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Burritt College

Spencer, Tennessee



The two best sources of information about Burritt College are “Pioneer of the Cumberlands”: Burritt College, 1848-1938 by Marion West and the Burritt College Facebook page in which children and family members of Burritt College students and faculty have posted photos and other memorabilia.


Burritt College was founded by members of the Church of Christ on the Cumberland Plateau of East Tennessee.  The school was named for Elihu Burritt of Worcester, MA.  The “learned blacksmith,” was a self-made man, who devoted his resources to projects for the betterment of mankind.  Burritt College opened in the fall of 1849 in the isolated village of Spencer, TN.  From the beginning, it was a co-educational in order that parents could send all their children to the same school.  Licensed to award the Bachelor of Arts degree in 1871, Burritt also included an academy and an elementary school.  Burritt College enforced strong discipline on students.  While both sexes attended school, they were not allowed to communicate with each other.  West reports that at the daily assembly, males entered from one side, females from the other, with a rope separating them.  The Burritt College Facebook reported that this practice was still in effect in the 1930’s. 


Initially the curriculum of Burritt College for both college and academy students was traditional and classical with courses in Latin, Greek, philosophy, mathematics, logic, natural philosophy, and evidences of Christianity.   Soon electives were added, and after 1890 students could elect either the classical or scientific courses.  After World War I, departments of commerce, agriculture, expression, and music were added, as well as a normal department.   In 1924 Burritt formally became a junior college.


Social and cultural life at Burritt came from the two literary societies—the Philomathesian (founded 1851) and the Calliopean (founded 1878).  Originally these were open only to male students, but women were admitted in 1885.  Each Saturday the societies held a debate.   Until 1920 the only library at Burritt was the book collections held by each of the societies.  After music and expression were added, the societies expanded activities to include drama and music.


From 73 students in 1849, enrollment increased to 213 by 1880, but began to fall off.  By 1887 enrollment was down to 35 students and the school temporarily closed in 1889.  Enrollment reached a high of 231 in 1899 but again began to tail off.  Burritt had received state funding as a provider of elementary and secondary education for Van Buren County.  However, the advent of public schools spelled doom for Burritt.  After 1936, the school no longer received public funding. The small junior college could not sustain the school after the elementary and high school students began to attend public schools.  Burritt College closed in 1939.  

Bricks and Mortar   

The building most associated with Burritt College is the Administration Building, completed in 1878.  It was a three-story brick structure with a cupola.  Dominating the campus, it contained 17 rooms with a main hall measuring 80x50 feet.  This building burned in 1906. 


Only two buildings remain of Burritt College.  Billingsley Hall, completed  in 1928, is now part of a shirt factory.  The 1906 Administration Building holds Spencer city offices.  The distinctive campus entrance, a gift of the Class of 1936, is also still in place, serving as a backdrop for reunion photos.


Burritt College entrance (Image from Burritt College Facebook) accessed 11-24-2017


        Team name: Mountaineers

        Colors: Purple and Gold


West notes that initially all sports at Burritt College were at the intramural level.  Boys competed in basketball, baseball, and tennis.  Football was not allowed until 1927.  Later girls competed in basketball and tennis.  In the 1920’s, teams began to compete outside the school.  West notes that the 1926-27 basketball team made quite a name for itself, finishing second in the Upper Cumberland Tournament.  However, team photos on the Burritt College Facepage, show school teams as early as 1914 in football, basketball, and baseball. 


College Football Data Warehouse shows only one game at college level played in 1934.





1914 Burritt College basketball team (Image from Burritt College Facebook) accessed 11-24-2017

Note: Images are used in accordance with their “terms of use” as I understand those terms.  Recopying or republishing these images may be restricted or forbidden.

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