Alma Male and Female Institute, in Hallettsville, the county seat of Lavaca County, was founded in 1852 by builder L. W. Layton and constructed on land donated by Mrs. Margaret Hallett. The wooden building near the town square contained classrooms, a dormitory, and a music room, all of which cost $5,000 to erect. The institute's first session ran from May 1853 to October 1853 and was conducted by C. L. Spencer, a Methodist minister. A joint-stock company was formed in 1854, and a board of trustees was established out of the primary stockholders, A. W. Hicks, Amasa Turner, J. C. Finney, L. W. Layton, Collatinus Ballard, A. G. Andrews, M. B. Bennett, and Silas Bennett. Although the school was usually run by ministers, its charter disallowed control of the institute by any Christian denomination and prohibited religious screening of prospective administrators or teachers; students could not be dismissed or punished for their political or religious views. The board of trustees generally controlled administrative and scholastic duties.
The institute flourished after it was incorporated, attaining a student enrollment of eighty-five by 1854. It was run by a succession of principals, the most famous being John Van Epps Covey, who later founded Concrete College in Concrete, Texas. He was a Baptist minister sent to the institute in 1857 by the mission board of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Baptists were very important in the growth of the school, which drew many of its students from the Colorado Baptist Association. The institute continued to provide a liberal education for its students at a tuition of five dollars a month for weekly students attending Monday through Friday and seven dollars a month for full-time students, until it closed during the Civil War. The war was a difficult time for schools in Texas, but the Alma Institute was also hurt by the management of J. E. Murray, the principal. By 1861 he had rented the building out as a private home. Although the school closed permanently, the building was still used as a hotel until it was dismantled in 1888.