Saving the Northwestern Columns

John C. Groves – Dec. 11, 1942 – Dec. 20, 2011 (Graduated NSU 1966 & 1968)

The early history of the NSU columns is well known. The Bullard mansion that was home to the four original columns was demolished in 1904 after a devastating fire. One of the columns fell a few years later. The remaining three became, over the years, a symbol of the Normal College, Northwestern State College, and today Northwestern State University.  What is not documented until now is the story of the
stabilization of the three existing columns. 

There is currently a plaque on the columns given by the class of 1950-51.  An examination of the photos in the Potpourri  (yearbook) of 1940-49 show the bases of the columns were unchanged until 1950 when the bases were shown to be much more massive, with a wide two tiered base.  Prior to 1949-50 it is likely that the base of these columns remained unchanged from the Bullard Mansion days.  The following story regarding this base change and subsequent plaque were related to me by Dudley Fulton, former Dean of Students. 

In 1948 Dudley Fulton was employed as Assistant Director of Student Services.  He became Dean of Men and eventually Dean of students before retiring in the early 70’s.  I came to know Dean Fulton in 1967 when I was a graduate assistant in his office.   In 1969 I became Director of Student Activities at Augusta College (became Augusta State University in 1994) in Augusta, Georgia.  In 1970 Dean Fulton came to Augusta as a member of the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities accreditation review team, the head accrediting agency.  During dinner while on this visit he learned that my Grandfather was W.W. Wilson (William Wiley Wilson  1884-1972) who had been employed by NSC as the person responsible for the physical plant operations during the  40’s and 50’s.  Dean Fulton related the following story. 

Being newly employed in Student Services he was very interested in learning about what was happening on campus and spent time visiting with staff and students.  It was during one of these visits that he met W. W. Wilson and learned about what was planned for the columns.  The administration wanted to employ an engineering firm to stabilize the columns; however, Mr. Wilson convinced them to allow him to try the repair and save the college the expense of hiring an outside firm.  Earlier in his work life Mr. Wilson had been a railroad section foreman who maintained sections of tracks and bridges and understood structure and foundation repair.  In addition, he was a craftsman who, after retirement, built and refurbished furniture.  The columns weighed several tons and the ground under them was unstable.  The plan was to partially excavate under the columns and pour in concrete, and also build two levels of forms around the base for additional stabilization.  During the soil removal process the columns were held in place with a portion of the weight removed by a series of timbers stacked in a square around the base, and built about halfway up the columns, a timber was bolted to it in sandwich fashion.  This allowed railroad jacks to be placed on opposite sides of the column between the stacked and bolted timbers to relieve some pressure on the base.  The soil around and partially under the base was removed and concrete was poured. 

Mr. Wilson lived on campus in a house that was located behind what is now the Watson library. My cousin, Robert Bailey, who lived with Granddad Wilson at the time, remembers the renovation as requiring massive amounts of concrete. Any records which may have indicated the concrete purchase and other information were lost when the business office located in Caldwell Hall burned in 1982. 

During his time at NSC, Mr. Wilson saw five of his six children graduate from the college.  Also more than half a dozen grandchildren and great grands hold degrees from NSU. 

Comments by James W. Groves, John’s younger brother:

The following email in January of 2009 from Alison Skinner, Robert Bailey’s daughter, shares some of his recollections of the restoration of the columns: 

“I talked to Dad and Aunt Billie.  Aunt Billie has a call into Aunt Myrtle who may have pictures of Granddaddy and the columns.  Dad said in the late 40’s/early 50’s, Granddaddy Wilson and three or four workers rebuilt the three columns. The columns were from an old antebellum home called the Bullard Mansion. The only thing left from Bullard Mansion were the three columns which were dilapidated and falling down. Dad said Granddaddy built wooden forms and scaffolding (like a mold of each column) and poured concrete in them. Dad remembers LOTS of concrete! Dad said he remembers Granddaddy hand cutting the forms. He said it took him several weeks to restore the columns.  Aunt Billie mentioned that Granddaddy built the tennis courts for Northwestern and drinking fountains for the grammar schools on campus (which aren’t being used, but they kept drinking fountains she thinks).”

Another cousin, Myrtle Clark, told me that she remembers well watching the progress of the restoration by our Granddaddy.  She would walk to school each day and pass by the columns where Mr. Wilson and some of his men would be working on them.  She remembers lots of rigging and forms as he engineered saving the remaining three columns.  

Some of the family said they remember a picture of Mr. Wilson and the men working on the project.  I believe they said he had his trademark vintage safari helmet/hat on in the picture.  Maybe one day someone will uncover that picture and connect it with this story.  

John told me that Dean Fulton had watched Mr. Wilson’s progress on the project on an almost daily basis because of his interest in and proximity to the project.  I encouraged John to write down what he had been told and try to document the story.  He did travel back to the campus and spent some time on research, but because of the fire that destroyed the records and the time lapse since the restoration, documentation has been difficult.The personal account from Dudley Fulton and Robert Bailey and the NSU yearbook, the Potpourri, seem to have been the most productive. It is now Dec. 21, 2011. John passed away yesterday shortly after 6 PM and I am transcribing his hand written notes hoping to preserve this story for my children and others who may be interested in the future.  If there is anyone who reads this account and can add anything to it the family would love to hear from you.  Any small bit of information would be appreciated.

James W. Groves 1968 graduate NSU