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Our Rich History: Augusta College’s Echo Hall dormitory gets new life; want to be part of saving it?

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By Carol L. Williams
Special to NKyTribune

During its General Conference in 1820, the Methodist Episcopal Church called for establishment of educational institutions throughout America, particularly frontier areas. The Kentucky and Ohio Conferences answered the call by pooling their resources and co-sponsoring the establishment of an institution in Augusta.

On 7 December 1822, Augusta College received a charter from the Kentucky legislature. In 1829, it boasted students from 11 states and awarded its first degree. It is acknowledged as the first Methodist college in the world, since it was the first to confer degrees.

Augusta College. Historical drawing: Life of Henry Bidleman Bascom, D.D., LL.D., by M. M. Henkle (Nashville, Tennessee, 1856); The Transylvanian (Lexington, Kentucky, June, 1910)

Augusta College had an excellent reputation. Some of its most notable graduates were Randolph S. Foster (president of Northwestern University in Illinois), Robert Wickliffe (governor of Louisiana), William Preston (U.S. general), John G. Fee (noted abolitionist and cofounder of Berea College in Kentucky), and William S. Groesbeck (independent presidential candidate).

By the 1840s, Augusta College was facing declining enrollment and severe financial difficulties. The issue of slavery contributed mightily to its eventual demise. As early as November 1828, the student body held well-publicized debates on the topic, concluding that “slavery should be abolished by government decree.”

The Kentucky Methodist Conference was unhappy with the anti-slavery sentiments expressed by several members of the faculty, including the president. Thus, it transferred its financial support to Transylvania University in Lexington. The Ohio Methodist Conference also terminated its funding and sought to sponsor a college on their own soil. On 26 February 1849, the Kentucky legislature revoked Augusta College’s charter, and it closed its doors.

Echo Hall. Courtesy of Janie-Rice Brother

Echo Hall was one of two Augusta College dormitories built circa 1830. It was originally called the “Eastern Boarding House,” and was built directly across from the main college building on Frankfort Street. In 1852, a fire destroyed the main college building, but Echo Hall remains. Compared to the exuberance of Gothic Revival and Queen Anne dwellings in the immediate neighborhood, Echo Hall is very plain. The brick walls are painted white, and there is little stylistic expression on the facade – it was intended to be a utilitarian building. Echo Hall’s significance lies not in its ornamentation, but its association with early efforts to provide higher education in the Commonwealth.

Following the closure of the college, Echo Hall was adapted into a single family home, and later it was divided into apartments. Unfortunately, it has suffered during recent years – most notably during the 1997 Ohio River Flood and subsequent abandonment. It was slated for demolition earlier this spring. As the bulldozer arrived, however, local residents rallied behind this symbol of early higher education in Kentucky, and saved it from destruction.

In April, Augusta residents formed the Augusta College Echo Hall Association, a public charitable non-profit organization with the mission to purchase and stabilize Echo Hall, and to develop it into a museum of history and a community center. Happily, the Association has reached its funding goals for purchase of the building. Closing is slated for mid-October.

Echo Hall. Artist’s rendering, Augusta College Echo Hall Association.

On Oct. 14th, the Association is hosting Obadiah Ewing-Roush, of the Kentucky Humanities Chautauqua series, in a historically accurate portrayal of Augusta College graduate, Rev John G. Fee (1816-1901). He was also a Lane Theological Seminary student, Berea College co-founder and ardent abolitionist.

The performance of “Abolition… Amen!” is a dinner + theatre fundraising event to help begin the Echo Hall stabilization and redevelopment processes. Dinner, catered by Katelyn Banks, of Kate’s Catering in Dayton, features perennial Kentucky favorites – Kentucky burgoo, bourbon-roasted root vegetables, bacon-smothered greens, cornbread, blackberry cake and chess pie.

All seats are reserved, and must be purchased in advance. Seats are $50 each, and all profits go to Augusta College Echo Hall Association’s renovation funds. Come to scenic Augusta, for an enjoyable and delicious evening!

For tickets, call Carol Williams at 515-520-7494.

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