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OPINION | REX NELSON: A college at Cane Hill

by Rex Nelson | September 21, 2022 at 3:55 a.m.


The Cumberland Presbyterian settlers at Cane Hill in Washington County were serious about education. The church's Cane Hill congregation was established in 1828, eight years before Arkansas became a state. Just seven years later, Cane Hill School opened. The first classes were held in April 1835.

According to the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas: "The area now known as Cane Hill was originally three communities. The northernmost section was the first site of the Cane Hill post office and was later known as White Church. The site of the current post office was known at various times as Boonsboro, Boonsborough and Steam Mill. The southernmost community, in present-day Clyde, was known as Russellville."

"In 1850, the school moved south about three miles, just west of the current village of Cane Hill into what was described as a 'substantial brick house of two rooms,'" David Ellis writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "A legislative act on Dec. 26, 1850, created Cane Hill Collegiate Institute and gave it authority to grant undergraduate degrees.

"The faculty had three members: Robert McGee King (superintendent), Samuel Doak Lowry and Thomas McCollough. The institute was under control of the Arkansas and Washington presbyteries of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. CHCI was chartered as Cane Hill College by an act of the Legislature on Dec. 15, 1852. This was one day after the chartering of Arkansas College in Fayetteville."

A bell from a sunken steamboat was acquired for the college. The bell cracked during a fire in 1864, but it was re-cast and placed in a freestanding belfry.

"A two-story frame building was erected in 1854," Ellis writes. "One story contained what was called the literary room and the other the library. There was also a lower room that housed a physics laboratory. Church services and meetings were held in the literary room. The first brick structure was completed in 1858, paid for by donations from the community. Another building a short distance from the main campus was funded by Rev. Andrew Buchanan of Prairie Grove."

The Civil War forced the college to close in 1861. Union troops occupied Cane Hill for almost two years. Most structures were burned. Three of the four college buildings were burned by a group known as Jennison's Jayhawkers.

"A building used as a dormitory was spared because it was a Union hospital," Ellis writes. "The rebuilding started in 1865, with the college reportedly holding classes in the former dormitory. ... By 1868, a new building was on the foundation of the large brick building.

"In 1875, the Methodist-controlled Cane Hill Female Seminary closed and became the female division of Cane Hill College. Graduating men were awarded a bachelor's degree, and women were awarded what was called an equivalent degree. The female division had a separate principal and was generally a preparatory program."

In 1877, five women were granted college degrees.

"The college was again destroyed by fire in 1885, apparently by arson," Ellis writes. "Legend has it that the arsonist was a disgruntled bootlegger who had been asked to leave town."

Cane Hill residents were undeterred. They built a two-story building that still stands and is my favorite structure to tour when visiting the town. In last Saturday's column, I wrote that Cane Hill is the perfect spot for a day trip. This gem of a restored community, which celebrates the arts and outdoors, is on Arkansas 45, about 20 miles southwest of Fayetteville and six miles east of the Oklahoma border.

College classes resumed in the new building in 1887. The college closed for good in 1891. In 1919, it reverted back to a public school serving area students. It continued in that capacity until the 1950s, when it consolidated with the nearby Lincoln School District.

Visitors can see a concrete-block building constructed in the 1940s on the south lawn. It served as a public school cafeteria. The fountain in front once was in the middle of the road that's now Arkansas 45. The belfry still holds that steamboat bell that sunk in the Arkansas River near Van Buren. There are also four rows of black walnut trees on the grounds that were planted in 1896.

One factor that led to the closing of Cane Hill College was the 1871 opening of Arkansas Industrial University. It's now the University of Arkansas. The name was changed in 1899.

"With the university only 20 miles away and offering free classes at the time, tiny Cane Hill College couldn't compete," Ellis writes. "In 1891, Arkansas Cumberland College opened at Clarksville. That college has always claimed roots in Cane Hill, but historian Robert H. Basham found no direct link when he wrote his history of Cane Hill College in 1969.

"The Salem congregation of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church continued to use the second floor as its sanctuary until 1919. ... The names of high school graduates are etched into the front sidewalk of the college building. The high school continued until the early 1940s and the grade school until 1956. ... A serious restoration effort began in 1986."

The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in November 1982. It's one of 18 properties in Cane Hill on the register. The most recent renovation cost more than $1.4 million and was completed in the spring of 2017 by Historic Cane Hill Inc. It restored the building to its appearance before a 1931 renovation.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.


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