AUGUSTA, Ga (WJBF)- Since the merger in 2013, Augusta University is one of the largest universities in Georgia and it continues to grow. The school’s official founding date is 1828 making it nearly 200 years old.
But as Kim Vickers found out in this month’s Hometown History, the Summerville Campus has roots all the way back to 1785, with other schools and organizations.
But, the AU Summerville campus as we know it today began with the US military.
“The original arsenal for the United State, which had been recommended by George Washington in his tour in 1791, was built over on the river,” said Dr. LeeAnn Caldwell.
Dr. Caldwell is a former history professor at Augusta University and is now the university’s historian. She told NewsChannel 6 that the Augusta Arsenal was part of Augusta for more than 130 years.
It was built on the Savannah River in 1819, but ten years later was moved to the Summerville neighborhood.
“But they realized that being on the river, especially in the summer season, was not particularly healthy. They didn’t understand mosquitoes causing disease,” explained Dr. Caldwell. “But they knew if you got up on the hill where there were more breezes and fewer mosquitoes, people seemed to be healthier.”
The U.S. government bought 72 acres of land known as Belle Vue and moved the arsenal there, brick by brick.
“Freeman Walker and his family sold this land to the United States government for the arsenal. They kept an acre for the family cemetery and they moved the Walker house to Belle Vue. And this became a working arsenal,” Dr. Caldwell said.
Stacey Thompson is the director of the Guard House Museum. She said many of the buildings built for the arsenal are still standing and still in use by AU.
“But as you walk through, you go to the Quad, and you can see all these original buildings where the enlisted men would have had their barracks. there was the headquarters and of course Benet Hall, that we know now was the commandant’s home.”
The guard house which now houses the museum, was built later.
“This building was built right after the civil war during reconstruction in 1866. The Augusta Arsenal really needed some heightened security, of course, after this time period. And so we found some interesting things here. Lots of liquor bottles underneath the floors,” laughed Thompson.
There is a common misconception about one of the buildings on campus.
“Belle Vue Hall is another building that some think is older than the arsenal, but it is not. But that was built by the arsenal for the Gault Family originally,” explained Thomas.
The arsenal exchanged hands at the beginning of the civil war.
“In January of 1861 the United States troops that were here surrendered the arsenal. And this was for the four years of the Civil War a Confederate arsenal. And we do have a Confederate building, one of the few that we do know that exists, that was built by the Confederates, in the Quadrangle. And it’s still there,” said Dr. Caldwell.
One very famous, or in the South infamous, Civil War general was stationed at the Augusta Arsenal for a time before the war- General William T. Sherman.
Myth claims he skipped Augusta on his trek burning cities throughout Georgia because a woman he loved lived here.
The Arsenal remained active through many wars in U.S. history including World War II and housed German prisoners of war.
“In fact, people in Summerville reported that they would sometimes come and do work for them in their garden. There were German and Italian prisoners of war. Most of the Italians were out at Camp Gordon. Some of the Germans were here,” Dr. Caldwell said.
Many families lived on the property while it was an arsenal.
Octavia Walton Le Vert, daughter of George Walton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, was born at Walker House before the arsenal was built there. She was an American socialite and writer.
“Someone even mentioned to me, oh, she’s like the Kardashian of her time. But she traveled all over, published a book about her travels in Europe and actually retired here,” said Thompson.
Another famous name who lived at the Arsenal when he was a child was poet Stephen Vincent Benet.
“When his father was stationed here they lived in what we now know as Benet Hall. Because Commandant Benet had a long military history, right?” Thompson said. “And so, Stephen was the youngest. He went to the Academy of Richmond County and he would write his first poetry under the Arsenal Oak. And we actually have his typewriter in our special collection which is a lot of fun.”
Benet went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his poem “John Brown’s Body.”
The tree he wrote under, the Arsenal Oak, was a very old, very large white oak tree located at AU until 2004. It had to be removed because it was dying and becoming a hazard.
A tree grown from an acorn from the Arsenal Oak was later planted outside of Benet Hall.
“There are wonderful pictures of students- 20 or 30 students- up in the various branches of Arsenal Oak. Arsenal Oak was- it was kind of an iconic piece of the campus,” smiled Dr. Caldwell.
In 1955, the Arsenal closed and the property was given to the Georgia Board of Education. The Junior College of Augusta moved there in 1957.
Before that it was part of the first high school in Georgia which is now the 6th oldest high school in the U.S. none other than the Academy of Richmond County.
“There was a sense that we have got to have more education, because we’re not going to be educating people as lords to be in the House of Lords. We’re going to elect people,” Dr. Caldwell explained. “But we’re also going to need a population, and of course they’re talking about white men at the time, but we’re going to need people to be educated enough that they can make intelligent decisions to vote.”
When the Academy of Richmond County was opened back in 1783 it was a college preparatory school for boys. That same year a university system of public schools and a capstone college was established by the state legislature.
“We know when George Washington came through in 1791, he sat in on oral examinations at Richmond Academy and heard an address by a young man who had actually graduated the year before and was doing an extra year there. So, they had, almost from the beginning, off and on there was this extra year of basically, college,” Dr. Caldwell said.
In 1925, ARC moved to its current location and the Junior College of Augusta, officially chartered the same year, went with it. But before long, as enrollment increased, it became apparent that the Junior College needed its own space.
“The Accrediting Agency had said in the early 50’s, it’s too crowded. And they knew they needed to move the Junior College,” stated Dr. Caldwell. “And so when this property became available, in 1955, they started negotiating to get the property for the Junior College of Augusta.”
The Junior College of Augusta was a two year college from 1925 until 1963 when the school’s 5th president, Gerald Burns Robins, led it into some big changes- including a new name.
“And they started calling it Augusta College. And then in the 1960’s when Augustan, Carl Sanders was the Governor of Georgia, he made the college a 4 year institution,” said Dr. Caldwell.
The University System of Georgia under the Board of regents took Control of Augusta College from the Richmond County Board of Education. Under Robin’s administration, the school added a fine arts complex and performing arts theater.
When George Christenberry became president, he added 240 acres in the Forrest Hills neighborhood where the athletic complex was later built.
Then nearly forty years after becoming Augusta College came a new name change- Augusta State University.
During that transition, it was discovered that the 6 buildings that housed the classrooms and offices had hazardous asbestos materials and would need to be torn down.
Under President William Bloodworth’s administration, the college was approved for funding for a new science building.
Soon after funding for two other academic buildings, Allgood Hall and University Hall, were authorized too.
As the campus was being restructured, enrollment continued to grow. In 1995 it reached a high of more than 5,700tudents.
Then, in 2013, Augusta State University merged with Georgia Health Sciences University, also known as MCG, and the name changed again.
“And it got the name Georgia Regents University, which was very unpopular in Augusta,” said Dr. Caldwell.
Dr. Ricardo Azziz was president at the time of the name change.
The public was asked to vote on new names for the university and the top three were released with the notion one of those would be the new name.
There was a loud public uproar after GRU was chosen, in part because it wasn’t on the list at all and because “Augusta” wasn’t part of the name.
Many Augustans also withheld funds because of it.
Azziz resigned two and a half years later and Dr. Brooks Keel took the helm.
“And when Dr. Keel came, the name was changed once again to Augusta, this time, University. No “State” in it. Just Augusta University, which I think made Augustans very happy and has proved to be a good move. Because people recognize the name Augusta all over the world. Certainly once a year they know who we are,” laughed Dr. Caldwell.
Augusta University continues to grow and flourish and many hope it will be around to further educate students for years to come.
Hey CSRA. That’s just part of your Hometown History.
Photojournalist: Will Baker.