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Gone But Not Forgotten: The Fading Legacy of Yadkin College

By Antionette Kerr

For longtime resident and property owner Florence Greene, the deteriorating brick walls of the original Yadkin College building and the unoccupied historic homes remind her of what was once a thriving intellectual and self-sustaining community. Nestled along the banks of one of the state’s longest rivers, the community named for the Yadkin established institutions of higher learning, and had farms, factories, brick stores, a post office, a barbershop, a blacksmith shop, and a jail called “the calaboose.” On the eve of what would have been her fifty-fifth anniversary at Yadkin College, Florence, the widow of native Rhett Edward Greene, spoke nostalgically of bustling streets, wooden sidewalks, and a promising community.

“History is beginning to deteriorate as time goes on,” said the retired educator. “I don’t know of another community in Davidson County that has changed so drastically from where it was.”

From a little college on the river to High Point University

Sometime before 1775, Pennsylvania German settler Casper Walser and his wife, Margaretha, purchased 629 acres on the eastern side of the Yadkin River. Later, their son, Frederick, married and helped to establish the community. In 1822, Davidson County was formed. By 1852, the Walsers were well established in leadership when one of Casper’s descendants, Henry Walser, decided the region needed an institution of higher learning to train ministers as well as their own sons. An ardent member of the Methodist Protestant Church, Henry’s determination led to the establishment of a college.

Henry presented a plan to the Methodist Protestant Conference to establish a school, known as Yadkin College (aka Yadkin Institute) and proposed how to furnish the land. The proposal was met with a lackluster response by the conference, so Walser offered to build the college at his own expense if no others desired to join with him.

A postcard of the 1881 building was one of the most outstanding college buildings in the state.  Designed and built by H. Bentley Owen at a cost of $7,000.  Photo credit Lexington Library of Genealogy Department
A postcard of the 1881 building was one of the most outstanding college buildings in the state. Designed and built by H. Bentley Owen at a cost of $7,000. Photo credit Lexington Library of Genealogy Department

Walser’s offer was accepted. It is said that he was aided by David Michael, another Methodist Protestant, to the extent of $50 to purchase hardware. Henry donated land worth $500 and set to work building a kiln and making bricks. The college opened in 1856 as Yadkin College, a Methodist institution, and Henry proceeded with the construction of a very large brick and stucco building suitable to the times in which it was built. Its doors were opened only to young men.

Named for the nearby river, Yadkin College was one of the area’s first colleges and was, for years, a primary establishment of higher learning in the area. In addition to construction of the classroom facility, Henry Walser bore the expense of constructing the first dormitory for one of three institutes of higher education sponsored by the Methodist Church in North Carolina. The school was re-chartered as Yadkin College by the legislature in February 1861.

This opening celebration did not last long as more than three-quarters of the students volunteered for the Confederate Army. Shortly after opening, the school closed and was used as a storage house for tobacco. The empty school was vandalized during the war years, but it was later restored by the community.

The Ciceronian Literary Society of Yadkin College met on Friday nights to debate issues important to the era.  At commencement, metals like the one pictured, were awarded.
The Ciceronian Literary Society of Yadkin College met on Friday nights to debate issues important to the era. At commencement, metals like the one pictured, were awarded.

When classes resumed in 1867 under the leadership of Professor H.T. Phillips, sentiment grew for young women to be accepted. By 1868, Yadkin College became the first coeducational institution in the south. The school began to offer collegiate courses in 1873 under President Shadrach Simpson.

Leadership believed the growing student body and the promise of future development of the Yadkin area called for the construction of a new three-story brick building with a five-story mansard tower overlooking the bluff. In 1881, the college completed an impressive new building including a five-story tower, 92 windows, classrooms, auditorium, and a library.

The new building was one of the most outstanding college buildings in the state. Designed and built by H. Bentley Owen at a cost of $7,000, its construction was said to create an embarrassing debt. The college and church administrators could not dissolve its financial burdens for the building. Those burdens began to take a toll on the school and in 1924, Yadkin College closed, suffering from low attendance as a result of the establishment of public schools in the state. At that time it consolidated with what is now High Point University, and the structure was declared unsafe by the county and demolished. Professor W. T. Trotten faithfully headed the college until it shut down in 1924 when High Point College (now High Point University) assumed the Methodist Protestant educational responsibility.

Historians point to the legacy of the 1924 merger that formed High Point College, which opened as a cooperative venture between the Methodist Protestant Church and the city of High Point. The campus consisted of three partially-completed buildings, nine faculty members, and student enrollment was 122. Today, the university has 122 buildings, is attractively landscaped, the full-time faculty numbers nearly 300, and approximately 4,600 students are enrolled.

A distinguished legacy of students traces its roots back to Yadkin College. This includes descendants of Henry Walser, who served in several elected offices. The 1879 graduate Zeb Vance Walser was elected to the state house of representatives, and in 1890, to the state senate, where he was minority leader. Walser, also a grandson of the founder, is quoted in “Pathfinders Past and Present: A History of Davidson County,” as follows: “It was one of the great schools of the state; in fact, it came near being the greatest school in the state. Many leaders of Davidson County, as well as other sections, were educated at the college. It contributed more than any institution to the pulpits of the Methodist Protestant church in North Carolina and High Point College.”

The Once Incorporated Town of Yadkin College

Contrary to the name, Yadkin College is not part of Yadkin county. Currently, the unincorporated town of Yadkin College remains in rural Davidson County approximately nine miles northwest of Lexington. Its history begins with Casper Walser, who came from Pennsylvania in 1770 and developed a farming tract on the westward loop of the Yakin River along with other early settlers. Farming became the chief industry with a focus on tobacco. The growing community of churches and educational opportunities by the river attracted residents from across the county. Ferries took families across the river to the town of Davie. Soon, there was a push for incorporation of the small area that once held the promise of becoming a major port.

The movement to incorporate the town was accomplished March 10, 1875 with corporate limits that extended one-half mile in each direction of the college. The town was incorporated with approximately 150 permanent residents. Many fine homes were built in the Yadkin College community. Henry Walser served as the first mayor, followed by his son Gaither Walser, then J. Sandford Phillis, H. Bentley Owen, W.L. Thompson, and Edward L. Greene.

CollegeBuildingBy 1910, the population had only grown to 250, with a mayor, treasury, and post office. A telephone company, stores, a boot repair shop, photographers, saw mill, churches, physician, manufacturing plants, and Green, Rea & Co. tobacco factory were also available. However, after Greene’s death in 1949, no new organization was established for leadership of the town. Accounts of the day blame the failed promise of building a major port nearby for its demise.

Some of Davidson County’s Most Significant Historic Properties

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Yadkin College’s small district is dense with historic properties including 23 principal buildings and 23 outbuildings, five structures, and four sites. The contributing buildings are the 1856 college building, one antebellum house, 11 houses built between 1870 and 1890, and an 1886 church. The noncontributing buildings are nine houses built after the end of the period of significance.

The site is marked by a large granite and brass monument erected in 1940 by Yadkin College Alumni. The first Yadkin College building still stands while the grand brick building on College Hill was demolished.

Architectural records show about 15 large homes built between the 1850s and 1870s still standing, with half abandoned and in need of restoration. As of summer 2017, all the homes are in private ownership. Two families, descendants of Henry Walser and E.L. Greene, are working to protect and preserve what remains. According to the register listing, “The nine houses built during the two decades after the Civil War represent unusual prosperity during the Reconstruction Era, when little construction occurred in North Carolina. These houses reflect the economic rewards of reopening following the War.”

Historic homes include the Benson-Taylor House, ca. 1870 and the Gaither Walser House (I), built before 1875. According to historic designation, “The two-story frame house is an ambitious example of Italianate Revival design, with a two-story pediment portico projecting from the center bay, a one-story pediment entrance porch, and one-story shed porches across the flanking bays of the main block. The exterior end chimneys are framed by pediment end gables, and brackets adorn all eaves.”

In 1879, the Walsers sold this house and soon after built the Gaither Walser House (II), directly across the way. The simpler home is said to have unique massing with a central projecting block. Design and construction is attributed to H. Bentley Owen, the local builder who built the grand second college building in 1881. On the interior, however, the second Gaither Walser house has understated features except for the grained woodwork and an unparalleled grand central staircase with an overhead balcony. The home is currently owned by the family of descendant David “Tonte” Craver and is used for the making and selling of pottery.

Latin inscription still displayed on the second story in the old college building.
Latin inscription still displayed on the second story in the old college building.

Another visually striking house in the district, and the only building in the district with gothic revival traits, is the E. L. Greene House that appeared on the cover essay for “Historic Resources of Davidson County” and is deemed “the closest example to the pattern book ‘Gothic Cottage’” in Davidson County.

Also of historical significance is the Yadkin College Methodist Protestant Church, built in 1886. It is typical of traditional rural North Carolina churches, with a rectangular gable-front form and a belfry projecting from the front peak.

Approximately 25 outbuildings survive on the grounds of the contributing houses in the district. Nearly every house has at least one outbuilding, typically a smokehouse, barn, or well-house, illustrating the importance of self-sufficiency in small-town as well as farm life.

Looking To The Future  

tobaccoMuch of the area includes rental property and several of the historic homes are unoccupied. Greene points to the lack of knowledge and the loss of many of the families who owned the property for the decline over the past 15 years. Both the Craver family (descendants of Walser kin) and the Greene family are holding on to their land and history. They consider it valuable despite the talk of industry and ships never happened. “It wasn’t really the town that people thought. All that went away when things didn’t turn out the way people thought it would. It was going to be a different place,”  said Greene.

Craver has committed to placing his land in a trust for future generations of Walsers. “My children and one day my grandchildren will be able to see where their ancestors grew up,” Craver said. “They will know the sequence of events and how it was. I don’t see it going back; that is why I am glad there has been a lot written about the Yadkin College community.”

Although the promise of big industry has come and gone, the Yadkin River is as beautiful as ever and the original school built by the hands of Henry Walser remains a symbol of one man’s determination for all of Davidson County.