The Founding of Mars Hill University
By the 19th century, western North Carolina was still a rugged terrain with few road, difficult travel, and near impossible communication. These factors led those who had settled this land to become isolated into small local communities full of hard workers who held a strong devotion for their families and for their religious beliefs. By the mid-1800s, these hard working families and individuals were able to clear the land that now makes up Madison and other western North Carolina counties and begin to build a life for them and their loved ones. Descendants of these original settlers soon began building communities complete with homes, farms, businesses, churches, and schools. The first church in what is now Mars Hill was the Little Ivy Baptist church, which opened in 1796. Soon after, the French Broad Baptist Association was formed in 1807 and by 1849, 26 churches were founded in Buncombe, Madison, Mitchell, and Yancey counties.
As communities grew and churches were organized, the topic of discussion amongst these mountain communities soon focused on the need for education. By 1856, there were a total of 12 Common Schools, or public schools supported by the North Carolina government, found throughout Madison County. Along with these Common Schools, there also existed several private academies in the surrounding areas, such as the Methodist Academy located in Burnsville, North Carolina. By the 1850s, many families in what is now Mars Hill were sending their students to these Common Schools for three-month terms each year. Understanding that these Common Schools lacked the ability to provide a quality education for their children, Thomas and Hannah Louisa Ray and Edward and Clarissa Carter made the decision to enroll their children to the private Methodist Academy located in Burnsville. Once enrolled in the Methodist Academy, story tells us that all three of the children professed their religion with the two Ray children making the decision to join the Methodist Church
Upset by the decision of their children, both the Carters and Rays saw the need for a school in which local children were educated within the teachings of the Baptist faith and began to work towards the establishment of such a school. With the support of Reverend William Keith, pastor of the Little Ivy Baptist Church, local families began the work of securing subscriptions and raising the needed funds to construct the school. According to John Robert Sams in his 1925 manuscript, 25 families in total helped with the founding of Mars Hill. Today, historians of the institution have identified and recognized 23 of these families as Mars Hill University’s Founding Families. Total contributions by this group of dedicated families and individuals neared $2,500 dollars but also included the promise of land, labor, and materials.