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The city of Lenoir was officially established through the auctioning of land lots in 1841. (Caldwell County, of which Lenoir is the county seat, was formed the same year.)  European settlers had occupied the area for close to a hundred years before that, following on the many hundreds of years of Cherokee presence and of other Native Americans even earlier.


In 1877, at the time of the Davenport fire, Lenoir did not yet have any fire fighting equipment, though it would shortly thereafter. In 1877, fires were fought with private bucket brigades in which every man who could took part.

Passenger rail service came to Lenoir in the Summer of 1884.  Before that, all travel to the town was by horse-drawn coach or other private conveyance. (As has been true again since 1950.)

 


A three-wall panorama of the Davenport campus after 1926 serves as a background in one of the upstairs exhibits in the Museum. This depiction of the 1877 Main Building shows also the 1905  Main Building Annex.


In  May 1888, the artist F. A. Grace wrote a letter on traveling through Lenoir, "Upon a prominant [sic] knoll to the right of the road as we came into town is Davenport College. The grounds surrounding, is a perfect natural building site and lawn, except for the left side where it had to be terriced [sic]. Then combined building and grounds looked quite grand and imposing, and especially so because I did [not] expect to meet with such structures here among the mountains or more properly speaking at the foot of them."  Examples of the artist's work in the Harper House in Hickory.

 

 




 

  
 

 

 

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Davenport College of Lenoir: brief history

  
"Educational Institution At Its Beginning: Davenport College's main building when first built in 1855." The cupola (or "loft observatory") was equipped with a telescope for astronomy classes.

"In the rear of the building is a natural amphitheatre, embracing about four acres, beautifully shaded with oak where the young ladies can take exercise -- secluded entirely from the public gaze."  From an 1856 Lenoir News-Topic article quoting the  Davenport college catalog.


Davenport Female College first opened in Lenoir in 1855
as an all girls post-high school institution of learning affiliated with the Methodist Church. To create such a school, $12,000 had been collected beforehand from the people of Lenoir and Caldwell County, or about 3/4 of the ultimate construction cost of the two college buildings. $2,600 of that sum was donated by notable Lenoir citizen Colonel William Davenport, one-time state senator, for whom the school was named. Caldwell Countyís William A. Lenoir, grandson of General William Lenoir, gave land for the school buildings. Other non-monetary donations took the form of construction materials and labor. Later donations were also received, for furnishings and equipment.

The first building of Davenport College was described in 1876 by Dr. W. M. Robey, then-President of the college, as being "... of brick, 120 feet long" with two wings and a two-story columned portico in front. "The stories are very high and consequently all its separate departments are airy and cool, even in the warmest seasons. It contains in all thirteen spacious [class rooms and offices] besides a large chapel and [connecting] halls." There was also a  three-story dormitory building "connected [to the main building] by long airy corridors."

(Click on above left image for larger version.)

The college officially opened in 1858 on July 15th with almost 50 students. In 1859, when the school was chartered by the North Carolina General Assembly, seventy women were enrolled, and in 1860, eighty-eight. In 1861, the philosophy of the college was stated as follows: "Pupils will not be hurried through a superficial course of study, but such a systemized plan pursued, as is well calculated to lead to gradual and complete development of all the powers of the mind." The curriculum included an array of classes in English, history, math, geography, biology, botany, anatomy & physiology, Latin, modern languages, and religion.  Art and music were special strengths. This was at a time when a full college education for women in the United States was still a relative rarity. The school also offered three "preparatory" (high school) grades.

Classes at Davenport continued through the Civil War years, notwithstanding the upheavals and deprivations of that war. In May 1863 a college report stated that "a larger number of pupils have been in attendance this year than any former period. Six states in the Confederacy represented and ten North Carolina counties." Union troops came through Lenoir on April 15-16, 1865 as part of Stonemanís Raid and vandalized the college. (The students had been moved out of town ahead of the soldiers' arrival.)

In February of 1877, the college burned to the ground as the result of sparks from a chimney hitting the main hall roof. Although rebuilding began almost immediately, it took a number of years for the school to again have the excellent facilities, curriculum, students, and intellectual activity of its early years.


(Click on image for larger version.) 

Lenoir in 1874. Davenport is at the upper right, "occupying a commanding position on a high hill overlooking the town." (The Statesville Christian Herald on July 6, 1897.) View is from the south.

"Lenoir at that time [1869] was an educational center for that section of the South and several schools were there maintained. Its people were impoverished by the war and everything was in a sad state of dilapidation and neglect, but there were culture and refinement; ... and those of every sect and opinion lived together in peace and harmony." J.F. Oertel, son of the painter Rev Johannes Adam Oertel who (Johannes) had a studio in Lenoir.

In 1870, the population of Lenoir was recorded as 476.

In a Lenoir Topic article on Feb. 22, 1877, in the context of soliciting rebuilding funds, the writer observed that "It is well known that there has been an annual average of nearly $10,000 in actual money put in circulation in our midst by this school. This money has found its way to every class of our citizens -- from the humblest colored woman who washes garments of the pupils -- from the boys who chop fire-wood or hunt hen eggs -- to the most influential men of our day who sell their bacon and flour by the thousand pounds, or who teach the mysteries of science." At a related town meeting, a unanimous resolution was passed, "Resolved, That the thanks of the community are due the colored people of this town for the zeal and earnestness with which they worked at the fire, in trying to save the Boarding House and in securing the furniture." (Nearly all that furniture was saved.)

   
Left to right: Davenport College's new 1877 Main Building; the full campus after 1926; and a 1908 student postcard to a friend, "This is where I stay. How do you like the look of the place? This is not a good picture though,
I can't show you my room from this side."  

(Click on images for larger versions.) 

The Statesville Christian Herald on July 6, 1897 mentioned that "The school is now open to males as well as females" [since 1893], and in 1915, the name of the school was changed from Davenport Female College to Davenport College. However, boys were welcomed only in the preparatory classes, and there is no record of any males ever earning a degree from the school.

"Davenport College meant much to Lenoir and the county as a whole, culturally and socially, offering lectures and concerts that would never, otherwise, have been afforded to a town so small. Even more important, it provided an advanced education for girls and boys who would never [otherwise] have obtained it. Everyone [in the surrounding area] attended the college affairs, which were the highlight of social affairs.  Commencement or graduation exercises drew great crowds of people, and hotels and boarding houses overflowed in those days." (Nancy Alexander's Here Will I Dwell: the Story of Caldwell County, p. 164.)

Left: Students in an art class show their work (1890).

Right: Student housing.
"My sitting room, Davenport College '95 & '96."

 

(Click on images for larger versions.) 

By the early 1900s, electric lights, steam heat, city water and sewage connections were installed. Enrollment rose to 165. In 1904, tuition was $55/semester which included all classes, room and board, and all other related fees. (Although determining the current equivalent "value" of 1904's $55 is complicated, somewhere around $8,600 seems realistic.)

   
From a 1920's picture catalog: May Queen ceremony, Cornelius Hall (built in 1914), and the Cornelius Hall library.
 
(Click on images for larger versions.)

In 1932 the Western North Carolina Conference of the Methodist Church recommended that Davenport College, then in financial difficulties related to the 1930s Depression, merge with Greensboro College (also a women's school), proposing "That Davenport College be merged with Greensboro College so as to conserve and protect all endowments of Davenport..." As preparations were made for the merger, Davenport closed its doors in 1933. The amalgamation was completed in 1938.  The physical campus became the property of Lenoir City Schools.

The main building of the Davenport campus was leveled in 1946 to make room for the construction of Davenport Elementary School; and Cornelius Hall was razed in 1986 after falling into disrepair. Today, the one surviving Davenport College building houses the Caldwell Heritage Museum. That last building had been constructed in 1926 to house a dining room and kitchen, home economics and science labs, an art studio, and music practice rooms. It was used by the Lenoir Schools as a music practice building until the middle of the 1980's. It opened as a museum in 1991.

The Davenport College exhibit room at the Caldwell Heritage Museum displays pictures and artifacts that reflect life at Davenport. Click to see some of these. A partial collection of Davenport yearbooks and catalogs is also in this exhibit. 

The room was painted and reorganized in 2010, and again in 2011 (on left).


About the 1956 Davenport College historical marker.
This mini-history was researched and compiled by Karin Borei, Museum volunteer.

Some of the historical details are from a typescript history of the college written by John O. Hawkins. Others are from Nancy Alexander's Here Will I Dwell: the Story of Caldwell County (1956); and still others are from materials in the Caldwell Heritage Museum's collections and library documents.

History relative to the Greensboro College merger is from the Brock Historical Museum of Greensboro College website (accessed in late 2008).

Some Davenport College yearbooks have been digitized courtesy of the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center (NCDHC) and are now available online through the Brock Museum: 1905 (Memandex), 1906-1911 & 1913 (Galax), and 1932 (Hilltop Echoes).

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112 Vaiden St. SW 
Lenoir, NC 28645

email:  caldheritmus@aol.com
(828) 758-4004

 www.caldwellheritagemuseum.org/
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Page updated 11/23/2011/kborei


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