Remembering its roots

I walk into Overstreet Hall, which contains much of the history of what is now the University of Southern Arkansas at Magnolia. The three-story building was constructed from 1941 to 1943 with assistance from the federal Works Progress Administration. SAU was founded by the Legislature in 1909 as one of four district agricultural schools and has never abandoned its roots.

“The Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union campaigned vigorously in Arkansas and other states for these vocational agricultural high schools, a reform of Progressive-era education,” writes historian James Willis, author of ” Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School’s Centennial History, 1909 -2009.””The union’s legacy is evident today SAU operates one of the largest college farms in the state, and the school’s colors — blue and gold — are those of the union.

“The school’s agricultural roots are also evident in its unique symbol – Muleriders – adopted in 1912 when football players rode mules, then ubiquitous and essential to Southern agriculture, for practice and play. The name Aggies feuded with Muleriders, but the latter became the title of the yearbook in 1922. The student newspaper was designated The Bray in 1923. Its header features a rearing mule.

Due to the critical need for rural teachers in the 1920s, the state elevated the four district schools to junior college status in 1925. The school became known as Magnolia A&M, although the official name i.e. State Agricultural and Mechanical College, Third District. It was accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools in 1929.

“The focus remained on agriculture and home economics,” Willis writes. “Animal Industry Instructor Ves Godley built an award-winning dairy herd that included a 1937 National Champion, Sultane’s Magnolia Belle. two years for students who plan to continue to a four-year college.

“Despite the economic difficulties of the 1930s, the school enrolled several hundred students each semester and provided work for many. Costs were kept low in a deliberate effort to become the least expensive college in the state Effective management created a rich after-school program for students, government New Deal funding expanded the school’s physical plant, and graduating classes donated memorial buildings.

The Class of 1936’s contribution was a Greek amphitheater, largely built by students inspired by a teacher named Samuel Dickinson.

“His ancient history lesson came to a spectacular end in the new amphitheater with a student performance of the Greek tragedy ‘Antigone,'” Willis writes. “The room became a focal point of graduation festivities that year. Two dormitories were also built in 1936 by the Public Works Administration and later listed on the National Register of Historic Places as Cross and Nelson Hall Historic District.”

Completion of Overstreet was delayed by difficulty in procuring materials during World War II. It was named in honor of Charles Overstreet, who served as president for 24 years until his retirement in June 1945.

The WPA provided $187,000 for a building, according to the Arkansas Gazette, “would house nine classrooms, three chemistry labs, a physics lab, a biology lab, and a dairy and agricultural lab. … The wooden columns will be California redwood and the woodwork will be heart cypress.”

The Little Rock architectural firm Wittenberg and Delony chose the Colonial Revival style with Doric columns.

I’m here today to visit Trey Berry, the dynamic president of SAU and the subject of last Saturday’s column. Berry, who grew up in Arkadelphia, is a historian by training. He understands the importance of SAU to generations of Southern Arkansas families and charts a course for the future by appreciating this legacy.

I think of Berry as a renaissance man from southwest Arkansas, not unlike Dickinson, a fifth-generation Prescott resident who died in November 2007 at age 95. journalist, linguist and university professor. He was one of the first academically trained archaeologists to work and teach in Arkansas. He participated in the development of the field of archeology when few who worked as archaeologists had university degrees.

Dickinson has also served as editor of newspapers ranging from the Arkansas Gazette to the Arkansas Democrat to the Shreveport Journal. He collected antiquities from the Arkansas Territorial period as well as religious art, books, paintings, and fossils. His articles have appeared in professional journals across the country.

Dickinson’s father and Judge Harry Lemley of Hope paid Dickinson to excavate the Caddo mound sites in 1934–35. Dickinson graduated from the University of Arizona in 1933 with a bachelor’s degree in archaeology.

“In 1934, Dickinson accepted a position at Magnolia A&M, teaching Spanish and courses on ancient Greece and Rome,” writes Kathleen Cande for the Arkansas Encyclopedia. “Dickinson was also commissioned to establish a museum at Magnolia A&M. Hugely popular with his students, Dickinson also enriched social life at Magnolia A&M by sponsoring the campus first dance and establishing the Geoanthropology Club.”

Due to contributions from brilliant native sons of southwestern Arkansas ranging from Dickinson to Berry, SAU is thriving at a time when many colleges and universities are struggling.

Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He is also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

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