north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program



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      Cullowhee Academy, a private primary school, was established in 1889 in Jackson County. The school’s second principal was Robert Lee Madison who began work that year. Madison, a proponent of teacher education, proposed, along with Lewis Smith, that the legislature give money to an existing high school in each congressional district so that a normal school could be opened to train prospective teachers. The legislators chose only to fund such an arrangement at Cullowhee, granting $1500 to Madison to get the program started. Although not funded at the time, Madison’s idea, called the “Cullowhee Experiment,” became the model for the state’s regional colleges.

      Improvements to the campus were funded by the legislature in 1901 and the name was changed to Cullowhee Normal and Industrial School in 1905. Cullowhee began operating as a junior college in 1913. Continued growth facilitated the transition to a four year college, known as Cullowhee State Normal School, in 1925.

      Rechartered in 1929, the school became Western Carolina Teachers College, a four-year, degree-granting institution. The next name change, to Western Carolina College, occurred in 1953 and was intended to better reflect the school’s liberal arts programs and graduate courses. Levern Hamlin was the first African American student to attend one of North Carolina’s state-supported colleges in 1957 when he took a summer school course at Western Carolina.

      The college gained university status in 1967 adopting its ultimate name, Western Carolina University. The regional university affiliated with the University of North Carolina system in 1972. Western Carolina University opened the Mountain Heritage Center, a museum concentrating on the history, natural history, and culture of Southern Appalachia, in 1979. The center collects artifacts, presents craft demonstrations and folk music performances, and creates exhibits and other programs that enrich the educations of students of all ages.

Curtis W. Wood and H. Tyler Blethen, A Mountain Heritage (1989)
William Earnest Bird, The History of Western Carolina College: The Progress of an Idea (1963)
Western Carolina University website:
William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006)
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north carolina highway historical marker program

© 2008 North Carolina Office of Archives & History — Department of Cultural Resources