When I was growing up, I was under the mistaken assumption that John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Ark., was named after the militant abolitionist of the same name. It wasn’t until my adult years that I found out the John Brown it is actually named for has a strong Neosho tie.
John Elward Brown was born in 1879 near Center Point, Iowa, the fifth of nine children. His father, a Union Civil War veteran, was disabled by war injuries and couldn’t work the family farm like he needed to, so the rather large family survived on a meager soldier’s pension. At age 11, John E. Brown dropped out of school to join the workforce and contribute to the family’s income.
Brown performed menial jobs until he was 17, when he joined his brother on an employment-seeking trip to Rogers, Ark. While there he attended a Salvation Army revival meeting and had a deep religious experience that resulted in his becoming a passionate evangelical Christian.
Brown joined the Salvation Army staff and moved to Siloam Springs, Ark. to establish an outpost there, but left the organization after a couple of years to become a full time evangelist. One biographical excerpt has this to say about that time in his life:
“For the next few years, as his reputation grew, Brown kept up a hectic pace of preaching at revival meetings, running a publishing house, and reading history and literature late into the night in an attempt to remedy his lack of formal education.”
It was just after this point that Brown entered the Neosho scene.
In 1902, at the age of 22, he became the youngest college president in America when he accepted the top administrative post at Neosho’s Scarritt Collegiate Institute, a Methodist faith-based school. The institution was located on the block shaped by Jefferson, McCord, Brook and Wood streets. I might as well say now that the college’s buildings were torn down in 1916 to build a new Neosho High School, which later became the Intermediate School when the current high school was built. The building is now in private hands as Greystone Apartments.
But Brown was long gone by then. As it turned out, he was to be the last president of Scarritt Collegiate Institute. When he took over, the college already a shaky financial history. Founded in 1878 as Neosho Collegiate Institute, it had already closed its doors once, in 1887, before Dr. Nathan Scarritt, of Kansas City, helped bail it out the next year and the college was renamed in Scarritt’s honor.
Fifteen years later, Brown took the helm. He was probably full of youthful vigor and enthusiasm. His challenges, however, included a steadily decreasing enrollment coupled with a steadily increasing debt. In the end, there was only so much he could do. In less than two years, Scarritt Collegiate Institute closed, again, in 1903.
Page 2 of 2 - A business school, under the better-known name Scarritt College, tried to make a go of it for a few years, but that too shut down in 1907. The end of that story is that a year later Scarritt College merged to become Morrisville-Scarritt College in Morrisville, Mo., which later merged again to become Central Methodist College (now University) in Fayette, Mo.
Meanwhile, following the end of his short tenure as president of Scarritt Collegiate Institute, Brown continued as an evangelist, holding rallies in distant states and eventually operating out of Southern California, while keeping a farm near Siloam Springs.
By accounts, his experience at Scarritt left Brown disillusioned about higher education, specifically high tuition. In 1919, he founded Southwestern Collegiate Institute on his Siloam Springs farm for young people who would not normally be able to afford college. Tuition was free at first, but after that was found to be unfeasible, it was simply kept very low. The college offered religious and vocational courses.
Ultimately, Southwestern Collegiate Institute became John Brown College, and later University, in honor of its founder. There are about 2,000 undergraduate and post graduate students enrolled there today.
John E. Brown died from a blood clot at his San Diego, Calif. home on Feb. 12, 1957. He is buried in Siloam Springs, Ark.
An interesting local sidenote to this story is that it was Brown who campaigned for the local option vote that resulted in Benton County, Ark. being the dry county it is today. McDonald County and other neighboring counties are still grateful for the added revenue.
Here’s another sidenote: John E. Brown Jr. became the second president of John Brown University, and like his father was the youngest college president in America at that time, at age 26. John Brown Jr. died only last year. John E. Brown III, grandson of the founder, became the third president of John Brown University. He left that post in 1993 and is currently an Arkansas State Senator.
I wonder if he has ever visited Neosho to see where his grandfather once ran a college?
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Hope to see you all at the Neosho Fall Festival and History Alley, at the Newton County Museum, on Saturday, Oct. 6!
Wes Franklin serves on the board of directors of the Newton County Historical Society. He is also a staff writer for the Neosho Daily News. He can be reached at 658-8443.