REMEMBERING ARKANSAS Mena's Commonwealth College had socialist ideals

— Last week I wrote about the large number of colleges that have come and gone throughout Arkansas history. Many of the institutions were little more than preparatory schools, but they still made major contributions to Arkansas education. Often sponsored by religious denominations, these colleges usually located in small towns where saloons had been voted out.

The subject of today's column is another small college in rural Arkansas, Commonwealth College. Commonwealth, situated near Mena, in Polk County, was founded not on religious doctrine, but rather, on an abiding faith in socialism. Young idealists Frank and Kate Richards O'Hare and their friend William Zeuch, all of whom had attended Ruskin College in Florida, decided to create an educational institution to train a leadership class for the downtrodden industrial workers of America. Commonwealth College was born. These early leaders were socialists but not communists.

Initially, the college was to be a part of the Newllano Cooperative Colony at Leesville, La., but that association fell apart almost immediately. Commonwealth went on a search for some inexpensive rural land that would be suitable for an experimental college that intended to be self-sufficient by growing its own food. The college made an attemptto settle in Ink, a tiny community east of Mena. The school officially opened in temporary quarters in Mena in January 1925, with a faculty of eight and a student body of 35.

In April 1925, Commonwealth moved to Mill Creek Valley, about 13 miles west of Mena. The valley was described as "perhaps a mile or more wide, running up to the edge of Rich Mountain, watered by a beautiful creek." The primary historian of Commonwealth College, Professor William H. Cobb of East Carolina University, has written that "like pioneers, the Commoners carved a campus out of this virtual wilderness while carrying on with schooling and tending crops." These pioneers also had the financial assistance of the American Fund for Public Service, a radical philanthropy.

By 1932, Commonwealth had grown to 22 buildings, and expanded to 320 acres. As the local Polk County historianHarold Coogan has written, "All 22 buildings were built by college labor. Foundation and building stones were hauled from the banks and bed of Mill Creek." Students and faculty were expected to work four hours each afternoon following morning classes. Extensive gardens demanded a great deal of labor, as did carpentry and masonry crews. Female students and faculty maintained the library of several hundred books.

At the height of its success, Commonwealth never had a student body of more than 55. Students came from across the nation, along with a few from Arkansas. One of those was Orval E. Faubus of Madison County, later to be governor of Arkansas for more than a decade. Faubus' father, Sam Faubus, was a socialist who was arrested for sedition during World War I. Another student was Lee Hays, later the author, with Pete Seeger, of the labor anthem "If I Had a Hammer."

From its beginning, Commonwealth had rocky relations with its neighbors in rural Polk County. Even during those first few months while living in temporary quarters in Mena, some locals were scandalized when female students were seen wearing knee-length pants. In 1926, after only one year in existence, the American Legion's State Convention accused Commonwealth College of Bolshevism, Sovietism, Communism - and practicing free love. The latter chargecame from rumors that both sexes swam nude together in Mill Creek. Though the FBI exonerated Commonwealth, the college was stained by the charges. More were to follow.

In June 1931, in reaction to the growing economic peril of the Great Depression, a group of more radical students and faculty ousted William Zeuch as leader of the college, installing a veteran Commoner, Lucian Koch, as leader of the school. Koch, along with his wife, Charlotte, quickly moved the college into labor organization work throughout Arkansas and several nearby states.

Commonwealth faculty and students were active in reorganizing the Arkansas Socialist Party in 1932, with Clay Fulks, an instructor at the school, being the Socialist nominee for governor that year.

Commonwealth allied itself with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union shortly after its formation in Poinsett County in 1934. The school sent a team of organizers into the cotton fields of eastern Arkansas, where they were met with intimidation and beatings. Southern Tenant Farmers Union leader H.L. Mitchell of Tyronza was an old-line socialist, and he did not trust the communist tendencies expressed by the radical Presbyterian minister Claude Williams, who succeeded Koch as head of the college.

The uneasy relationship ended altogether in 1938 when Williams was discovered to be involved in an attemptby Commonwealth communists to take over the union. Rebuffed by labor, Commonwealth seemed rudderless. And it faced nagging legal problems.

The Arkansas Legislature conducted an intensive investigation of Commonwealth in 1935, though the Senate refused to facilitate prosecution for sedition. The following year, the Rev. L.D. Summers, pastor of Mena's First Baptist Church, began a series of sermons against Commonwealth. In 1937 the Arkansas Daughters of the American Revolution "deplored and condemned" the college, while the following year the Missionary Baptists attacked Commonwealth as a communist front.

The situation reached a boiling point in 1940 when charges were filed accusing Commonwealth of attempting to overthrow the government by illegal means. Police raids followed, with documents being seized. A conviction and fine of $2,500 put an end to the college. For several years now, a large horse farm has occupied the beautiful valley along Mill Creek, where yet another unusual episode of Arkansas history was played out.

Tom W. Dillard is editor in chief of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (, and head of the special collections department at the University of Arkansas Libraries in Fayetteville. E-mail him at

Travel, Pages 99 on 04/15/2007