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The University of Louisiana at Minden?

by Minden Press-Herald

The University of Louisiana – Minden. How does that name sound? Well, surprisingly enough, it nearly happened. Most of these Echoes have concerned the lasting effects of people and events that did occur in our past. Today’s column is a little different, we are going to examine an event that did not happen, and how the echoes of that non-event still have ramifications for our community today.

In the 1920s, Minden was undergoing a period of economic growth even greater than the booming economy of the nation in those years. The discovery of the Cotton Valley Oil Field and the acquisition of the L & A Railroad shops sparked a population increase. New construction occurred all over Minden in housing, the Goode Addition and Justice Heights; in education, a new Minden High School and later the Webster Training Institute; churches, the First Baptist Church and the Minden Presbyterian Church; government, a combination City Hall and Fire Station; and commercial buildings, large areas in the area of Main Street, Pine Street, and Pearl Street saw new brick buildings constructed along with the Minden Sanitarium. The spirit of “boosterism” was alive and well in Minden. The town was officially designated a city and added modern innovations such as home mail delivery and dial telephone service.

Strong supporters of this progressive movement were the local newspapers, particularly the Minden Tribune, edited by William Harper. He included on each editorial page his goals for the city of Minden, many of which were fulfilled during the flush economic times. One of Harper’s goals was a Junior College for Minden. This first idea for a college of some sort had come from Superintendent of Schools, E. S. Richardson and another newspaper editor, future Minden mayor David Thomas. These men proposed the building of an agricultural college for Minden. Such a school had been a goal of Richardson for more than a decade, since his tenure as Director of Agricultural Extension for Louisiana State University. The plans for an agricultural school failed, but the drive for an institution of higher education in Minden remained alive.

In September 1927, William Harper’s ideas about a Junior College gained some impressive supporters and began to move forward. The Minden Lions Club heard an address from Minden High School Principal J. E. Harper. He proposed that the Club and other civic groups band together and seek state support to locate a Junior College in Minden. The Lions Club, on a motion by Superintendent Richardson, appointed a committee composed of Principal Harper, former mayor Robert Floyd Kennon and The Rev. McClain of the First Methodist Church to draw up a resolution to be circulated to the appropriate officials. The Minden Tribune promptly endorsed the plan in a front-page editorial and the Lions unanimously approved the resolution at their next meeting.

In early October, the idea of a Junior College gained momentum. A group of local men, headed by former Webster Parish Sheriff B. F. Griffith, came forward and offered 18 to 20 acres of land, near the Minden Fairgrounds, to be donated as a site for the proposed Junior College. At this time state politics put a brief roadblock in the dreams of local citizens. Gov. O. H. Simpson, who had taken office when Gov. Henry Fuqua died in 1926, was planning to run for election in his own right in 1928. Facing the challenge of Huey Long, he chose to embrace an extreme fiscal conservatism in the last year of his term. This ended any plans for legislative expenditures for a new Junior College.

With the election of Huey Long as governor in 1928, the Junior College plans gained new life. Again the proposal was brought forward by Principal J. E. Harper. Harper reported to the School Board in February 1929, that the enrollment at the Minden High School (including grades 1-11) had exceeded capacity of the buildings. This problem was particularly serious in the elementary school area, where 1011 students were attending classes in the 1910 building, intended to hold fewer than 700 pupils. The state inspectors had warned Harper that the school faced losing accreditation if the situation was not improved. Harper, after consulting with several state officials and local leaders, had come up with an interesting and seemingly feasible plan. Harper had learned that one education plan of Governor Long was to create a Junior College system for Louisiana. With the addition of a one-mill tax for maintenance, it seemed possible that Minden could finance the erection of a new high school to share facilities with a state funded Junior College. The property owners were still offering to donate the site near the fairgrounds, and if Long could be persuaded, Minden could improve its school system and add the presence of higher education.

The School Board unanimously endorsed Harper’s plan and the Minden Tribune pointed out that Minden residents annually spent some $60,000 sending their children away to college. If a Junior College were built here, that money would remain in Minden. In addition, Governor Long was embroiled in a feud with the local officials in Shreveport, the logical choice for a North Louisiana Junior College. Minden seemed poised to receive all the benefits from being home to a Junior College. The School Board contracted with Edward F. Neild, the Board’s architect to draw up plans for the proposed building. Newspaper support came from area papers including the Shreveport newspapers. Long’s plans for a Junior College system were submitted to the legislative committees, the choices of sites for a North Louisiana Junior College seemed to be narrowed to two, Minden or Monroe. In a surprising development, the Monroe Morning World endorsed her city’s competitor, Minden, as the best site for a Junior College. The World believed that Monroe should seek a 4-year school, in addition to the fact that the publisher of the Monroe newspaper, Col. Robert Ewing, had just broken with Gov. Long and wanted no part of Long’s political favors. The World cited Minden’s history of educational excellence, dating from the Minden Female College. In addition, the Monroe paper said Minden’s proximity to Shreveport, which had no public college, made it a better choice than Monroe, since Louisiana Tech was only 30 miles from Monroe.

Thus in early March 1929, it seemed that Minden would soon be home to a public Junior College. Yet the school was never created. What happened? Well, in late March 1929, the Louisiana House of Representatives impeached Governor Long. Among those supporting the impeachment was Minden and Webster Parish’s State Representative, J. S. Bacon of Sibley. Even though long was spared removal from office by the State Senate, his legislative program was temporarily delayed. Over the next two years he fought several legislative battles, including the celebrated struggle with Caddo Parish over free school textbooks. When he returned to the Junior College agenda in 1931, Minden was cast in a much less favorable light. Local pro-Long forces had tried, and failed to recall Huey’s enemy, Representative Bacon.

Minden had strongly backed Bacon in that recall election. The textbook fight had made Huey even more averse to placing a Junior College in the immediate area of Shreveport, another strike against Minden. Finally, other political battles had indicated that Principal J. E. Harper was strongly in the anti-Long camp. For these, and other possibly unknown reasons, Minden lost the chance at a Junior College when the Northeast Junior College was created in Monroe. In the early 1950s, that school became Northeast Louisiana State College, later Northeast Louisiana University, and today, the University of Louisiana – Monroe. The proposed Minden site became the local CCC camp, Camp Meyer, and eventually home to today’s North Louisiana Technical College.

In the late 1940s Minden had another opportunity to gain an institution of higher education, this time with national implications. In 1947, President Harry Truman moved forward with a reorganization of the military establishment in the United States. Among other changes that took place were the creation of the Department of Defense and the creation of the United States Air Force as a separate branch of the military. Following that lead, Congressional committees were reorganized and the House Armed Services Committee was established. Overton Brooks, the Congressman from the 4th District of Louisiana was named to the committee for the 80th Congress (along with fellow Louisianian F. Edward Hebert and Congressman Lyndon Johnson of Texas, soon to become U. S. Senator from Texas on the heels of the controversial victory that earned Johnson his nickname of “Landslide Lyndon”.) In the wake of Harry Truman’s stunning victory in November 1948 the Democrats regained the majority in Congress. Brooks found himself the 2nd ranking Democrat on the committee, behind Chairman Carl Vinson of Georgia, in the 81st Congress. The Armed Services Committee was tasked with creating a military college for the new United States Air Force, to compare with West Point and Annapolis. Brooks championed Minden and Webster Parish as a potential site for the school. In fact, Minden survived the first cut of possible locations and made it to a list of fewer than ten potential homes for the Air Force Academy. A site in the area of Caney Lake was envisioned as a potential location. However, Minden did not make the final list of choices, and of course the Academy wound up in Colorado Springs.

Later in the early 1960s, a civic committee composed of many still active in Minden today, attempted unsuccessfully to obtain a Junior College from the LSU system, but the movement for a Junior College system in Louisiana died in the controversy over segregation and no new schools were created. So today’s Echo of our Past is an echo of a time when Minden had a golden opportunity, and let it slip away. Perhaps we can learn some lessons from this experience and not let similar chances be lost in our future.

Minden Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.Special to the Press-Herald.

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