George Washington Donaghey was perhaps the most consequential governor in Arkansas History. During his two terms, he enacted numerous reforms that transformed Arkansas and created a modern system of higher education. Donaghey’s story is of a modest carpenter who helped build the City of Conway and then rebuilt the State of Arkansas.
He was born in 1856 just across the Louisiana state line. He was the eldest of six children in a farming family. When he was still quite small, the family moved across the border into Union County where he spent his childhood. His education was sporadic, with few schools available in the area.
His father enlisted in the Confederate Army after the Civil War erupted. He father was wounded at the Battle of Vicksburg in 1863 and was later captured by the Union Army, spending the rest of the war in a prison camp. The war caused a lot of hardships for the Donaghey family.
The future governor was anxious to start a life of his own. In 1871, at the age of 15, he ran away from home. He took a horse and rode off to Texas, excited by the idea of the frontier. He spent the next few years taking odd jobs on farms and ranches. Four years later, he first came to Faulkner County to work on an uncle’s cotton farm. He drifted for a few more years before settling in Conway in 1880.
Starting with his arrival in the city, he worked his way to become a successful businessman and prominent figure in the community as a carpenter and cabinet-maker. He briefly attended the University of Arkansas in 1882 and then worked briefly as a school teacher before returning to carpentry.
At the time, the newly incorporated Conway was a small community of just over a thousand residents. City leaders had great ambitions for their city, and they believed that higher education would attract residents and prestige. Donaghey was among a group that believed cleaning up the town’s image had to be a priority, in particular by banning saloons. In 1884, he was elected town marshal on an anti-alcohol and anti-saloon platform. He ran for mayor in 1885 but lost. However, by 1888, alcohol sales were banned in the city.
A fire in 1886 wrecked most of Conway’s downtown area. The town struggled to rebuild, and Donaghey parlayed his skills into the rebuilding. He was extremely successful and moved into construction full time. Donaghey was responsible for many early landmarks of the city, including the second Faulkner County Courthouse and the city’s first bank.
As Conway rebuilt, Donaghey continued to work to promote the city. By 1889, Methodist leaders were considering moving Hendrix College, then in Altus in western Arkansas, to a more accessible location. City leaders were interested, and Donaghey quickly stepped up and took a leading role in the move to bring Hendrix to Conway. He contributed $1,500 (or about $38,875 in 2017 dollars) to a fund to lure the college to the community, a significant portion of his personal assets, and led the city’s recruitment committee. Hendrix officials were impressed by the passion shown for bringing in the college and chose Conway as the new site. The new campus opened in 1890, with Donaghey’s firm constructing the main building.
After the success of the Hendrix campaign, Conway leaders learned of a new effort to create a church-led college in the state. In 1891, the Arkansas Baptist State Convention voted to create a new women’s college, to be called Central College. Donaghey again stepped forward with a pledge of thousands of dollars of his own money for the college to set up in Conway. Central College leaders agreed, and fifteen acres was purchased in the city and construction of the main building began. Central College opened in 1892. Though Central College would close by 1947, the campus was acquired by the new Central Baptist College in 1952.
With these two colleges in place, the city’s population nearly doubled by 1900. As enrollment grew, Conway saw its fortunes grow with them.
Donaghey expanded his business, working with railroads by the turn of the century. His company also built a number of courthouses in Texas. In 1907, as the state legislature considered a new teaching college for Arkansas, Donaghey once again worked to make sure it came to Conway. The legislature agreed, the school was born, and the Arkansas State Normal School began classes in fall 1908 with 107 students and nine professors. The city provided eighty acres for the college, and Donaghey built the oldest building on the campus, now called Main Hall. The college became the University of Central Arkansas in 1975.
In 1908, Donaghey would begin his campaign for governor. And it all started with a fight over a construction project.