Southwestern Adventist University celebrated its 120th birthday Tuesday.
The first students and their families had to travel to Keene by covered wagon because the railroad had not even made it this far. Instead of carrying books to class, students were swinging axes to clear enough land to build their classroom. Instead of buffet lunch in what is today the largest vegetarian restaurant in Texas, students were growing, harvesting, and preserving their own food to ensure their survival over the coming winter months.
In 1876, when Comanches still terrorized this area, D. M. Canright organized a church of 18 members in Dallas, the first Seventh-day Adventist church in Texas. In June 1892, church officials decided a Christian school that taught industrial skills was needed in Texas. A committee was formed and land was looked at in the counties of Van Zandt, Kaufman, Hood and Johnson. After considerable prayer, each committee member agreed that an area in Johnson County was the place for this new school, according to “Lest We Forget,” a chronicle of Southwestern Adventist University by Mary Anne Hadley.
Eight hundred acres of rolling, tree-covered hills were purchased. A portion was surveyed and set aside for school purposes, while the rest was divided into lots of 1¼ to 10 acres for families who wished to move to the site.
And that they did, as Adventists from across North America arrived in covered wagons and set up tents.
These pioneers began clearing the land of green briars and scrub oak and erecting a building to house the new school. Selling wood in Cleburne for $3-$4 per cord helped make ends meet in those early days.
Sweet view of Texas
The founders of the school saw Texas as a land of promise. E. G. Rust said: “It is the most beautiful face of country that I ever saw, being rolling prairie, with numerous little streams, or branches, along the banks of which there is sufficient timber for fuel. The soil is very productive.”
In 1894, W. W. Prescott wrote, “The school farm is covered with small timber, and the first work was to clear the ground. The young men in attendance were invited to bring with them axes, and were told they would be given work in clearing this ground. They have done so, and have been able to earn for themselves from six to eight dollars a month, besides carrying on the regular duties of school. The climate is favorable for out-of-door work. Land can be worked ten months of the year in comfort.”
John T. Hamilton, son of H. H. Hamilton, longtime president of Southwestern, said in 1984: “I grew up hearing about two places, heaven and Keene. Until I was nearly grown, I thought they were the same place.”
The school at Keene grows
Only a few months after Adventists arrived in Keene, they opened the Texas School in the midst of a Texas winter. It was January 7, 1894, with Cassius Boone Hughes serving as the first principal with 56 students in attendance. In December of that year, 16 students and five teachers moved into the new dormitory called The Home, which would be later called North Hall, and later Heritage Hall. It remained for almost a century on the highest point in Keene. Today the Chan Chun Centennial Library sits there visible all over the county.
In April 1896, workers completed and dedicated a building for high school students. At this time, Keene also featured a sanitarium where nursing students were trained. The nursing program remains one of Southwestern's strongest programs.
In December 1902, a railroad line connected Keene with Egan on one end and Cleburne on the other end. The engine was referred to as “Old Betsy,” and made the 10-mile run from Egan to Cleburne in less than an hour. Today, Old Betsy Road follows the route of the railroad tracks from Keene to Egan.
In 1916, the name was changed to Southwestern Junior College, offering both two-year degrees as well as preparatory education for students who completed their degrees at Union College in Lincoln, Neb. In 1962, the name was changed to Southwestern Union College, with students able to earn a baccalaureate degree in Keene. Later, the name was changed to Southwestern Adventist College and in 1996 the name changed again to Southwestern Adventist University, offering master's degrees as well as bachelor's.
Where are they now?
Each spring, Homecoming Weekend, scheduled this year for April 10-13, testifies to Southwestern's influence on its graduate's and their influence on the world. Grads work in government, serving not only in Austin and Washington D.C. but in capitals of other countries. Business owners, medical professionals and educators throughout Johnson County and the world are Southwestern graduates. Hundreds of missionaries have spread the good news of the gospel to the darkest corners of the world. In every aspect of society, Southwestern graduates live successful lives of service for their families and communities.
Built under the traditions of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Southwestern's priority remains preparing students for productive lives of service to God and witnessing for Him in a challenging world.
Southwestern Professor of Communication Glen Robinson contributed to this article.