In May 1893, a 26-year-old Robert L. Madison helped direct the annual commencement of Cullowhee High School, the forerunner institution of WCU. Madison had accepted the position of principal at the school in August 1889 and, over the following four years, sought to expand its offerings.
The 1893 commencement was the first one in which students had finished the school’s classical curriculum and were to be awarded their high school diplomas. Four women and one man constituted the graduating class. Ida Smith 1893, Beulah Smith 1893 and Lena Smith 1893 were daughters of Lewis J. Smith, who served on the school’s Board of Trustees. The other two graduates were Frances “Fannie” Rogers 1893 of Cullowhee and Welch Galloway 1893 of Transylvania County. The students were all between the ages of 18 and 22, barely younger than Madison. Also, the Smith sisters had been among the first 18 students to greet Madison on his first day of opening class in 1889.
Commencement exercises at Cullowhee in the 1890s were elaborate occasions that extended over two to three days. The ceremonies included sermons, addresses, music, debates and meetings of the school’s trustees. Accounts of these programs in the Tuckaseige Democrat newspaper report that they continued into the evening hours and were typically accompanied by a “bountiful dinner” provided by the Cullowhee community. On the 1893 occasion, held May 18, the program noted that the “Graduating Exercises” would be held at 2 p.m. and were to be followed by the “Organization of an Alumni Association.”
Forty-five years later, Madison reminisced about the importance of this class for both his goal of establishing a permanent school in Cullowhee and for the development of education in Western North Carolina. He noted that “this small number (only about 3 percent of the student-body) indicates how hard it was in those days to induce students to continue in school long enough to finish a thorough high school course.”
During his years of working to establish a school, Madison had observed that receiving a high school degree was often a difficult endeavor in Western North Carolina in the 1880s and 1890s. There was a lack of teachers with experience, short school sessions of only three to four months, and low pay for rural teachers that discouraged them from attending one of the state’s more prestigious, but expensive, Piedmont schools.
W.E. Bird ’15, a colleague and friend of Madison, commented in his book “The History of Western Carolina College” that Madison had recognized the potential of these first impending graduates as well as those of future classes in the making. In January 1893, he seized upon the idea to write Walter E. Moore, his state representative, requesting assistance in establishing a normal department with the intent to train teachers specifically for rural and small town schools.
Excited by the prospect of his proposal of a teacher training department, Madison later related how he woke his wife late at night so he could read to her his letter to Moore. He then set out from his house at midnight to walk by lantern light almost a mile to the nearest post office.
Madison later recalled: “I shall never forget my thoughts and feelings that night as, sleepy and tired, I dragged my feet over the frozen ground. All of Cullowhee was under the spell of slumber. There was no light in any dwelling; there was no sound save the rush of waters over the antiquated mill-dam. And I dared to hope that there might result from that lonely midnight trip something that would forever bless this goodly region whose interests I had been commissioned to serve.”
Moore declined to support Madison’s proposed financial request, but did submit a bill at a far lower funding, which passed. Madison later wrote a series of polite, but insistent, letters to the state superintendent of public instruction requesting updates on the department’s establishment in order to publish a school catalogue and, perhaps, to confirm the department’s establishment, which occurred for the next academic year.
And what of those first five?
Sisters Lena and Ida Smith along with Fannie Rogers were among the first 12 students to graduate in 1894 from the new Normal Department that Madison had envisioned. Beulah Smith unfortunately died of an unspecified illness less than three months after graduation in 1893. As Madison had hoped, many of the students – including the surviving Smith sisters and Rogers – went on to become teachers. For a time, Ida Smith also operated a general store. Lena Smith married Cassius Wallace 1894, who had also attended the Cullowhee High School. Wallace was the adviser of the Columbian Literary Society, one of the two literary societies organized by Madison in 1894 to encourage debate and recitation and as a means to build community spirit. Welch Galloway became a lawyer and practiced in several WNC counties. In the summer of 1934 a memorial was dedicated to Madison on the site of the original Academy building. Fittingly, Galloway also was invited as the principal speaker of the occasion.
Alumni and future graduates alike should remember that midnight walk of Robert Madison in 1893 and of the hopes he rested upon the first graduates of Cullowhee.
George Frizzell ’77 MA ’81 is head of special collections at Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library.