ECHOES FROM THE HILL:
A BRIEF HISTORY OF DAVENPORT COLLEGE
by John O. Hawkins
The genesis of Davenport actually began in the early 1850's when the Presbyterian denomination announced plans to build a female college in western North Carolina. James Harper, a noted local businessman, who was also a Presbyterian, was probably responsible for Lenoir being considered. Conditional subscriptions amounting to $10,000 were made, but for some unknown reason, the Concord Presbytery decided instead to build the school in Statesville. Lenoir people had subscribed some of the $10,000, and since it was conditional, they held their pledges in escrow for a college in Lenoir.
In July 1855 W. A. Lenoir, grandson of General William Lenoir, deeded ten acres of land with the following statement: "Whereas a subscription has been made for the purpose of establishing a college for the education of females within three fourths mile of the court house in Lenoir...." He makes reference to the subscription dated September 28, 1853, signed by William Davenport and others. Later James C. Harper donated 3¼ acres of adjoining land. Because William Davenport made the largest contribution--$2,500, and his wife gave an additional $100-the college was named for him. W. A. Lenoir's gift of land and cash amounted to $2,000 making him the 2nd largest contributor, with James C. Harper in third place with $1,150.
We can map the progress being made by reading portions of James C. Harper's diary. Before I read the entries, let me clarify that this is James Clarence Harper of Patterson, not James Harper of Fairfield, who did not have a middle initial. James Clarence Harper is a nephew of James Harper and both of these men have had a tremendous influence in Caldwell County.
James C. Harper's diary states on March 3, 1855, four months before the land was donated: "Went to Lenoir today and met the committee of the Davenport Female College. We concluded to proceed forthwith with the building." So even before it was built and organized, it was being called Davenport College, probably on the strength of William Davenport's pledge.
On June 12, 1855, he makes reference to "...plans for Davenport College with which I am well pleased." On August 7, 1855 one month after the donation of land: "Gave Uriah Cloyd the contract of building at $9,350."
In October 1855, during a camp meeting held at Center Camp Grounds near Collier's Church on the Connelly Springs Road, $12,000 was subscribed to be collected by Rev. H. H. Durant, for the building of the school. Keep in mind that money subscribed and money collected are two entirely different things, but it does show that there was widespread support for the college.
The first building was described as "...of brick, one hundred and twenty feet long, in the form of a transept; its wings thirty feet wide, fifty feet long in the center, and a large portico in the front resting on four massive fluted columns, two and a half stories high, and surmounted by a loft observatory. The stories are very high and consequently all its separate departments are airy and cool, even in the warmest seasons. It contains in all thirteen spacious rooms besides a large chapel and halls. Distinct from this building but connected to it by a long, airy corridor is the boarding department, a large-three story building and halls. The rooms on the second and third stories of this building are connected by a long corridor on the second floor immediately opening into the chapel." All indications are that this was a first class facility in both building and equipment.
In 1857, undoubtedly influenced by the fact that William Davenport and James C. Harper, two of the largest contributors were Methodists, the school became part of the South Carolina Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. Appointed to the board of trustees were both James C. Harper and James Harper, but William Davenport, for whom the college was named was not appointed. I suspect the reason Col. Davenport was not chosen was his advanced age (he would have been nearly 90) and perhaps he was in poor health, because he died about two years later. The college opened on the 15th of July 1858 under the leadership of the president, the Rev. Henry M. Mood, with "nearly 50 students."
The 1859 college catalog romantically refers to "pretty girls in hoop skirts playing 'Listen to the Mocking Bird' on guitars and walking under the oaks." (A guitar instructor was listed among the first faculty members.) It also states: "In the rear of the building is a natural amphitheater...beautifully shaded by oaks...." If you are a fan of local baseball, you recognize that amphitheater as today's Walker Stadium.
Among the rules in 1859 were "young ladies will not be permitted to receive the attentions of gentlemen." They were not allowed to visit the stores in town (Faculty members made any needed purchases.) The school had a dress code-a white dress and a straw hat trimmed in blue in the summer, and in the winter, the same hat with a blue worsted dress. The girls could not wear jewelry.
In 1861 the aim of the school was stated: "Pupils will not be hurried through a superficial course of study, but such a systematized plan pursued, as is well calculated to lead to gradual and complete development of all the powers of the mind." Not a bad philosophy of education.
Also in 1861, probably due to the beginning of the Civil War, attendance dropped, and the conference considered but rejected the idea of closing the school. In December 1862 it did close temporarily because the president had entered the Confederate army as a chaplain. It re-opened in May of 1863 under a different president, and the report states "a larger number of pupils have been in attendance this year than any former period. Six states in the Confederacy represented and ten North Carolina counties." A 1862 diploma gives the date of graduation with the notation "in the second year of the independence of the Confederate states."
In April 1865 at the end of the Civil War, General George Stoneman made his infamous visit to Lenoir. Classes had been suspended about two weeks earlier and the girls had been sent home. The soldiers took possession of the campus for two days and plundered the library, broke the furniture, and defaced the building. It was stated that a big square piano that stood in the college was used as a feeding trough for the soldier's horses. By some miracle, the building was not burned.
A petition submitted to the Untied States government in 1914 requesting $2,000 damages caused by the Union soldiers stated that it took the college ten years to recover from Stoneman's raid. The war left many supporters in dire circumstances, so much of the financial help was no longer available.
In 1870 the South Carolina Conference of the Methodist Church transferred the Western North Carolina territory which included Caldwell County to the North Carolina Conference. The college continued to operate but the furnishings and equipment were less than the "state of the art" facilities they had prior to the war.
We get some insight into student life in the 1870's from a diary kept by Julia Bowden of Wilmington, who attended Davenport from September 1873 until December 1876. Her diary mentions skating on Beall Pond, visiting with people living in Lenoir, attending the Methodist Church, and going to the Episcopal Church to see an Oertel painting. One afternoon a week was "walk time," which may have been the physical education program, and every fifth Friday was a holiday. The college had obviously relaxed their rules a little bit from 1859.
She tells of being glad when Mr. Robey, who was both the president and the Latin teacher, was away and they wouldn't have to "recite" their lessons. She was disappointed that he came back earlier than expected and class was held. She tells of "skipping practice," and she was reprimanded for being noisy during "quiet hours." Apparently they had study time until 9 p.m. with one half hour before bedtime at 9:30. She and two or three other girls would boil a dozen eggs on a stove in their room and eat three or four each before going to bed.
The winter of 1877 brought a drastic setback: "The most destructive fire that ever occurred in this town or vicinity was the burning of Davenport Female College yesterday morning," stated the Lenoir Topic on February 15, 1877. The article tells about futile attempts to save the college.
An interesting story relating to the fire concerns a skeleton that was in the anatomy classroom. Alice Earnhardt, who is the mother of the late Gertrude Blackwell, whom many of us remember, was afraid of the skeleton and refused to touch it in class, but when the building was burning, she picked it up and carried it to safety.
On the day following the fire, a meeting of county citizens was held. They resolved to rebuild the school. Three months later, the May 31 issue of the newspaper states: "If anyone will cast an eye toward the college grounds and especially to that corner where the brickyard is, and see molders, carriers, and water haulers turning out six to eight thousand brick a day...he will be more than impressed with the idea that the people of Caldwell County are irrepressible." By December, just ten months after the fire, the brickwork was done and during the winter months the interior was completed with much the labor donated by the people of the county. That is the building in the center of the picture and it was called "Old Main." Perhaps we could take some lessons from our forefathers about how to make things happen.
Despite the progress of the rebuilding, the Methodist conference dropped their support of the college, but authorized the trustees "to adopt whatever means they deem expedient in order to restore and re-open the institution at the earliest possible date...."
The time between the fire, following the rebuilding, and 1884 is somewhat unclear. We cannot be sure if college classes were held during that time, but I tend to think they were not. We do know that in 1879 Mrs. M. E. Shell conducted a day school for girls in the college building.
In 1884 the building was leased to W. H. Sanborn who did conduct college classes. In 1890 Sanborn leased it to J. D. Minick who remained at Davenport until 1898. Under Mr. Minick the school made great strides.
If you read the newspapers from the 1890's through the first decades of the 20th century, you can see what a cultural impact the college made on the community. Programs of fabulous concerts of instrumental and vocal music, and plays, including Shakespeare and the other classics, were published in the newspaper.
The annual May Day program was also a big thing for the school and the community. Public examination days were community events, and graduations attracted Lenoir residents as well as people from all over the area. It was about this time that Lenoir was given the name "Athens of the South, and Davenport College played a major role in that designation.
In 1899 the trustees placed the school back under the direct control of the Methodist Church. Although the town had built and then rebuilt the college, the bulk of the financial support for the school had always come from contributions made through the Methodist conference. Even during the period when the Church did not have direct control, the school seems to have been supported by and operated as a Methodist school.
In the early 1900's enrollment increased from 80 to 165 students with improvements to the buildings and equipment, a chapel annex completed, an auditorium as well as twenty-two bedrooms were added. Electric lights, steam heat, city water, and sewage connections were installed during this time period. By 1904 the curriculum included stenography, bookkeeping, and typing. The tuition was $55 per semester and it included room and board, servant attendance, lights, fuel, and laundry with additional minimal fees for music, art, and the business-related classes.
In 1914 Cornelius Hall was constructed. That's the brick building on the right as you face the picture.
In 1915 the name was changed from Davenport Female College to Davenport College. One source states that males had been attending since 1893, but I have never seen any indication that a man earned a degree from the college. Also the student body pictures of 1927 and 1928 as well as a cursory look at the yearbooks do not show any men. At some point a primary department was formed and young boys were permitted to attend as day students. A student body picture from 1903 show lots of little boys, so this may be what is meant by males attending.
In 1916 the college received a quarter million dollar endowment from the will of J. B. Cornelius who had given a building two years earlier. In 1926 a third building was added housing the dining room, kitchen, home economics and science labs, art studio, and music practice rooms. This is the brick building on your left as you face the picture, the one facing to the side.
James Dula's article states: "The college had been going in debt over the last few years borrowing from the endowment fund, and finally fell victim to the financial depression of 1933, so after considering many alternatives, the trustees decided to transfer the college's property and endowment to Greensboro College. (Do not confuse Greensboro College with UNC-G.) The Davenport campus, which had been valued at $250,000, officially became the property of the Lenoir City Schools, upon the reimbursement of $33,900 borrowed by the college from the endowment, to be returned to the J. B. Cornelius Foundation. The endowment was to be used to make loans "...so that worthy girls may secure an education, preferably at Brevard or Greensboro College for Woman."
Since the merger of the Caldwell County and Lenoir City School systems in 1974, the college property has belonged to the Caldwell County Schools. It is the location of Davenport School whose very name reminds us of Davenport College. When the college was first located there in the 1850's, the street it faced was called South Boundary Street, but now we call it College Avenue, another memorial to the college.
In 1986 the last remaining college building was scheduled for demolition. However, it was acquired by the Caldwell County Historical Society who preserved and restored it for use as a Museum.
We have a Davenport Room at the Museum with some artifacts from the college, including several copies of the yearbooks. We have photographs, a copy of the school song, an organ, diplomas, and even a moth-eaten pennant. We also have a few personal items that belonged to the Minick family that I mentioned earlier.
Let me close by inviting you to come to the Museum not only to see the Davenport Room but everything else we have. There is no admission charge, but we do accept donations. Our hours are 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. on Saturday. We would be glad to have you visit us at your convenience.
Ruth Jane Trivette, a teacher, wrote a series of articles for the newspaper in the 1950's and James Dula, also a teacher, wrote an article for The Heritage of Caldwell County, published in 1983, and it is from these people that most of this information was acquired. -John O. Hawkins