SFA Story: The History of Stephen F. Austin State University

Early Years of SFA

Nacogdoches in 1906 - The Views of a Newcomer

Karle Wilson Baker
Karle Wilson Baker

"Sometimes a stranger, coming into a new place, is more sensitive to the atmosphere of that place than are the residents themselves. They are accustomed to it; to a stranger it is new and delightful."

A newcomer to Nacogdoches, Karle Wilson, wrote one of the most persuasive letters for bringing a new college to the town. Miss Wilson had moved to Nacogdoches in 1901 to join her parents , the W. T. Wilson's; she returned briefly to her hometown of Little Rock to teach in 1903. Karle Wilson fell in love with Nacogdoches, its natural beauty, its history, and with one of its prominent citizens, Thomas Ellis Baker. (The Bakers married in 1907.) In 1905-06, Nacogdoches was attempting to secure the transfer of the Baptist College from Rusk, Texas, to Nacogdoches. Miss Wilson had studied at the University of Chicago and knew the value of a good university to a community. The following letter, addressed to the Editor of the Sentinel, is evidence both of Karle Wilson Baker's fine writing style and her commitment to having a college in the community. Years later, she taught at SFASTC, bringing added prestige to the college as Texas' most famous poet.

Being True to the Ghosts

The Spirit and Atmosphere of a Town

"Nacogdoches has a soul, a spirit, an atmosphere. She is no raw product of today or yesterday. There are ghosts on her streets."

The Letter

Editor Sentinel:

Perhaps enough has been said, by those competent to speak, about the material advantages Nacogdoches would derive from the location here of the projected college; enough, it would seem, to move her citizens to action if they were to move by such a consideration. The fact seems to be that Nacogdoches is confident enough of her future prosperity. She is not uneasy lest by the neglect of one opportunity more or less, she should forfeit it. But there is a word to be said on quite another phase of the subject; and surely, now that the opportunity seems once more in danger of slipping away, the time has come for somebody to say it.

Sometimes a stranger, coming into a new place, is more sensitive to the atmosphere of that place than are the residents themselves. They are accustomed to it; to a stranger it is new and delightful. Genuine lovers of travel roam over the world not so much to see buildings and monuments, as to detect and enjoy this spirit, this personality or soul, of the places they visit. Now, Nacogdoches has a soul, a spirit, an atmosphere. She is no raw product of today or yesterday. There are ghosts on her streets. Perhaps you have never seen them; but they are there. And what a wonderfully picturesque, varied pageant they make! Gentle Franciscan fathers and curious, credulous redmen; lordly Mexican alcaldes and courtly French adventurers; the hardy, high-hearted followers of Nolan and the young, ill-fated Magee; the stubborn, spirited, courageous American Empressarios; and finally that group of ardent strangers who swarmed through the gateway settlement to help Texas win her in dependence-men scholarly and grave like Rusk, picturesque like Crockett, massive like Houston, or simply young and winning and gallant like Travis, who at twenty-seven, died at his cannon in the court of the Alamo. Have you ever stood at the junction of LaNana and Banita on a spring afternoon, and turned the clock of your mind backward for two hundred years, and seemed to see the holy fathers in their coarse woolen gowns, barefooted, with the knotted rope about their waists, preserving their vow of silence as they built up the preliminary shelter of twigs and grasses while the curious Indians crowded about, watching their strange labor and their gentle ways? What were they doing? They were building the Mission of Our Lady of Nacogdoches for the future. They were a mere handful of white men in a great wilderness, with hun dreds of miles between them and they were-our pageant of ghosts? We are accustomed to thinking of them as rough frontiersmen perhaps. But the Franciscan friars were scholars, trained in the Spanish colleges at Zacetecas. Young Nolan, whose followers languished so long in the Old Stone Fort, finally to be marched out upon the square and driven off to slavery in Mexico, was an astronomer and geographer, who, it is said, made the first map of Texas. Rusk, our own particular possession, was one of the most persuasive orators of his time and country, trained in the colleges of one of the older Southern States. Even Houston, who was so close to primitive nature, so rugged and massive, that President Jackson's praise for him was that he was a "man not made by the tailor," knew all of Pope's Iliad by heart (a matter of some few thousand lines) and used to spout it by the hour, seated upon a barrel in the Old Stone Fort. We are sorry to have to chronicle the barrel, but the fact remains. In his will, a document of singular impressiveness and dignity, he leaves explicit directions regarding the education of his children. Washington Square remains and will remain as a monument to what our predecessors thought of education. Why, if the projected college goes elsewhere, through the mere indifference and carelessness of Nacogdoches, there will be a mass-meeting of the ghosts. I think it will be an indignation meeting. And if the college goes to Lufkin -- well, the present prophet will not undertake to say what dreadful form their vengeance may take.

One word more. Nobody need to be told what a college can do for the spirit and atmosphere of a town. The spirit of Nacogdoches today is a gift from the men of the past; the spirit of the future will be the gift of the men of today. There is one form of immortality which nobody disputes; the immortality of influence and good works. And there is one form of ambition to which no man is dead; an ambition for his children. As far back as Cicero's time men were moved by his appeal, "We shall plant trees for other centuries." I heard it said the other day that it is es pecially hard to move an old town to action. But if any town could be moved by the appeal of the future, I would think it would be an old town-a town which owes its superiority, its dignity and traditions, to the fact that long ago somebody planted trees, and built churches, and gave land for schools; a town with a stirring past to live up to, and the presence of dead heroes in its streets. That is the town which should keep the spirit of its forefathers alive; which should cherish its ghosts, and "plant trees for other centuries."

- Karle Wilson