The early twentieth century was a time of great change in Arkansas, and many residents were excited about what the future held. Many programs were introduced to modernize education and the infrastructure of the state. One figure responsible for many of these changes was Gov. Charles H. Brough, whose early years took him between Mississippi and Utah before landing him at the University of Arkansas.
Charles Hillman Brough was born in western Mississippi in 1876. His mother was a schoolteacher, while his father was a Pennsylvania native and a veteran of the Union Army who stayed in the state after the Civil War to invest in mining and banking. Brough spent much of his early childhood in Utah as his father expanded his investments.
In 1882, Brough was sent to live with his mother’s sister and brother-in-law in Mississippi. His aunt and uncle were active educators, and his uncle ran a local girl’s school. The importance of education was deeply ingrained in the future governor, and the intelligent young man absorbed all that he could. After Brough’s mother died, he stayed in Mississippi to continue to be raised by his aunt and uncle. At the age of 14, Brough was enrolled in Mississippi College, graduating four years later.
He returned to Utah in 1894, spending a year with his father. He soon entered graduate school at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. Drawing on his experiences out West with his father, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on irrigation in Utah. He earned his doctorate in history in 1898 and returned to Mississippi College to serve as a professor of history, ethics, economics, and German. He was active in the college community, delivering lectures across the state, recruiting for the college, and writing many scholarly articles.
Still a restless young man, he resigned his teaching position and entered the University of Mississippi law school in 1901, completing a two-year course of study in just a year. Instead of a law career, he returned to teaching. After being rejected for a prestigious position at the University of Mississippi, he left the state to accept a position as professor of political economy at the University of Arkansas in 1903.
Once in Arkansas, he again dived into the life of the university community and continued to write on such issues as finance, tariff and tax law, and Arkansas History. He was admitted to the state bar in 1904, but he again did not practice law. He was also active in the church, teaching Sunday School and often serving as a substitute preacher for other churches. Popular among teachers, he was also president of the Arkansas State Teachers Association for the 1913-1914 school year.
In 1913, after Gov. Joseph T. Robinson resigned to take his seat in the U. S. Senate, colleagues encouraged Brough to run in the special election to fill the remainder of the term. He had never run for office before. Brough tepidly entered the race but quickly withdrew, realizing that the public did not know enough about him and he would likely not have won. Nevertheless, in 1915, he resigned from the university to campaign full time for the Democratic Primary the following year. He ended up winning the three-man race in the primary and won the general election in the fall with nearly 70% of the vote over the Republican and Socialist candidates.
Brough dove into his position as governor with the energy and enthusiasm that made him famous. He made education reform a top priority. He established an illiteracy commission to study the issue in detail. He established county boards of education and, in 1917, enacted the first compulsory school attendance law in state history. Education was no longer just a good idea for developing young minds and local economies – it was the law. He also pushed for expanding vocational programs through a new federal education subsidy. But for Brough and his ambitious progressive agenda, this was only the beginning.