Western North Carolina was all abuzz with private educational opportunities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The public school system in North Carolina was limited. The state constitution of 1868 required the General Assembly to “provide by taxation and otherwise for a general and uniform system of public schools, wherein tuition shall be free of charge to all of the children of the State between the ages of six and twenty-one years.” However, the General Assembly was slow in acting, and most of the responsibility was shuffled down to the counties who were to levy taxes to support local schools and a County Board of Education to manage those schools. It would not be until 1913 that the first Compulsory Attendance Act was passed, requiring all children between the ages of 8 and 12 to attend school at least four months per year.
Many of the mountain counties were poor. There were government-funded schools in various communities, but the terms were short, and there was nothing resembling a high school. Into this void stepped various church denominations. Aaron Seminary in Montezuma opened in 1891 under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Stanley McCormick Institute in Burnsville, sponsored by the Home Mission Board of the Northern Presbyterian church, opened in 1898, with the Yancey Collegiate Institute, also in Burnsville, and sponsored by the Yancey Baptist Association, opening a year later. There were some private ventures, such as the Watauga Academy in Boone and the Globe Academy in Caldwell County.
In Banner Elk, the Rev. Edgar Tufts stepped into this void, creating the Elizabeth McRae Institute. However, the school was for girls. There were plenty of young men also seeking a better education. Tufts sought to create a boys school as well. Instead of locating both campuses together, the boys’ department was established in Plumtree. The Rev. Joseph P. Hall, brother-in-law to Tufts, was responsible for the new Lees-McRae Institute for Boys. Hall began his teaching in the Blue Bonnet School, next door to the Presbyterian Church.
In 1911, Julia Alexander wrote about visiting the school. Students had been hard at work felling trees and transporting them to a sawmill to be cut for the construction of a “recitation building,” followed by a dormitory. The students also worked on a nearby farm, which supplied food for the students, and tanned hides to make shoes.
About 1920, the school split with Lees McRae Institute and formed its own board. The school was renamed the Plumtree School for Boys. Officially chartered in 1924, the school was a grammar school, a high school, a military school, and a school to prepare young men for work in the ministry. One 1921 newspaper from Atlanta told of “an illiterate young nineteen-year-old, the leader of a drunken band,” who after attending the Plumtree school was now a “godly man” and an “ordained minister in one of our mountain churches.”
A 1925 advertisement for the school appeared in the The Charlotte Observer. The school had electric lights, heat and running water, a three-story dormitory, classroom building with a library and equipment for teaching science. Textbooks were the same as those used by the state, along with the Bible. Most of the instructors were college graduates and all had teaching certificates. The cost was $150 a year for students willing to work.
Reverend T.W. Clapp assumed leadership of the school in 1922, and, in 1925, wrote a short history of the institute for the The Charlotte Observer. Clapp was not looking for more students, as he already had more than the school could accommodate. Besides normal school activities, the Plumtree School for Boys had five Sunday Schools and four Christian Endeavor societies.
The end of the Plumtree School for Boys came in January 1927. A fire swept through the dormitory, destroying the building and personal property of the students. This was the second such fire. Another had occurred in 1908. No one was hurt, but the students were now sleeping in the dining hall and on classroom floors. “It is a serious loss to the school. We have been operating on bare necessities, most of which have been furnished through the Presbyterian church, but have made notable progress along educational and industrial lines with the mountain boys attending,” Clapp was reported as saying in the Johnson City Chronicle.
The Holston Presbytery decided later that year that instead of rebuilding the boys school, the school’s male students would be moved to the Lees-McRae Institute. In 1930, the co-educational school became known as Lees-McRae College. Only one of the buildings of the Plumtree School for Boys survives.