JACKSON — Although Centenary College has been located in Shreveport for more than 100 years, the roots of the private, four-year, liberal arts college are in the little town of Jackson.
From its founding in 1825 as the College of Louisiana until its move to Shreveport in 1908, the college was an important element of the economy and community of Jackson. It was because of the college and the town’s high standard of living that Jackson was once known as the “Athens of the South.”
This year, the 48th annual Jackson Assembly Antiques Show and Sale will feature the Professor’s Cottage, one of two remaining buildings of Old Centenary, now the Centenary State Historic Site. Those attending the show and sale will have the opportunity to tour the historic cottage and the West Wing, the school’s one remaining dormitory, and enjoy the wooded surroundings of the former campus.
Jackson was established in 1815 as the parish seat of the Felicianas. According to Michael Howell, author of “Journey to War’s End: An Antebellum History of Jackson Louisiana,” the economy of Jackson got off to a quick start. The town had several successful businesses, attorneys, a printing office, taverns and physicians and was on its way to being a major Louisiana city. Then, in 1824, the Louisiana Legislature divided the Felicianas into two parishes, East Feliciana and West Feliciana, and made Clinton, not Jackson, the parish seat of East Feliciana.
Almost from its founding, residents of Jackson expressed the desire for a high-caliber school in the town. Within a year of moving the parish seat from Jackson, the Legislature chartered the College of Louisiana, a state-supported school, for the little community.
Even before the school had buildings, the newly formed board of trustees found places to hold classes.
“The school opened in January 1826,” Howell said. “Classes were held in the courthouse. We know they rented some buildings in town. They were grabbing any space they could to crank it up.”
As an editorial in St. Francisville’s Louisiana Journal in 1825 read, “To erect buildings for all the purposes of the College would require at least two years. Letters ought not to slumber for that period.”
Two dormitories were built for the college in 1832 and 1837. However, by the 1840s, enrollment had dropped considerably following a national bank crisis beginning in 1837, and several yellow fever epidemics. Within 20 years of its opening, the College of Louisiana closed, and the campus was sold to the Methodist Conference.
At the same time, Centenary College, operated by the Methodist-Episcopal Church South at Brandon Springs, Miss., also was having similar problems with enrollment.
In 1845, the two all-male student bodies were combined to create Centenary College of Louisiana on the Jackson campus.
In 1856, the boards of trustees and visitors of Centenary published a catalog setting forth rules and standards of the college. The introduction explained that the college is “under the patronage of the Louisiana and Mississippi Conferences (of the Methodist Church), and although … most of the Faculty are members of the Methodist Church, still no sectarian dogmas are taught, nor (are) efforts at proselytism used.”
Among the many rules set forth in the booklet was a requirement that no student “shall keep for his (pleasure), any riding animal, or dog, or gun or pistol.”
Students were prohibited from bringing into the college or a student room “any spiritous, vinous or fomented liquors” and prohibited “during the regular session of College (from attending) any ball, theatre, horse race or cock-fight.”
In 1856, the cornerstone was laid for the new Main Academic Building, which was set between the East and West Wing buildings. The three-story Center Building contained a library with 3,000 volumes and an auditorium that seated 2,000 people.
The decade before the Civil War was the high point for the college at Jackson. The school had 250 students and 11 faculty members who offered instruction in languages, math, law and science. Graduation ceremonies each year brought visitors from around the area and lasted several days with numerous orations in Latin, Greek and English.
The Civil War marked the beginning of the end of Centenary in Jackson. After Louisiana seceded in 1861, the school closed. In large script, written across the faculty minutes are the words, “Students have all gone to war. College suspended and God help the right!”
Two battles were fought in Jackson including one on the campus in August 1863. Union forces stabled horses in the Main Academic Building, and the school served as a hospital for Union and Confederate soldiers for a time. Some 80 soldiers are buried on the grounds of the school.
In 1865, the school reopened, but times were much different. The campus was in shambles.
“There was not a lot of money around here after the war,” said Jim Hendrickson, vice president of the Jackson Assembly and antiques show co-chairman with Sue Bunch.
The situation continued to deteriorate. “At that time, Centenary was so poor, it couldn’t pay the professors,” he said.
The college built four cottages, three for professors and one for the president. The school paid the faculty a small amount of money and provided housing.
“They paid them just enough to keep them from revolting or leaving,” Hendrickson said. “It was not such a good deal.”
“Everything came down to the admissions,” said Daniel Goyer, site manager for the Centenary State Historic Site.
With a mere 60 to 70 students, finances suffered.
“They went around to various Methodist congregations, but they didn’t get much funding,” Hendrickson said.
Finally, with a mere $18 in the treasury, the school accepted an offer from the city of Shreveport, with support of local Methodists, to move the school there.
“Shreveport had just struck oil,” he said. “They offered them $10,000 plus a building plus a piece of land.”
“It was an offer they couldn’t refuse,” Goyer said. “I think they didn’t want to move.”
However, between 1906 and 1908, the school made the transition to Shreveport.
The old Jackson campus stood vacant, and, over time, the buildings were sold off. The three main college buildings ended up being owned by three different people. Finally, the East Wing and the once grand Main Academic Building were demolished and sold for scrap.
“Somebody told me that when they tore down the center building, there were two-and-a-half million bricks,” Hendrickson said. “They say that seven churches in the Baton Rouge area are built out of it.”
For 30 years, the remaining building, the West Wing, was used for low-income housing. By 1977, it had so deteriorated that it was ready to be torn down when local residents came to the rescue.
In 1979, the state purchased and restored the West Wing and the last remaining cottage, the Professor’s Cottage. Both will be open to the public for the Jackson Assembly Antiques Show and Sale.