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10-2-13 A Spirited Past: Southwestern Celebrates 120 Years
Pechero128: Classrooms today featuring the amphitheater seating and the latest technology to accommodate any size class.
In the ten minutes between classes, students rush across a green, tree-spotted campus, heading toward Anatomy and Physiology or Christian Beliefs or Accounting classes. Others stand in clumps of twos or threes, talking about SA activities that Saturday night, the quiz they just finished, or maybe what is on the lunch menu at the café. A few sit nearby, studying or pretending to study under the warm sun of a perfect north Texas fall day.

I think about how this all came to be.

Southwestern bustles with the energy of another good year. It is year number 120! Yes, it’s our birthday. One hundred and twenty years ago students first came to our campus.

You can imagine how different the same scene might have looked. The first students and their families traveled to Keene, Texas by covered wagon. The railroad had not even made it this far. Instead of carrying books to class, the students were swinging axes to clear enough land to build their classroom. Rather than pull up a chair to enjoy an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch prepared by a certified, gourmet chef, students were growing, harvesting, and preserving their own food to ensure their survival over the coming winter months. 

Faces and buildings have changed many times over the years. Though there is no longer a broom shop on campus and students don’t go by wagon to town, Southwestern’s core values of friendship, industry, and a deep commitment to Christ remain constant.

A Bold Beginning

In the year 1876, Comanches still terrorized this area. In May 1876, 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 Keene was the place for this new school.

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 up into lots of 1¼ to ten acres for families who wished to move to Keene.

What happened next was a miracle of God’s providence.  From all across Texas and North America, Adventists came in carts and wagons and set up their tents and covered wagons to begin a new life in the community that soon became known as Keene. While attending to their personal needs these pioneers began the hard work of clearing the land of green briars and scrub oak and erecting a building to house the new school. Selling wood in Cleburne for three and four dollars 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 the present year were invited to bring with them axes, and they were told that 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.”
North Heritage: built in 1894, Heritage Hall stood for almost a century as first a dormitory and then classroom space.
The School at Keene Grows

Amazingly, only a few months after Adventists arrived in Keene, they opened the Texas School in the midst of a Texas winter – some days cold, some days not, and the wind always blowing. It was January 7, 1894; Cassius Boone Hughes was the first principal with 56 students in attendance.In December 1894, 16 students and five teachers moved into the new dormitory. The Home, which would be later called North Hall, and later Heritage Hall, was built with available funds, as well as $2,500 in pledges from Texas Adventists. It remained for almost a century on the highest point in Keene. Today the beautiful Chan Chun Centennial Library with its grand cupola sits there visible all over the County. It too was built with pledges of Adventists and friends from Texas and across North America.

In April 1896, workers completed and dedicated a building for academy students. At this time, Keene also featured a Sanitarium where nursing students were trained. The nursing program remains one of Southwestern’s strongest programs.

Other milestones arrived as the years and the decades passed. In December 1902, a railroad line connected Keene with Egan on one end and Cleburne on the other end. The engine that runs there was referred to as “Old Betsy,” and made the ten-mile run from Egan to Cleburne in less than an hour.

In 1916 we became Southwestern Junior College, offering both two-year degrees as well as preparatory education for students who completed their degrees at Union College in Nebraska. In 1962, the name was changed to Southwestern Union College, with students able to earn a baccalaureate degree in Keene. In 1996 the name changed again to Southwestern Adventist University, offering master’s degrees as well as bachelor.
Texas-size Challenges

The school in Keene faced a lot of difficulties in the early years. The same year that Keene Industrial Academy started, the United States was thrown into the greatest depression of the 19th century. Fortunes were lost, businesses collapsed, and unemployment sored. In addition, drought hit Texas. J. N. Loughborough, wrote in the General Conference Daily Bulletin on March 4, 1894 that: “We are glad to note the success that attends the school at Keene, notwithstanding it has had to contend with the embarrassments of a severe drought and failure of crops in Texas the last year.”

But the pioneer believers who established Keene Industrial Academy were not the type to pray and wait for good things to happen. One of the original 56 students wrote that the school was “established by toil, poverty and sacrifice.”

By 1897 the school farm encompassed 135 acres, with 30 acres cleared and set out to fruit, including 3,000 peach, apple, plum and persimmon trees, 5000 blackberry bushes and 700 grapevines. In addition, an inventory showed 20,000 cabbages, 8,000 tomato plants, an acre of beets, half an acre of onions, two acres of corn, and an acre of strawberries. The remaining 100 acres was left in oak timber.

SWJCMizpah: Built in 1937, the Mizpah Gate symbolizes the traditional entrance to campus and the ceremonial start of their college career.
Where Are Our Students?

Each spring, Homecoming Weekend testifies to Southwestern’s influence on our student’s lives and our graduate’s influence on the world beyond. They have gone on to work in government, serving not only in Austin and Washington D.C. but in capitals of other countries. Hundreds of missionaries have spreads the good news of the gospel to the darkest corners of the world. In every corner of society, Southwestern graduates live successful lives of service for their families and communities.

Though faces and buildings and even the name changes, education at Southwestern Adventist University has always held onto its roots. Built under the traditions of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Southwestern continues to welcome students of all faiths. Our priority remains preparing students for productive lives of service to God and witnessing for Him in a challenging world.

It’s easy to imagine the pioneers that opened the Texas School all those years ago would wonder that Southwestern is still in business. They expected the Lord to come long before the 21st century. But they would appreciate the need for a Southwestern in a modern world, an institution they endured “toil, poverty and sacrifice” to create those many years ago.


By Glen Robinson
Communication Professor, SWU Website Manager, and the Editor of the Southwestern Spirit Magazine
North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists
9705 Patuxent Woods Drive
Columbia, MD 21046-1565 USA
Telephone: 443-391-7200
Fax: 443-391-
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