Lees-McRae College


Lees–McRae College was founded in Banner Elk as an all-female high school in 1899 by the Reverend Edgar Tufts, a Presbyterian minister. He named the school The Elizabeth McRae Institute after a well-respected educator in 1900. The name of the school benefactor Suzanna Lees was added in 1903, and the school became The Lees–McRae Institute when it was chartered by the state in 1907.

An all-male branch was founded in 1907 in nearby Plumtree, North Carolina. The Plumtree facility was destroyed in a 1927 fire, leading the two campuses to merge at the Banner Elk site. After the merger, the high school program was phased out, and in 1931 the institute was renamed Lees–McRae College as an accredited, coeducational junior college.

Lees–McRae began moving toward offering a four-year program in the late 1980s, and the school’s president made the recommendation to the board of trustees in 1987. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools granted Lees–McRae status as a four-year college in 1990. In 2005, Lees–McRae became the first expansion site for New Opportunity School for Women, a program that helps educate and employ women in Appalachia.

Lees-McRae Colelge
Lees-McRae College - Avery County, North Carolina
Marker ID:  N43
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Nearest Town:  Banner Elk, NC
Date Cast:  1993

Marker Text

N43 – Lees-McRae College

Presbyterian. Founded in 1900 by Edgar Tufts. Named for teacher Elizabeth McRae & benefactor Mrs. S. P. Lees. Senior college since 1988.


An institution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Lees-McRae College awards associate and baccalaureate degrees. The campus claims the distinction of having the highest elevation (4,000 feet) of any college in the eastern United States. From the front of the campus can be seen Beech Mountain while from the rear is visible Grandfather Mountain.

In the summer of 1895 the Concord Presbytery sent Edgar Tufts, a seminary student, to Banner Elk to organize a church. Two years later the newly ordained Tufts returned as pastor and remained in Banner Elk until his death in 1923. In 1899, concerned with the limited offerings of area schools, the Reverend Mr. Tufts began tutoring some young people in his neighborhood. From this modest beginning the present college marks its origins.

Tufts saw the need for a boarding school and, with money raised at a prayer meeting, constructed a frame dormitory in 1900 for fourteen girls and one teacher. He named the institute for the teacher, Elizabeth McRae. A few years later a boys department opened twenty-five miles south at the Avery County community of Plumtree. It was named for a benefactor, Mrs. S. P. Lees of Kentucky and New York, a friend of McRae. The school was chartered by the state in 1907 as Lees-McRae Institute. In 1927 Lees-McRae became coeducational when the boy’s unit was moved to Banner Elk after the buildings at Plumtree were destroyed by fire.

Lees-McRae Institute became Lees-McRae College in 1931, gradually eliminating the high school department to form an accredited, coeducational, junior college. The trustees in 1987 voted to seek senior college status. It was granted in June 1988 by the Commission of Colleges and Schools of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.


  • Lees-McRae College website: http://www.lmc.edu
  • Lees-McRae College Catalog (1989-1990)
  • William S. Powell, Higher Education in North Carolina (1964)

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