History & Nostalgia

History on a Stick: Emily Prudden

By Michael C. Hardy

The 1868 North Carolina Constitution required the General Assembly to provide “for a general and uniform system of public schools,” free of charge to children between the ages of six and twenty-one. The state Board of Education was created, but the actual oversight of the schools was held by each county and local school board. Most schools at the end of the 19th century were one room, with one teacher, and a term that lasted three months.

Into this void stepped several private individuals and various church organizations that saw a need for better educational opportunities for local children. One of those people was Emily C. Prudden. Born in Connecticut in 1832, Prudden moved to Berea, Kentucky, in 1878, probably to teach at Berea College. In 1882, she was serving as a housemother at Brainerd Institute in Chester, South Carolina. Prudden came to Blowing Rock for a vacation in 1885. Later in life, she wrote that local people were “poor, unlearned. . . shut out from all that makes life rich and lovely.” As she talked to local people, especially women, she “felt keenly their ignorance and need” with “no school, no church, no social life.”

Prudden’s description was not exactly true. There were churches and schools, along with social activities, in the area, but they were probably not what Prudden was accustomed to. Prudden returned a year later, and on this vacation, she purchased a piece of property between Blowing Rock and Green Park. In 1887, she built a dormitory and opened a school for girls, Skyland Institute. Some students boarded at the school, while others were day students. By the third year of operation, there were about 130 students. Susan F. Hinman was the first teacher. Later, Prudden constructed cottages for teachers, while selling lots to people who wanted to construct homes near the school. A second building was eventually constructed to house young men. Prudden deeded the property to the American Missionary Association in 1890. Prudden returned to run the school for the 1910 through 1912 terms. The school closed in 1912. Local citizens and Blowing Rock summer residents tried to develop a branch of Lees- McRae College at the site, but the endeavor failed.

Prudden was deeply interested in education. Besides Skyland Institute in Blowing Rock, she founded schools in Connelly Springs, Saluda, Elk Park, Mill Springs, Cedar Valley, Lawndale, Brevard, Tryon, and near Lenoir. Her school in Gaston County was Jones Seminary and later became known as Linwood College. Oberlin Home and School became Pfeiffer University. There were also two African-American schools, one in Elk Park and another, Lincoln Academy, in Kings Mountain.

Emily Prudden retired to Blowing Rock and later passed away at the home of one of her former students in Hickory in December 1917. She was buried near New Haven, Connecticut. “She did a wonderful work in making the way possible for young men and women,” bringing “education to them,” reported the Watauga Democrat on her death. She not only looked after their education, but their “temporal needs, giving clothing to the destitute, taking homeless women and giving them a home until they could find employment.”

While the Skyland Institute building no longer stands, the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program erected a marker at the intersection on US321 and Main Street in Blowing Rock in 1991.

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