REX NELSON: A college at Cane Hill

The Presbyterian settlers of Cumberland in Cane Hill, Washington County, took education seriously. The Cane Hill Ward of the Church was organized in 1828, eight years before Arkansas became a state. Cane Hill School opened just seven years later. The first lessons took place in April 1835.

According to the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “The area now known as Cane Hill was originally composed of three communities. The northernmost section was the first location of the Cane Hill post office and later became known as the White Church. The location of the Power Post Office was at various times known as Boonsboro, Boonsborough and Steam Mill. The southernmost community in what is now the Clyde was known as Russellville.

“In 1850 the school moved about three miles south, just west of the present-day village of Cane Hill, into what has been described as ‘a substantial two-room brick house,'” writes David Ellis for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “An act of December 26, 1850, created the Cane Hill Collegiate Institute and gave it authority to award bachelor’s degrees.

“The faculty had three members: Robert McGee King (superintendent), Samuel Doak Lowry and Thomas McCollough. The institute was under the control of the Arkansas and Washington Presbyteries of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. CHCI was chartered as Cane Hill College by an act of the legislature on December 15, 1852. This was one day after the founding of Arkansas College in Fayetteville.”

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A bell from a sunken steamship was acquired for the college. The bell broke in a fire in 1864 but was recast and placed in a free-standing bell tower.

“A two-story half-timbered building was erected in 1854,” writes Ellis. “On one floor was the so-called literature room, on the other the library. There was also a lower room, which housed a physics laboratory. Services and meetings were held in the literature room. The first brick building was completed in 1858 and paid for by donations from the Church Another building near the main campus was funded by Rev. Andrew Buchanan of Prairie Grove.

The Civil War forced the college to close in 1861. Union troops occupied Cane Hill for nearly two years. Most structures were burned. Three of the four college buildings were burned down by a group called the Jennison’s Jayhawkers.

“One building used as a dormitory was spared because it was a Union hospital,” writes Ellis. “Rebuilding began in 1865, with the college reportedly holding classes in the former dormitory. … By 1868 a new building was constructed on the foundation of the great brick building.

“In 1875 the Methodist-controlled Cane Hill Female Seminary closed and became the female department of Cane Hill College. Graduates were awarded a bachelor’s degree, and women were awarded what is known as an equivalent degree. The female department had a separate director and was generally a preparatory program.”

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In 1877, five women received college degrees.

“The College was again destroyed by fire, apparently by arson, in 1885,” writes Ellis. “According to legend, the arsonist was a disgruntled smuggler who was told to leave town.”

Cane Hill residents were undeterred. They built a two story building that still stands and is my favorite building when I visit the city. In last Saturday’s column I wrote that Cane Hill is the perfect place for a day trip. This gem of a restored community that celebrates the arts and the outdoors is located at Arkansas 45, approximately 20 miles southwest of Fayetteville and six miles east of the Oklahoma border.

College classes resumed in the new building in 1887. The college finally closed in 1891. In 1919 it became a public school again for students from the area. It remained in that capacity into the 1950s when it consolidated with the nearby Lincoln School District.

On the south lawn, visitors can see a concrete block building from the 1940s. It served as a public school canteen. The well in front of it once stood in the middle of what is now Arkansas 45 street. The bell tower still houses the steamboat bell that sank in the Arkansas River near Van Buren. The grounds also have four rows of black walnut trees planted in 1896.

One factor that led to the closure of Cane Hill College was the opening of Arkansas Industrial University in 1871. It is now the University of Arkansas. The name was changed in 1899.

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“Because the university was only 20 miles away and offered free classes at the time, tiny Cane Hill College couldn’t compete,” writes Ellis. “In 1891 Arkansas Cumberland College opened in Clarksville. This college has always claimed roots in Cane Hill, but historian Robert H. Basham found no direct connection when writing his 1969 history of Cane Hill College.

“The Salem congregation of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church used the second floor as a place of refuge until 1919. … The names of high school graduates are engraved on the front sidewalk of the college building. The high school lasted until the early 1940s and the elementary school until 1956. … In 1986 serious restoration efforts began.

The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in November 1982. It is one of 18 Cane Hill properties on the register. The most recent renovation cost more than $1.4 million and was completed by Historic Cane Hill Inc. in the spring of 2017. She restored the building to its pre-renovation appearance in 1931.

Editor-in-Chief Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He is also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

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