South Georgia College History
In tribute to:
Mrs. W. E. Cotter
The venerable institution known as South Georgia College was largely the result of the foresightedness and persistence of a consecrated Christian, Rev. W. A. Huckabee, for the need of Christian education in the illiterate wiregrass section of Georgia in the 1880’s.
Rev. C.C. Hines, another promoter and leader in Christian education, also threw the great force of his influence, along with that of Rev. Huckabee and others, to the movement of establishing a college in this section. The Methodist Conference had appointed Rev. C.C. Hines, principal of the Eastman District High School, located at Spring Hill, where he taught and preached ten years. It was near the close of his service at Spring Hill in 1890 that the matter of establishing a college in this district became a dominant issue.
The Committee on Education of the South Georgia Conference of the Methodist Church South had reported to the Conference in 1886 that the "prosperity of the Brunswick District (later changed to Eastman District) High School suggested the possible practicability of the establishment of other and similar schools in other districts of the conference. The public school system is an acknowledged failure in the rural regions. Something must take the place of them or else our people will not be educated. The way is open in this line…for the education of young men for the ministry."
The influence of the success of this school, no doubt, helped to crystallize deep lying convictions at a Methodist camp meeting in the tabernacle at Spring Hill, Montgomery County, Georgia, on May 31, 1891, where God’s spirit moved both preachers and laymen to the decision of establishing a school of higher learning in this area.
During the 1891 session of the South Georgia Conference, information was received for the proposed erection at McRae of a school of high grade, to be known as South Georgia College, which would meet the wants of a large and growing section of our state in the matter of higher education. The Conference resolved that "we commend the enterprise as worthy of encouragement and assistance."
Mount Vernon, Eastman, McRae, Odum and possibly other towns in this part of the state, vied for location of the school in their communities. When the Eastman District Conference convened at the old wooden courthouse in McRae in 1892, presided over by the Rev. J.D. Anthony, "Bishop of Wiregrass Georgia Rev C.C. Hines cast the deciding vote to locate the new school at McRae, for this town offered the best propositions. He was "elected as one of the first trustees of this institution and remained a valuable lifetime member of the Board."
At the 1892 session of the Methodist Conference, Rev. W.A. Huckabee gave written notice that "a commodious brick building is in the process of erection," and that the school would be opened in January of the next year. He further made a formal tender of the institution to the Conference. It was resolved by this Conference to "accept the South Georgia College, with the understanding that we are not to be held liable for present indebtedness."
The elected site, a fifteen-acre tract, was located midway between the towns of McRae and Helena, on the highest elevation between Macon and Brunswick, and easily accessible to patrons of the school living along the Southern and Seaboard railroads.
The cornerstone of the administrative building was laid in 1892. It was a substantial two-story brick structure, with and auditorium that seated about eight hundred people. The total cost was about $20,000.00. It had eight large classrooms, beside music rooms, a library and reading room. By 1910, dormitories had bathtubs, running water and sewerage systems.
In January 1893, the new school, South Georgia College, was opened with and enrollment of sixty-five and with poorly equipped buildings. Rev. W.A. Huckabee was appointed by the Conference as its first president for a term of two years, after which he resigned.
The second president was Professor Rueben J. Strozier, a stern disciplinarian and a highly respected administrator, who guided the affairs of the school with a deliberate and steady hand for twenty years. The influence of his principles of character and philosophy of life is still evident in the lives of people of this section of Georgia. The college, in large part, is a monument to his life’s work.
This was a period of growth and achievement – the golden age of the school. From its inauspicious beginning to the year 1907, the student enrollment had increased to 550 by reason of the school’s splendid teaching force, their thorough and conscientious work, and the liberal course of instruction.
It was also an era of gentility. The college strove to shape each student into a refined educated lady or gentleman for a noble purpose in life, no matter how rough the "diamond: when the school undertook this task. Prohibition of intoxicating drinks, gambling, dancing and wild conduct helped trim and polish and preserve the "gems" that hard-working consecrated parents had sent to the school with high hopes of what it could do for their children’s development, and with faith that each would have the same protective care of a Christian home.
It was, indeed, an impressive sight when teachers and dormitory matrons of unquestionable character escorted the long lines of girls dressed inn the school uniform of navy blue serge skirts, white lawn waists, and navy blue Oxford caps, six blocks from their dormitory on College Hill every Sunday morning to Sunday school and church service at the church of their choice – Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian – all on College Street.
Sunday afternoons must have seemed long and lonesome to these girls, as no telephone calls from young men were permitted; no automobile rides allowed; callers were guests of the college staff and sat in the parlor with the young lady being visited. But one could anticipate the congeniality of young men and young ladies of the school at means in the dining hall of the girl’s dormitory.
An impressive testimonial of the early influence of the school was given by Rev. George Clary, a retired Presiding Elder (now called District Superintendent), at the McRae Methodist Church. He recounted that as a backwoods boy with only a few years of schooling, he entered South Georgia College. When approached by the President about taking the entrance examination, he acknowledged he wouldn’t pass it, but he pleaded to be allowed to stay and "try him", which was granted. A compassionate lady teacher noticed him, seated him beside her and the table, offered to coach him after school hours in algebra, and tutor him in other subjects. What great potential might never have been developed to its fullest had he, and others of similar deprivations, not had the opportunity of attending a school small enough and with conscientious instructors who desired to elevate their pupils, the citizens of tomorrow.
In those early years the curriculum was divided into three levels of classification:
Certificates were given to those who satisfactorily completed the full course in the early years of the school. Monthly written examinations were held in all departments. A record of deportment, punctuality, recitations, and examinations were kept and monthly reports were sent to parents and guardians. Before student could advance from one class to another, they had to satisfactorily pass an approved examination at the close of a term. There were seven graduates of the college in 1897.
By the 1898-99 term, South Georgia College was considered one of the most orderly in the state, with teachers of ability and character who believed that "whatsoever the boy soweth the man shall reap; believed in lessons taught by precept as well as by example; and believed in the joy of serving others."
By 1910, more subjects had been added to the college curriculum and a diploma was issued for a full course of study. Thoroughness stressed in teaching and in lesson preparation produced excellent scholars and a fine record as a preparatory school for higher colleges.
The 1910-11 college catalogue states, "Graduating here, pupils, without examination, enter on certificate the Sophomore Class of any of the higher colleges in Georgia. During the past year one of our pupils led the Junior Class in the State University; another in the class in the Agricultural Department; another the Senior Class in Emory College."
The school continued to progress for the next six years under the able guidance of Professor G. G. Branch, a renowned educator and administrator, who came to the school in 1913 as its third president. During his administration many improvements were made.
In 1915 the first seven grades of the school came under public school jurisdiction and were known as the McRae-Helena Graded Public School, tuition free. By the 1917-18 term, the fourth grade had been added to the high school with two college grades. The college had now attained the status of a Standard Junior College, with a requirement of fifteen units of preparatory work for college entrance, and it was accepted as a member of the American Association of Colleges.
In addition to the school’s literary curriculum, other departments added aesthetic training, zest, and practicality to the development of the students.
Music, Art, and elocution were the first special departments of the new school. From the beginning these three departments flourished. Piano, violin, and voice were the first musical courses taught. Miss Daisy Phillips and Miss Stella Cotter of the early years and Bert Flanders of the latter years of the school are remembered for their piano instruction; Miss Lucile Kinnebrew is remembered for her vocal and glee club instruction. During the 1914-15 term, an orchestra of ten pieces was organized under the able direction of Miss Phillips. By the next year it had increased to twenty-five pieces, which performed at the college and for special entertainment in McRae and surrounding towns. Vocalists, pianists, and violinists from the school body helped in church services in the community.
The art department was also a strong and popular department. Many of the matrons of the town as well as the college students enjoyed studying oil and water painting and china painting, now an almost lost art. The beloved Sue Ellen Morton of Gray, Georgia, is remembered by townspeople for her exceptional talent and instruction in art during the latter years of the school.
No doubt the diction of many people of this section is better because of Miss Julia Reed, the exacting elocution and drama instructor for many years. Shakespearean plays were a specialty of her department of elocution.
By the 1914-15 term, the manual arts department was well equipped and had a capable instructor. The basics of some students’ vocation were learned on the lathes and saws of that little college workshop. A local contractor and craftsman, Herman L. Liggett, whose superior cabinetmaking and shop work much in demand in the McRae area throughout his life, excelled in this area in the class of 1917.
During the 1915-16 term a Norman or pedagogy course was available for those interested in teaching. The first summer school for teachers was in 1916. "Students graduating from South Georgia College and completing as part of their college course (The required Education courses) will receive from the State Department of Education as Provisional normal license to teach in the Elementary School, and the junior and Senior High Schools of Georgia," so stated the Annual Catalogue of South Georgia Colleges, 1925-26.
The business department in 1910 included the teaching of various branches of a commercial course, including the Pitman system of shorthand and the touch system in typing. In 1914, the domestic science department, the teaching of sewing, cooking and home management, was added.
One of the best features of college life was the rivalry between the two literary societies – the Phi Sigma for boys and Pierian for girls. The purpose of the societies was to train speakers for everyday, business and professional life. The experience gained in debating enabled students entering larger colleges to join a debating team and engage in an enticing and prestigious college activity prevalent of yesteryear.
These societies founded the first library of the college. "Later, when the administrative building was completed, a library room was established by Mr. W. B. Folsom, and the college library was founded by him." (1916-17 College Catalogue). There remains on a wall of this room a marble plaque to his memory. He is the father of perhaps one of the best known graduates of the college, Marion Folsom, of the 1909 class, who was appointed by President Eisenhower as the first Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He named Miss Lila Windsor, who had taught many years in the college, as the instructor who had had the greatest influence on his educational training.
Student publications of the college were monthly newspaper, The Blue and White (school colors); and the college annual Zenith, published yearly by the senior class.
The Twelfth District Meeting held on the campus each April was and outstanding event. Programs by the Lyceum Bureau brought to the campus yearly were some of the most enjoyable of the variety of cultural entertainment sponsored by the college.
In the earlier years of the school an Alumnae Association was supportive. Unfortunately, it did not function during the latter years of the school when it was so greatly needed.
Track and baseball were the leading athletic events of the early years of South Georgia College. In 1914 the college boys captured the Twelfth District Championship in baseball. Old graduates still mention Vernon Wooten, Charlie Carson, Aubrey Davenport for their skill on a baseball diamond. The track stars, Rufus Groover, Frank Bruce, Ernest Dyal and Lamar McRae were admired for their prowess in hurdling, running and jumping.
Separate tennis courts for boys and girls were provided. Basketball for boys and girls played on outdoor courts was introduced in 1918 when an athletic director was employed.
Later, it had some of the best football teams in southeast Georgia. Some of the gridiron heroes of the 1922-23 team were Walter Dyal, George Willcox, George Callihan, Preston Rawlins, Charlie Griffith, Dan Willcox, Raul Evans, Pluto Waters, Early Bland, Hampton Liggett, Duncan Graham and others. Pep rallies during chapel sessions set the mood for these competitive games that were equally as thrilling then as Georgia, Georgia Tech games are today. Students participating in any college athletics had to maintain an average of "C" in their studies. Physical education was also taught in all classes. By now school life at South Georgia College had been considerably modified since 1893.
When Mr. Branch left South Georgia College in 1917 to take the presidency of Andrew College, Rev. G. W. Hutchinson became the fourth president. He served the 1918-19 term following World War I, when conditions were very unsettled. During his administration provision was made to heat the college auditorium.
There followed a rapid succession of presidents: Rev. J. D. Smith, Joseph E. Parker, Braswell Deen, (an industrious man of business who found the indebtedness of the school too great for him to achieve much toward getting the school in a solvent condition); Ralph W. Wood and Rev. J. R. Speer, who served the 1927-28 term, the last year of its operation.
Rev. C. E. Dowman served at the first Chairman of the Board with Rev. W. C. Lovett, DD guiding the school for twenty-five years as Chairman,.
Financial woes had beset the school for a long time. Extensive repairs, long delayed, were now forced upon the school. Insufficient endowment prevented the school from being accepted as an accredited institution by this time, which adversely affected the school’s enrollment. The college was caught in a vicious cycle, no endowment, no students, no money, and no accreditation.
In summarizing the causes of the decline of the school, especially from 1920 throughout 1928, it seems the following were the prime factors that led to the misfortunes, the insolvency and the closing of South Georgia College.
Poor business policies and management resulted in insufficient revenue throughout much of its existence. Cheap board and tuition, the trustees’ zeal to carry out the purpose of establishing this school and that of providing Christian educational opportunities for any worthy boy or girl regardless of his economic condition, perhaps partially led to the downfall of the school.
Gratuities to certain students were also a contributing factor. Ministers’ children and ministerial students were charged no tuition. In 1920, nine months of tuition and board for a child of the Methodist Orphans Home cost only one hundred dollars.
Scarcity of money prevented the school from carrying out its planned program as to expansion of buildings, equipment, activities, and curriculum, so as to keep pace with the needs of the times and with other competing church and state-supported schools.
Academic standing was reduced for lack of the required endowment. Other influences also reduced the enrollment, such as the loss of many local Baptist students to their nearly new established junior college, Brewton-Parker; competition from state tax–supported junior colleges, accessible to most young people by the now prevalence of automobiles, wealthy students enrolled in larger colleges and the depression years.
Two things happened in 1926 that greatly affected the immediate future of South Georgia College. Preferential consideration shown by the conference to Andrew College, a junior college also under control, because it has raised a $10,000.00 endowment. At the same time, South Georgia College was in dire condition, struggling to establish a required endowment and receiving only a small annual appropriation from the Conference. The South Georgia Methodist Conference levied annual assessments on the entire conference for as long as it was necessary.
Also, due to insufficient endowment, Sparks Junior College in the Valdosta area, another Methodist controlled school was closed at the end of the 1926-27 term. It was later merged with the then Emory Junior College at Valdosta, which drew students from the Sparks area. The Conference could now throw its full support to its larger schools at the sacrifice of Sparks and South Georgia Colleges. Community interest in the McRae area was manifested too late, and the monetary donations were to meager to save the school in its emergency.
At its annual meeting in Valdosta in November, 1917, "the Board of Education and the South Georgia Conference deemed it wise to withdraw support from South Georgia College in McRae and discontinue the same as a school or college after the end of the school year, ending in June, 1928."
An impassioned plea by Judge Eschol Graham, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of South Georgia College, to the Conference on sparing the college to the McRae community was apathetically received; church "politics" had concluded its work. Some ministers, by then trustees of Andrew and other Methodist colleges, who had received their early education at South Georgia College, were accused of having "bit the hand that fed them by favoring the closing of this school."
After the Conference withdrew all support from this school at the end of June, 1928, the Board of Trustees of South Georgia deemed "it impractical to continue to operate this college without Conference support and appointed a committee to act with the commission from the Conference to sell all of the property of South Georgia College and liquidate its indebtedness." The property was sold to the McRae-Helena Public School District of Telfair County, Georgia, to be conveyed to the Board of Education of this county for the use and benefit of said school district.
In addition to the original South Georgia College administrative building, the school plant eventually comprised a handsome brick and marble trimmed science hall, valued at $20,000.00, erected in the early 1900’s, with twelve classrooms, and the presidents office; a steam-heated thirty-six bedroom girls dormitory with dining room and kitchen completed in 1911, and valued then at $16,000.00; a two story boys dormitory; a president’s home; a teacher’s cottage; a building for the business and domestic science departments; and an infirmary.
South Georgia College served this area well for thirty-five years. Hundreds of boys and girls from this economically poor section of Georgia, who otherwise would not have received an education. It’s purpose had been to fit the students for noble, useful and Christian lives through its Christian teachings in the classrooms, daily chapel services, vesper meditations and by association with Christian faculty members and others.
The college provided a cultural influence on the entire community, a blessing so lacking in most small towns of that time. Many of its teachers married local residents and because leaders in church and civic affairs. Today, their children and grand children continue to reflect the Godly heritage of this institution. Even today, former students can hear in their memory’s ear the silvery tones of the old bell atop the administrative building, urging the tardy to the halls of learning.
Only this building remains of the center of culture for the wiregrass section of Georgia before and after the turn of the twentieth first century. This remarkably sound old structure remains as a sentinel on a hilltop, swept by the chilling winds of winter and the soft breezes of spring as they did a century ago. When the beloved Miss Nell Aultman primly marched her first graders to ten o’clock chapel service in its large auditorium.
As co-owners were deeded the administration building of the former South Georgia College by the Telfair County Board of Education in 1979, the Pioneer Historical Society and the Telfair Art Association, the present owners, made plans for restorative improvements during the following eight years.
In the early 1980’s many renovation efforts were completed on the building which included new windows, repainted interior and a heating and cooling system, an oil drop curtain, and wine colored velour draperies. Ralph and Eugene Pullen installed the rigging of the drop curtain. This was only one of many needed jobs that Ralph performed during the restoration of his beloved school. His father, a life-long advocate of the school, furnished groceries from his store to the college, even though the school could not always pay and he served as the last secretary of the Board of Trustees of the college.
Even though many people have contributed their time to help maintain this valiant and proud building, it is starting to need repairs to keep it structurally sound. This sanctuary of school, that had made a great contribution to God and man, has not received much needed funding since the early 1980’s. With it's glory days far behind, it may not house the laughter of young minds eager to learn about their world or offer the education to those that would not have been able to gain higher knowledge without its existence in the past, but it still has many years and much more to offer.
At the present time, The Oconee Players are using the building to bring the performing arts to our community with proceeds going to the art association to help maintain this great building, but much more is needed. The Telfair Art Association and the Old South Georgia College Auditorium desperately need your help or we may be in danger of losing this great landmark to the ravages of time.
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