One hundred years ago this week, the future for the educational institution now known as Elon University looked pretty bleak. The original Elon College administration building (the only instructional and administrative building on the then-small campus of two buildings) burned to the ground.
During the early morning hours of January 18, 1923, the Main building – the oldest on campus, which stood where the Alamance Building stands today and housed the college’s classrooms, and most of its administration, including the college’s records, books, and furnishings – at then-Elon College lay in ruins, a burnt shell.
The disaster could have meant the end of Elon College, which was founded just 34 years earlier.
Instead, within a matter of hours, Elon College trustees arrived on campus and began developing a building plan to guide the institution for the next 100 years.
Classes were held the very next day elsewhere on campus and in the community, according to a summary of the history provided by the university this week, and within weeks, a plan to build a bigger and better Elon was underway, as supporters kicked off a fundraising campaign – “for new buildings and a more robust endowment,” according to the university.
According to a history of those plans, summarized this week by the university, initial plans took shape to build at least four new buildings to take the place of Main, with an Emergency Fund committee tasked with raising $600,000 — half for the new building program and the other half for the college’s endowment.
That plan would grow to include five new buildings — an administration building (Alamance Building), an auditorium (Whitley Auditorium), a Christian education building (Duke Building), a library (Carlton Building) and a science building (Mooney Building).
[Story continues below historic photos.]
The university notes that at the time of the fire, Elon had only a few dozen students enrolled.
Today, Elon University has more than 7,000 undergraduate and graduate students across six schools, a campus of more than 650 acres (it had 87 acres at its founding) and what the university refers to as “an alumni family” of more than 38,000.
The fire of 1923 fire eventually served as the basis for what has become the college’s mascot, the Phoenix, a bird associated with Greek mythology to signify something that dies and rises again from the ashes.
To commemorate the fire of 1923 and, more importantly, its aftermath, Elon University officials have planned a number of events that kicked off Wednesday morning with a community breakfast held at The Inn at Elon to honor firefighters in Alamance County.
According to the university, this week’s festivities are just the beginning of a year-long commemoration to celebrate the school’s metamorphosis into the prestigious educational institution it has become 100 years later.
[Story continues below photos of Wednesday (January 18, 2023) festivities.]
The university has developed a video and a special website to commemorate this history.
The school’s mascot was changed from the “Fighting Christians” to the Phoenix in 2000, and the institution became Elon University on June 1, 2001.
ONLINE EXTRA (BACKGROUND ON ELON’S FOUNDING AFTER INITIAL ROOTS IN GRAHAM)
Background before the fire – and before Elon College
Elon University’s roots can, to some extent, be traced to its predecessor institution, which was located in Graham, first as Graham Institute and later Graham College and ultimately Graham Normal College. One of the students there was William S. Long, who would become the first president of Elon College.
The Graham Institute was founded as a school for boys founded in the early 1850s by the Christian Church, the forerunner to the modern-day United Church of Christ.
The Graham Institute opened in a two-story brick building at the corner of West McAden and South Maple streets in 1852, with Rev. John R. Holt, a Christian Church minister, as the principal.
In 1859, the charter of the Graham Institute was changed to Graham College, but it closed in 1863 amid the Civil War.
Two years later, in 1865, one of the first graduates of Graham College, William S. Long, returned to Graham and opened the Graham Female Seminary, before he became the first superintendent of public schools in Alamance County. In 1871, Long bought the former Graham College, where he opened the original Graham High School.
In 1881, William Long’s brother, Daniel Long, purchased the property and again changed the charter to Graham Normal College, which welcomed its inaugural class of 135 students in 1886 – minus Daniel Long, who had moved to Ohio three years prior to serve as president of Antioch College.
The following year, in 1887, the Christian Church voted to lease the Graham Normal College from the Long brothers for three years and operate it with William Long as president, while a permanent location for a college, originally planned on North Main Street in Graham, was built.
But complications arose during the negotiations to buy land in Graham for the college, and a church committee, headed by William Long, ultimately set its sights on building a new college outside of any existing municipality, on 87 acres five miles west of Burlington, at the behest of W.H. Trollinger, who provided about half the land for a new college.
The decision to build the new college five miles west of Burlington had been lamented by the editor of The Alamance Gleaner in 1889 as having been moved “to the woods.”
Elon College was established in 1889; and the remains of the Graham College building were destroyed by fire in 1892.
In 1890, the name of the post office at the former Mill Point where the college had been located was changed to Elon College (to match the name of the educational institution), and the municipality where it was located was officially chartered in 1893 as the town of Elon College.
The name Elon, a Hebrew word meaning “oak,” was selected as an homage to the many oak trees dotting the landscape, based on Elon College: Its History and Traditions by Durward T. Stokes, who had been a Graham city councilman and Elon College history professor.
Stokes wrote both a history of the college (in 1982) and of the city of Graham, entitled Auction and Action: Historical Highlights of Graham, North Carolina, (in 1985), both of which provided the information for this background.