The Progressive Era

by Dwayne Cox and Rodney J. Steward

Charles C. Thach with students, 1900

Shortly before API President William Leroy Broun’s death in 1902, the United States Congress considered a bill to establish mining engineering programs at all the nation’s land-grant colleges. The Association of Land-Grant Colleges supported the measure, but universities in ten states opposed it, among them the University of Alabama. These schools sought to amend the bill either to acquire a portion of the appropriation directly or to divert a portion to their state legislature. The board of trustees sent Professor Charles C. Thach to Washington to negotiate a compromise with the representative from the University of Alabama. Following Broun’s death, the board elected Thach, an API graduate who had spent his entire career at the school, to succeed to the president’s office.

Thach immediately launched a campaign to bring the school’s financial needs to the attention of the state legislature at its upcoming session. He circulated an address among key representatives detailing the school’s poor financial condition; he asked Governor William D. Jelks to appoint a board committee to lobby the legislature; and, at the request of board member Thomas D. Samford, who also served on the legislative committee, he prepared a statement comparing what Alabama and other states were doing in support of their land-grant colleges. Over the course of that legislative session, Thach wrote many letters to state representatives urging them to lobby for increased state funding for the school.

When Thach took office, API’s only income from the state came from approximately one-sixth of the fertilizer tax that had been passed during Broun’s administration. As of 1903, this amounted to approximately $10,000 per annum for the past five years. According to Thach, more than half of these funds were spent on the actual chemical analysis of fertilizer, which API was responsible for under state law. The remainder financed the school’s agriculture programs, which provided a solid justification for not reducing the school’s annual state income. The 1903 legislature, possibly under pressure form fertilizer distributors, reduced the tax from $0.50 to $0.30 per ton, but raised API’s share from one-sixth to one-third, which the president predicted would increase college revenue, provided fertilizer sales remained steady. Meanwhile, Thach sought a new source of state revenue, which he found in a similar tax on illuminating oil sold in Alabama.

At that time, illuminating oil was the nation’s leading petroleum product. Similar laws were passed in neighboring states calling for the inspection of kerosene to ensure that it would not ignite at temperatures less than 120 degrees. Prior to the 1903 legislative session, the state had passed just such a law, but the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional. Early in the 1903 legislative session, Thach received an inquiry from W.B. Clay, president of the Dixie Oil Company, who had been instrumental in that ruling because he believed that the law discriminated in favor of the Standard Oil Company. Now, Clay believed, he could draft a bill that would meet the constitutional test. If Thach were interested, Clay proposed to have the bill prepared by former Governor Thomas Goode Jones, who had served as his attorney in the earlier case and was thoroughly familiar with the constitutional clause under which the previous law had been overruled. If successful, Clay asked that he “be taken care of” and given a post as the assistant state chemist at an annual salary of $2,000. Thach replied that API would be willing to undertake the analysis of oil, but warned that any tax in excess of “a reasonable cost” would be declared unconstitutional by the federal courts if Standard Oil.

Charles Coleman Thach
API President 1902-1920
The argument in favor of the oil tax was that without it companies would dump inferior grades in Alabama. The bill that passed the 1903 legislature worked much like the fertilizer tax: oil distributors sent samples to API for analysis, the state collected a one-half cent tax on each gallon sold, and API received one-fourth of the levy. Within months of passage, however, Standard Oil, which never complied with the law, brought the matter before the Supreme Court. Once again, the high court ruled that the law was unconstitutional.

The failure of the illuminating oil tax amplified the importance of revenue derived from the fertilizer tax. In October of 1904, however, Commissioner of Agriculture R.R. Poole warned Thach not to expect any revenue from this source for the quarters ending June 30 and September 30, as most of the fertilizer sales took place from December through March. During the other quarters the tax did not generate enough revenue to justify the expense of distributing funds. The following spring, Thach complained to Governor Jelks regarding the Attorney General’s interpretation of the law. He argued that sales for the past year had been one hundred tons more than the previous year, yet API’s appropriation was $1,300 less. He later complained that the fertilizer tax generated funds well in excess of the amount the school received for performing the only duties prescribed under the act.

Early in 1906, President Thach began laying the foundation for his appeal to the next quadrennial session of the legislature, which would convene the following year. In January, he wrote to a member of the legislature warning that lack of facilities to accommodate growth would preclude accepting any more students than currently enrolled. In March, Thach heard from W.B. Clay who had returned to Montgomery to prepare for the next legislative session. Clay had reviewed the old oil tax bill and the Supremes Court’s decision regarding it and felt confident that legislation could be passed. As the session approached, Thach distributed a mass mailing, probably to alumni and members of the legislature, informing them that API’s only source of state revenue came from one-third of the fertilizer tax. The remainder of the school’s budget came from federal funds, which were insufficient to provide the school with much needed new buildings for agriculture, mechanics, and a library.

In June, 1906, Thach began preparing the board of trustees for the upcoming legislative session. He called their attention to the higher costs of scientific education over that of classical education and warned that they faced a choice: either support scientific education and thus allow Alabama’s natural resources to be developed by Alabamians or ignore it and the state’s resources would be developed by outsiders, a euphemism for Yankees. Thach argued that endowing institutions that could provide the training necessary for developing the state’s resources was not “a mere gratuity,” but rather an investment in students who could turn those untapped resources into “taxable wealth.” He also urged the board to ask the legislature to fund several major construction projects, which would enable the school to better accomplish its mission.

When the 1907 session got underway, API’s fate appeared to hang in the balance. An early proposal to move the land-grant school from Auburn to Birmingham portended an ominous future for the struggling school. The proposal was defeated, however, and the school’s prospects quickly brightened into one of the greatest triumphs of the Thach administration. President Thach requested more than $200,000 to be paid in four annual installments for expansion of facilities. He also called for a minimum annual appropriation of $40,000 for other purpose, either through an increase in the fertilizer tax, direct funding, or a combination of the two. The legislature filled both requests after the president had spent two months “right down at it in a personal canvas” of the members. In 1911, the legislature appropriated another $200,000, payable in four annual installments, for the Alabama Polytechnic Institute.

The legislature also passed the oil tax bill, giving API’s professor of chemistry responsibility for conducting the inspections and the school one-fourth of the revenue generated by the new levy. President Thach learned quickly, however, that the illuminating oil tax would not generate the steady income he had hoped for. The state experienced great difficulty enforcing the tax. Wofford Oil Company, Alabama Oil Company, and Marine Oil Company, all headquartered in Alabama, refused to comply with the new tax. Consequently, returns in Alabama were nowhere near the amount generated in neighboring states with similar laws.

President Thach’s success at securing increased amounts of direct funding from the state generated a new wave of political challenges from the University of Alabama, where, in 1912, George H. Denny had taken over the president’s office. Later that year, J. Lister Hill, president of the Montgomery Alumni Association of the University of Alabama, distributed copies of the Carnegie Foundation’s 1912 annual report to prospective college students in the area. The report noted that the University of Alabama required four years of high school for admission, but API required less than two. API’s lower standards may have been fitting for some of the school’s agriculture students, but they comprised only a portion of the overall enrollment. API also had an engineering school and an academic college, where the majority of its students were enrolled. The report stated that there was “no reason why the state of Alabama should offer…at the same time college work of the first grade and college work of the second grade, engineering training of standard excellence and engineering training of an inferior degree.” According to the report, as long as this went on, “the larger number of students [would] gravitate toward the easier and lower plane.”

Coeds - 1901

Not long after the Carnegie Foundation report appeared in print, an employee of the Montgomery Advertiser forwarded to API a draft article President Denny had submitted for publication in that paper. The informant believed the article contained thinly veiled attacks on API. Among other things, Denny wrote that the “choice young men and women” of the state wanted to attend the University of Alabama because it was known throughout the country, not within the “narrow confines” of a single state. He charged that some of the “so-called colleges” had been accepting students without adequate high school preparation. Shortly thereafter, API began to require the standard fourteen units of high school work for unconditional admission. Under President Thach’s calm and cool leadership, Alabama Polytechnic Institute weathered the storm of criticism with dignity.

By the time of the 1915 quadrennial session, API still had not received the $200,000 approved by the legislature in 1911. In the weeks leading up to the session, API supporters began petitioning Governor Emmet O’Neal to release the funds appropriated for API and her sister institutions. In February, a committee of alumni petitioned the Speaker of the Alabama House to exempt API and the Alabama College at Montevallo from the pending bill that would repeal all appropriations of the 1911 legislature. For some “sister institutions,” presumably the University of Alabama, the 1911 appropriations had already been released in full, but API and Montevallo had received only half. President Thach raised this issue in his annual report to the board of trustees, which was distributed throughout the state. In a cover letter, he warned that the college was “in urgent and imperative need of buildings,” but had received only half of the $200,000 approved in 1911. As late as 1918, Thach reported that API still had not received the balance of the money promised by the legislature seven years earlier. This, coupled with a decline in tuition revenue during World War I, produced a financial shortfall from which Thach’s administration would never recover.

Shortly after World War I, API, the University of Alabama, and the Alabama College at Montevallo, under pressure from the Alabama Education Commission (AEC), finally reached a cooperative agreement. The report submitted to the AEC provided that Montevallo would remain a junior college with the exception of home economics, which would be a four-year course. API agreed to drop its mining engineering program in deference to the University of Alabama, which in turn agreed to drop its highway engineering program in deference to a comparable program offered at API. Additionally, under the terms of a unified budget, both API and the University of Alabama received comparable appropriations for the quarter.

On December 4, 1919, the board’s executive committee met to approve a leave-of-absence for President Thach, who needed “a rest of an indeterminate period.” The next June, Thach’s wife and son suggested that the board declare the post vacant and search for a replacement. Four months later, on October 15, President Thach died.

Thach was a politically astute president who forged important alliances with alumni, many of whom had gone to school with Thach or had studied under him at API. He worked closely with the board of trustees, keeping them well informed of the school’s political agenda, and he cultivated close friendships with numerous members of the state legislature. Unfortunately, the state’s failure to follow through with promises to better fund API resulted in a weak conclusion for Thach’s administration and created problems his successor would be forced to deal with.

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