Looking Back at Baylor: ‘In Beautiful Groves…on the Edge of a Vast Prairie’

This piece by former Texas Collection director Kent Keeth originally was published in The Baylor Line in November 1981, then was reprinted in Looking Back at Baylor (1985), a collection of Keeth and Harry Marsh’s historical columns for the Line. Blogging about Texas periodically features selections from Looking Back at Baylor, with hopes of sharing Keeth’s work with a new audience.

The beginning of this month marked the 173rd year since Baylor was chartered in Independence, Texas. This spring, it will be 132 years since Baylor moved to Waco, Texas. Which leads us to ask, what prompted the move? Read on to find out. 

In 1885 Baylor at Independence reached a turning point in its history. For the past quarter-century the forty-year-old school, whose heyday had occurred in the decade of the 1850’s, had suffered from a variety of social, political and economic problems in Southwest Texas which were beyond its control. The death in February, 1885, of President William Carey Crane, whose efforts alone had kept the struggle school alive, signaled the need of desperate measures if Baylor went to survive.

Drawing of the male campus of Baylor University, 1870s

Waco University, another Baptist school, had been founded in 1861. While it benefited from the prosperity of the flourishing Central Texas region, it was not without its financial difficulties. The obvious solution to the problems of both schools was to merge them, moving Baylor to the more promising location and throwing the denomination’s support behind the consolidated institution.

Fortunately, despite some reservations on both sides and a great deal of nostalgic regret at the abandonment of the Independence campus, agreement on this solution was reached during the Baptist State Convention in Lampasas in October 1885. Details of the merger were worked out at another meeting in Temple a few weeks later.

In effect Baylor, as the older institution would absorb Waco University. Both schools would transfer all of their assets and liabilities to a new corporation to be known as “Baylor University at Waco.” Until this corporation could become a legal entity, the trustees of Waco University would serve as its agents for the necessary on-site arrangements.

The arrangements were legion. In addition to complicated legal and financial transactions, the most pressing need was for a site upon which to build a new campus. The two buildings of Waco University, adjacent to First Baptist Church on Fifth Street, had become too crowded even for that school’s students, to say nothing of the anticipated influx from Independence. Time was of the essence, as Baylor at Waco was scheduled to commence classes in September, 1886- barely 9 months after planning had begun.

Gen. ZT. J. Speight, chairman of Waco University’s board of trustees, owned a large “homestead place” on the southern extremity of town, on which he had already constructed his residence. He made this land, known as Oak Lawn, available for purchase as a portion of the new campus. John Camden West, a neighbor who owned an adjacent tract called Minglewood Park, agreed to sell a part of it to complete the minimum requirement of twenty acres. Citizens of Waco contributed funds for their acquisition of these parcels, which together totaled some twenty-three acres.

Speight’s tract extended from Speight Avenue on the south to Waco Creek on the North; and from Fifth Street westward approximately to the site of present Founders Mall, which connects the statue of Judge Baylor and Pat Neff Hall. Speight had already sold the tract of land where the Student Union Building now stands to a couple named Greer, who obligingly relinquished it to the university for four hundred dollars. West’s land carried the campus north of Waco Creek to Dutton Avenue but was somewhat narrower, as its eastern border was set back from Fifth Street. In terms of today’s campus, its width was the approximate distance between the backs of Kokernot and Martin dormitories.

Acquisition of the new site was completed in April, 1886, and the cornerstone of the Main Building was laid near the center of the Speight tract on the first day of June. Well satisfied with their selection, the trustees congratulated themselves that the campus’ location “in beautiful groves…on the edge of a vast prairie extending southward to the gulf, combines in an eminent degree all the advantages of health, beauty and accessibility.”

Georgia Burleson Hall, dorm room, Baylor University, c. 1910

A companion girls’ dormitory building was constructed and occupied in 1887, and four year later was named Georgia Burleson Hall in honor of the President’s wife. Plans for a matching third structure, presumably envisioned as a boys’ dormitory which would flank the Main Building on its north side, were abandoned. Until the completion in 1921 of Brooks Hall, the first dormitory for male students on the new campus (and also the first permanent structure erected on its Minglewood Park tract), Baylor boys walked to their classes from quarters in the converted buildings of old Waco University or roomed in private homes near the campus.

The corporation known as “Baylor University at Waco” at last came into legal existence in March, 1887. Though transplanted at a considerable distance from its former home, Baylor had survived its relocation. While remaining fully conscious of the distinction of its past in Independence, the school was now in a position, in its new location and campus, to enjoy prospects for the future as well.

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