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St. Johns

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Kenneth Bridges | History Columnist 
For many years after statehood,
Arkansas had few
schools and no colleges.
More settlers came to believe
that developing institutions
of learning was the way to
promote the future strength
and prosperity of the state.
As such, civil leaders in the
state’s Masonic lodges organized
St. Johns’ College, the
first college in Arkansas.
In the 1840s, leaders of
the Masonic orders in Arkansas
began planning to
build a college to make up
for the state’s serious deficiencies
in higher education.
In December 1850, the state
legislature granted a charter
to the Masons to begin St.
Johns’ College. As a Christian
organization, Masonic
lodges typically dedicated
their buildings to St. John
the Evangelist or to St. John
the Baptist. Masonic leaders
noted that naming the college
after both these important
early figures in the faith
seemed appropriate.
However, while St. Johns’
was the first college chartered
to operate within Arkansas,
it was not the first
to actually open. Financial
problems plagued the effort
for several years. During
that time, Cane Hill College
and Arkansas College, both
in Washington County, had
already opened. George C.
Watkins, president of the
college’s board of trustees
oversaw the beginning of
construction on St. Johns’
College’s main building began
in 1857, and by 1859,
classes had begun. Enrollment,
however, remained
small.
The college was located
in what is now MacArthur
Park, on the eastern edge of
downtown Little Rock. The
main building was an impressive
three-story brick building.
The design and grand
entranceway was similar in
appearance to the design
of many larger churches at
the time.
St. Johns’ offered a complete
education in the classical
liberal arts and sciences
as well as military-style training.
The college also offered
training for telegraph operators,
an important skill in the
1850s and 1860s.
The Civil War caused a
massive disruption for the
college, one that it never
recovered from. The war
disrupted travel, and most
of its existing students and
potential students joined
the military during the war.
As such, college leaders
decided to close the campus
for the duration of the war.
After Union forces seized
the city in 1863, the site was
turned into a hospital by the
U. S. Army.
The army returned control
of the site to the college’s
trustees in 1867, and classes
resumed that fall. However,
all of the assets that the college
had were in Confederate
money, which became completely
worthless when the
Confederacy surrendered in
1865. As classes resumed,
the college was effectively
bankrupt while facing new
competition.
After the Civil War, new
colleges began to open
across the state as a flowering
of higher education
bloomed across Arkansas.
The University of Arkansas
opened in 1871 and quickly
became the largest and most
prestigious university in the
state. Several smaller private
colleges also opened, adding
to the pressures St. Johns’
was facing.
In 1878, the Masons ended
their financial support of
the college. One of the college’s
professors, Leo Baier,
was given control of the
institution at this point. The
college’s fortunes began to
rebound with 142 students
enrolled by 1881 just before
Baier’s retirement. In spite
of determined attempts by
Baier’s successor, W. J. Alexander,
the college did not
have the funding to stay
open. St. Johns’ College
closed forever in 1882.
Nothing remains today of
the college as the buildings
were totally destroyed by
fire in 1890. Although the
St. Johns’ effort failed, Masonic
lodges across Arkansas
would continue to give generously
to private schools and
charities across the state.
Today, more than 40 colleges
and universities operate
throughout Arkansas.