Mars Hill, North Carolina Historic Markers

The quaint town of Mars Hill’s two historic markers derive from the town’s founding and its place in the county’s traditional music heritage. Both markers are within steps from one another on Cascade Street in the heart of the town, near the Mars Hill University campus.

Mars Hill University

Mars Hill College MarkerInscription reads: Baptist: coeducational. Founded 1856 as French Broad Baptist Institute. Name Changed 1859. Senior college since 1962.

Location: On Cascade Street in front of Pittman Dining Hall on the Mars Hill University campus. GPS Location: 35° 49.579′ N, 82° 33.033′ W

MHC early buildingHistory: Mars Hill University was founded as the French Broad Baptist Institute in Madison County in 1856 with land donated by Edward Carter, one of many local families who wanted their children educated and instructed in the Baptist faith. Local sponsors provided the financial resources. However, when the money supporting the school’s development ran out quickly, a slave named Joe, who was owned by trustee J. W. Anderson, was seized and placed in the Asheville jail by the contractor as collateral. Trustees raised the required funds through public gifts. Joe was freed and the institute’s buildings were finished by the year’s end.
A street named for Joe Anderson (who took his owner’s last name) is at the bottom of Cascade Street and leads to his gravesite memorial.

Soon, the name was changed to Mars Hill College, inspired by Acts 17:22 of the Bible which relates that while in Athens, Paul was invited by philosophers to speak to them at the forum. “Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill and said, ‘Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.’” Thus the founding fathers named the college for a famous site of learning and of Biblical significance.

Mars Hill CornerstoneThe college was chartered by the State of North Carolina in 1859 and remained open during the first two years of the Civil War but closed in 1863. And, Union and Confederate troops were quartered in the college’s buildings in 1865. Several buildings on campus were damaged during the war, and soldiers burned a dormitory and teacher’s home. The college survived, but it took forty years to replace what had been destroyed. A Civil War Trail’s historical marker: Mars Hill: Mars Hill College, Strategic Location Divided Loyalties commemorates and provides the story of this incident.  You can find that marker on College Street at the south end of the university’s main quad.

On a side note, the village of Mars Hill was incorporated after the founding of the college in 1893. The corporate limits were set at nine hundred yards in all directions from the northwest corner of the first college building. While the building did not survive, the NW corner stone is prominent today on the campus in front of what is now the college administration building.

Bascom Lamar Lunsford

Bascom Lamar Lunsford markerInscription reads: “Minstrel of Appalachia.” Folklorist, collector,& performer. Pioneered and promoted American folk festivals. Was born here.

Location: On Cascade Street in front of Cornwell Hall on the Mars Hill University Campus. GPS location: 35° 49.586′ N, 82° 32.945′ W

History: This marker is placed at Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s birthplace and his original home. His role in our traditional music heritage began shortly after he graduated from college when he began collecting songs at the turn of the century. In addition to collecting hundreds of songs for the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song, in 1928 he was hired to organize The Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville.

Bascom Lamar Lunsford playing banjoMost of his instruments, manuscripts and recordings are archived at Mars Hill University at the Liston Ramsey Center for Regional Studies in the Renfro Library. This gave him the opportunity to help spread the southern style of buck dancing. Buck dancing is an energetic technique of rhythmically accompanying a tune with one’s feet that fused Scottish, Irish, Black and Cherokee dancing. Up until he was hired to organize the festival he had held dance competitions in North Carolina, often at his home where he installed a special dance floor.

These efforts to spread the southern style of buck dancing came together in this festival, and team clogging (as it is now mostly known) became popular throughout the country. This festival is recognized as the oldest folk festival in the United States. Lunsford performed for President Franklin Roosevelt as well as for England’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. True to Lunsford’s legacy, Mars Hill University is home to the Bailey Mountain Cloggers who have been national champion cloggers since 1991.

In addition to preserving his work, Mars Hill University holds the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival each year in his honor, the first Saturday in October. The event is known as the second oldest folk festival in Western North Carolina and the only one bearing his name. The festival is held on the university campus with the day segment in the upper quad and the evening concert inside Moore Auditorium. The free day event features local and regional musicians and dancers. The night has national ballad singers, story tellers as well as music and dancing.