The Southern Christian Conference, later the United Church of Christ, wished to open a college in North Carolina in 1872. The church sought to build its college in Graham but the board of trustees was never able to find land in the town. After searching different locales, the Southern Christian Conference decided to build its college at Mill Point, a railroad stop on the North Carolina Railroad, in 1888.
Located five miles from Burlington, the plot for the new college was filled with oak trees. Upon clearing the land, the Southern Christian Conference thought it appropriate to name the college, Elon, the Hebrew word for oak. In 1889, Elon College opened its doors to 76 students and the first president was William S. Long. At the outset of the university’s opening, Elon offered four-year programs in the liberal arts.
In 1893, the area around the college was established as an Alamance County town known as Elon College. Lots near the school were developed by incoming residents and business people while the streets in Elon College were named to remember figureheads essential to both the Christian Church and the institution. Enhancements at the college in the late 1800s and early 1900 include the forming of the college’s first Glee Club, a baseball team, and publication of Elon’s yearbook, the Phi Psi Cli.
Even though Elon College had started its rise as an important academic institution in Piedmont North Carolina, a fire in 1923 almost destroyed the entire school. On June 18th, a fire consumed the school’s main building. Not only were records destroyed but the library, chapel, and several classrooms burnt down. After the fire, the board of trustees voted to repair Elon and five new buildings (a library, auditorium, and three classroom and office buildings) were constructed in 1924. Today, the same five buildings completed in 1924 “remain at the heart of the central campus” (Powell, p. 391).
In 1931, Leon E. Smith became the fifth president of Elon College, and he served for twenty-five years, making him the longest-serving president of the school. During Smith’s tenure, Elon encountered rough times, mainly due to the Great Depression. President Smith successfully persuaded staff members to accept lower salaries and he formed a new fund raising campaign for Elon. After World War II, Elon experienced upward growth and in 1946, returning servicemen and women enrolled and the student body grew to 700 students.
In the 1980s, Elon College increased its number of graduate programs, including those in education and business administration. Elon became the third-largest private school in the state in the 2000s, and in 2006, a law school was added to the school’s programs. When the number of students grew to over 4,000 students and as the number of degrees expanded, the board of trustees believed it necessary to change the name of Elon College. Therefore, in 2001, Elon College became known as Elon University, and the community around the institution became known as the town of Elon.
According to Elon University’s website, the student body numbers about 6,000 students, including both undergraduate and graduate students. In addition, over 50 undergraduate programs are offered and the full-time faculty members number over 350. Elon University also has 16 intercollegiate sport teams in NCAA Division I.
“Elon University.” William S. Powell, ed. Encyclopedia of North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC 2006).
“Elon University.” North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program website. A Division of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. (accessed January 30, 2012).
"About Elon University." Elon University website. http://www.elon.edu/e-web/about/default.xhtml, (accessed January 30, 2012).