While researching an article on Knoxville’s legendary grocer, politician, media performer, philanthropist, story teller, and coon dog hunter, Cas Walker, I came across several references to an institution of learning named Murphy College in the East Tennessee mountain town of Severville.
Walker, a native of Sevier County claims he attended Murphy College for two years but never graduated. Said claim is in dispute by some surviving Sevier County residents. He often expressed regrets about not finishing college and sought an informal education from various sources and teachers throughout his business and political life.
Murphy College was the successor to the old Nancy Academy which was Sevierville’s first secondary school created by an act of the Tennessee legislature in 1806 and was operating until around 1892. Nancy Academy also operated under the name of “Sevierville Academy” during the last years of its existence.
When the school opened in 1890 it was publicly announced that “immoral students will be excluded and the lazy ones put to work.”
The original two acres upon which the school was established was acquired from the Mountain Star Lodge of Masons.
A curriculum of Latin, Greek, English, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, botany and psychology was established.
After Murphy College succeeded Nancy Academy the school continued to be operated under the auspices of the Methodist Church and stressed that it was “free from sectarian teachings" and that "students could attend any church denomination approved by their parents or guardians.”
The name had been changed to Murphy College to honor Colonel James C.
Murphy who made a $1,000 donation to the school.
In addition to its academic program the college engaged in intercollegiate athletics.
The University of Tennessee was the winning opponent in three baseball games in 1908 and 1916 played between the two schools.
The football team played East Tennessee State, Tusculum, Lincoln Memorial and Union in the 1920s.
The college’s greatest growth started in 1912 when an educator and ordained Methodist minister, Dr. E.A. Bishop, became president and served until his death in 1925. During his tenure the building of the first unit of seven buildings, a boy’s dormitory and a girl’s dormitory were completed.
In 1919 additional acreage was acquired from the Colonel M. P. Thomas heirs and a significant building expansion started. The school’s largest number of students was in the high school but also included college students.
In 1923 the name of the school was changed to “Murphy Collegiate Institute”.
After public education in Tennessee was enacted by the legislature, Murphy suffered from a decline in enrollment like many other small institutions of learning in the state.
The establishment of Sevier County High School and the Depression years in the early 1930s were also contributing factors to the closing of the school in 1935. The school’s property was sold to the Church of God that today operates the “Smoky Mountain Children's Home” in the old Murphy building.
A short-lived Sevierville Business College moved into a college building on Park Road and then the Sevierville Elementary School occupied the premises for several years. Currently the renovated building is the headquarters of the Sevier County Board of Education.
A 20-stop, self-guided walking tour of the historic city of Sevierville is described in a brochure of Sevierville at the Chamber of Commerce and includes part of the Murphy College buildings at 226 Cedar St. The brochure was prepared by Sevier County Historian Carroll McMahan.
For more information call (865) 453-6411 or visit Sevierville.com.
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