The Georgia General Assembly planted the first seed that grew into Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College on August 18, 1906 when it enacted Public Law 448. This bill established a state-run agricultural and mechanical school in each of Georgia’s 12 congressional districts.
Called A&M schools, they were constructed on properties donated by their host counties, administered by the Georgia State College of Agriculture at the University of Georgia (UGA), funded by Department of Agriculture fees, and operated by a local Board of Trustees.
These schools filled a void at the time due to the lack of accredited statewide high schools. The schools were designed by a single architect so that the main campus buildings were almost identical statewide.
Construction on most of them began in 1907, and some opened for classes during the fall term of 1908. They were actually college preparatory boarding schools and included students from 14-21 years of age. The schools offered two and four-year programs with a study of agriculture for boys and a study of home economics for girls.
Some of the A&M schools operated until 1933 when the newly formed Board of Regents closed them as one of its first official acts. Because high school agricultural education programs had become so prevalent around the state by that time and because the number of accredited high schools had increased tremendously, the Regents believed the A&M schools had outlived their usefulness. The final classes graduated from the schools in 1933. Over the next two years, the state deeded the campus properties back to the host counties with the stipulation that they be used for educational purposes.
The First District A&M School in Statesboro became the South Georgia Teachers College. The Second District A&M School in Tifton became South Georgia A&M College in 1924. The Third District A&M School in Americus became the State Agricultural and Normal College. The Fourth District A&M School in Carrollton was converted for local use. The Fifth District A&M School in Monroe became the Georgia Vocational & Trades School. The Sixth District A&M School in Barnesville became the Georgia Industrial College. The Seventh District A&M School in Powder Springs, the Eighth District A&M School in Madison, the Ninth District A&M School in Clarkesville, and the Tenth District A&M School in Granite Hill were all converted to local use. The Eleventh District A&M School in Douglas became South Georgia State College. The Twelfth District A&M School in Cochran became Middle Georgia College.
Communities interested in serving as the site for an A&M School had to undergo a bidding process. On November 23, 1906, delegations from Albany, Camilla, Pelham, Tifton, and Ashburn met in Albany to submit bids for the Second District A&M School. Thirty men made up Tift County's delegation to Albany. This small party included Henry Harding Tift, the founder of Tifton. The group went with $32,000, raised by individual subscriptions from the people of Tift County. The Tifton Gazette reported the meeting as follows:
"Soon after the opening of the afternoon session, at 3 o'clock, the bids were submitted, the counties being called in alphabetical order. Dougherty came first with an offer of $20,000, 200 acres of land, an artesian well and free lights and water for 10 years. Camilla offered to raise $51,000 in cash, donate 300 acres of land, buildings and timber estimated at $4,000 and free lights and water for five years.
"Pelham offered a choice of several fine tracts of land, free lights and water and a certified check for $19,000. The clerk that read Pelham's first offer erroneously read its cash contribution as $100,000. This brought both wide eyes and gasps from both the general congregation and Pelham's own delegation.
"Tift County's offer was 315 acres of land lying along the Georgia Southern and Florida right-of-way located a mile north of town, and $30,000 in cash. This offer was signed by 28 names of the Tift County delegation, citizens worth an aggregate of $10 million. Ashburn's offer was 250 acres of land, lights and water for five years and $45,000 in cash.
"When he rose to fill five minutes of the time allotted Tift County, Mr. Tift presented an amended bid of $55,000 in cash, free lights and water and telephone service for 10 years, a sewage system and 315 acres of land worth $50 per acre. Later, learning that the timber on the land was desired for forestry study, he contributed this also, it being valued at $4,500. The raise of $25,000 at a jump caused the audience to catch its breath.
"After the committee went into executive session, Pelham's bid was raised to $32,500 in cash, Camilla's bid to $58,000 in cash, and Ashburn's bid to $60,000 in cash.
“Mr. Tift gave out of his own pocket, having subscribed $6,500 before going to Albany, a total of $36,400 in cash, the land, $4,500 worth of timber, and a portion of the light and water offer. It was estimated in the committee room that Tifton's offer now netted $95,700. Mr. J.L. Phillips gave the phone service. Mr. Tift was willing, out of his own means, to again raise Tifton's bid, but the committee did not think it just for him to do so.
"After the financial question was settled, it was a tug of war between the personal influence of Mr. Tift and Mr. Hand (from Pelham), and in the end, when Tifton's progressiveness, excellent record and prohibition were thrown into the balance, they (the Tifton delegation) won the fight, the high moral integrity of Tift County and her citizenship being the deciding straw.
“In the committee room, Tifton led every ballot, and in the fifth balloting had eight votes, while Pelham reached seven votes, its high-water mark. Finally, in the eighth balloting, Tifton received eleven, one more than necessary.”
The Tifton Gazette proclaimed in its next edition, “The Hallelujah Day Has Come, Tifton Lands the A&M School.” At a commencement ceremony years later, Tift said “of all the investments I have ever made, this school has brought me the biggest dividends.” Ironically, Tift was born in Mystic, Conn., a town located only 15 miles from Guilford, Conn., the birthplace of Abraham Baldwin, namesake for Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. Tift Hall at ABAC is named in Tift’s honor.
Gresham Manufacturing Company from Griffin sent a letter to Georgia Governor J.M. Terrell on February 1, 1907 with a bid of $48,400 to construct “the academic building and two dormitories.” In the bid letter, J.W. Gresham said, “If your honorable board desires to beautify their buildings by using selected red front brick with stone sills and lentlas over all the windows, we will furnish same and build the three buildings for the sum of $51,927. Unit brick work for the sum of thirty cents per cubic foot.”
According to the November 21, 1907 Daily Bulletin of the Manufacturing Record, Gresham did receive the bid soon after the bid letter was received by Governor Terrell. The architect for each of the 12 A&M schools was Haralson Bleckley from Empire Building in Atlanta.
Construction of the facility on the 315 acres given by Captain Tift continued for the next year, while the board went about appointing a faculty for the school and determining a method of selecting students to attend the first session.
On February 20, 1908, the Second District A & M School opened for its first classes which were filled with 27 students. Only boys were allowed to board during the first term, but girls in the surrounding area attended classes. Opening day was declared a holiday by Tifton. Stores and the public school were closed. A special train ran from Tifton to the school, and some 1,200 people attended.
Built on the campus were two fine dormitories (later named Herring Hall and Lewis Hall) and an academic building (later named Tift Hall). During the construction of these buildings, the contractors built a long, narrow building to store tools. This building was used as a dining hall until 1910, when it was replaced with a large wooden dining hall. Second District A&M fielded a football team that played against teams from Tifton High School and other area schools.
Professor W.W. Driskell was chosen as the first principal of the Second District A&M School and served until June, 1909. He was succeeded by Professor W.G. Acree, who served for one year. Professor Samuel L. Lewis then served two years as principal and was succeeded by Professor Jack Hart, who served as principal until June, 1914.
In September, 1914, Lewis returned to the principal’s position until 1924. He then served as president when the area high school changed to college level work in 1924 under its new name of South Georgia Agricultural & Mechanical College. Lewis received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Georgia. He also took special courses in agriculture at Cornell University. In honor of his accomplishments, UGA awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Education degree. Lewis was the principal of Madison (GA) High School and later served as superintendent of schools there before moving to his position in Tifton. After he retired as the South Georgia A&M College president, he served as principal of Campbell High School. Lewis was the featured speaker at A&M Day at ABAC on February 19, 1958. Lewis Hall on the ABAC campus is named in his honor.
Among the first students at the Second District A&M School were many illustrious Georgians who milked cows, cooked, tended farms and worked in various ways to finance their education.
Those were the days when an education at the high school level in rural America provided the beginning of the realization of many dreams. Great numbers of A&M alumni succeeded in fields of medicine, public office, business and commerce, as well as in farming. One of those successful alumni was Dr. George D. Conger, who founded the Conger Life Insurance Company in Miami, Fla. He was one of ABAC’s largest benefactors, and Conger Hall on campus is named in his honor.
Members of the first graduating class from the Second District A&M School were Joel Davis and Maude Paulk of Tift County and Charles Hinson of Grady County on June 14, 1910.
With the improvement of high school education in the rural areas, the need for maintaining district high schools decreased. For years it had been felt that a senior state college for men was needed in the southern part of Georgia.
Through the influence of R.C. Ellis in the House and John Adams in the Senate, a bill creating the South Georgia A&M College was passed in 1924. The Second District A&M School was renamed the South Georgia A&M College and began the gradual transition from high school to college work. By the beginning of the 1928-29 fall term, all high school classes had been eliminated. The first college class graduated in June, 1929. After serving as principal of the Second District A&M School, Samuel L. Lewis continued his service to the institution as the first and only president of the South Georgia A&M College.
Ironically, just as the first South Georgia A&M College class graduated, state legislators were working on another name change. In an effort to grow and broaden the institution, the college’s name was changed to the Georgia State College for Men (GSCM) in the summer of 1929. At the time, there was not a senior college for men south of Macon. The new school’s expanded curriculum was intended to serve communities in the southern region of the state.
Dr. Frank G. Branch was the first and only president of the Georgia State College for Men, serving from 1929-1933. Enrollment climbed steadily during Branch’s tenure from 101 students with a graduating class of six to 345 students with 33 seniors in 1932. Prior to moving to Tifton, Branch served as president of South Georgia College in McRae for five years and Andrew College in Cuthbert for 11 years. Branch was also the superintendent at Rockwell Academy in Putnam County, the first recognized and accredited consolidated school in Georgia.
Under Branch’s leadership, GSCM was admitted to the Georgia Association of Colleges in 1932, paving the way for the college to join the new University System of Georgia in 1933. President Branch favored a broad spectrum of academic and extracurricular activities so students interested in literary pursuits attached themselves to The Rambler, the college yearbook, or the Ram’s Horn, the semi-monthly college newspaper. When GSCM became Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in 1933, Branch was named president of North Georgia College, where he served for one year. Branch Hall, a former dormitory on the ABAC campus, was named in his honor.
GSCM had two divisions: Liberal Arts and Sciences, leading to the A.B. and B.S. degrees and the Division of Agriculture, leading to a B.S. in Agriculture. Candidates for either degree could major in commerce or in education as well as in the liberal arts or sciences.
There were three fraternities and two sororities on the GSCM campus. The fraternities included Omega Epsilon Pi, Phi Kappa Rho, and Sigma Omega. The seeds of Sigma Omega were planted in the 1920s with the Sigma Club, a non-Greek honor society whose members were chosen with great care. The Sigma Club stressed leadership and academics. In the early 1930s, several members from the Sigma Club wanted something more than a strictly academic organization and decided it was time to form a social organization. These members formed Sigma Omega.
When GSCM became a two-year college called Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in 1933, all fraternities and sororities were disbanded. Some of the Sigma Omega members transferred to North Georgia College, and in 1933 they formed a local fraternity called Sigma Theta. Later, Sigma Theta decided to go national and in doing so became Sigma Phi Epsilon. Sororities at the Georgia State College for Men included Eta Tau Epsilon and Kappa Mu.
In sports, the Georgia State College for Men football team had its most successful season to date in the fall of 1930 with a 5-0-1 record, marred only by a 0-0 tie with the Clemson “B” Team. Coach Orion Mitchell’s Rams defeated Fort Benning 31-0, Middle Georgia 19-0, Southern 19-13, the Florida “B” team 13-6, and Norman 6-0. In the win over Fort Benning, the campus yearbook, The Rambler, stated, “The Rams could have probably run up a larger score, but Coach Mitchell put in some of his new men to see how they would look in action.”
The Rams continued their winning ways in the 1931 season. On Oct. 16, 1931, Georgia State College for Men defeated the University of Miami 13-12. An Associated Press story about the game ran in the October 17th edition of The Tifton Gazette. According to that account, Miami went in front on a touchdown run in the second quarter. Down 6-0, the Rams of GSCM took the lead when Mike Donehon intercepted a pass and ran 70 yards for a touchdown.
Still in the second quarter, the Rams expanded the lead when Sherman England blocked a punt on the Hurricanes' two-yard line and recovered it in the end zone for another touchdown. Miami had a 13-yard TD run in the third period but GSCM was able to hold on for the victory.
Besides the win over Miami, the 1931 Rams defeated Fort Benning (Artillery) 38-0, Alabama State Teachers 28-0, Fort Benning (Tank) 20-0, Oglethorpe “B” 21-0, and Florida “B” 20-0. GSCM lost to Howard 31-0, Parris Island Marines 25-12, and Stetson 28-0.
The 1932 edition of GSCM football ran roughshod over its opponents, rolling up a 7-1 record behind the antics of halfbacks Smitty Smithwick from Quitman, Gene Nix from Colquitt, Jimmy Cliett from Bainbridge, and Pee Wee Holt from Commerce. Nix was described by The Rambler as “the hardest running back on the squad who could use the stiff arm.” Smithwick was called “one of the fastest to ever wear a Rams’ uniform.” Jo Jo Caudill from Ashland, Ky., was a tackle and captain of the team. He was described as “big and powerful, a relentless tackler always tearing opposing lines to shreds.”
The Rams defeated Miami for the second year in a row in 1932 by a score of 19-6. They also thumped Fort Benning 40-0, Alabama Teachers 19-0, Stetson 33-6, Parris Island Marines 20-13, Statesboro Teachers 27-0, and Appalachian Teachers College 32-0. GSCM’s only loss was to the University of Florida freshmen by a 20-15 score. Coach Orion Mitchell's football players won for themselves the title of "Fighting Rams" as they accumulated a score of 205 points to opponents' 45 in 1932. The basketball team came out with a respectable 75 percent win average.
In 1933, state legislators changed the name of Georgia State College for Men to Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. It became a two-year school but football survived through the 1936 season.
Mitchell coached football, basketball, and baseball at GSCM and at ABAC from 1931-45. His 1937 and 1943 ABAC basketball teams were the Georgia junior college champions. Mitchell was an inaugural member of the ABAC Athletics Hall of Fame in 2008. Mitchell Hall, a former residence hall on the campus, was named in his honor.
The depression years brought financial troubles to many of the old "district" schools and, in 1933 Governor Eugene Talmadge granted the newly formed Board of Regents of the University System "power to consolidate, suspend, or discontinue institutions, and merge departments."
Dr. Phillip Weltner, Chancellor of the University System, said that in deciding what to do about the college at Tifton that several things were apparent: here was a community vitally interested in having a college, here was a section of the state with agricultural problems particular to its own geography, and here in the guise of the Coastal Plain Experiment Station was a ready-made laboratory for agricultural classes.
Consequently, Georgia State College for Men was changed to a two-year college stressing agriculture and home economics, and the name was changed to Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College to pay honor to Abraham Baldwin, the first president of the University of Georgia and one of two Georgia signers of the U.S. Constitution.
Born in 1754 as the son of a Connecticut blacksmith, Abraham Baldwin enrolled at Yale University at the age of 14 and completed his degree four years later. He then studied theology at Yale and became a minister. He served on George Washington’s staff as a chaplain during the Revolutionary War before beginning a study of law. After being admitted to the bar, he moved to Georgia in 1783 to set up a law practice near Augusta.
One year later, Baldwin was elected to the Georgia House of Assembly and in 1787 he represented Georgia as a member of the Constitutional Convention where he was one of the signers of the United States Constitution. In fact, he and William Few are the only Georgians who signed the Constitution. Baldwin served as the first chief executive of the University of Georgia from 1785 until 1801. He later served Georgia as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. On July 1, 1933, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia closed the Georgia State College for Men and opened the institution as Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, naming the college in Baldwin’s honor.
The change in college status was somewhat of a shock to the people of Tifton who were justly proud of the four-year college. However, as they had always done, as soon as the objectives of the college became known, the citizens rallied to its support and have been to a large measure responsible for its success.
Helen Sasser from Sylvester was the first female student to enroll at ABAC in 1933. On the first day of classes after the name change to Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, faculty member George P. Donaldson, later to become president of ABAC in 1947, came up with the idea of each student receiving a number. He then drew two numbers to determine who would be the first female and the first male student to register at ABAC. Sasser had the number 13, and she was the first female to register. Marvin Loyd was the first male to register.
“There were about 100 of us lined up in front of the administration building,” Loyd said. “We drew numbers. I was the first boy, and Helen was the first girl. It was just luck of the draw.”
Sasser’s younger brother, Charles, had attended the school when it was Georgia State College for Men. He helped prepare the college for the switch to two-year status. Since he had graduated, ABAC offered to pay the tuition for someone he knew to attend the college as his payment. “My brother came home and wanted to know if I wanted to go,” Sasser said. “I told him no, but later decided to go.”
Sasser said there were only 18 female students enrolled at ABAC at the time, and they cooked all the meals. “Two of us did it for a week at a time for ten cents an hour,” Sasser said. She said the male students kept up the grounds and chopped and carried the wood for the wood stove where the females cooked. The females also cleaned the dormitories and the classrooms.
“Our first night there we talked about the colors and the mascot,” Sasser said. “We chose the stallion as the mascot. The colors we picked were green and yellow. The yellow was to be the shade of the jonquil flower that was on the campus.”
Sasser later became the first female president of the ABAC Alumni Association. During her time as president, she initiated the Master Homemaker Award as a companion to the Master Farmer Award. Her sister, Sara, was the first recipient of the award in 1959. Helen Sasser won the award in 1987 and beginning in 1999, the award was named in her honor.
The first president of ABAC was Dr. J.G. Woodroof, who served as president from 1933-34. The enrollment at the time was 99. Woodroof said “the principal objective will be to educate the boys and girls back to the farm.” Answering a question as to whether the new college would be co-ed, Woodroof said “farm life without women would offer no attraction, and therefore ABAC will enroll both boys and girls.”
At the age of 32, Woodroof was the youngest state college president in Georgia when he was selected for the position on May 10, 1933. A native of Mountville, Ga., in Meriwether County, he turned 33 on May 23, 1933. He received his doctorate degree from Michigan State University. Woodroof moved to Tifton from his research duties at the Griffin Experiment Station. President Woodroof joined the Tifton Kiwanis Club in 1933 as its youngest member.
After only one year, Woodroof announced on April 14, 1934 that he was stepping down to return to scientific research. He went on to have a brilliant research career, particularly in the area of blueberries. The 200-acre J.G. Woodroof Farm at ABAC is named in his honor, and the top academic student during the annual Honors Day ceremony receives an award in his memory.
Woodroof’s wife, the former Naomi Chapman, was also quite renowned. As a youngster, she crossed the Snake River daily by rowboat to attend school. She was the first female student and the first female graduate of the University of Idaho College of Agriculture and one of the first two females in the United States to hold a degree in Agriculture. She was also the first woman scientist at the Georgia Experiment Station, the first state-employed plant pathologist at the Coastal Plain Experiment Station, and the first female named to the Georgia Agricultural Hall of Fame. She married Dr. Woodroof in 1926.
Dr. George H. King was named the ABAC president after the resignation of Woodroof. King served as president from 1934 until 1947. He was serving as a Professor of Farm Management and Dean of Instruction at the college when he was selected as the second president in the history of ABAC. King received undergraduate and graduate degrees from UGA and did graduate work at Cornell. Student enrollment increased from 188 to 468 students during his tenure.
Football survived the name change from the Georgia State College for Men to Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. The 1935 Golden Stallions’ football team went 4-4, winning over Bowdon 20-0, University of Tampa freshmen 26-13, Norman 13-0, and Homerville CCC 40-13. ABAC lost to South Georgia Teachers 13-0, Georgia Military 14-12, South Georgia State 38-6, and Gordon 7-0.
Football might have continued at ABAC after 1936 but the uniforms and equipment were destroyed when the gymnasium burned down after the season. ABAC never had football again.
One ABAC athlete went on to become a World War II hero. Henry Will Jones, a Marine Captain from Lakeland, received the Silver Star posthumously for his bravery against the Japanese forces at Peleliu in the Palau Islands in the south Pacific in World War II.
At ABAC, he played the guard position for the basketball team on Coach Orion Mitchell’s 1937 state junior college champions. He also played on the 1937 ABAC baseball team and was a member of the 1936 football team. He received the prestigious “B” for football and basketball. Captain Jones was selected posthumously to the ABAC Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013.
In 1937, Coach Orion Mitchell led the ABAC basketball team to a 25-24 victory over Gordon for the state championship. Under Mitchell’s direction, ABAC also won the state basketball title in 1943.
In 1939, Doris McGill from Tifton graduated from Tifton High School. She then became perhaps the only person in history to turn down a scholarship to The Juilliard School to attend ABAC and major in home economics. She was an ABAC cheerleader and met her future husband, Garrett J. Jones, on the ABAC campus. They were married for 50 years before he passed away in 1995. Doris McGill Jones passed away at the age of 92 on March 20, 2015.
George Thornewell Smith from Hopeful, Ga., began attending ABAC in 1939 after trying Middle Georgia College for one quarter. “Momma and I looked at all the college books in the world, and I wound up at Middle Georgia, which turned out to be a mistake,” Smith said in a 2007 interview. “It’s a very good school, but it’s a rich man’s school. At Christmas, I switched to Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. It’s the best thing I ever did. I just loved ABAC. If it hadn't been for ABAC, I never would have made it. I only had two pair of pants my whole two years."
Smith later became a legend in Georgia politics as the only person ever to win contested elections to all three branches of state government. He was Speaker of the House, Lieutenant Governor, and the Presiding Justice on the Georgia Supreme Court. His political career started at ABAC. “My roommates decided they would run me for student body president,” Smith said. “Well, I didn’t know anything about being president of the student body. They probably didn’t know what they were doing either. So we had to lay plans. There were 440 students, and I set a goal to learn everyone’s name, and I learned every one of them. I won by 11 votes, and that’s all that did it.”
ABAC dedicated the George T. Smith Parlor in Tift Hall in the distinguished statesman’s honor on March 1, 2013. He was the first recipient of the Baldwin Alumni Association Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1969 and became the only recipient of the ABAC Distinguished Service Award in 2007. During the 100th birthday celebration for ABAC in 2008, Smith addressed both the Georgia State Senate and the Georgia House of Representatives in session. He passed away on August 23, 2010 at the age of 93.