ELON — Some 125 years ago, the leaders of Graham College in Alamance County got a state charter for a new four-year college.
They picked out a site in 1889 amid a strand of oak trees near a village called Mill Point, a railway depot outside of Burlington.
Elon College opened in the fall of 1890 with 76 students, mostly the sons and daughters of Alamance County farmers.
More than a century later, Elon University is the state’s third-largest private university (after Duke and Wake Forest). Its 6,300 students come from almost every state and nearly 50 countries.
Retired Elon history professor George Troxler, now the university’s official historian, has written a new book about the college, which is celebrating the 125th anniversary of its founding.
The News & Record recently spoke with Troxler about Elon.
“Elon was founded by the Southern Christian Church (later the United Church of Christ), which was an offshoot of the Methodist Church. It was a small, rural denomination,” Troxler said. “(Elon) grew out of Graham College, a two-year institution in the town of Graham.
“They wanted to establish a four-year institution, and they looked at Greensboro and Burlington. But they liked the idea of Mill Point, (a freight depot) which was between Burlington and Gibsonville. They could name the town after the city, and it was away from the corrupting influence of city life. It was seen as a healthy location.”
The school’s founders originally wanted to call the college Bon Air, Troxler said.
One problem: The Richmond and Danville Railroad already had a stop near Richmond named Bon Air and the railway didn’t want to change it.
So the founders went with their next choice: Elon.
“Elon is the Hebrew word for oak,” Troxler said. “The site they selected had a variety of different oaks.”
Technically, Elon was the founders’ third choice for a name.
“They were looking for a major donor. ... If they had gotten a donation, it would have been called something else,” Troxler said.
Men and women going to college together? The horror.
Elon was only the second co-ed college in North Carolina. UNC-Chapel Hill didn’t admit women until 1897. N.C. State’s first female student didn’t enroll until 1901.
“It had to be defended,” Troxler said of Elon’s decision. “There were many people critical of the concept because people were against it. But in church tradition, men and women were educated together.
“It was a practical matter, too. They couldn’t afford two schools. It was a small denomination.”
Nineteenth-century co-education had its limits, though.
“There were separate stairwells on different sides of the building for men and women, and they sat on opposite sides of the classroom,” Troxler said.
In 1923, Elon College had five buildings: four dorms and a main building — known as “Old Main” or simply “The College” — that housed classrooms, a library, an auditorium, and faculty and administrative offices.
Early on Jan. 18, a student woke up in an adjacent dorm and saw lights flickering in a second-story window. He tried to ring the bell of Old Main but couldn’t because the smoke was already too thick.
“They really don’t know how it started,” Troxler said. “They assume someone could have left a burner on in one of the laboratories. It could have been a short in the electrical system.”
After the fire, Troxler said, “the trustees at that point made an ambitious plan to build five central buildings: Alamance, Whitley Auditorium, Carlton Library, the Duke Science Building and the Mooney Christian Education Building.”
All five buildings were open by 1925. All five still stand.
Then came the Depression.
“The school never has closed,” Troxler said, “but when the Depression hit the school, the college was deeply in debt because of the construction program in the ’20s. They had some beautiful buildings but ... the buildings cost twice as much as they had anticipated.
“The Depression hit agriculture before it hit other things. In the mid-’20s, many of the congregation ... couldn’t meet their pledges, and the college’s endowment had been loaned to churches for their construction program.”
Enrollment at one point dropped to fewer than 90 students.
In 1936, President Leon Edgar Smith persuaded loan holders to take less money and for professors to take a pay cut.
Troxler credits those actions with saving Elon.
“That was probably a greater crisis than the fire,” Troxler said.
Troxler, along with 1978 graduate Raymond Beck, the former state capitol historian, helped track down the bell that once hung in Old Main.
The bronze bell fell five stories to the ground when the bell tower collapsed during the 1923 fire.
The college kept it on display for years in the church history room of Carlton Library.
But when Elon opened a new library in 1968, it closed the church history room.
Troxler arrived on campus the next fall. One of his roles was adviser to a service fraternity, which met on the third floor of the former Carlton Library.
The bell, Troxler said, “was over in the corner of the meeting room. I sort of figured out what it was. You can see where part of the bronze melted.”
After that, “(the bell) was stored on campus. I knew it was here,” Troxler said. “It went to various locations, such as the basements of two different buildings. I tracked it to the loading dock of the physical plant. ... I think it was general knowledge that it was the original bell from Old Main, but no one had any interest in preserving it.”
That changed in 2010, when the bell went on display in the lobby of the Alamance Building, not far from where it once hung.
Who was Elon’s best president?
“I’m not going to answer that one,” Troxler said. “The remarkable thing is that Elon over the past 103 years has had only five presidents. One of them is still serving, so we’re still counting.”
Three of those presidents are still living: J. Earl Danieley, who became president in 1957 at age 32; J. Fred Young, who served from 1973 to 1998; and Leo Lambert, who has led Elon since 1999.
“One reason for the success of the school is the continuity of capable leadership,” Troxler said. “Each president has been ideal for his time.”
About the turn of the century, Elon made two big changes.
In 2001, it dropped “College” and become Elon University. (The town of Elon College later dropped “College” and became just plain Elon.)
A year earlier, Elon dropped the Fighting Christians nickname that dated back to the 1920s for something more secular: Phoenix.
The new athletics nickname was intended to harken back to how the college rebuilt after the 1923 fire.
Some people grumbled that it was a slick marketing creation. But, as Troxler later found out, Elon’s leaders at the time really did see the college as a phoenix rising from the ashes of Old Main.
During his research for the book, “I actually found an early reference to phoenix,” Troxler said. “The term ‘phoenix’ was used by President (William) Harper. After soliciting money to help with the rebuilding, he said in the convocation speech in 1923 that Elon would rise again like a phoenix.
“People forgot about it until we were looking for a new nickname.”
Contact John Newsom at (336) 373-7312 and follow @JohnFNewsom on Twitter.