San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

March 2nd, 2014
Bartee Haile: West Texans fought long and hard for a college

COVER: West Texans clamored for years for a full-fledged state university in the vast open spaces on the far side of the 99th meridian. Lawmakers finally agreed to fund what is now Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Built in the Spanish Renaissance style, Tech’s Administration Building was completed in 1925.

This Week in Texas History: A column

For the second time in four years, the Lone Star legislature okayed a plan for a college to be called West Texas A&M and on Mar. 1, 1921 sent the bill to the governor for his signature.

A Pecos lawmaker named Gage was the first to test the waters for a West Texas college. He pointed out in 1894 that no tax-supported institution of higher learning existed on his constituents’ side of the 99th meridian or west of a line from Seymour to Hondo. His suggestion that this inequity demanded an immediate remedy received a less than serious response.

A Fort Worth newspaper editor wisecracked that since the only students for a school in the middle of nowhere would be coyotes, the teachers could be animal trainers. While fellow Texans enjoyed a good laugh at their expense, western citizens were not amused.

Millions of acres in West Texas real estate had gone to finance construction of the railroads as well as the new capitol in Austin. Yet, according to the people of the South Plains, few benefits from this giant giveaway had ever trickled down to them, and they bristled at their perceived treatment as second-class Texans.

Ten years into the twenty-first century, a representative from Lubbock stumped for an agricultural campus in his part of the far-flung state. Citing the dramatic differences in climate and soil, he argued that Texas A&M more than 400 miles to the east offered little worthwhile assistance to Panhandle farmers.

Four years later, an El Paso colleague proposed putting a plank in the Democratic Party platform that called for a West Texas A&M. Though dismissed at the time, the idea did not dry up and blow away.

A widely circulated editorial in the Fort Worth Record got the ball rolling in 1915. Delegates from four dozen communities met the next spring at Sweetwater and formed the West Texas A&M College Campaign Committee. In county after county hundreds of civic groups endorsed the project.

The incoming legislature promptly passed the necessary bill, and by February 1917 all that remained was the selection of a site. A five-member committee chaired by Gov. Jim Ferguson inspected over a score of towns eager to host the new college.

Ferguson declared that Abilene was the choice on three of the five secret ballots. Since the lucky winner just happened to be the governor’s favorite, the announcement raised a lot of skeptical eyebrows. The subsequent revelation that no applicant actually received a majority of the votes resulted in a full-blown furor.

When “Farmer Jim” was impeached and removed from office in September 1917, West Texans appealed to his successor to start the whole stalled process over from scratch. William P. Hobby gladly obliged and wiped the slate clean.

A new lobby, the West Texas Chamber of Commerce, took up the cause at the end of 1918. Gubernatorial front-runner Pat Neff dodged the issue two years later, and at the 1920 Democratic convention the western faction lost a roll call vote 422-398.

The opening of normal or teaching colleges at Canyon and Alpine, the School of Mines at El Paso and a two-year school at Stephenville failed to quiet the clamor. Spokesmen contended that while West Texans kicked a third of all tax money into the state educational kitty, they got in return only one out of every five dollars spent.

After another East-West accord was negotiated in 1921, legislators again gave their blessing to the West Texas A&M proposal. For weeks the paperwork gathered dust on Gov. Neff’s desk, until finally on April Fool’s Day he announced his veto blaming tight times.

That was the last straw for long-suffering West Texans. At a huge assembly five days later in Sweetwater, pent-up frustration erupted into threats of secession. Duly noting the constitutional options available, Congressman John Nance Garner said he welcomed the ten U.S. Senators that splitting Texas into five separate states would bring.

A compromise was hammered out in January 1923 that agreed on the construction of Texas Technological College somewhere between San Antonio, El Paso and Wichita Falls. This time a chagrined Gov. Neff signed on the dotted line as soon as he could find a pen.

Thirty-seven communities vied for the honor of giving Texas Tech a good home. In August 1923 the prize was awarded to Lubbock, and 30,000 people descended upon the town of 7,500 for a celebration barbecue.

Die-hard opponents refused to repent, however, and one politician promised to make the long journey to Lubbock on foot if 300 students showed up registration in the fall of 1924. When more than 900 enrolled for the inaugural semester, he received a telegram that read, “Start walking.”

San Marcos Mercury columnist Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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