Just down Interstate 40, exit 113 delivers you to what was one time the community/town of Excelsior. In fact, if you drive up the main thoroughfare, Connelly Springs Road/Malcolm Boulevard, you pass a street by that name. Yet, nobody really knows the place as Excelsior any more.
Instead, it’s Rutherford College, which might seem strange. There’s no college there and the complex that dominates the landscape is a hospital named for the next town over, Valdese. So who is Rutherford and where is the college? A question worthy of any tourist who drove through.
At one point there was a college in Rutherford College, with its roots going back to the late 1840s, when the area was indeed known as Excelsior. Methodist minister Basil Gaither Jones started “subscription school,” known as Owl Hollow School, that charged students for instruction. After a few years, Robert Laban Abernethy took over. During the 1850s, Abernethy solicited funding for the school from one of Burke County’s wealthiest citizens, John Rutherford, Jr., who owned a vast tract of land in the area known as Bridgewater. Rutherford financed the purchase of 200 acres of land and donated a good portion of his substantial library to the academy to assure its survival. The school was renamed Rutherford Academy.
The school shut down during the Civil War but reopened in 1869 as Rutherford Seminary. John Rutherford contributed more money and more books to the institution, believing in the value of education. The name changed again to Rutherford College when it welcomed students for studies in addition that of the clergy. At its height, the college included a student body of 200 with ten professors.
One important aspect to Rutherford College was that, unlike other institutions of higher learning, attendance was affordable. John Rutherford did not want education to be attained only by the wealthy. Scholarships were given regularly for those that could not afford tuition.
The college continued after Rutherford’s death in 1880, but a series of ups and downs plaguing the school. In 1891, fire destroyed much of the campus. Abernethy rebuilt it and reopened two years later. After his death, the Western NC Methodist Conference bought the college. They chose to operate it as a high school, returning it to its original status. Over the years, the institution rebounded to include junior college courses. In 1916, another contribution allowed construction of Weaver Hall, the first brick building in the complex.
Fire swept through Weaver Hall in 1927 and thanks to the Great Depression, the entire school closed in 1936. Actually, it merged with other Methodist colleges into what became Brevard College, near Asheville. By the time it left the area, nobody called the community Excelsior any more. They knew it as we do today, Rutherford College, minus the college.
The original campus was located on the grounds now occupied by the medical faculty at the center of Rutherford College. In fact, the college’s infirmary was the genesis of Valdese General Hospital.
Excelsior was decommissioned in March of 1933 and Rutherford College recommissioned as a town in 1977. Even if the school went by many names during its tenure, the municipality of Rutherford College, a reflection of its history, remains the same, a designation we all know.
Photo: Rutherford Academy, around the time when John Rutherford, Jr. was the school’s benefactor.