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Students of the 1800s endured many hardships

October 28, 2012

For Starkville Daily News

The front page of the Reflector, the Mississippi State College newspaper, Sept. 14, 1938 included an article titled “Students Fifty Years ago Endured Many Hardships.”  It stated that there were 400 students and four zinc bathtubs! Bathing the year round in cold water — Brrr. Picture, if you can, the students of today under similar conditions. Many colleges back then limited students to one bath per week — if they signed up in advance. What would you have done? Gone home? Yes.

There were no water heating facilities in the dormitory in "those days." If you wanted a warm bath you had to heat your own water in a container that scarcely held a gallon of water over a little grate fire in your own room.

President Ben F. Hilbun said, "The dormitory housed the finest young men, the biggest cockroaches, the hungriest mosquitoes, and the most vicious bedbugs on earth. As a place to live, it started out as the best and ended up as the worst. Like Old Man River, it didn’t 'say anything,' for which all of us who lived in it should be eternally grateful."

Can you imagine a college student of 2012 in a dormitory under similar conditions?

Here is a story out of the life of a student at Mississippi A and M (now Mississippi State University) about 125 years ago. Reveille at 5:45 a.m. Ten minutes to dress and prepare for the daily inspection. Visualize this if you can: an inspector comes in, student snaps to attention and stands that way during the daily formality.

Immediately following inspection was “Mess Hall.” Students “fell in” out in front of the dormitory, answered roll call, marched to mess hall, marched to tables, stood at attention while the blessing was repeated and then the “Mess Hall Mush” was served.

After breakfast, the student again formed ranks and marched back to the dormitory, where he was given a few minutes to collect his books, paper and pencil in preparation for the day’s class work. Once in the class, every student was called upon to recite or go to the board daily. When he was called upon to recite, he rose and stood “at attention” during the entire recitation. 

Can you picture a student of today in a school like that? Imagine a student here now, half asleep in his desk, having to rise, come to attention and recite every day.

Now, if a student finds that he doesn’t like a particular professor or subject, he changes to another section. If he finds that he doesn’t like that course or can’t pass it, he simply changes to another school. But back in the 1880s, there was only one school, agriculture, and every one of the 400 students took the identically same courses.

After class in the evenings, the students had an hour or so off before supper — that is if they didn’t have to “walk extras” to get off some of their demerits. After supper, they were allowed to visit in other rooms until 7:45 p.m. when “Call to Quarters” was blown. From that time on they were confined to their rooms. If they left for anything, demerits were given. Naturally, everybody studied, but not because they wanted to, because of the lack of something to do.

There was no running up town to the picture show every day or so, as picture shows and taxis were undreamed of in those days. Then, too, Starkville was just a small village with a few stores, a post office and a depot.

If a student went to town — which was very, very seldom — he was required to obtain written permission from the commandant. There was no paved road or walk either, only a muddy path. In winter, it was all a good horse could do to drag an empty buggy uptown, over what is now a wide paved street that “hums with automobile traffic and bicycles.”

As for recreation, one could rob a chicken roost or milk the cows by moonlight, and have a feast of hot chocolate and fried chicken in one of the rooms. But remember, it was a “shipping” offense if you were caught. There were no inter-collegiate sports such as football, basketball and boxing in those days, so the companies were organized into teams for the different sports. These games took place on the weekend and were big events with rivalry keen among the companies.

As for trips to Columbus or West Point, they just didn't exist. You were allowed to go home every Christmas if you could afford it. The railroad service was good in those days with one train a day. Mail also came in once daily. There was no post office or YMCA, only a hole-in-the-wall in one of the academic buildings which served as a post office. There was no need for a College Store, as smoking was not allowed, and candy was almost unknown. Yes, there was a barbershop located in the basement of the dormitory. It had one old chair and a barber who was a “flash” with a razor.

On Sundays at 3 p.m., the student body was lined up and roll called, then they marched to church. After church, they were allowed to do as they pleased until “Call to Quarters,” provided that they pleased the stern disciplinarians who were constantly on the alert for any infractions of the unlimited number of rules.

Such was the life of the student here at Mississippi State University about 125 years ago. How would you have liked to attend college in those days?

Yet, the students who attended college in those days were thought to be very lucky by the people at home as “only a few boys ever had the privilege of a college education or training.”

How lucky we are today, in comparison. We have electric lights, hot and cold water in every room, televisions, phones, computers, picture shows, automobiles, the ability to leave the campus any time, attend dances, football games and almost every conceivable thing that one could wish, but still some gripe about having to go to college. 

Today, students live in an age of convenience and luxury surrounded by beautiful landscapes. The many hardships of the past have vanished. Remembering the past helps us to appreciate the present. It was those former students and professors who experienced these hardships that helped to grow the former agricultural college, Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College into Mississippi State University.

It is in remembering the past that gives power to the present.

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