The Bentonville College – Spirits on the Thaden School Site

By Larry Horton

Nearly everyone who reads the paper or watches the local news has heard of the new Thaden School that is currently being constructed on the old Benton County Fairgrounds site at South Main and 8th. But although it may be the newest school on that spot, it certainly isn’t the first.

During the late 1800’s, many of the smaller towns added some sort of school of higher education, either a college, an academy, a business school, agricultural and so on. Bentonville was no exception. All were wanting, it seems, to be like the big cities, and to offer folks a higher education here at home instead of having to go abroad.

As noted in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, a group of citizens met in the county judge’s office on March 15, 1894 and formed a corporation under the name of “Bentonville College.” Trustees were instructed to establish and maintain for the period of 99 years a non-sectarian school for both sexes. They were also charged with obtaining a suitable piece of land, designing and constructing a building, and hiring a sufficient number of qualified instructors:

At the April 24, 1894, meeting of the trustees, firm construction plans were accepted. Approximately $6,500 was allocated for stone, brick, carpentry work, and painting, exclusive of furnishings and fencing. The city purchased a windmill, and the board paid for the cistern and pump. James Haney’s construction bid was awarded for $6,358.70. Six acres at the southern end of Main Street were purchased for the campus. The main building—containing bathrooms, a basement, six recitation rooms, a music hall, and a large chapel—was finished by September 17, 1895, when the dedication ceremonies took place. Tuition was fixed in 1896 at a monthly rate of $1.50 for primary, $2.50 for intermediate, $3.50 for first collegiate, and $4.00 for second collegiate.
— The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture

 

The college was opened in 1895 and boasted 105 students. The courses of study included music, art, history of Greece and Rome, “Critical Review of Noted Scientists,” mathematics, and elocution.

Financially, however, the school was a disaster. There just weren’t enough students and subscriptions to satisfy the debt, as highlighted in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas:

Bentonville College lasted for six years (1895–1901). The Bentonville Ouachita Academy built the dormitory and operated the school until sometime between 1908 and 1914. The 1914 Sanborn maps for Bentonville (Benton County) label the buildings as the Bentonville High School, and they remained as the high school until 1929–30, when an impressive new Bentonville High School was built on 2nd Street—today the Old High Middle School. The grounds of what was once Bentonville College then served as the home of the Benton County Fair for more than seventy years.
— The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture

From looking at the old Bentonville maps, the building sat nearly directly in the middle of South Main Street, which at the time would have been at the south edge of the city limits.

Bentonville Academy.jpg

On an interesting research side note, there was a previous incarnation of the Bentonville College that dates back as early as 1872, the same year the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville started classes. I have not heard of this one before, but newspaper articles, scant as they are, indicate that the school was in operation in 1872 then destroyed by fire in 1878, when they moved to the Presbyterian Church. The newspaper article indicates that they were going to rebuild. Not sure of the site, but it bears more research, or maybe someone out there knows the answer. The Bentonville History Museum would love to have any information or photos from that time in our history!