by Shaun Treat
As students yet again return to UNT and TWU for the golden beginnings of another academic year, we Dentonians often roll our eyes at the throngs of fresh faces wandering the Square crosswalks with noses glued to their smartphones and the inevitable wrong-way cars drifting cluelessly down traffic-packed one-way streets. Its a familiar fall ritual here, since Denton has long been a university town – nay, a proud two-college town – that locals cherish for the thriving arts and music scene which accompany the noise and bustle of rowdy students. Denton’s 1959 Centennial Committee report proudly observed that “the citizens of Denton have always been ‘Schoolminded’,” so we figured we’d take a brief look back at why this has indeed been the case since way back in the day.
Soon after the town lots were sold in January of 1857, Denton sought to make good on an 1836 provision in the Constitution of the Republic of Texas to dutifully “provide by law a general system of education.” Easier resolved than done, since the upheaval of the Civil War and its aftermath insured that the Texas legislature would be about as helpful in supporting a quality public education system back then as it’s bumbling Austin antics are today. Regardless, populated by plucky immigrants who knew the importance of education, Denton’s citizens had established numerous privately-funded schools with at least 47 teachers who variously “taught a Literary school in Denton” between 1858 and 1884, when the first public school opened.
The first schools in 1858 were taught by James B. Ford in Denton’s courthouse, and James W. Bryson taught another on South Elm Street. These subscription school “cessions” were usually short and covered the most basic fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic during the summer months between harvest seasons for families who could pay tuition. After the 1860s Civil War, with little help from the carpetbag government, two fraternal orders dedicated to educating virtuous democratic citizens would step in to provide building space and needed funds for school teachers. The Stanfield Lodge No.217 and the IOOF Lodge No.82 provided their facilities to rotating Sabbath services of various denominations and “free public school purposes” under their own board of trustees or education superintendents.
Sponsoring war orphans and poor Masonic kin, these charitable groups provided an invaluable contribution to the future of Denton during economic hardship. Denton finally received funding and taxes for a free public school in 1884 when the Odd Fellows’ schoolhouse on South Locust was sold to the city for $300, after more than a few years of haggling, and it then became the Denton City School before it was the Robert E. Lee public school of Denton. Take THAT, Yankees!
Yet Denton wasn’t content with these little schoolhouses on the prairie, especially when there is money to be made from taxpayer dollars. Seeking innovative ideas to stimulate our economy in the 1890s depression, the City of Denton contracted with Professor Joshua C. Chilton to establish a private college with aspirations to become a state university. The deal had been prodded by an influential group of ten men belonging to the Denton Board of Trade and fraternal orders, collectively known as “The Syndicate,” the backroom wheeling-and-dealing soon yielding more than a little insider trading on real estate ventures and construction contracts for Masonic bretheren. An enrollment of 70 students attended their first classes in 1890 on the upper floor of a hardware store on the northwest Denton Square (now Ethan Allen’s Furniture), but the next year moved into a newly constructed building on The Syndicate’s 240 acres of land that would become profitably annexed by the city to eventually grow into today’s University of North Texas campus.
Lower-than-expected enrollments and financial problems were compounded by Mr. Chilton’s resignation due to health problems (he died within a year) but, after several unsuccessful attempts, the private college finally became a state school in 1899 called the North Texas Normal College & Teacher Training Insitute. As a condition of such lucrative accreditation, the City of Denton agreed to donate all the Normal School property to the State of Texas, including all land, buildings, and “an abundant supply of artesian water.” I’m betting “The Syndicate” was smiling through their cigars and bags of cash, laughing all the way to the bank. When it opened for registration as North Texas Normal College in September of 1901, the university had 14 faculty and about 200 students and thus a college town was born. By 1917, the NTNC Yucca yearbook dubbed themselves “The Athens of North Texas” (though not one of UNT’s official six name changes over the years).
If you think the history of Texas Womans University is any less saturated with behind-the-scenes political intrigue, think again. It was established by Gov. Joseph Sayers signing into law a 1901 bill creating the “Texas Industrial Institute and College for the Education of the White Girls of the State of Texas in Arts and Sciences.” A past column has already explained the sketchy circumstances of how Denton’s African-American township-within-a-town neighborhood of Quakertown was forcibly evicted in 1921, after a slow-burning showdown when the “Girls Industrial College of Texas” was established as a state university in 1903. But there are indeed many proud moments in Denton’s history of racial integration, especially with North Texas State University’s 1950s athletic program.
Few may realize that these teaching colleges began above the Denton Square in 1901, like a few subscription schools in Denton during the late 1800s, they quite progressively taught women as well as the children of freed slaves and some indigenous natives. The first “free colored school” was established in Denton’s Quakertown as The Fred Douglas School in 1878, one of the few opportunities for the education of freed slaves in North Texas. From its beginnings, Denton has always valued education and this commitment seems written into our community DNA.
Denton actually had a third college at one time, but it didn’t take. The private John B. Denton College was also established here in 1901 but soon became “Southwestern Christian College” when the Church of Christ assumed its administration in 1904, moving it to Cleburne in 1909 before finally settling as the Abilene Christian College. That site on Congress Street is where Calhoun Middle School was until 1957. The private Selwyn School of Denton was also established in ‘57, one of many that would replace other schools now long since gone. As you can see, compared to other frontier towns and Texas outposts, Denton has pretty much been an educational hub since the get-go, a proud tradition of neighbors-helping-neighbors that continues in our community today!
Recently, the local United Way, Denton ISD groups and our civic leaders have teamed up for a program called MENTOR DENTON, a grassroots project for volunteers to donate one hour a week for one year helping an at-risk student in our public schools. One more way we can continue the tradition of community involvement helping to aide eduction for all in Denton.
Back in The Day is an ongoing WDDI contribution from Shaun Treat, an assistant professor in Communication Studies at the University of North Texas and founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour. Doc Treat has written about numerous local places and personalities at his Denton Haunts blog, and is forever indebted to the great work of the fine folks with the Denton County Historical Commission and local keepers of history like Mike Cochran and Laura Douglas at the Emily Fowler Library for their tireless work in helping preserve Denton’s intriguing past.