After seven hours of I-29 driving down from North Dakota, it was a relief to turn off on Missouri 136, one of the “blue highways," to Tarkio, a farming community of 1800. Ten miles of rolling hills with large windmills hanging from every hilltop brought me to the deserted campus of Tarkio College on the east edge of town.
The United Presbyterian Church founded Tarkio College in 1883. In 1900 Walter Williams lists an enrollment of 258 students. Tarkio College served this small farming town in Northwest Missouri in a number of ways. Its collegiate department provided a liberal arts education; its preparatory department provided a first-class high school education for students in the area; its normal and commercial departments provided career training for students wanting to enter the teaching and business fields; its music department gave further opportunity for those wishing to improve talents in vocal and instrumental music. The campus also contained the historic Mule Barn Theatre, a Mecca for theater goers from all over Northwest Missouri.
In the 1960’s enrollment reached 750, leading to a building boom. However, with the end of the Vietnam War, enrollment began to fall, leaving Tarkio College with indebtedness. Program cuts caused the teacher education program to lose accreditation in 1979. In a New York Times article, Anthony DePalma pointed out that in 1980 under the leadership of consultant/vice president Dennis T. Spellman, “Tarkio College set up illegitimate off-campus programs and signed up thousands of unprepared students, many of them whisked right off city streets.” Enrollment boomed, but 79% of these students defaulted on their students loans. The federal government then demanded that Tarkio College pay 16.8 million dollars for these defaults plus another 5.2 million for misused program improvement funds.
In 1991, Tarkio College filed for bankruptcy and closed in 1992.
Bricks and Mortar
When Tarkio College closed, the campus was still intact except for the Mule Barn Theater, which had burned in 1989. The special purposes sale listing mentions “15+ buildings and 40+ acres” of property. While Tarkio Academy occupied the campus from 1994 to 2004, it was still on the market in 2009.
The crown jewel of the Tarkio College campus is Rankin Hall, built in 1931. Its predecessor had burned in 1930. Now derelict after more than 80 years of service as administration/classroom building, Rankin Hall is beginning to show decay.
Team name: Owls
Colors: Purple and White
In terms of athletics, the high water mark for Tarkio College came in basketball--winning the championship of the 1940 NAIB basketball tournament in Kansas City. Led by all-America Mel Waits, the Owls swept through the 32 team field for the championship, defeating Alfred Holbrook (OH), West Texas State , Texas Wesleyan, Hamline (MN), and present D-I power San Diego State for the Championship. Waits was voted the Most Valuable Player of the tournament.
For much of its history Tarkio College was a member of the Missouri College Athletic Union, and its chief rivals were other members of that conference—William Jewell, Missouri Valley, Central Methodist, and Culver-Stockton. It had earlier competed in the Missouri Intercollegiate Athletic Association and after 1971 in the Heart of America Athletic Conference. For a while in the 1950’s Tarkio was a member of the Central Church College Conference, winning the football title in 1956. That team won seven games, losing only to William Jewell.
1940 NAIB champions. Mel Waits is number 66 in the front row. (Courtesy of the Tarkio Alumni Organization)
Rankin Hall in August, 2010, at the end of an alley of sycamores.