Where did the spark begin that grew into the steady light of learning produced for sixty years by Truett McConnell College? The spark, as old as humankind’s desire to learn, was passed from one generation to another, with each advancing the flame of knowledge and adding to the corpus of learning of preceding generations. Dates, places and people can be identified as igniting the particular light in the mountains that has become Truett McConnell College, now advancing to a four-year status.
Hiawassee Academy/Hiawassee Junior College, 1886-1930, and Mountain Preachers’ Schools, held for a week in the summers in certain mountain counties had great influence in starting schools. Imagine this preachers’ school in the summer of 1886 held in Hiawassee, Towns County, Georgia.
Rev. Fernando Coello McConnell a young preacher, stood on the steps of the Towns County Court House and preached an impassioned sermon. No one threatened to arrest him for using a public building for a religious message. Preachers and citizens hearing him caught his vision of a Christian school. Rev. McConnell, who had the support and financial backing (though money was limited) of his father, merchant-farmer-businessman, William Ross McConnell, proceeded to start a mountain school.
Rev. McConnell’s first cousin, George Washington Truett of nearby Hayesville, North Carolina, had just finished Hicksville (also called Hayesville) Academy. Truett was teaching at the Crooked Creek School near Hiawassee. Rev. McConnell engaged his cousin to be the first principal and teacher of the Hiawassee Academy. They secured a place to meet. It opened its doors to students on January 1, 1887. Students boarded with citizens of the town or found small cabins to rent at a reasonable rate and cooked their own meals (this was called “batching”). Rev. McConnell did not teach at the Academy, but his encouragement and his family’s support were key factors in the school’s success.
By the end of the first two years, when Truett and McConnell left the operation of Hiawassee Academy to pursue their ministry careers in other areas, the enrollment had grown to 300. Its reputation for solid education in academics and Christian education was widespread. The Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention gave support to Hiawassee Academy as one of its “Mountain Schools.” Notable persons from the North Georgia region trained there and went forth to be teachers, ministers, lawyers and businessmen. Among these notables was Dr. Mauney Douglas Collins of Union County, Georgia who was, for twenty-five years, Georgia State Superintendent of Schools.
Several factors brought the Hiawassee school to an end in 1930. One was obviously the Great Depression. Another was the gradual opening of public schools making high school training more accessible. The third and most unfortunate incident causing the closure of Hiawassee Academy was the embezzlement of funds at the Home Mission Board, which precluded financial aid for Mountain Schools.
Blairsville Collegiate Institute, Another Mountain School
Not as old as Hiawassee Academy, Blairsville Collegiate Institute operated in Blairsville, Union County, from 1904 through the end of the spring semester in 1930.
Past columns have given highlights in the history of this school sponsored by Notla River Baptist Association and the Home Mission Board. Miss Dora Anne Hunter, whom the present Truett McConnell is honoring, graduated from the Institute and taught there before it closed. She had the good academic training and the “normal school” preparation of teachers at the Collegiate Institute to qualify her as a teacher. She continued her education at Young Harris College, and later at the University of Georgia. The Blairsville Collegiate Institute basically had the same three reasons for closing as experienced by the Hiawassee Academy.
The question of a mountain Christian School lay dormant for more than fifteen years. Could the flame be renewed?
(To be continued next week.)
c2006 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Feb. 23, 2006 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.