The Early Years of Davidson College
On August 18, 1837, a year after Davidson College was established, the Charlotte Journal published an interesting article on the fledgling college.
“It may be remarked that manual labor is required of the Students of this Institution in connection with the pursuit of academic instruction. The plan is European in its origin. and had for its object to cheapen the benefits of liberal education…In some of the Southern Seminaries it has likewise been adopted with highly useful results. This experiment is so far fortunate. There is growing a crop of corn on the lands of the College quite as well cultivated and quite as well grown as that produced by neighboring farmers on lands of the same quality. Here the land was cleared – fenced – and the growing crop cultivated by the Students of the Institution. The plan with us is novel and…if…it shall be permanently adopted, it will afford the advantages of education to everyone who chooses to adopt the means of acquiring it.
“Davidson College owes its origin to the concern which religion has taken in the cause of education…This Temple of Science has been reared therefore upon the basis of moral sentiment and religious affection. It is designed that Christianity shall be part of its system of instruction… It has not yet been two years since the project was put on foot. and the Institution has done much towards the consummation of the purposes for which it was designed. It already affords the benefits of elementary instruction in the classics and sciences as well as it can be acquired in our best academies, and upon much cheaper terms. In the course, it is hoped of another year … the course of instruction will be much enlarged and the expenses still diminished. With such auspices, and promising such benefit to the Western portion of North Carolina, this infant Institution certainly deserves the patronage of the people.”
On February 16, 1838, the Journal published yet another article about the college. This report noted that “The location of the College is universally regarded as healthy, and in a neighborhood much distinguished for morality and good order.” The sixty-six students enrolled had just completed their examinations, and “The most pleasing evidence was given that the Teachers in this Institution are well qualified and fully determined to give accurate and thorough instruction…With regard to discipline, great care is taken to render it kind and parental in its exercise, but firm and decided in its opposition to vice and disorder…the Manual Labor performed by the Students contributes very much to their good health, and lessens very considerably the expenses of their education…a number of good houses have been built, and over forty acres of land cleared by the Students during the last year.”
Costs were indeed low. Board was $7 per month, which was reduced according to the student’s labor. Those studying languages and sciences paid $15 per session; those studying the “English branches” paid $10 per session. There was no charge for rooms or fuel. “From these items it is manifest that Davidson College is much the cheapest Institution of the kind, at least in the South. and perhaps in any part of our country.”
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. After a career as an archives and special collections librarian, she retired to Davidson in 2015. She has published a number of books and articles on local history, and has just completed a history of the Ada Jenkins Center.