Saturday, February 23, 2019

Lockney and Panhandle Christian Colleges: Why They Died

The Christian colleges at Lockney and Hereford, Texas began with worthy goals and high hopes. If nothing else, the structures they built, remarkable in that time and place, signaled the devotion of the men and women who supported these schools. So why did both of them close so soon after they opened?

Girls' Dormitory, Panhandle Christian College,
Hereford, Texas, c. 1903 

We live at a time when the remedy for a losing team is to get a new head coach, when the answer for a poor-performing corporation is to replace the CEO. So, naturally, we wonder if the schools at Lockney and Hereford closed due to a failure of leadership. On this question, I follow the lead of West Texas historian Fred Stoker. In commenting on the demise of Panhandle Christian College, Stoker concluded that the presidents of the school could hardly have done more than they did. He described them as "men of high caliber who struggled under the impossible tasks of too few students and too little money."[1] With that, Stoker not only took the focus off of the leaders of the school at Hereford, he pointed to the real problems with which the presidents of both schools had to contend, and why most of the presidents seemed unwilling to stay with the job for very long.

The towns of Lockney and Hereford were born at a moment in history not long after buffalo hunters and U.S. soldiers closed the West Texas Indian frontier, at a time when ranchers and farmers first began to make the region a more livable place for white Americans who were moving west. As new communities began to spring up, local boosters always imagined that their town was the best place in that part of the world, and that anyone who would only visit would want to stay. To the extent that they were sure of a future marked by rapid growth and never-ending prosperity, they were wrong.

Take Hereford as an example. In 1902, the year the college began, Hereford was a brand new town, only four years old, in a region that was barely settled and sparsely populated. For example, in 1880, in the entire Texas panhandle, which is larger than the state of West Virginia, the federal census counted 1,607 people.[2] According to another source, as late as 1900 Deaf Smith County and its neighbor Castro County had a combined population of 500.[3]

Although Hereford grew during its early years, it did not grow as rapidly or as large as some had dreamed that it would. For example, the Hereford Brand newspaper, the town's tireless cheerleader, promoted the goal of 5,000 residents by the beginning of 1908. But two years later, in 1910, in all of Deaf Smith County the census counted fewer than 4,000.[4] Even as late as 1940, the county had only 6,494 residents. In an area of nearly 1,500 square miles, the population density came out to only 4 per square mile.[5] As scholar Carter Boren later remarked, Panhandle Christian College "was established in a part of the state about as thinly populated as one might hope to find."[6]

In addition, the relatively-few residents of the Panhandle Plains did not represent old money, accumulated wealth acquired long ago and passed down through the generations of prominent families. Consequently, even the school's big donors were not especially big.

As the twentieth century progressed, the most important factor was that private schools had a difficult time competing with tax-supported schools as these became more common. Along this line, the following picture of the comparatively-huge administration building at West Texas State Teachers College in 1928 is revealing. The school, located in Canyon, Texas, a mere 30 miles from Hereford, began as West Texas State Normal College in 1910, the year before Panhandle Christian College closed.

Administration Building, West Texas State Teachers College, 1928.

For all of their enthusiasm for having a local academy, Lockney and Hereford simply could not keep up with regional competition and the high demands of maintaining a private school. As vital as they are, strong faith and good intentions cannot sustain a college.

Many communities and church groups learned this bitter lesson. The demise of Hereford College in 1911 foreshadowed the fate of not only Lockney Christian College in 1918, but that of several other schools in this region of Texas. These included Canadian Academy, a Baptist school in Hemphill County (1901-1913); Seth Ward College, a Methodist school northeast of Plainview in Hale County (1910-1916); the Lowery-Phillips School, a private boarding academy in Amarillo (1910-1917); and Goodnight College in Armstrong County, an industrial institute founded by the famous cattleman Charles Goodnight (1898-1917).[7]

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the Disciples and Churches of Christ established a total of at least 21 colleges in Texas. Of these, only three survive to this day: T.C.U., Abilene Christian University, and Jarvis Christian College.[8]

Notes

[1] W. M. (Fred) Stoker, History of Hereford College (Canyon, TX: West Texas State University, 1971), 34.

[2] Handbook of Texas Online, Frederick W. Rathjen, "PANHANDLE," accessed December 22, 2018, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ryp01. See also, Ernest R. Archambeau, "The First Federal Census in the Panhandle--1880," Panhandle-Plains Historical Review 23 (1950), 25.

[3] Bessie Chambers Patterson, "Hereford: From Cow Town to Capital of Farming Empire," 5. Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum Research Center, Canyon, TX.

[4] Ibid., 10-11.

[5] Carter E. Boren, Religion on the Texas Frontier (San Antonio, TX: Naylor Company, 1968), 250.

[6] Ibid.

[7] For information about these schools, see the relevant sections of the following two works: Donald W. Whisenhunt, Encyclopedia of Texas Colleges and Universities (Austin, TX: Eakin Press, 1986), and Charles R. Matthews, Higher Education in Texas: Its Beginnings to 1970 (Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2018).

[8] D. Duane Cummins, The Disciples Colleges: A History (St. Louis, MO: CBP Press, 1987), 84.

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