Dixie State history day; the story of a ‘doggedly loyal’ community fighting to keep its school

Composite image. Health and Human Performance Building on Dixie State University campus, St. George, Utah, Nov. 21, 2019; with undated inset photo of the old Academy building during its stint as Dixie College. | Campus photo by Reuben Wadsworth; Academy photo courtesy of Washington County Historical Society, St. George News

FEATURE – The prominence of two of Dixie State University’s newest buildings on the St. George skyline are a fitting testament to its past history and a tribute to a community that would do anything to keep its school. It’s a legacy to be proud of.

What is now a burgeoning four-year university that recently started granting master’s degrees was once a school that never really got off the ground more than a century ago. And when it finally did get off the ground, there were a few times it and the community had to fight for its very existence. 

Second president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Brigham Young once said that the desert would “blossom as a rose” and that is just what Dixie State has done since its humble beginnings.

The False Start

Most assume Dixie College got its start as the St. George Stake Academy in 1911 in the Academy building at the northwest corner of the intersection of Main St. and 100 South which now houses the St. George Children’s Museum. There was actually a false start 23 years before that, however.

The basement of the St. George Tabernacle was the home of the first St. George Stake Academy, which existed from 1888-1893, St. George, Utah, July 11, 2019 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

The first attempt to establish such a school in St. George was in 1888. It was a time when many other stake academies that would eventually become universities sprung up, such as the Weber Stake Academy (Weber State University) and the Sanpete Stake Academy (Snow College). 

The basement of the tabernacle was the original home to the first iteration of the St. George Stake Academy. Ten percent of the curriculum was religious and the coursework was heavy on humanities and light on science, Doug Alder, former Dixie State College president and history professor, wrote in his book “A Century of Dixie State College of Utah.”

Apparently, some members of the first student body protested studying theology and some smoked even as they attended the school. Another thing students and faculty complained about was the school’s location because the tabernacle was cold and damp since the stove used to heat it didn’t draw well. This caused some illness. 

This academy closed in 1893 because Utah, on the verge of statehood, would pour enough funding into its public education and many felt no need for two school systems, Alder explained. The closure was also in response to an economic depression known as the Panic of 1893. Some residents were unhappy about the closure because they wanted parochial schools in the area that included religion in the curriculum. 

This historic photo shows the exterior of the old Academy building during its stint as Dixie College, St. George, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Washington County Historical Society, St. George News

The Second Successful Try

One of the main reasons the second St. George Stake Academy got its start was overcrowding in the ward schools. For instance, the average class size at the Woodward School at the time was over 50. Another reason for the inception of the school was residents’ concern about the outmigration of students going to college. They felt that if Beaver had an academy (called Murdock Academy) and Cedar City had the Branch Normal School (soon to be Branch Agricultural College) then St. George did not want to be behind the times and at a disadvantage compared to its two neighbors to the north. St. George residents particularly looked forward to adding college courses as by 1907, 10th grade was the highest level of schooling available to Washington County residents.

Stake President Edward H. Snow was high on the idea and in 1909 circulated a letter to his stake members  from Bunkerville, Nevada to Springdale  making his case for initiating the academy. He called a stake conference a little later to discuss the proposal for the academy, which the stake members supported unanimously. Another location was discussed but community leaders decided it would be best to build the school in the city center. Ultimately, they utilized the same architect who drew up the plans for Woodward School and located the Academy on the town square diagonally opposite its predecessor. The Church stated from the beginning that it could only pay for one-third of the building and that the rest would have to be raised from the local community.

Construction on the academy building began in 1909 and followed the pattern of outside capital matched by local donations, especially in labor, Alder noted. As was also the method of construction for major buildings such as the St. George Temple, locally-sourced materials were a staple. The foundation was fashioned from volcanic rock from nearby hills and the pink sandstone of the exterior was quarried near Washington City. As furnishings for the building were not included in the construction budget, the local populace also had to raise the money for those.

This history photo shows the Dixie Academy band during the school’s early years, St. George, Utah, 1913-1914 | Photo courtesy of Washington County Historical Society, St. George News

On Sept. 14, 1911, the stake held a formal dedication ceremony attended by Latter-day Saints Church President Joseph F. Smith, who offered the dedicatory prayer, and one of his counselors, Anthony Lund. The school opened with seven faculty members and tuition that first year was $15, payable in two installments with an extra charge for music lessons, Alder wrote. Apparently, it was difficult to recruit students who were already earning a full-time income.

Even after the building’s dedication, there was still work to be done and no funds to do it. The Academy regularly turned to townspeople for funds to keep the school going. Community members also donated much of the equipment for the school, from items needed for the physics lab to the woodworking shop.

By the second year, the faculty doubled and the curriculum greatly expanded to allow for four years of high school and prep courses for adults who were not 8th grade certified. By 1916, “normal” curriculum was added, which meant courses for teacher preparation which led to a name change, Dixie Normal College. Woodward School became the practice location for the teachers in training. The college building housed the St. George City library until 1916, when a Carnegie Library was built.

In the early 1920s, a student honor code was established that prohibited unsavory behavior such as using tobacco, alcohol, swearing and causing disturbances. Punishment for violating this code was a fine from 25 to 50 cents or, worse, expulsion. 

The “D” so prominent on St. George’s skyline came about as a way to calm rivalries between classes. For instance, the class of 1913 and 1914 went back and forth painting a “3” and a “4” to represent their respective years of graduation on the Sugarloaf Mountain. The capital letters “DIXIE” took the place of those numbers. Instead of vandalizing a number, classes came together to whitewash the “D” on a day now affectionately known as “D-Day” since the letter’s installment in 1915.

Those years were the start of many traditions on campus with students becoming involved in student government as well as a band, choir, clubs, dances, field trips, orchestra and theater — the start of a robust social life for students.

Fighting for its existence

Several times throughout its history, the college and community had to fight to keep the school open. The first of such times began with the 1926 decision of the Latter-day Saints church to close most of its academies because public high schools were coming into existence. The church chose instead to maintain seminaries next to those high schools rather than operate their own schools. In 1933, Dixie was slated to be closed.

It was a traumatic crisis for the Southern Utah community,” Alder wrote in a vignette about the school’s history on the Dixie State University history page. “Delicate negotiations with the state legislature made it possible to transfer the college to the state in 1935, but the local citizens had to pay the costs of keeping the college alive from 1933 to 1935. They did that through donations and labor, continuing the tradition of supporting the college.”

Thankfully for the local populace, the State Board of Education took over financial arrangements for the college and high school in 1935. At the time, there were approximately 200 college students and about the same number of high school students. The board wanted the high school and college split, advocating Washington County to take control of the high school. 

 The community opposed this directive, however, feeling the schools still needed to be under the same roof to ensure there would be an adequate student body for the many social and academic programs. Additionally, they knew the county did not have the means to build a new high school.

Athletics were important to the school even in the early days. At that time, both the high school and college teams were known as the “Flyers” with blue and white as the school colors. They traveled to play the Branch Agricultural College in Cedar City, as well as Ricks, Snow, and Weber, among others. In 1952, the college mascot became the Rebels while the high school retained the “Flyer.”

In the 1950s, the push began anew to separate the high school and college, but the high school still didn’t have a building. During that time period, newly elected Utah governor J. Bracken Lee began an initiative to close state-run colleges to slash state budgets. As part of the Latter-day Saints Church’s agreement to relinquish its support of its academies, it said it would take over again if the state ever decided to stop its support. Newly-elected state senator Orval Hafen was a proponent of this idea and rallied the community to support such a move, but thankfully there was no need for it because a referendum on the Utah ballot reversed the governor’s proposed directive. The results of the referendum overwhelmingly supported continued state sponsorship of those colleges. 

In his volume about the college’s history, Alder noted that each time closure of the school came on the state docket, state leaders “were outmaneuvered because the local citizens were doggedly loyal to the college and willing to donate to keep it alive.” 

An example of that loyal support for the school came in the mid 1950s when its status was in limbo the construction of the Dixiana Dormitory for female students (now the College Inn), which was the result entirely of local fundraising and volunteer labor. The story goes that Governor Lee toured the dormitory in 1956 soon after its completion. 

“After inspecting the facility, he reportedly said, ‘Well, if the townspeople really want this campus that much, they probably deserve it,’” Alder noted in his book.

The old administration building is one of the older edifices that stands among the new on the campus of Dixie State University, St. George, Utah, Nov. 21, 2019 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

The New Campus

With its future secured, it was clear that the small academy building would not be adequate for the growing student body of the school so attention turned to acquiring a new campus. Using Dixie Education Association funds, 32 acres among six city blocks were acquired on the east end of town near the cemetery for a new campus. One landowner said he knew the land would be worth much more in the future, but he was willing to sacrifice that profit so construction of the new campus would not be held up, Alder noted.

This new land was signed over to the state to secure funding for the new buildings on campus, the first being a new gymnasium, finished in 1957. The fine arts center, science and home economics buildings, a heating plant and a new dormitory followed soon after the gym’s completion. Besides buildings, the move to the new campus necessitated the split of the faculty between the high school, which at that point remained in the downtown location (it moved to its current location during the 1966-67 school year). Some faculty assigned to the high school had hurt feelings because they wanted to remain with the college, Alder noted.

The new campus officially opened in the fall of 1963, but even then there was still work to do and compromises made while more development took shape. For instance, the library books were housed in the basement of the fine arts center until a new library was built. Academic programs that didn’t have their own buildings at the time were packed into two classroom buildings just east of the fine arts center. There were no parking lots (people just parked in dirt) and no sidewalks between buildings. Dirt and dust was everywhere.

The old fine arts building on Dixie State’s campus features a large mural dedicated to the memory of pioneer forbears, St. George, Utah, Nov. 21, 2019 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Due to this “dirty” situation, “the tale is told that girls, even faculty women, often came in tennis shoes and then changed to proper shoes once they got in the buildings,” so they could avoid getting dirt on those “proper shoes,” Alder noted. Students responded with enthusiasm with the move to the new campus, continuing all of the traditions of the old.

One of the major players in making the new campus a reality was Dixie’s president in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Arthur F. Bruhn. Controversial because of his appointment to the presidency with no previous administration experience and only a master’s degree, he caught the vision of what Dixie could be and did his best to make it happen. He died of leukemia soon after the new campus opened. Of his dedication to the school, Alder wrote:

“Bruhn was an example of a Dixie leader who stayed at the task, even when it was not to his professional advantage. Though he was born in Parowan, he became a full-fledged Dixie-ite. He has his critics, but his overall his legacy is legendary.”

In the book “A History of Washington County: From Isolation to Destination” which he co-wrote with Karl Brooks, Alder summed up well the community’s feeling of the college:

“Clearly the college came about through community effort, was saved from extinction by the same kind of effort, and was propelled toward expansion by citizen funding and direction. No wonder people in the county feel strongly that they own the college. It is not the preserve of professional educators; it is the possession of the citizens of Dixie.”

The Dixie Name

The largest sign identifying Dixie State University stands at the southeast corner of of 700 East and 100 South, St. George, Utah, Nov. 21, 2019 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

For all but two years, the school has had the moniker of “Dixie,” a name used to identify the area that originated from the first settlers who came to the warmer climate to grow cotton. Some of those settlers did, in fact, come from the original “Dixie,” the Deep South. In the early 20th century, locals wanted this name to be linked to their high school, and so it was. The following are the names by which what is now Dixie State University has been known over the years: 

1911-1913 St. George Stake Academy

1913-1916 Dixie Academy

1916-1923 Dixie Normal College

1923-1970 Dixie Junior College

1970-2000 Dixie College

2000-2013 Dixie State College of Utah

2013-present Dixie State University 

Until 2000, Dixie was a two-year school. But that year, after a long effort by a local citizen committee, the Utah State Legislature authorized Dixie to become a four-year state college, thus adopting the name Dixie State College of Utah. With this change, the school began to offer four-year Bachelor’s degrees as well as two-year associate degrees. Much of this growth came about because of the sustained growth of the county, which was at that time approximately ten times larger than when the school moved to its new campus.

When the Utah State Legislature voted to expand the school into a university, it retained its name but with some opposition due to its association with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Suggested names included “St. George University” and even “Red Rock University,” but a public opinion study completed by a St. George advertising firm found that an overwhelming majority of the local populace, 83 percent, supported keeping the name. To them, the name is associated with the area’s hardy pioneer heritage, not oppression as those voicing their opinion against the moniker stated.

The “Rebel” mascot also fell out of favor for its association with the Confederacy and was replaced by “Red Storm” in 2009, a mascot which was short lived as the athletic teams became the Trailblazers in 2016.

The Health and Human Performance Building is the most recent building to open on Dixie State University campus, St. George, Utah, Nov. 21, 2019 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

In 2013, it became Dixie State University and has continued its expansion since, adding striking new buildings such as the Jeffrey R. Holland Commons Building (named after Latter-day Saints apostle and Dixie alumnus) and the more recent Health and Human Performance Center — the two edifices so prominent on St. George’s skyline. 

The institution has come a long way since its false start in 1888 and its 135 total student body in the St. George Stake Academy building its first academic year of 1911. Today, its enrollment is nearly 10,000 on a 117 acre campus with over 30 buildings. 

It is a true testament to the passion, determination and stick-to-it-ive-ness of a local community who to this day still feel it ‘owns’ the school.

Editor’s note: The author is an adjunct history instructor at Dixie State University.

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About the series “Days”

“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.

“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.

To keep up on Wadsworth’s adventures, “like” his author Facebook page or follow his Instagram account.

Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.

See all of the features in the “Days” series.

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