From a One-Room Schoolhouse to the Mellenial Initiative

WCU’s long legacy of providing educational opportunity is intimately tied to its physical evolution


The little school that was the forerunner of Western Carolina University was called Cullowhee Academy, and its location is marked by a stone memorial, erected in 1934, that sits in a garden area between the university’s steam plant and Breese Gymnasium. The memorial honors Robert Lee Madison, who was 22 when he taught his first class of 18 students at the academy on Aug. 5, 1889. A native of Virginia, Madison earned his degree at the University of Chattanooga. Before coming to Cullowhee, he taught in the Qualla community in far northern Jackson County and served as editor of the Tuckaseige Democrat newspaper and as principal of the Jackson Academy, a school in Sylva.

The book “A Mountain Heritage: The Illustrated History of Western Carolina University,” published for the university’s centennial in 1989, described the serendipitous course of events that led Madison to take over leadership at Cullowhee Academy. The book’s authors, WCU professors emeriti of history Curtis W. Wood and H. Tyler Blethen, described how a county teacher’s institute was held in Sylva in July 1889, and at that event Madison caught the attention of the superintendent of Raleigh schools, who offered him a principal’s position in that city. Madison was working on his acceptance letter for the Raleigh position when Lewis J. Smith, a prominent citizen from Cullowhee Valley, appeared at his doorstep. A young teacher who had taught at Cullowhee Academy the previous year, Thomas C. Buchanan, a native of the nearby Savannah community, had resigned his position to enter the ministry. Smith pitched the idea of Madison coming to Cullowhee to teach at Cullowhee Academy, and Madison agreed to attend a community meeting to discuss the idea.

Cullowhee Academy

The original Cullowhee Academy building (left) and the Music and Art Building, added in 1890, made up the entire campus.

Madison later wrote about those events for the Asheville Citizen newspaper in 1938. “That hot August afternoon, following my acceptance of the invitation to visit Cullowhee, found me seated by the side of State Senator Lewis J. Smith in a topless buggy drawn by a sturdy mule en route to the ‘Valley of the white Lilies,’” Madison wrote. The next morning, Madison met with 40 to 50 citizens of the Cullowhee area at the schoolhouse and presented a speech on education. “They followed my words closely, they exhibited keen interest, and, from time to time, at what seemed to me to be just the right places, they broke forth into generous bursts of applause…,” Madison wrote. “In conclusion, I gave my ideas regarding what was requisite to building a permanent school and assured this evidently earnest group that, in case they really wished to entrust their school enterprise to me, I would stand by them if they would stand by me; for I had abiding faith in patient, persevering cooperation in any noble undertaking.” Hired for a salary of $40 per month by the educationally minded citizens, Madison had found a permanent home for the vision he held of opening a school to prepare teachers to serve in rural areas. In later years, he called it “the Cullowhee Idea.”

As Madison described it, his academy “consisted of one-fourth of an acre and a frame structure in the shape of an L, intended for a two-room building but having no partitions, fixed or moveable. The house was unfinished, unpainted, and unfurnished except for a few long, heavy benches and a blackboard. The value of the lot and the improvement was less than $800.” As the school began a 10-month session under Madison’s leadership, 12 of the 18 pupils attending were the children of board members. But during the succeeding months, more than 100 students ranging in age from 6 years old to the mid-20s enrolled, with new students coming in from surrounding communities and counties. By the end of the year, Madison had hired his sister Marguerite to teach the younger children.

With enrollment growing, Madison began his second year in Cullowhee by gaining permission to hold classes in the nearby Baptist church, and a new music and art building was added to the site beside the schoolhouse. As noted by Wood and Blethen, Cullowhee Academy was receiving $1 per student per year in funding from Jackson County and 10 cents per student per year from the state, but the school was surviving thanks to community support in the form of labor, materials and tuition. The academy had no boarding facilities in its early years. Students who needed a place to live were taken in as boarders in local homes, and some rented small cabins or shacks. Madison wrote about the environment in which the little school existed: “The Cullowhee valley and adjacent territory were at that time sparsely settled; but much of the land was fertile and the owners, most of whom lived in good homes, were intelligent, progressive and public spirited.”

In 1891, Madison and his board requested a charter from the N.C General Assembly, and the institution was renamed Cullowhee High School. The school had nine trustees, most of whom had been involved since its founding, and Madison called them the “Noble Nine.” Two years later, he wrote to a local state representative to encourage funding for a statewide system of teacher training schools. That idea was rejected, but Cullowhee High School did receive a $1,500 appropriation to support a “normal” department – a department for training teachers. Teacher training began in Cullowhee, and by 1897 enrollment had grown to 234 students.


During the 1900s, the high school at Cullowhee with several hundred students slowly evolved into a comprehensive regional university with more than 6,000 students. The 10 decades included the construction of no fewer than 30 major buildings, with the first significant building boom occurring during the 1930s as the school’s facilities doubled with help from several Depression-era federal programs. Another surge of construction occurred during the 1950s as enrollment rose in the post-World War II era, followed by another active construction period in the 1960s.

In 1901, the school at Cullowhee received its first capital improvement money from the state – $5,000 for construction of a building to house its normal department. Another $2,000 was later appropriated for the project, but local contributions of money, materials and labor were required to make the Madison Building a reality. Later known as “Old Madison,” the structure was completed in 1904. It was erected up the hill behind the original schoolhouse on three acres of land donated by David Rogers. The three-story structure represented a large expansion of facilities for the little school, and Old Madison remained in use until it was replaced by the new Madison Hall in 1939.

Joyner Building

Built in 1913, Joyner Building housed school administrative offices and almost all classrooms until the late 1930s.

By 1905, Cullowhee High School had become a full-fledged public institution and its name had changed to Cullowhee Normal and Industrial School, with the campus consisting of three buildings and 4.1 aces. As enrollment grew, the Legislature approved $7,000 in funding for the school’s first residence hall, Davies Home. Built at the top of the hill above Old Madison, it was torn down and replaced by Reynolds Residence Hall in 1953. By 1910, enrollment at CNIS had stagnated and Madison was released from his duties and was replaced by Alonzo C. Reynolds, superintendent of Buncombe County schools.

Not long after Reynolds’ arrival in Cullowhee, a decision was made to construct a new classroom and administration building. Completed in 1913, the Joyner Building was the center of campus life for many years. The school added a two-year college curriculum to its offerings during the Reynolds administration, and after he announced his resignation at the end of the school year in 1920, Madison returned to lead CNIS once again. In 1923, the high school function of the school at Cullowhee was removed with a new state charter and the institution became Cullowhee State Normal School. Madison resigned that year, but remained as an English teacher until 1937. Hiram Hunter was hired as the next president of the institution.

One of the most significant developments for the school at Cullowhee involved no new buildings, but instead was a major land acquisition that provided room for growth in the decades that followed. Born in 1854, David Rogers was a prosperous farmer and strong supporter of the school, and he sold his 60-acre “Town House” farm to the institution in 1924. The tract included 20 acres in pasture, 32 acres of cropland and the rest was woodlands. Funding for the land purchase came from a state appropriation of $438,000 designated for capital improvements and operating expenses. The 1920s also brought the addition of two new residence halls, Moore and Robertson, to the campus.

Memorial Stadium

A $2 million state appropriation led to construction of Stillwell Building (right) and Hunter Library (left), with Memorial Stadium in the foreground.

As the 1920s were coming to a close, Cullowhee State Normal School was converted into a four-year institution granting bachelor’s degrees in education, and under a revised charter was renamed Western Carolina Teachers College. The college marked its 50th anniversary in 1939 with its largest building program so far. The new construction was noteworthy, also, as campus facilities expanded off the historic hill area and onto land that had once been part of the Rogers farm. Facilities were doubled as several federal programs were utilized for construction of a new Madison to replace Old Madison, a student union, Graham Infirmary, McKee Classroom Building, Breese Gymnasium and Hoey Auditorium. The buildings were completed by 1939, just before World War II caused enrollment to tumble as many of the college’s men and women left to take part in the war effort. Enrollment rebounded after the war ended, but the physical campus remained mostly unchanged until the early 1950s.

With enrollment at 610 in 1950, WCTC went through another building boom as the Legislature approved $2 million for new construction. Additions in those years included the Stillwell and Natural Science buildings, Hunter Library, Reid Gymnasium, Killian Building and Reynolds and Buchanan residence halls. After Hunter’s death in 1947, the college was guided at various times over the following two decades by W. Ernest Bird ’15 or Paul A. Reid. The institution offered its first graduate program, a master’s in education, in 1951, and it became Western Carolina College in 1953. By the mid-1950s, enrollment had risen to just over 1,100 students. The succeeding years would bring a surge in student population, with enrollment topping 4,000 by 1968, a year after the college was elevated to university status. The 1960s also was a period of significant new construction, with additions including Brown Cafeteria, Bird Building, Killian Annex, A.K. Hinds University Center, Dodson Cafeteria and Albright/Benton, Scott, Helder and Leatherwood residence halls. During a tumultuous period from 1968 to 1974, the top leadership position at the university was held at various times by four individuals – Alexander S. Pow, Frank H. Brown Jr., Jack K. Carlton and W. Hugh McEniry.

Ramsey Center

The Liston B. Ramsey Regional Activity Center, completed in 1986, includes a multipurpose arena seating about 8,000 people.

As noted by Wood and Blethen, Western Carolina’s academic programs developed dramatically in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the transition from a teachers college to a regional university was completed. The 1970s brought the addition of E. J. Whitmire Stadium, Belk Building, Walker and Harrill residence halls and H.F. Robinson Administration Building, along with a new building to house English and music programs. H. F. “Cotton” Robinson became chancellor in 1974 and held that post for 10 years, and his term of leadership was followed by the administration of Myron L. Coulter, who also served for a decade. Western Carolina became a member of the consolidated University of North Carolina system in 1972, and in 1975 the university’s Cherokee Center was established in Cherokee to connect WCU to the tribal community. Campus additions during the 1980s included the Ramsey Regional Activity Center and the Alumni Tower, which was built by the WCU Alumni Association to mark the university’s 100th anniversary in 1989.

Enrollment at WCU remained mostly in the 6,000s as the university moved through the 1990s, with John W. Bardo beginning his term as chancellor in 1994. During the last 12 years of Bardo’s administration, as WCU entered the 21st century and increased standards for admission, enrollment surged upward from nearly 6,700 in the year 2000 to more than 7,500 in 2003, and then above 9,000 by 2007. Following the opening of the Ramsey Center in 1986, the university entered a dry spell for construction and the century ended without any other new buildings being erected. But things were about to change. The coming of the new millennium signaled the start of the biggest building boom in the university’s history – one that would transform the campus in a way that no other period of new construction had ever done.


On paper, the numbers are staggering. The list of major construction initiatives completed at WCU between 2000 and 2012, including new building, renovation and infrastructure projects, totals more than $327 million in improvements, along with the addition of more than 1.1 million square feet of new space.

The match that lit the dynamite setting off the transformation of WCU’s campus did not happen just in Cullowhee, but all across the state as its citizens voted overwhelmingly in November 2000 in favor of a $3.1 billion higher education bond package. The vote cleared the way for nearly $100 million in bond-funded construction projects on the WCU campus, including construction of the fine and performing arts center that has since been named in Bardo’s honor.


Helping open the Fine and Performing Arts Center were (from left) A.J. Rowell ’05, Principal Chief Michell Hicks ’87 of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; then-Chancellor John Bardo; trustees chair Steve Warren ’80; and Jack Wakeley, former interim chancellor.

Chuck Wooten ’73 had a front-row seat for that building boom as the university’s vice chancellor for administration and finance from 2001 through 2010. Wooten, an undergraduate student in Cullowhee from 1969 through 1973, said he came back to WCU in 1980 to work with the business staff and found that “the campus was basically what it was when I left.” The funding that became available as a result of the 2000 bond vote was the “critical component” in the move to update WCU’s campus for the new century, he said. Also, enrollment was increasing and there was a recognized need to update and build new residence halls and other facilities such as a student recreation center that could be financed through fees and revenue generated by those facilities, he said. Special appropriations for some projects were made available through the state and federal governments.

Staff members in WCU’s Office of Facilities Management, part of the Division of Administration and Finance, had the responsibility of day-to-day oversight for projects going on around campus over those years. Wooten said the first decade of the century was a stressful one for those involved, but there was a payoff. “You saw results, and that’s where you got your energy and you put up with the hassles that went along with it,” he said.

In addition to the $30 million arts center, other major new facilities added during the first dozen years of the new century included the $21 million Central Drive Residence Hall, the $21 million Campus Recreation Center, the $18 million Courtyard Dining Hall, the $12 million Village housing complex, the $10 million Norton Road Residence Hall, the $50 million Balsam and Blue Ridge residence hall complex, and the $46 million Health and Human Sciences Building. The Stillwell Science Building was renovated at a cost of $26 million. Another $8 million from the federal government made possible the Center for Applied Technology, and more than $13 million went toward improvements for athletics facilities. Also, $12 million in infrastructure improvements included the relocation of Centennial Drive, a state road that formerly bisected the center of campus where the Central Plaza and fountain are now located.


Endorsed by the Board of Trustees in December 2013, Western Carolina’s new master plan is the result of a 17-month process that included numerous public forums involving members of the campus community and local residents. It is based on enrollment projections that estimate more than 11,000 students studying on the Cullowhee campus by the year 2023, and the need for an additional 486,000 square feet of space to accommodate those students. About 7,800 of WCU’s current enrollment of approximately 10,100 students now live and study in Cullowhee.

The plan focuses on a land-use scheme that emphasizes placing new academic development in the center of campus to maximize the use of existing infrastructure, enhancing programmatic efficiencies and encouraging a pedestrian-oriented community. In presenting the plan to trustees for their consideration, current WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher, who became WCU’s top leader in 2011, called it “a living document, one that is not set in stone but will be a guide to us as we go forward.”

An “illustrative plan” included in the master plan is divided into three focus areas: the revitalized academic core, the Cullowhee Creek area and recently acquired property know as the West Campus. Recommendations for the academic hub include uniting programs of the College of Arts and Sciences; building an addition to the west side of Hunter Library; enhancing pedestrian connectivity between the historic upper area and the central campus; and locating a new Center for Student Engagement building to showcase the university’s vision to be a national leader in that area and to help connect the hill section to the core. Other highlights recommended are new buildings for science and business, and consolidation of programs in the College of Fine and Performing Arts to new and existing space near the Bardo Arts Center.

The recommendations also include development of a mixed-used facility in the traditional commercial area along Centennial Drive – a concept thrust to the forefront following a November 2013 fire that destroyed several private businesses in a building owned by the university endowment. Plans now call for a four-story building to be constructed with 20,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor and room for 350 student beds on the upper floors, said Robert Edwards ’77, the university’s current vice chancellor for administration and finance. WCU is looking for a developer to build the project and anticipates that it will be ready for occupancy by fall 2016, Edwards said. Other endowment-owned structures in the commercial district that survived the fire will be demolished to make room for the new building.

Another recommendation for the revitalized core of campus includes projects in the historic hill area of campus to renovate and add onto Buchanan Residence Hall and Brown Cafeteria. WCU trustees gave their approval in March to proceed with planning and design for those projects. The Brown building will be updated for use as a modern student dining facility. Dining operations were moved out of the building in 2010 when the university opened Courtyard Dining Hall in the central campus area. An additional 25,000 square feet of space will be added and the refurbished structure also will house residential living administration, student organization offices, room for student activities and other student support units. Work on Buchanan Residence Hall is expected to include renovation of existing space, which now provides 180 beds, and an addition to provide room for 300 more beds. Both projects will be fee-supported.

Recommendations for the Cullowhee Creek area of campus include additions to several existing buildings and making use of open land for recreation programs, athletics practice fields and parking. The plan also calls for creation of a new main entrance to campus on N.C. Highway 107 that links the traditional campus to the newer West Campus on the other side of the highway, with a new visitor center and enhanced parking for visitors.

Master Plan

The university’s master plan proposes new open spaces and an enhanced pedestrian link through Stillwell Building to Hunter Library. Image courtesy of Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company

The “illustrative plan” in the master plan also addresses WCU’s West Campus, another name for the 344-acre Millennial Initiative tract on the west side of Highway 107 that the university purchased in 2004. The goal of university officials is an economic development strategy that enables WCU to engage in public-private partnerships to enhance educational opportunities for students and research options for faculty members, while also promoting regional development. The Health and Human Sciences Building, the first structure to be built on the West Campus, is designed to be the hub of a new health sciences cluster. Toward that end, officials representing WestCare Health System of Sylva announced this summer plans to open a full-time primary care clinic in the Health and Human Sciences Building. Set to begin operation in September, the clinic will occupy 2,000 square feet in the facility. WestCare previously moved its campus-based rehabilitation and sports medicine clinic to the building in December 2013.

Recommendations for the West Campus call for phased development of two new buildings for public-private partnerships adjacent to the Health and Human Sciences Building, while preserving steeply sloped land on the tract as an environmental preserve. Tony E. Johnson ’78 MBA ’80 MPA ’91 is serving as executive director of Millennial Initiatives for WCU, and in that position he has been working as the university’s liaison with prospective developers and tenants. One project that has been in the works in recent months is an agreement to allow the university to lease the 344 acres to its Endowment Fund, a move designed to allow the university to respond more quickly to development opportunities. The Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina system has given its approval to the lease concept, and the final detailed agreement will require one more approval by that board, said Mary Ann Lochner, university attorney. It is anticipated that the final agreement could be in place by the end of this year, Lochner said.

While the passing decades have brought profound changes to campus, in recent years the university has reaffirmed its mission to serve the citizens of the Western North Carolina region, not just by offering higher education opportunities but also through the expertise and energy of its faculty, staff and students, who are working with local businesses and organizations to boost quality of life and the region’s economic vitality. University officials hope to strengthen ties to communities in North Carolina’s far western counties as they also engage in initiatives to serve the fast-growing corridor along Interstate 26 in Buncombe and Henderson counties. This fall, WCU’s undergraduate engineering program will be expanded to the university’s instructional site at Biltmore Park Town Square in south Asheville, a move that is expected to provide a major boost to regional economic development.

Of course, with the digital revolution of the late 20th century and early years of the 21st century having a profound effect on the lives and lifestyles of humanity in general, WCU’s influence now extends far beyond walls of concrete and steel, spanning across the globe through initiatives such as distance learning. Currently, the university’s force of distance learning students includes residents of 20 U.S. states and military students from as far away as Iraq and Afghanistan. When the seeds that became WCU were first sown 125 years ago, Robert Lee Madison’s voice and influence went only as far as the ears and minds of his 18 students as he taught them that first year in Cullowhee, but the voice of the modern university extends around the world.

Digging Past the University

Archaeology field school students recover artifacts from the Cherokee mound site located on WCU’s campus near Forsyth and Killian buildings.


Signs of WCU’s link to the Cherokee people abound


It was the summer of 2003. Western Carolina University was deep into the biggest construction boom in the institution’s history, and one of the signature projects of that period, a fine and performing arts center, was well underway on a tract of land in the lower part of campus near Cullowhee Creek. Seeing earth-moving equipment on campus was commonplace in those days, when funding for new construction and renovation projects was plentiful. But in that same summer, a different kind of earth-moving project was taking place on a much smaller scale on the other side of campus. In the shadow of the Killian and Forsyth academic buildings, a small army of archaeology students and faculty members was taking a look back at WCU’s development – even its pre-development – one spoonful of soil at a time.

Working in consultation with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ tribal historic preservation officer, the WCU group was sifting through dirt from several four-foot-deep pits, journeying into the ground past the emergence of WCU and its forerunner school, and even beyond a period of decades when the land was used as a farm, to learn about the lives of the Cherokee people who inhabited Cullowhee Valley before being displaced by white settlers. Specifically, their work concentrated on the archaeological remains of a Cherokee village and mound that once existed at the site.

As the participants in the dig worked their way down, the pits revealed layers of soil easily distinguished by varying colors and textures. Beyond the topsoil, the students found layers from a 1970s construction project and a 1960s parking lot, and then fill dirt from the Cherokee mound, which was leveled by the university in 1956 to make way for the Killian Building. Another layer was formerly surface soil that was cultivated on the farm of David Rogers, a prominent local citizen, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Underneath that was the undisturbed soil of centuries past. The excavation uncovered remains of wall posts from Cherokee village dwellings, and lower levels revealed evidence of Cherokee campsites from 3,000 to 5,000 years past.

Other signs of the ancient Cherokee presence in Cullowhee Valley have been found through the years, including two sites detected by archaeologists prior to construction of WCU’s new Health and Human Sciences Building that showed evidence of thousands of years of occupation by Cherokee people and their ancestors. Although numerous such sites have been uncovered in the valley, archaeologists believe many more still lie undisturbed along the banks of the Tuckaseigee River and Cullowhee Creek, an unseen reminder of the thousands of years of Native culture that existed in the valley before the development of WCU.

Meanwhile, two years after the archaeological dig at Forsyth and Killian buildings, the new arts center was revealed to the public with design elements that acknowledge the historic Cherokee presence in Cullowhee Valley. A seven-pointed star in the atrium floor design represents the seven Cherokee clans. Bilingual signage throughout the facility uses English and the Cherokee syllabary, which was developed by the legendary Cherokee figure Sequoyah in 1809 to give his people their first written language.

Ripples in the Community

Record enrollment is attracting private developers who are building apartment complexes and single-family residential developments in the Cullowhee area.


A growing university leads to changes beyond campus


The little school that became Western Carolina University developed in a remote mountain valley in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, far from any large urban center, but the school was still subject to influences from the nearby community and from around the world, ranging from wars to economic trends. Likewise, the Cullowhee school has had an influence on the community that exists around it.

Poorly developed and unpaved roads were a chronic problem for the school in its early years, making the 8-mile journey to downtown Sylva an adventure during wet weather and in winter. During the 1920s, male students and faculty members sometimes caught a ride to Sylva on the logging train that ran between the town and East LaPorte, and their seat was on top of a boxcar filled with lumber. The road to Sylva was finally paved in 1933. Over the decades, a thriving business district developed at Western Carolina’s east entrance along the river, but it went into decline after the building of the four-lane highway on the university’s west side in 1981.

A desire to revitalize the old Cullowhee business district was the impetus behind the 2007 formation of Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor, or CuRvE. Members of the community group want sidewalks built to connect Cullowhee to the campus and to the new Jackson County Greenway. Also, they hope an impending project to replace the aging bridge over the Tuckaseigee will spur interest in a river park. “Our aim is to help Cullowhee become a walkable community with additional recreational amenities,” said Hunter Library’s Anna Fariello, grant writer for CuRvE. With money from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area program, the group contracted an economic impact study that concluded that such a park would add $1.2 million annually in new spending in Jackson County and support 16 local jobs each year. Last spring, CuRvE was awarded a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to hire a consultant to create a water park design plan and a landscape architect to create a series of drawings to show what the new bridge, river park and connecting greenway would look like.

The university’s burgeoning enrollment in recent years has had a profound effect on the local housing market, with private developers building several student-focused apartment complexes in the area around campus. WCU’s existence also has spawned a new 125-acre residential development, the Cullowhee River Club, which will include 282 housing units consisting of cottages, townhomes, cabins and condominiums, and amenities such as a river lodge restaurant, swim and tennis complex, riverside pavilion and hiking and biking trails. Landscape architect Tim Newell, a native of Wilmington who now lives in Balsam, is one of two partners in the project. Newell said a prime component of the customer base for his project is the faculty and staff of WCU, plus university alumni who wish to retire or build a second home close to the university. He considers WCU to be a “tremendous amenity” for prospective buyers because it offers perks such as theatrical and athletic events and continuing education opportunities. “Western Carolina University is our primary motivation for doing this project,” Newell said. “The university opens up a very stable market for us.” While private development explodes around the periphery of campus, an advisory committee appointed by Jackson County commissioners and composed of Cullowhee-area citizens is studying growth around the university area, with the possible outcome being the implementation of zoning restrictions for the area. A community meeting was held in May to gather citizen input, and after more public discussion takes place, a zoning plan may be submitted for county commissioners’ consideration.