These are just a few of the folks we will meet throughout the coming year in this column who were local leaders, faculty and students who helped build the University of West Georgia – in some cases literally brick by brick…
Arriving one month before the school’s opening, John Holland Melson, the first principal of the Fourth District Agricultural and Mechanical School, (UWG’s predecessor) worked steadily through the cold weather to have the school ready for opening day.
Melson, a Mercer graduate, faced a number of hurdles: frozen water supplies, no central heat or electric lights and only five faculty members. Doors to the dormitory rooms had not yet been installed; burlap and quilts were hung to cover the openings. Ninety-one students registered on opening day and 41 others arrived by the next few weeks. Students paid a modest $6.41 for board.
The campus was located on the former Bonner plantation. The school's purpose according
to an early document was to “... to make good farmers, citizens and housekeepers.
We hope to broaden the interests and quicken the powers of observation, so that the
farmer, in the competition and struggles of his profession, may obtain in other vocations
on a similar footing.”
The A&M School opened its doors for its first session in January 1908. (At the time, 39 counties in Georgia did not offer a single high school course. In 1904 there were only 279 high school graduates who were prepared for college.)
Mrs. Penelope Melson, wife of the principal, became the “librarian” when she held a “book shower.” The 325 books and magazines that were collected were placed on a single shelf in the linen closet in the dormitory lobby.
The school had only 10 grades, but the curriculum included Greek, Latin, geology, botany, physics and trigonometry – all designed for college preparatory students. These students could complete four years of Latin and two of Greek by the end of the tenth grade. Another track was also designed for students who did not plan to enter college.
Desks for the classrooms didn’t arrive until mid-February. In the mean time, tables, chairs and kerosene lamps were placed in the lobby of the dormitory where a two-hour study period was held every night. “We Learn to Do by Doing” became the school motto.
Obviously, the school had already lived the motto “we learn to do by doing without” because in the spring of 1907, the region was hit with an economic crisis. The price of cotton fell to its lowest level in decades. Some business failed. A number of individuals and organizations defaulted on their pledges to the school.
One well beloved teacher, Miss Laura Josephine Rozar, was recruited from a school in nearby Temple to teach history and English. Her salary in 1913 was $82.50 a month - the highest salary with the exception of the agricultural teacher, whose pay was $110 a month.
Teachers did a lot more than just enlighten young scholars within the confines of a classroom. The agricultural teacher operated the farm and was responsible for farm buildings, tools and equipment. The home economics teacher also ran the dining hall. The math and science teacher was also dormitory superintendent and responsible for all disciplinary matters in the dorms. Among many other responsibilities, teachers were also expected to teach Sunday school at a local church.
“The teachers hold that it is a good thing to store the mind with useful knowledge; that is a better thing to train the hand, but that there are still better things than these. We cannot afford to neglect the moral and spiritual welfare of our children,” (excerpt from an early college catalog).
Many of these beliefs came from the deep, abiding faith of the men and women who labored to built the institution. Their beliefs flowed from the resolute convictions they held and their influence left a profound mark on the founding of the school.
Students knew what was expected of them. They had a code of conduct that molded their character.
A quote from the first catalog by President William McKinley served as an admonition to potential rowdy students if they didn’t walk the line.
“Fortune often takes her subject from the plow share, the carpenter’s bench and the anvil, but she seldom reaches her hand over a picket fence and takes a dude out of a hammock.”
In those days students didn’t appeal to “Student Judiciary Committees” or say that
“their dog ate their term paper.” Students who got into mischief were given extra
hours of manual labor on the “stump brigade.” Many intriguing tales surround this
unique form of behavior modification.
In one instance, a wayward student was given his choice of one of three stumps to complete his discipline of 25 hours of labor. The youth surveyed each stump carefully. He selected the largest of the three. His surprised teacher asked why he picked the largest stump, he replied “them other two’s hickory.”
No Waffle Houses or snack machines back in those days. On a cold winter’s night if a student wanted some hot chocolate he could sneak out of his room and milk one of the cows that were penned up for the night. But you had to know your animals. Once a student was almost gored to death by a bull that resented being taken for a cow.
A 10-year tradition of holding a “Fourth District A&M Fair” began in October on the back campus. Exhibits included farm products, crafts, culinary contests - along with entertainment such as a greased pig chase and three-legged races. A highlight of the evening entertainment was Miss Mahalay Lancaster’s fortune telling booth.
The A& M Fairgrounds was also the setting for what was probably the first football game ever played in western Georgia. Years later the participants couldn’t remember the outcome of the game, but they remembered that the field was on a sloping hill and that it was covered with snow.
Humble beginnings. Definitely. But the generosity and resolve of the local community and the grit and goodwill of regular citizens kept the school going during those pivotal early years.