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Eric M. Larson
Stephenville College.
The Stephenville College building was constructed in 1893. It was later used for The John Tarleton College (as shown in this photograph, ca. 1901) and demolished in 1915. Courtesy Eric M. Larson.

STEPHENVILLE COLLEGE. The first effort to establish a college in Stephenville, Texas, began with a February 12, 1891, article in the Stephenville Empire proposing that residents buy twenty acres of land and raise money for a college building. The plan was rejected at a meeting the following April.

In May and June 1893 Empire editor Eugene B. Moore touted the economic value of a local college in a series of articles, but the majority of men interviewed refused to subscribe money without assurance of some return on their investments. Moore persisted, and on June 23, 1893, the Stephenville Empire reported that more than half of the twenty citizens who met subscribed to erect a college building. Moore estimated fifty students would bring $11,000 to $14,000 a year to local businesses and farmers.

On June 30, 1893, the Stephenville Empire reported Stephenville College would begin its first term on September 4, 1893. With citizen Lee Young elected as chairman, members of committees to solicit subscriptions and identify a college site were named, and carpenters and brick masons subscribed work on the structure. The two-story wooden building consisted of an upstairs auditorium and four classrooms downstairs, along with offices and two studios, and was erected in an area now known as Heritage Park at Tarleton State University. Stephenville College bought the property on September 30, 1893. 

Stephenville College was an economically precarious enterprise. In 1931 Moore recalled “trades people and the carpenters and laborers” were eager for work, but the “finance committee found little favor with the wealthier folks” and had to rely on financial support from less well-off citizens. The building cost approximately $6,500. Funds raised by subscription were insufficient, and a $2,225 loan was secured by a mortgage.  

On July 21, 1893, the Stephenville Empire published the first advertisement for Stephenville College, which identified Marshall McIlhany as its president and listed tuition rates. Monthly tuition at the collegiate level cost four dollars. The ad detailed a course of study that offered “Mathematics, Physical Sciences, Moral Sciences, Languages (Ancient and Modern), English Language and Literature, Music, Art….”  Described as an “Institution of Learning of Collegiate Grade,” it also offered courses at the elementary and preparatory levels, book-keeping, business, and commercial law. During the 1893–94 year about 100 pupils aged ten to fifty enrolled, and instruction ranged from primary grades to college classes.   

Efforts to finance the college were insufficient. On February 16, 1894, Moore admonished residents who had not paid for subscriptions, and in a February 23, 1894, Stephenville Empire announcement, McIlhany said: “As far as we can we will take cattle, hogs, corn, baled oats, and other farm products, in payment of your tuition.” The mortgage was executed on February 7, 1894, matured on October 1, 1894, and went into default. A “Notice of Trustee’s Sale by Substitute Trustee,” published on March 1, 1895, in the Stephenville Empire, stated the college property would be sold to the highest bidder on March 5, 1895. The March 1, 1895, notice appeared directly below an announcement that the second term of the “current scholastic year” of the college would begin on December 31, 1894, and end on May 17, 1895. Robert H. Downman purchased the property for $1,500. What arrangements, if any, may have been established about subsequent use of the Stephenville College building could not be determined.  

John Tarleton died on September 11, 1895, left part of his estate to be sold to “erect, endow and maintain” The John Tarleton College, and named Texas Governor Charles Allen Culberson, State Superintendent of Public Instruction James McCoy Carlisle, and Erath County Judge Thomas B. King as trustees. In a February 18, 1898, letter to Culberson, King said they had “an option on a College building, newly constructed…at about one half the original cost.”  King added that the college “already has a large clientage and patronage under the Presidency of Prof. Marshall McIlhany, and can be evolved…into a John Tarleton full fledged enterprise . . . enabling us to open the school this coming September full rigged and equipped.”    

On March 12, 1896, Culberson, Carlisle, and King accepted a proposition by Lee Young to sell to them half the former Stephenville College property for $1,250 and donate the other half for $1 if trustees purchased $20,000 in interest-bearing land notes from him. Trustees also appointed McIlhany principal of The John Tarleton College and directed him to open the college in September (trustees later “continued” him as president July 3, 1897). On March 18, 1896, Downman sold Young the property for $2,500; Young transferred the property to the trustees on March 22, 1896. Trustees did not pay Young for the property until May 1896 and decreased the $20,000 he wanted to $11,193.79 in estimated present value, less the $1,250 he donated.  

The Stephenville College building was demolished in 1915. Historical sources had designated the structure with several names, most commonly as “College Hall,” but it was also described as “Old Stephenville College Building,” “Original John Tarleton College Building,” and simply “main building.”


Erath County Deed of Records, Erath County Clerk’s Office, Stephenville, Texas. Preston Breckenridge Grissom, The Development of John Tarleton College (M.A. thesis, West Texas State Teachers College, 1933). Christopher E. Guthrie, John Tarleton and His Legacy: The History of Tarleton State University, 1899–1999 (Acton, Massachusetts: Tapestry Press, 1999.) John Tarleton College Minutes of Trustees Meetings, 1896–1913, Box 2-1/516; John Tarleton College Fund, May 1896–April 1902 and April–March 1904, Box 2-7/643,  Texas Education Agency Records, Texas State Library and Archives Commission, Austin. C. Richard King, The John Tarleton College Story: Golden Days of Purple and White (Austin: Eakin Press, 1998). Eric Martin Larson, Early History of The John Tarleton College, 1896–1898 (2nd rev. ed.; Takoma Park, Maryland: 2019). Eric Martin Larson, Marshall McIlhany: First President of The John Tarleton College, 1896–1898 (Takoma Park, Maryland: 2017). Stephenville Empire, February 12, 1891; June 9, 23, 30, 1893; July 21, 1893; February 16, 23, 1894; March 1, 1895. Stephenville Empire-Tribune, December 11, 1931. 

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Eric M. Larson, "STEPHENVILLE COLLEGE," accessed July 07, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/kbs70.

Uploaded on January 29, 2020. Modified on January 30, 2020. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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