By Wesley Harris
The first words in Ruston High’s alma mater, “firmly founded,” offer an apt description of the bedrock on which local educational institutions were established. When Ruston was created in 1884 on the new east-west railroad, towns bypassed by the trains lost some of their most progressive leaders to the up-and-coming settlement. Seeking opportunities offered by the rail line, the new arrivals brought with them a commitment to education that endures in Ruston and Lincoln Parish today.
The town’s namesake, Robert Edwin Russ, shrewdly negotiated the sale of property to the railroad in exchange for the establishment of a depot and a new town. Russ donated land for churches, schools, and other public facilities. Ruston’s first school was near the current farmer’s market location beside the railroad. Passing trains likely drew young eyes from their lessons.
On the current City Hall site, a small college named Ruston Male and Female Academy was launched, offering instruction from grade school through collegiate studies. After a couple of years, the school became known as Ruston College.
From 1891 to 1905, the Louisiana Chautauqua played an important role in Ruston’s cultural and educational life, making the town the intellectual center for the region. In choosing Ruston for their annual summer educational retreat, Chautauqua leaders noted the “refined culture of the people, their public spirit, their hospitality, their intense interest in all forms of thought and learning…”
A shady sanctuary known for its mineral springs a mile and a half north of town hosted the annual event. A massive two-story hotel along with cottages housed participants and an open-air auditorium permitted seating for up to 2,000. Typical features ranged from lectures by national personalities in the fields of religion, literature, and politics to community singing and theatrical productions. Lecture subjects included poetry, art, and languages. William Jennings Bryan, three-time Presidential candidate, became one of the most popular of all Louisiana Chautauqua speakers. Toma Lodge Estates and The Bridge now occupy the old Chautauqua site.
Ruston’s support for the Chautauqua stirred interest in obtaining a state college for the town. In 1894, the Chautauqua reached the height of its popularity and the recognition it brought to Ruston aided in bringing the Louisiana Industrial Institute, now called Louisiana Tech, into existence.
Tech continues to grow in stature and prestige from the one student graduated in its first class in 1897 to nearly 13,000 students enrolled today. National accolades for affordability and academic excellence roll in routinely for Tech.
In 1900, Booker T. Washington of the renowned Tuskegee Institute sent Charles P. Adams to organize a school for African Americans just west of Ruston. Adams was more than a leader and teacher—he had to cut down the trees to clear a lot for the school’s early buildings. He would serve for 36 years as president of one of the nation’s most familiar historically black colleges, now known as Grambling State University.
Local schools have received state and national recognition and provide a range of unique educational opportunities. The public school system consistently rates among the best in Louisiana.
Ruston’s longstanding dedication to educational excellence began with visionary pioneers and continues today through the efforts of educators and leaders who follow those early examples.
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