Wood College began as a country school

Edited by Spencer Bailey

The history of Wood College began after the Civil War. The Northern Methodist churches formed an organization to give support to the weak and struggling churches scattered throughout the South, and to help them become centers of education. An old log church had been built in a pine thicket, four miles west of Cumberland. It was called Pine Chapel Methodist Church. About 1880, the log building was torn down and moved across the hollow to house a country public school. The church was rebuilt of pine lumber, box style, unceiled, with only wooden shutters to protect the window openings. Some of the local men who were largely responsible for the building of the new school were J.W. Willingham, J.E. Stewart, L.O. Crowder, Tom Thornton and John Faulkner. Tuition rates adopted for the school by the trustees were $1 per student per month. Later, provisions were made whereas those who paid tuition regularly for one or more students may send one free. The school was opened with the total of 16 students. It was named Woodland Seminary. Later, eight more students were added, and Samuel Flagg, who walked all the way from West Point to take his position, was the only teacher. During this period, it became known that the Southern Educational Society was linked with another society of the Methodist Church, called Freedman’s Aid. At this time, J.C. Eckles was presiding elder, not only for the pine chapel, but also missionary work among colored Methodist. They were also planning to build a large school building near Pine Chapel, aided by funds from the Southern Educational Society and Rust College. A storm of protest broke, which grew for 10 years and covered much of Webster County. J.W. Stewart of Clarkson carried Dr. Eckles out of Pine Chapel community one night for fear of mob violence. Dr. Eckles made it to Grenada by relay of horses, where he caught a train to Memphis. Once during the period of this opposition Ellie and Frannie Willingham went to school early to sweep out the classroom. Kerosene fumes met them as they opened the doors. Streaks of oil stretched down the hall toward the lower part, where a big hole had been burned through the floor the previous night. This problem was left unsolved, although the grand jury made lengthy examinations and investigations. In 1887, Mr. Flagg was succeeded by Mr. Hoover. He seemed to have had trouble with the board of trustees. The board meeting of this matter was: “Resolved, whereas, we are notified that professor J.D. Hoover says that he intends to bring suit against this board, for salary, which he claims is due him as teacher of our school. Therefore, we are of opinion that Professor Hoover failed entirely to render satisfactory service, and that under his administration the school failed entirely: Thus, himself defeating any means of securing his pay. We do not consider his claim a just one and must therefore, refuse to allow or pay it or any part of it.” The next year Mr. Hoover was succeeded by S.S. Steele. Mr. Steele and his family came from Whitewater, Wis. Mr. Steele and his two daughters, Clare and Nellie, did all the teaching. In 1890 J.R. Grett, from Nebraska, became the head of the school. The only help he had was his wife and 10 older students, who did practice teaching. The Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Church built a girls’ home on the campus in 1892. Girls could stay there and pay their way through school with products brought from her father’s farm. In 1893, finance failed the Gretts, and they returned home. Then T.B. Scott, a graduate of Mississippi A&M College, agreed to take the school. There was not enough money to hire another teacher, so Scott made it through one year with only student help. During the next year there was no money, no teachers, no hope of survival it seemed. Mr. Scott agreed to go on with the higher grades as best he could. In desperation, Jammie Willingham taught the lower grades. she was only 14 years old, but had finished the courses offered in high school. In 1895 Woodland Seminary was renamed Woodland Academy. It was during this year Mr. Scott left the school, and was replaced by Daniel Richard Jr. of Massachusetts. The first boy’s dormitory built for the school was erected in the fall of 1897, and named Dickson Hall in honor of a Mrs. Dickson up north, who had donated part of the funds for the building. It was a plain two-story building, for many years unpainted and unfinished on the inside. Mr. Richard left Woodland Academy in 1899 and was replaced by Mr. and Mrs. W.A. Davis of Fort Wayne, Ind. Also during this period a modern three-story dormitory for girls began. It was called Bennett Home because Mrs. Priscilla Lee Bennett of Pennsylvania gave generously to the project. In 1900 the name was changed again. This time it was known as Bennett Academy. After the Davises, in 1902 came Mr. and Mrs. J.M. Marey, Misses Ester and Ethel Stewart. They were good teachers and the school was lifted to its highest point of accomplishment. In 1912 the boys dormitory burned. It was also very difficult to get the supplies needed, thus they sought to relocate the school. Maben, Mathiston and Eupora all wanted the school. Dr. J.H. Stennis presented the claim of Mathiston so well that the invitation was accepted. The important supporters giving land and money were F.P Sinclair, Tom Thornton, T.W Starnes, J.R. Fondren and Dr. Stennis. When the school was relocated, Bennett Hall, the girls home, was torn down and moved. It was renamed Dickson Hall. The administration building was erected and named Bennett Hall. Wood Hall for boys was built and named in honor of Dr. and Mrs. J.C. Wood of Logan, Iowa, who gave money for its construction. The Woods became interested in the institution through their affiliation with the Methodist Church, and their desire to make opportunities available to the children of others, after they had lost three young children. School began on the new campus in 1914. At the beginning of World War I the president, Mr. Hugh Wyckoff, the men of the faculty and most of the boys were called into service. Miss Helen Tomm was advanced to presidency. Mrs. John Fondren of Mathiston was asked to take charge of the garden-farm and power house. They kept the school operating until 1924, and then Dr. Jasper Weber took over. The school showed great improvement under Dr. Weber’s leadership. It became an accredited junior college by the Mississippi College Association. In 1927, the name was changed to Bennett Junior College. Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Oct. 6, 1960, issue of The Webster Progress and was designated as “Chapter 1” in a history of Wood College edited by the writer. The college closed in 2003 and the campus buildings housed Wood Institute until it was discontinued in 2008. In September 2009, the Mississippi Heritage Trust named Wood College to its “10 Most Endangered Historic Places” list. The Golden Triangle Planning and Development District purchased the property in April 2011 from the Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. The former college campus has been serving as the temporary location of East Webster High School since last April’s tornado that struck the school’s Cumberland campus.