Skip to main content

WCU Heritage and History


WCU was founded in August 1889 as a semi-public secondary school and chartered as Cullowhee High School in 1891. The founder, Professor Robert Lee Madison, wanted to provide opportunities for the young people in the region and train teachers to spread education throughout the western part of the state. In 1893, the Legislature designated the school as the first publicly funded normal school or school for instructing future teachers the "norms" of pedagogy.

Over the next 40 years, the school expanded its curriculum and evolved into a junior college, and in 1929 it was chartered by the legislature as a four-year institution under the name Western Carolina Teachers College. Often called “the Cullowhee experiment,” Madison’s idea became the model for other regional colleges in the state.

The demand for the liberal arts and programs in other areas of learning led to an expansion of the school's offerings. Postgraduate studies and the Master of Arts in Education degree were added to the curriculum in 1951 after several decades of rapid growth and sweeping changes. In 1953, the name Western Carolina College was adopted.

In 1967, the institution was designated a regional university by the North Carolina General Assembly and Western Carolina University was given its current title. And, on July 1, 1972, WCU became a member of the University of North Carolina system.

Adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains, WCU has a commitment to the rich traditions of the Appalachian and Cherokee cultures. Its Mountain Heritage CenterCherokee Center, and the online archives of Hunter Library's Digital Collections reflect this influence—at the same time providing irreplaceable educational resources for the region.

The Millennial Initiative, doubled the size of the campus in 2005, and is a site of health care and instruction through university and private partnerships. WCU continues its promise to the region by giving students intensive, hands-on educational opportunities while simultaneously promoting economic development.

Also see Bells in the Valley a video on the history of WCU originally produced for the Centennial in 1989.

Explore Our Roots


Photos courtesy of Western Carolina University. Please contact Hunter Library Special and Digital Collections for permission to use or reprint any images at (828) 227-7474.

Some material adapted from "A Mountain Heritage: The Illustrated History of Western Carolina University" by Curtis W. Wood and H. Tyler Blethen, (1989), published by Western Carolina University.

Site credits:

Tyler Blethen, Professor Emeritus of History
Jason Brady, University Library Specialist, Special Collections, Hunter Library
George Frizzell, former Head of Special Collections, Hunter Library
Melissa Highter, former Web Developer, IT / Web Services
Peter Koch, Education Associate, Mountain Heritage Center
Scott Philyaw, former Director of the Mountain Heritage Center and Associate Professor of History
Curtis Wood, former Mountain Heritage Center research associate and Professor Emeritus of History

Office of Web Services