Warren Wilson College History

The inspiring history of Warren Wilson College is told in this documentary by award-winning producers John Disher and Steven Heller. The film explores the origins of Warren Wilson as a 19th-century mission school and details its evolution into a four-year college that has earned a distinct niche in higher education.

Historical Overview

Who was Warren Wilson?

Warren Wilson College:
Decade by Decade

1893 Presbyterian Church home missions boards purchase 420 acres in Swannanoa Valley for new mission school.

1894 Asheville Farm School opens, offering the first three grades of elementary instruction to 25 mountain boys in their teens and 20s.


1900 School offers equivalent of eighth-grade education.

1901 Dodge House, first Farm School home, is built.

1902 Enrollment grows to 140 students.


1910 School-built dam and generating plant on nearby Bull Creek bring electricity to campus.

1916 Devastating flood sweeps away livestock, crops, topsoil and generating station.

1917 Many older boys withdraw from school to enlist in the service as the United States joins the Allies in World War I.


1924 First high school class graduated.

1929 Sunderland Dorm built on eve of stock-market crash and Great Depression.


1935 First international student, a boy from Cuba, enrolls in the school.

1939 Boy whose parents fled Nazi Germany admitted.


1942 Asheville Farm School merges with Dorland-Bell School for girls in Hot Springs, N.C., to become a coed secondary school, named Warren H. Wilson Vocational Junior College and Associated Schools.

1942 College admits two Japanese-American girls whose families had been relocated from California to Arizona internment camp.


1952 Two years before landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, Alma Shippy admitted as first African-American student after Sunderland residents vote 54-1 to welcome the young Swannanoa man into their dorm.

1957 Warren Wilson graduates last high school class.

1959 College adopts service statement and implements service requirement for graduation.


1967 Warren Wilson becomes four-year college.

1969 First senior class graduated.


1972 Covenant relationship with the Presbyterian Synod of the South established.


1981 First graduate program, master of fine arts in creative writing, added.


1991 Douglas M. Orr Jr., becomes fifth president of Warren Wilson College.

1995 Ongoing period of dormitory construction begins with building of the ANTC hall and continuing with Archie Sutton and others.

1999 Final renovation and expansion of Pew Learning Center and Ellison Library completed.


2000 Hamill Science Center and Witherspoon Science Building completed.

2002 Two MFA Program for Writers faculty members, Richard Russo and Carl Dennis, win Pulitzer Prizes in fiction and poetry.

2003 New Schafer Court completed in September.

2003 EcoDorm opens as a live-in educational facility showcasing energy- efficient designs and renewable-energy sources.

2006 Dr. William Sanborn "Sandy" Pfeiffer, becomes sixth president of Warren Wilson College.


2012 Dr. Steven Solnick, formerly Representative for the Ford Foundation in India, becomes seventh president.


The property was purchased in 1893 by the Women's Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church. The women of the church were concerned that many Americans in isolated areas were not receiving a proper education. The women decided to establish church supported schools in areas where there were no public services. There was a need for a nonconventional grading system as the young people who came to these mission schools usually had no prior formal education.

boys on a limb

In 1894, the Asheville Farm School officially opened with 25 boys attending and a professional staff of three people. It was not until 1923 that the school had its first graduating class. In 1936, the first post high school programs in vocational training were begun. It was hoped that this type of training would give the students more prospects in the job market. In 1942, the junior college division was established. The Asheville Farm School continued as a boys unit in high school studies. The Dorland-Bell School of Hot Springs was joined with the Farm School, which brought high school age girls to campus. The Warren Wilson Vocational Junior College was joined with them under our one administration.

After WWII, the public education system in NC improved dramatically and the need for the mission's high school diminished. The last high school class at WWC was graduated in 1957. WWC was a junior college until March 1966 when it was established as a four year college, offering six majors. In 1972, the National Board of Missions deeded the WWC property over to the college's Board of Trustees.

In the late 1990s, we added an Outdoor Leadership major and The North Carolina Outward Bound School moved its headquarters to campus. As the new millennium approached, the college raised its target enrollment to 800 and began growing. Many new, state-of-the-art facilities were built including a new science center, two new computer labs, a library renovation, and several new residence halls. In 2003, the college opened the EcoDorm--a residence hall built with sustainable and ecologically friendly building practices and intended to be a live-in educational facility for students. Following its commitment to green construction, the college constructed a new office building designed to meet the LEED's standard. We continue to grow, change, and improve, but as the time honored cliche states, the more things change, the more they stay the same.