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ABAC Celebrates 109th Birthday on February 20

February 16, 2017

The history of Tifton might not record a gold rush or an oil boom to pump much needed dollars into the community.  But 109 years ago on Feb. 20, 1908, the wise leaders of Tifton reaped an economic bonanza with the opening of the Second District Agricultural and Mechanical School.  Today, that area high school has become a well-known bachelor’s degree-granting institution called Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College.

“Everyone loves an investment that continues to pay dividends,” ABAC President David Bridges said.  “Tifton invested in the Second District A&M School 109 years ago, and that investment continues to pay tremendous dividends in a lot of different ways in 2017.”

A recent study calculated the annual economic impact of ABAC on Tift and surrounding counties as $329,844,725.  When Captain Henry Harding Tift, who was Tifton’s founder, and 29 representatives from the community attended a meeting in Albany on Nov. 23, 1906 to bid on the site for the school, their total bid was worth about $95,700.

According to an article in “The Daily Tifton Gazette,” the Tifton bid included $55,000 in cash, free lights, water, and telephone service for 10 years, a sewage system, 315 acres of land valued at $50 an acre, and the timber on the land valued at $4,500.  On the eighth ballot, the Tifton bid finally surpassed the bids of Albany, Camilla, Pelham, and Ashburn, and the seed for ABAC was planted.

In the next edition of the Gazette, the headline proclaimed, “The Hallelujah Day Has Come, Tifton Lands the A&M School.”  Gresham Manufacturing Company from Griffin then proceeded to build the three original buildings, now called Tift, Lewis, and Herring, on the campus for $51,927.  Twenty-seven students attended on the first day of classes 109 years ago.

Bridges, a 1978 ABAC graduate, sometimes reflects on that day.

“Making the lives of young people better was the mission in 1908, and we’re still doing that today,” Bridges said.  “We offer only one product but it is a very valuable product.  We offer the opportunity for a life-changing educational experience to every student who walks on our campus.  The value of the ABAC experience is absolutely priceless.”

Captain Tift had a similar response years earlier at a commencement ceremony.

“Of all the investments I have ever made, this school has brought me the biggest dividends,” Tift said.  Ironically, Tift was born in Mystic, Conn., a town located only 15 miles from Guilford, Conn., birthplace of Abraham Baldwin, the namesake for ABAC.

Today, Tift Hall houses administrative offices, the George T. Smith Parlor, the ABAC History Room, and the Freedom Gallery which is open to the public from 8 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. on Fridays.  Colorful panels in Tift Hall detail the history of the college and the awesome impact that Captain Tift had on Tifton and the college.

Tifton citizens certainly owe Tift a debt of gratitude.  Had it not been for his generosity, the school might have wound up in Pelham, Albany, Ashburn, or Camilla.  Tift gave out of his own pocket $36,400 in cash, the 315 acres of land, the timber rights, and a portion of the lights and water service.

According to the Gazette, “after the financial question was settled, it was a tug of war between the personal influence of Mr. Tift and Mr. Hand from Pelham.  In the end, when Tifton’s progressiveness, excellent record and prohibition were thrown into the balance, the Tifton delegation won the fight, the high moral integrity of Tift County and her citizenship being the deciding straw.”

ABAC now offers bachelor’s degrees in agriculture with degree tracks in business, crop production, crop and soil science, education, and livestock production; environmental horticulture with degree tracks in turfgrass and golf course management and turfgrass science; natural resource management with degree tracks in conservation law enforcement, education, forestry, and wildlife, as well as a new bachelor of science degree in agricultural education.

ABAC also offers bachelor’s degrees in biology, business and economic development, nursing, and rural studies which includes tracks in writing and communications, politics and modern cultures, social and community development, and agricultural communications.

When the Second District A&M School opened 109 years ago, the students were mainly from the surrounding area.  Now ABAC’s enrollment of 3,475 includes students from 154 of Georgia’s 159 counties, 21 states, and 26 countries. About 1,400 of those students live on campus in apartment-style residence halls called ABAC Place and ABAC Lakeside.
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