Early education in Ashe County is often remembered as a primitive system of simple one room school houses which provided rudimentary education to small groups of students, usually with only one or two teachers. Although this depiction is quite accurate, it ignores the fact that, even prior to school consolidations in the 1920s and 30s, Ashe County has been home to several academies that taught advanced topics to large groups of students. The Jefferson Academy, a large boarding school, provided such an education at the turn of the 20th century. Academy Street in Jefferson still provides a subtle reminder of its importance in early Jefferson. Similarly, the old West Jefferson Elementary School building stands on the site of a large brick academy which also provided higher education to students who boarded in a nearby dormitory. These academies served large numbers of students, and were typically located in well established communities; consequently, they have been well preserved in the memories of the people they served. However, one of Ashe County’s largest and most notable academies suffered a much different fate. It has almost completely disappeared from the collective memory.
This large school was established in Nathan’s Creek during the first years of the 20th century. Like many of the large schools established during this time, the school was founded, not by the state, but by a church, specifically the Orange Presbytery. This group was made up of many of the Prebyterian Churches in North Carolina. The name refers to the group’s original church, which had been established in Orange County. The Orange Presbytery saw rural education as one of their primary goals, and beginning in the late 19th century, they allocated funds for the construction of high quality academies in isolated areas of North Carolina. In 1901, the Orange Presbytery received a request from the Jefferson and Ebeneezer Presbyterian churches that they establish a school in Ashe County. At the spring meeting, funding for the new school was approved and a twenty acre parcel of land was purchased.
The Orange Presbytery selected Nathan’s Creek to be the home for their new school. Although the exact reason for this placement is unknown, there are several reasons Nathan’s Creek would have been an attractive choice. The community, centered around Solomon Cox’s store, which stood at the intersection of what is today Nathan’s Creek School Road and Hoke Wagoner Road, was located at what was then a crossroad of two major thoroughfares: the Jefferson-Sparta Road and the road to Ore Knob. Because of this heavily trafficked intersection, numerous families and churches were located nearby. There was also clearly an interest in higher education among these families. A small academy, Liberty HIll, had already been established in 1883, and, in 1899, had taught 95 students with two teachers.
The Presbytery purchased a large, 20 acre, lot for the school in hope of constructing a large complex. By the fall of 1901, the primary building was completed. As the minutes for the fall meeting of the Orange Presbytery describe it, the new school was a “commodious new two-story building” which was designed to seat 200 students and had been constructed with donated materials. The new building was valued at $2,000. They chose to name this new school the A.J. McKelway Institute. The namesake of the new academy had no local connection to Ashe County. He was rather a presbyterian minister who had become well known throughout the South for advocating social reforms, particularly regarding temperance, working conditions for children, and education. By choosing to name the new Nathan’s Creek school after McKelway, the school’s trustees clearly seemed to view their mission as one of social, as much as educational, improvement.
To lead the school, the Orange Presbytery selected Professor J.T. Smith, an 1899 graduate of Davidson College. Professor Smith had been employed to lead a high school in Yadkin County and was selected based on this prior experience. He arrived in Ashe County in time for the new institute’s first opening on September 16th, 1901.
The first year for the new school was quite successful. 108 students were enrolled, a fact made more impressive when considering that the school offered only ‘high grade’ education, meaning all students would have been 9th grade or above. As the institute was not part of the public system, but rather a ‘subscription school,’ each of these students paid tuition to attend. Money from tuitions paid the salaries for two teachers, who served this large population. The McKelway Institute hoped to expand on this success and, in the fall of their first year, sent a request for an additional $500 to begin construction of additional buildings for the new campus. However, the funds used for school construction had been depleted, and this request was denied.
Despite their inability to expand, the school continued successfully for several years. Although the new additional buildings that the trustees had hoped to construct still never materialized, the school was allocated operating funds each year by the Orange Presbytery. In 1908, seven years after the school’s opening, there were 88 students attending the school.
Although things seemed to be going well for the McKelway Institute, the school suddenly ceased operations in 1909. The exact reason for this jarring end is unclear, but is probably connected with the construction of Glade Valley School High School in Alleghany County. Like the McKelway Institute, the Glade Valley school was established by the Orange Presbytery to serve isolated rural communities. However, the location of Glade Valley, 25 miles from a rail depot in Elkin, gave it more efficient access to the outside world. The new Glade Valley school was also much larger, established on a 120 acre tract with full girl and boy dormitories, running water, two principals and several teachers. Because it was also a high grade Prebyterian school, and offered full time boarding, this new school quickly became a hub of higher education in Alleghany and eastern Ashe Counties, no doubt hastening the demise of the McKelway Institute.
Although the McKelway Institute ceased operation sometime around 1909, the Orange Presbytery maintained control of the land and buildings until 1923, when the property was sold for $325. These funds were donated back to the Jefferson Presbyterian Church for improvements.
The large, two story school that had served as the McKelway Institute was lost, either through fire or demolition, and soon, no one seemed to be able to remember it had ever existed. By the 1920s, Ashe County schools began consolidating and large high schools serving dozens of students became commonplace, leaving behind the little one room schoolhouse and subscription academies that had come before. Although it has been almost completely erased from Ashe County’s educational history, for a brief few years the McKelway Institute stood as a beacon, signaling the arrival of a new world of rural education