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A few short decades after the Civil War, there gathered in September of the year 1887 in a little weather-beaten country church in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky a few men representing eighteen Baptist Churches. It was the annual meeting of the Mount Zion Association in a region having only one or two small schools that offered as much as a high school education.1
Though these few men had only a meager common school education themselves, and some scarcely that, they felt the responsibility of providing some means of higher education for the children of the Kentucky mountains.
The Association minutes show that the founders were poor—$366 was the total amount contributed by their eighteen churches during the year 1887-1888 to pastors' salaries.2 Nonetheless, they solemnly passed a resolution, through the encouragement of General Green Clay Smith3 and under the leadership of R. C. Medaris4, looking toward the founding of a College then called Williamsburg Institute. The articles of Incorporation were approved by the State Legislature on April 6, 1888, although the doors did not open until January 7, 1889, the date from which the college celebrates its founding.
Like Abraham of old the founding fathers began their journey with precious little more than faith and a promise. Little did they know that their vision would shortly catch the eye of men like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, both of whom initially supported the college through their philanthropy. This was but the beginning of famous names associated with the College, including William Jennings Bryan, Duncan Hines, Bing Crosby, and Henry Clay Frick.
In actuality, Dr. Ancil Gatliff, a local physician, along with other local residents such as J. P. Mahan, J. W. Siler, E. S. Moss, T. B. Mahan, R. C. Medaris, and A. T. Siler must be given much credit for getting the college underway.
These founding fathers envisioned young people from humble homes filling the halls and coming forth from the portals, their faces radiant with the light of learning. In 1913, with the acquisition of Highland College, Williamsburg Institute's name was changed to Cumberland College.
The institution has produced two governors, five military generals, an admiral, five college and university presidents, a Congressman, ministers, missionaries, legislators, judges, a host of medical doctors and attorneys, teachers, and the list goes on.
Undaunted by recession and depressions, The Spanish American War and two World Wars, the college has continued to serve Appalachia.
Nine presidents have served the college including William James Johnson, E. E. Wood, John Newton Prestridge, Gorman Jones, acting president; A. R. Evans, acting president; Charles William Elsey, James Lloyd Creech, J. M. Boswell and James H. Taylor.
At a meeting in Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1959 the General Association of Baptists voted to allow Cumberland College to resume four year status, having previously awarded the bachelor's degree until 1913.5
The Cumberland College campus is nestled in the Kentucky mountains and located on four hills in the city of Williamsburg.
This college, one of America's unique institutions, is located near the Cumberland River, Cumberland Falls, and Cumberland Gap.
The green, manicured campus is old, spacious, and pastoral, with twenty buildings, most of which were built or acquired in the last thirty years and five of which are older but well kept. The buildings are a blend of Antebellum, Edwardian, and historic Williamsburg Architecture.
The campus is unsurpassed with steeples sweeping up to the glory of God. At times clouds almost seem to surround the campus.
Cumberland is one of those almost extinct colleges: a small college intimate and concerned in a setting of almost incomparable beauty. Meticulous would be the key word to describe the physical facilities, largely because of a grand maintenance staff supported by student labor. The college has remained true to its founding purpose: "To provide a first class education at rates that are compatible with the means of mountain people."
*Adapted from the history of Cumberland College entitled A Bright Shining City Set On A Hill by James H. Taylor, President of University of the Cumberlands.