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City of colleges

Updated: Jan 10


Faulkner County has come a long way since the first permanent white settlement in central Arkansas was established near the confluence of Cadron Creek and the Arkansas River, about five miles west of what’s now Conway.

In the early 1800s, the term Cadron Settlement referred to 30 or 40 families scattered along this part of the Arkansas River Valley. Many of those early settlers were veterans of the War of 1812. In 1818, a trader named John McElmurry and three investors laid out what would become the town of Cadron.

“Naturalist Thomas Nuttall visited Cadron in 1819 and described a tavern and a settlement of a few families,” Aaron Rogers writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In the spring of 1834, members of the Cherokee tribe died of cholera and measles near Cadron Creek while traveling from Georgia to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears. By the 1850s, Cadron had vanished.”

In 1869, Col. Asa Peter Robinson moved from New York to Little Rock to help build a railroad. Robinson was granted 640 acres upon his retirement. He platted what was known as Conway Station in 1871.

“The town grew along the westward bend that was created when the railroad track’s course was changed slightly to utilize the shallower grade of Cadron Gap to the west,” Rogers writes. “Conway became a center for farmers in the surrounding area to sell or gin their crops and buy supplies. The city, incorporated in October 1875 as simply Conway, was named for a famous Arkansas family that included the state’s first elected governor, James Sevier Conway.

“Controversies surrounded the creation of Faulkner County in 1873 and the choice of Conway as its seat. Eventually the town and Faulkner County became home to large German and Irish populations. A fire in 1878 destroyed part of the town.”

In 1890, Hendrix moved to Conway from Altus, where it had been established in 1876 as Central Institute.

Several years later, Central College for Women was established.

In September 1908, Arkansas State Normal School opened as the first college for teachers in the state. It became Arkansas State Teachers College in 1925, State College of Arkansas in 1967 and UCA in 1975.

In 1952, the Baptist Missionary Association of Arkansas bought the former Central College for Women campus and established Central College for Christian Workers. The name was later changed to Conway Baptist College and then Central Baptist College.

Even with the explosive growth of recent decades, Conway remains first and foremost a college town.

Memories of the Civil War were still vivid in Arkansas in 1876. During the Reconstruction period following the war, pastors of various denominations worked to establish colleges to train ministers and teachers. At Altus that year, Rev. Isham Lafayette Burrow started Central Institute with 20 students.

During the 1881-82 school year, the name was changed to Central Collegiate Institute. In 1884, with his school running short of funds, Burrow asked the Methodist church for help.

“The following year, the conference raised funds to purchase the school and elected Burrow as president,” Katherine Stanick writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In June 1887, Burrow was replaced by Alexander Copeland Millar. The first four-year degrees had been awarded in 1885.

“On June 10, 1889, the name was changed to Hendrix College, honoring Bishop Eugene Russell Hendrix of Kansas City, who had recently been named presiding bishop of the Arkansas Conference. On March 22, 1890, the board voted to move the college to Conway. The college opened there on Sept. 18, 1890.”

These days, Conway and Little Rock are the only cities in the state with three traditional four-year institutions of higher learning. The capital city has the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Philander Smith College and Arkansas Baptist College.

“Millar was replaced at Hendrix in 1902 by Rev. Stonewall Anderson,” Stanick writes. “Lacking strong support from the Methodist church and finding few resources in the depression-ridden Southern states, Anderson sought and received financial assistance from the General Education Board of New York, a philanthropic organization founded in 1903 and funded by John D. Rockefeller. Receiving assistance from outside sources broadened the college’s orientation and was a continuing source of revenue for years, though it tended to move the college away from strict church-dominated roots.

“On Jan. 10, 1910, Anderson resigned due to his frustration with the church spreading its support among three colleges — Hendrix, Henderson in Arkadelphia and Galloway Women’s College in Searcy. Millar returned to office. The college prospered under his administration, and a number of improvements were made. But Millar resigned over conflicts with the board in 1913.”

While Hendrix was trying to find its footing, the Arkansas Legislature in 1907 approved Act 317, which created Arkansas State Normal School to train teachers. Board members were appointed in May of that year.

Conway, Russellville, Benton, Fort Smith and Quitman submitted bids to the state for the school. Conway was chosen after offering three tracts of land and $51,753 in cash.

Arkansas State Normal School began operating on Sept. 21, 1908.

“The first president was John James Doyne, former state superintendent of schools,” writes Jimmy Bryant, the former UCA archivist who now heads state government’s Division of Arkansas Heritage. “He served as president until Aug. 31, 1917. The first degree offered was licentiate of instruction. This two-year degree was the equivalent of a professional license. The curriculum for bachelor of arts wasn’t created until 1920.

“The school grew rapidly and went from about 100 students in 1908 to 200 students in 1909. Before Doyne left office, enrollment reached 441 students in 1916. Doyne’s successor was Burr Water Torreyson, previously state high school inspector for Arkansas. World War I’s impact on the school’s enrollment was significant. By the spring of 1918, 302 students were enrolled, and only 12 of them were men.”

The student population grew to 871 by 1925.

Down the street, Central College for Women was established in 1892 and operated until the late 1940s. The Arkansas Baptist State Convention had appointed a committee in 1891 to determine if a college for women was needed. The committee purchased land for the school. Central College first operated in a Baptist church until a building on campus was completed. The school received national accreditation from the North Central Association in 1925.

Back at Hendrix, John Hugh Reynolds became president in 1913, the first non-clergyman to hold the job. He served until his retirement in 1945.

“His policy was to provide a good liberal arts education for a small number of carefully selected students,” Stanick writes. “In 1914, Hendrix was placed on Columbia University’s list of first-class colleges whose students were admitted unconditionally. In 1914, Reynolds initiated the Arkansas Pastors’ School at the college, and it became an annual event of the Southern Methodist Church. Hendrix was added to the North Central Association in 1924, and in 1929 was approved by the American Association of Colleges.”

Methodist officials decided in 1929 to close the Arkadelphia school and merge it with Hendrix. It was known for a couple of years as Hendrix-Henderson College before going back to just Hendrix. Galloway in Searcy was merged into Hendrix in 1933, leaving Hendrix as the only Methodist college for white students in Arkansas.

While Hendrix remained small and exclusive, the state school at Conway grew. On Feb. 7, 1925, the name was changed from Arkansas State Normal School to Arkansas State Teachers College. By 1930, the campus consisted of five brick and two frame buildings. By the start of U.S. involvement in World War II in late 1941, there were 15 major buildings thanks to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.

“The program that most impacted the college was the Public Works Administration, which funded projects by a combination of grants and low-interest loans,” Bryant writes. “The first PWA project completed in Arkansas was Wingo Hall at ASTC in October 1934. … During the war, ASTC became a temporary home to various branches of the armed forces. The Naval Cadets, Army Air Corps, Army National Guard and Women’s Army Corps turned the quiet college campus into a veritable military base.

“The WAC had the largest contingent of personnel with 1,800 women being trained from March 1943 until March 1944. So many military personnel were on campus that Gov. Homer Adkins wanted to change the name of the institution to MacArthur Military College. After the war ended, the size of the student body increased by 1,400 by 1947.”

Silas Snow became president in July 1953 and served for 22 years. Under his watch, ASTC became SCA and then UCA.

Across town, the Central College campus was empty for several years until it was purchased by what’s now the Baptist Missionary Association of Arkansas to house Central College for Christian Workers. The college had started as an extension of Jacksonville College of Texas, holding classes at Temple Baptist Church in Little Rock.

The 11-acre Conway campus was purchased for $85,000, and the name was changed to Conway Baptist College to avoid confusion with the old Central College for Women. Classes in Conway began in 1952. A decade later, the name was changed to Central Baptist College.

“Central Baptist struggled through its first three decades,” Dusty Bender writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The school competed with local and international missionary efforts for support from the small, struggling denomination. Some felt money should be spent on missions and not a luxury like a college. As a result of persistently low funding, survival seemed precarious.”

During the presidency of Charles Attebery from 1990-2004, the financial situation finally stabilized.

There were other key developments during the second half of the 20th century that spurred Conway’s growth.

In 1951, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission finished work on Lake Conway. The 6,700-acre reservoir is the largest lake in the country constructed by a state fish and wildlife agency. In 1957, the state’s Civil Defense Agency relocated to Conway. It built an underground facility there in 1965.

In October 1959, what was then known as the Arkansas Children’s Colony at Conway became the state’s first center for developmentally disabled people. The name was changed to the Conway Human Development Center in 1981.

In the 1960s, the Arkansas Educational Television Network selected Conway as its home.

“R. Lee Reaves, a former state senator, was selected to serve as the first director of the educational station,” Tiffany Verkler writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Several communities vied for the station, but Conway was selected after land was made available by Arkansas State Teachers College and a significant contribution came from Conway Corp. Network headquarters was built, and the first broadcast aired Dec. 4, 1966. During the next 15 years, four additional transmitters were added to expand coverage to virtually the entire state.”

Nabholz Construction Corp., which began at Conway in 1949, grew into one of the largest construction companies in this part of the country.

Demographics Inc., which started in 1969 under the ownership of Charles Ward of Ward Bus Co., became the nationally known information management company Acxiom.

Now Conway — with its strong leadership and focus on quality of life — is positioned to be an Arkansas success story for years to come. It’s all about people wanting to live there.

During the Christmas holidays, when our two sons are home from law school, we usually go to Conway at least once to eat out. We live in far west Little Rock. Our oldest son, who’s now at the University of Texas, received his bachelor’s degree from Hendrix and has always enjoyed the city.

You typically think of people in Conway getting into their cars and coming to Little Rock for a Saturday night on the town. The fact that we find ourselves going in just the opposite direction tells you all you need to know. Conway has arrived.

The city’s business and civic leaders understood that economic development in this century is nothing like the development efforts of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that focused on industrial recruiting along with the roads, water and sewer lines needed to attract manufacturers. In this era, economic development is also about creating a place that will attract and keep young, talented entrepreneurs.

Conway is attracting more of these people with each passing year. Many are graduates of Hendrix, UCA and Central Baptist who see no need to leave town once they graduate. I’m often asked if there’s another place in the state where I feel the kind of entrepreneurial energy that characterizes northwest Arkansas. My answer: Conway.

The city’s continued growth is proof that Conway’s quality-of-place efforts are working.

Back in 2016, to commemorate the 125th anniversary of what’s now the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, chamber leaders announced a series of projects. Some have been completed, and work has started on others. They included:

  • A partnership between the chamber, Conway Corp. (the city’s public utility company) and Conway Development Corp. to create the Arnold Innovation Center with co-working spaces, leasable office suites and meeting facilities to help fuel small business job growth.

  • More trails across the city for runners, walkers and cyclists. The plan includes pedestrian overpasses on Dave Ward Drive, Oak Street and Harkrider Street. The Razorback Greenway in northwest Arkansas has been a major amenity for those living in that booming part of the state. Conway’s leaders noticed and vowed to expand their trail system.

  • Public art in the roundabouts that have been built as Conway’s population has soared. According to a chamber publication: “By raising private funds and partnering with the city of Conway on long-term maintenance, Conway’s roundabouts can become a unique setting for large-scale works of public art of all kinds. Arts organizations, museums, artists and donors can team up to turn Conway’s roundabouts into a regional destination.”

  • A better system of so-called wayfinding signs so visitors can find their way around town more easily.

  • Beautification projects along Interstate 40: The chamber notes: “Millions of people drive through Conway on the interstate. For many, that’s the only impression they have of our city. A well-designed, properly maintained landscaping plan along our interstate corridor and exits — coupled with new, decorative bridges — will help Conway stand out on our nation’s third-longest interstate.”

Back when Baptist Health opened a hospital along Interstate 40 in 2016, CEO Troy Wells said people now see Conway as “not just a suburb of Little Rock or a bedroom community. It wants to be a destination community.”

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