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Watauga Academy memories still alive in Butler

There are now only a few people remaining who fondly remember the halls of Watauga Academy, but for more than half a century the school was one of the best examples of higher education in Johnson County, producing hundreds of successful graduates and creating a legacy that has far outreached the brick and mortar of its walls. Sadly, all that exists of the once stately building are a few old black and white photos and the cherished memories of those who attended.

Established in 1871, the institution went through several changes before finally being inundated and destroyed in 1948 to make way for the waters of Watauga Lake. Every year since that time, the friends and graduates of Watauga Academy have gathered together in fellowship and homecoming to honor the memory of the school. Officially forming the Watauga Academy Alumni Association in the early 60s, the annual reunion has now become a highly anticipated annual event.

Much like many of the students to pass through her doors, the academy had humble beginnings. Built in the 1860s by Joshua Perkins, and originally known as Enon Seminary, the school began as a two-story brick building that officially opened in 1871. Located at the confluence of Roan Creek and Watauga River, the seminary was named after a location referenced in the Bible by professor and founder, Reverend L.L. Maples.

Enon’s success fluctuated year to year until the arrival of Professor James H. Smith in 1882. Reopening the school that year under Smith’s leadership, Enon rapidly outgrew its capacity and by 1886 the administration was looking for a location to erect a larger and more suitable building. Moving just across the river and renaming the institution Holly Spring College, Smith helped provide education for students of all ages, starting as early as the primary grades and going all the way through a bachelor’s degree under one roof.
Smith remained the active head of the school until 1902 when he sold his interest in the facility to the Watauga Baptist Association and its name officially changed from Holly Springs College to Holly Springs Institute. It was not long until that name changed as well, and in 1906 the Association finally adopted the lasting title of Watauga Academy.

By that point the academy had developed into a functioning four-year high school with close ties to the Butler Baptist Church. In fact, the majority of principals at Watauga Academy also served a dual role as pastors in the church which had one of the largest congregations in the Watauga Valley. This early period also gave rise to one of the academy’s most famous graduates, Speaker of the House of Representatives, B. Carroll Reece.

The academy became a public school in 1931 after depression era financial difficulties forced the Baptist Association to sell the facility to the Johnson County Board of Education. Serving the city of Butler and communities all over the southwestern part of the county, the school grew to house more than100 students each year. Despite Watauga Academy’s growing success, Mother Nature had other plans for the region and a devastating flood in August of 1940 caused the newly formed Tennessee Valley Authority to begin looking at the Watauga as a potential location to generate power and provide flood protection.
As a result the first plans were made to locate Watauga Dam in the Carden’s Bluff area, and the people of Butler soon realized this would mean the end of their town and their school. Fittingly, Congressman Reece later gave a very powerful commencement speech to the graduating class of 1942 when the decision was officially made to close the school and inundate the town.

However, the valley was given a few years respite with the nation’s entrance into World War 2. Work did not resume on the dam until after the war, and as a result, the class of 1948 became the last to officially graduate, leaving the school just before the floodgates opened later that year. Eventually the hand-fired bricks of the main academy building were removed to build a new church in Bristol, with the last load leaving just as the waters overtook the school’s foundations.

With the establishment of the new community of Butler on the shores of the lake, many of the buildings and houses that made up Old Butler were relocated, including Butler Baptist Church. As early as 1950 the organization was having regular homecomings with many Watauga Academy Alumni attending. By 1960 the alumni had formed an association and the reunion eventually became an essential part of the annual Old Butler Days Celebration, held on the Sunday closing out the weekend event.

Yet as time has passed the numbers of returning graduates and alumni has dwindled. Now in its 52nd year, the reunion is attended by only a handful of people who really remember Watauga Academy for the treasure that it was. Thankfully the history of the school and some of the experiences of the students have been captured and preserved with the creation the Butler Museum, but organizers are still excited about the prospects of this year’s turnout.

Held at Butler Baptist Church and proclaiming a theme of Friends and Fellowship Forever, this year’s reunion will take place on August 12th, and will feature guest speaker Dan Stansberry, along with music by alumni Joyce Dean Garrison. The association’s business meeting will kick off at 10:30 to be followed by the service at 11. A lunch will be served in the fellowship hall afterward. The Butler Museum will then open from 2-4 to welcome guests and visitors as well as 1-6 on Friday and 10-6 on Saturday for Old Butler Days.

To read the remainder of this article, pick up this week's Tomahawk.