Jewel on the Baylor Campus

Boundless Life: A Biography of Andrew Joseph Armstrong, by Dr. Scott Lewis

Baylor University boasts a claim to fame that has nothing to do with its football team. The world’s largest collection of works pertaining to the Victorian poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning reside in the elegant Armstrong Browning Library. The unlikely repository of

A.J. Armstrong
Wikipedia

the English poets’ books, letters, and manuscripts on a campus in Central Texas happened because of the sheer determination of the Chair of the English Department–– Andrew Joseph Armstrong (1873-1954) ––a moving force at Baylor.

McLean Foyer of Meditation. The light coming through the windows offer a feeling of sunrise and sunset.

Dr. A. J. Armstrong began his collection of Browning books about 1905. Four years later, he spent several days in Italy visiting with the poets’ son. Unfortunately, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, whom the family called Pen, died in 1912 without a will. The estate was sold at auction, which sent Armstrong on a lifelong mission to raise money in every way he could to acquire items associated with the Brownings. He challenged donors and former students for gifts. He and his wife developed one of the first college “travel courses” hosting over thirty European tours. His deep Baptist faith and the wisdom he found in Browning’s poems led to his philosophy of life that he imparted to his students with challenges like “Don’t be colorless; be somebody!” and “No man should attain his ideal-–it should be his starting point for tomorrow.”

He gave his personal Browning works to Baylor in 1918, and the growing collection needed a building of its own. In 1943, Baylor President Pat N. Neff donated $100,000 for a new structure and challenged Armstrong to raise the balance.

Armstrong, at age seventy, had always worked an eighteen-hour day, teaching classes on Robert Browning, Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible as Literature, and a modern poetry class. On Sundays, he taught the largest men’s college class at the First Baptist Church, and he lectured weekly for a large women’s literature class.  He sponsored an honorary English society and pushed the carefully selected members to strive toward their own creativity. Still, he drove the fundraising forward and amid grand fanfare the 1.75 million-dollar Armstrong Brown Library opened on December 1, 1951. When questioned about the cost of the structure, Dr. Browning said, “If we can create a place where young people can meditate on great thoughts and by that means give the world another Dante, another Shakespeare, another Browning, we shall count the cost a bargain.”

Hankamer-Treasure-Room

Pied Piper of Hamelin, stain glass illustrates Robert Browning poem.

On all three floors, visitors find sixty-two stained glass windows, believed to be the largest collection of secular stained glass, forty-seven of which follow the themes of Robert Browning’s poetry. Eight windows illumine Elizabeth Barrett Brownings Sonnets from the Portuguese. Of the more than 500 books, about 300 are from the personal libraries of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning or their immediate family. Some of the pages bear notations made by the poets.

Although Andrew Joseph Armstrong died on March 31, 1954, his grand legacy continues to thrive.

Armstrong Browning Library, Baylor University.

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Waco’s Bridge Over the Brazos

After the Civil War, Waco was a struggling little town of 1,500 nestled on the west bank of the Brazos River. No bridges crossed the Brazos, the longest body of water in Texas. During floods, days and even weeks passed before travelers as well as cattle on the Shawnee and Chisholm trails could safely cross the river. Although money was scarce and times were hard during recovery from the war, a group of businessmen formed Waco Bridge Company and secured a twenty-five-year contract to construct and operate the only toll bridge for five miles up and down the river.

John A. Roebling and Son of New York designed the 475-foot structure, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world at that time. Waco’s bridge served as the prototype for Roebling’s much-longer Brooklyn Bridge completed in 1883.

The fledgling Waco company ran into problems from the beginning. Work started in the fall of 1868 with costs, originally estimated at $40,000, growing to $140,000. The investors continued to issue new stock offerings. The nearest railroad stopped at Millican, over 100 miles away, which meant that coils of wire and cable, steel trusses, and custom-made bolts and nuts had to be hauled to Waco by ox wagon over rutted, sandy roads. The contractor floated cedar trees down the Brazos for shoring up the foundation in the unstable riverbed. Local businesses made the woodwork and the bricks.

The bridge opened to traffic in January 1870 with tolls of ten cents for each animal and rider; loose animals and foot passengers crossed for five cents each; and sheep, hogs, or goats crossed for three cents each. It was not long until residents on the far side of the river began complaining about the tolls. Businessmen who used the facility joined them in their protests.

Landowners along the river began allowing cattlemen, travelers, and local citizens to cut across their property to reach fords on the river. The uproar increased for the next nineteen years, until September 1889, when the Waco Bridge Company sold the structure to McLennan County for $75,000 and the county gave the bridge to the city.

Vehicles continued using the bridge, without paying a toll, until 1971 when it was converted to a pedestrian crossing. Today shaded parkland edges both sides of the river and the bridge enjoys a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and designation by a Texas Historical marker. In 2008 sculptor Robert Summers created “Branding Brazos,” the first of several bronze figures on the south side of the bridge that depict a trail boss driving longhorns on the Chisholm Trail.

William Cowper Brann–The Iconoclast

William Cowper Brann

William Cowper Brann

His supporters called him a visionary and a brilliant writer. Some even dubbed him the “Prairie Voltaire” and the “American Carlyle.” His detractors called him the “Devil’s Disciple.” Even his biographer Charles Carver described him as “a mean Mark Twain.” Upon his death, after a gun battle that also killed his assailant, those who hated him said, “At long last he’s in hell where he belongs.”

W.C. Brann acquired a third grade education, ran away at age thirteen in 1868 from the Illinois family who took him in after his mother’s death. He bounced around the country until he found work as a printer’s devil and cub reporter. He wrote for the St. Louis Globe Democrat, Galveston Evening-Tribune, Austin Statesman, San Antonio Express, and Houston Post, soon gaining a reputation as a brilliant though vitriolic editorialist.

Brann and his wife had two daughters and a son. After his thirteen-year-old daughter committed suicide in Houston in 1890, the family moved to Austin where Brann decided his editorial experience and the publication of three of his plays offered reason enough for him to use the limited family savings to begin publishing his “journal of personal protest,” the Iconoclast. It quickly failed.

Brann sold the journal to William Sydney Porter, the Austin writer who later became famous as O. Henry. After several more moves Brann ended up in Waco in 1894 as chief editorialist for the Waco Daily News. The following year he acquired the journal from Porter and started publishing the Iconoclast. This time the savagery of his writing gained attention across the U.S. and in many foreign countries, growing the circulation in three years to almost 100,000.

His articulate criticisms, even cruel comments fascinated his readers. He raged against the status quo and insulted people and institutions he viewed as overly sanctimonious or hypocritical. He held Episcopalians and Baptist in equal disdain but his attacks on Baptists garnered even more sensation because he published the Iconoclast in Waco, home of Baylor University, Texas’ premiere Baptist institution. He wrote that Baylor was “that great storm-center of misinformation.” He is quoted in a local publication as saying, “I have nothing against Baptists. I just believe they were not held under long enough.”

Despite his screeds against fundamentalism and its preachers, he wrote very little about religion and did not attack theology. In one essay he deplored the commercialization of Christmas. In another he said, “Remember that God is everywhere—even in church.” The subjects of his opinion pieces ranged from cats, to cows, to cold feet. He called politics an “unsavory stew of Macbeth’s witches.”

Brann’s hatred included wealthy eastern socialites such as the Vanderbilts, anything having to do with Great Britain and its people, the New York social scene, and women. He reserved his most vicious remarks for African Americans, and after reading one of his essays it is hard to imagine his popularity even in a day when lynching was accepted in many communities.

Despite his many friends and supporters, the anger he stirred in Waco boiled over in October 1897 when a group of Baylor students kidnapped Brann and demanded he retract his statements about the university. A few days later a Baptist judge and two other men beat Brann.

Finally, on April 1, 1898, the father of a female Baylor student, shot Brann in the back on one of Waco’s downtown streets. Despite having taken a bullet, Brann turned and began firing at his assailant, emptying his borrowed Colt Single Action Army Revolver into the man’s body. Brann’s attacker, writhing in agony on the ground, continued firing until he emptied his gun. Both men died the following day.

The word TRUTH is engraved on Brann’s monument in Waco’s Oakwood Cemetery. Beneath the word is Brann’s profile with a bullet hole in it.

Baylor University holds the William Cowper Brann Collection in its Texas Collection.

The Complete Works of Brann The Iconoclast

The Complete Works of Brann The Iconoclast

Waco’s Suspension Bridge

Slide49After the Civil War, Waco was a struggling little town of 1,500 nestled on the west bank of the Brazos River.  No bridges crossed the Brazos, the longest body of water in Texas.  During floods, days and even weeks passed before travelers as well as cattle on the Shawnee and Chisholm trails could safely cross the river.  Although money was scarce and times were hard during recovery from the war, a group of businessmen formed Waco Bridge Company and secured a twenty-five-year contract to construct and operate the only toll bridge for five miles up and down the river.

John A. Roebling and Son of New York designed the 475-foot structure, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world at that time.  Waco’s bridge served as the prototype for Roebling’s much-longer Brooklyn Bridge completed in 1883.

The fledgling Waco company ran into problems from the beginning.  Work started in the fall of 1868 with costs, originally estimated at $40,000, growing to $140,000 as the investors continued to issue new stock offerings.  The nearest railroad stopped at Millican, over 100 miles away, which meant that coils of wire and cable, steel trusses, and custom-made bolts and nuts had to be hauled to Waco by ox wagon over rutted, sandy roads.  The contractor floated cedar trees down the Brazos for shoring up the foundation in the unstable riverbed.  Local businesses made the woodwork and the bricks.

Slide50The bridge opened to traffic in January 1870 with tolls of ten cents for each animal and rider; loose animals and foot passengers crossed for five cents each; and sheep, hogs, or goats crossed for three cents each.  It was not long until residents on the far side of the river began complaining about the tolls.  Businessmen who used the facility joined them in their protests.

Landowners along the river began allowing cattlemen, travelers, and local citizens to cut across their property to reach the fords on the river.  The uproar increased for the next nineteen years, until September 1889, when the Waco Bridge Company sold the structure to McLennan County for $75,000 and the county gave the bridge to the city.

Vehicles continued using the bridge, without paying a toll, until 1971 when it was converted to a pedestrian crossing.  Today lovely, shaded parkland edges both sides of the river and the bridge enjoys a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and designation by a Texas Historical marker.  Slide51