History of Lees-McRae College
“Banner’s Elk,” as the village was once called, is said to have been settled around 1850. By the end of the century, the Presbyterian Church was becoming established in the area and in the summer of 1895 Concord Presbytery sent a young student from Union Theological Seminary in Virginia to organize a church at Banner Elk. In 1897, newly ordained, the Rev. Edgar Tufts returned as pastor of the church.
In the winter of 1899, concerned with the limited offerings of the district school which was supplemented only by summer school work conducted by the church, Tufts took some of the young people of the neighborhood into his study for further instruction. This small group, called the Class of 1900, marks the beginning of Lees-McRae College.
Tufts saw that this effort was not enough and that there was a need for a boarding school, especially for the girls of the mountain region. A small amount of money was raised and the promise of lumber and labor made possible the opening in 1900 of a frame dormitory for 14 girls and one teacher. One of the summer school teachers was Mrs. Elizabeth A. McRae. Knowing the devoted character of her work, Mr. Tufts, named the school for her. After a boys' department opened at Plumtree, he added the name of Mrs. S.P. Lees, who had been a generous benefactor. The Lees-McRae Institute was charted by the state in 1907 and Tufts remained to serve the community until his death in 1923.
In 1927, a fire consumed the Plumtree buildings and the boys unit moved to Banner Elk. Lees-McRae Institute became Lees-McRae College in 1931, gradually eliminating the high school department to form an accredited, coeducational junior college. In 1987, the Board of Trustees of Lees-McRae College voted to seek senior college status. In June of 1990, the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools granted Lees-McRae status as a senior (four-year) college.
Over a hundred years after its founding, Lees-McRae College continues in the vision of the Rev. Tufts, meeting the educational needs of the Southern Appalachian region and beyond. The college continues to fulfill its motto—in the mountains, of the mountains, and for the mountains—while extending educational opportunities and service to diverse populations.