This former school building in historic Winnsboro sits on land designated for Mt. Zion College, formed by the Mt. Zion Society – which still exists – in 1777. The Mt. Zion Society was comprised of people from all over South Carolina, but mostly Charleston luminaries who wished to establish a preparatory school in the Upstate to educate the sons of wealthy planters from across South Carolina. Mt. Zion College became the first school established in this region and signified a joint effort between leaders of the Lowcountry and the Upcountry.
The school was chartered as a college in 1785 yet never operated beyond the preparatory level. Known more commonly as the Mt. Zion Institute, the school drew students from all over to receive a Classical education on its three-acre campus. Leaders such as Episcopal theologian Dr. William Porcher Dubose and the third president of Wofford College, Dr. James Henry Carlisle, are alumni of the school. Graduates of the Mt. Zion Institute went on to study as close by as South Carolina College – now the University of South Carolina – and as far away as Harvard. The school transited from a private academy to a public school in 1878 – the first public school in the Upstate and second public school outside of Charleston.
During both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War the Mt. Zion campus was used as an encampment for opposing forces, a distinction shared with only one other school – the College of William and Mary in Virginia. A granite marker on the campus commemorates the use of the site by Lord Cornwallis as his headquarters in 1780. Classes were interrupted during the British occupation but resumed in 1783. A military hospital also opened on the school grounds during the Civil War; at this time students were moved to a nearby Baptist church. The school burned in 1866 but was rebuilt. A Confederate monument was relocated to the school campus in the 1960s following a street-widening project in town.
The school underwent an update when a new brick building was constructed in the 1880s, and during the twentieth century the campus was again modernized with still more brick buildings, serving students of all ages in a total of six structures. These structures, all built by 1936, included an elementary school, a high school, a cafeteria, a gymnasium, an auditorium, and a teacherage (seen below). The elementary school building, built in 1922, burned in 1981. The other buildings continued serving the students of Winnsboro until 1991. When the campus closed, it was the site of Mt. Zion Elementary school.
In 2006 the Mt. Zion Society transferred the property to the Town of Winnsboro in hopes that the buildings could be preserved; however, the town determined that demolition was the best option. In 2008 the non-profit preservation group Friends of Mt. Zion Institute was formed and now holds the title to the property. The organization is seeking to preserve the buildings of this school that shaped the minds of many a young South Carolinian.
Historic Pictures of the Mt. Zion Institute
The campus of Mt. Zion Institute was expanded to include this classically designed Palladian structure in 1831 under the management of Principal J. W. Hudson. Hudson was responsible for creating the reputation of the college being a premiere preparatory college in the south. The school was used by Sherman’s troops while they occupied the town in 1865 and was unfortunately lost to an accidental fire in 1867.
This brick structure was built in 1885 to continue the Mt. Zion Institute to include high school classes.
This frame structure was used as a science building and cafeteria for the institute. Fairfield County Museum’s director Pelham Lyles tells us that “when my father was a boy he remembered jumping out of the big windows at lunch time when the teachers were not looking!”
The Mt. Zion Institute is listed in the National Register as part of the Winnsboro Historic District:
Winnsboro is significant historically, architecturally, and culturally. The town was laid out in 1785 and named for the Revolutionary War hero, Richard Winn, who served in the U.S. Congress and as SC Lieutenant Governor. Lord Cornwallis had his headquarters here in 1780. Winnsboro, the county seat, features a wide range of architectural significance, from early simple frame houses that reflect utilitarian aspects of the Scotch-Irish, the first principal settlers, to pronounced styles such as Federal and Greek Revival. There are more than 50 buildings over 100 years old, mostly residences but also including the Courthouse and the town clock. Many residences are typical upcountry frame houses, built in an L-shape with long piazzas running across the front, reflecting the increasing wealth from cotton. Homes became more pretentious in the 1840s and 1850s. Much lowcountry influence is evident in the architecture, after planters moved here for health reasons. A number of Greek Revival and Federal mansions remain.
More Pictures of the Mt. Zion Institute
Kris Michalsky says
While going through an old steamer trunk, I found a Mt Zion Institute report card from the 1913/1914 school year. I’d be happy to share photos if you are interested.
Carol Turnrt Lanthrip says
My father, William Alexander Turner (DOB 1912) attended Mt. Zion Institute. He told of riding his pony Molly to school. He grew up in a large frame house at 1178 Old Camden Rd.
Pelham Lyles says
Mary Roeder, I was just reviewing Tom’s site on Mt. Zion and saw your letter below. I would be very interested in seeing the uniform button at the museum. An update on the building is that it is about to be historically adapted by a company called First and Main into offices for the Fairfield County Government. The principal in the firm is a descendant of students who attended here over the last two centuries. If you would please share images of the button with me, I believe Tom knows how to contact me here at the Fairfield County Museum in Winnsboro.
SC Picture Project says
Pelham and Mary, this is exciting! And first – isn’t Tom amazing? We are so grateful to have him as one of our board members. We hope this is okay, but we are going to connect you via email to make sure this conversation can continue. Mary, we don’t often intervene like this but Pelham is “good people” – we know from experience – and we definitely think you will enjoy hearing from her. 🙂
Mary L Roeder says
I think it is great that you want to restore such a fine institution. Also if you are interested I have a button from the school that was a uniform button. I do hope you will be able to retore the buildings. I know its expensive and I so wish I were wealthy enough to make even a small donation. But I am not able to but will continue to watch the progress you make.