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Laying the Cornerstone

Written By: Phillip Stone - Sep• 29•15

When the men named by the Rev. Benjamin Wofford as his trustees gathered on April 16, 1851 for their first meeting at Spartanburg’s Central Methodist Church, they found a growing community excited by the prospect of having a college. Word of Wofford’s tremendous bequest “for the purpose of establishing and endowing a college” had spread quickly following his death the previous December 2. By April, residents in Spartanburg, Glenn Springs, and Woodruff were all making bids to become the home of the new college.

After the trustees met and voted to name the new institution “Wofford College,” they visited a few sites around the town and county. Quickly, they agreed to purchase forty acres of land on the northern border of the town of Spartanburg to found the college. The Carolina Spartan described the land as a “most lovely elevation, embracing lawn and woodland, about one half to three-fourths of a mile north of the Court-House…” The trustees planned to have a great celebration on the Fourth of July to lay the cornerstone.

Some 4,000 people gathered at the corner of Church and Main streets on the morning of July 4, 1851, according to the Carolina Spartan. Major G. W. H. Legg acted as marshal, organizing the procession and leading it on horseback. One of his assistants in the festivities was William Walker, the author of Southern Harmony, who was famous for his shaped note hymns. Participants came from all over South Carolina and the nearby North Carolina counties. The Sons of Temperance led the procession, followed by the Odd Fellows, and then the Masons, all wearing their regalia. The members of the Board of Trustees and Methodist clergymen followed the fraternal groups, with members of the community at large behind the clergy. Several bands participated in the festivities. The procession from the courthouse square to the College stretched to a half-mile in length. Even more participants rode in carriages alongside the marchers.

When they arrived on the campus, the Rev. William M. Wightman delivered an address of about fifty minutes. Wightman, who was the chairman of the Board of Trustees at the time, would later become the first president of the college. The address, which was reprinted in newspapers around the state, was in many ways the announcement of a set of principles that would guide the new college. Wightman saw the college’s primary role was to produce educated citizens of character and virtue who would serve their fellow men. “Education makes men polished and powerful, but Christian education alone, makes them good,” he announced. The college was proudly Methodist in origin and would seek to be known as a Methodist institution of learning throughout the nation. But, he reminded his audience, the Methodist Church’s principles were “abhorrent of sectarian bigotry.” As he spoke, Wightman was very much aware of the significance of the day when he said, “For posterity emphatically, we lay this cornerstone. Generations unborn are interested in the transactions of this hour.”

The cornerstone itself, “a fine specimen of granite” from a nearby quarry, was presented by Major H. J. Dean. The cornerstone contained a lead box, into which the participants placed a Bible, a copy of Benjamin Wofford’s will, a lock of his hair and of Maria Wofford’s hair, a copy of the Southern Christian Advocate and the Spartan, and a police report with some statistical information about Spartanburg. In addition, the Sons of Temperance, the Odd Fellows and the Masons placed materials about their organizations into the cornerstone, and the building committee placed a silver medal engraved with the name of the founder, the date, and the amount of the bequest. Members of the audience placed a few other items in the box, and it was sealed.

Almost a year passed before the building committee signed a contract to build the Main Building, and three years passed before the college opened its doors on August 1, 1854. Meanwhile, the cornerstone’s location was forgotten. The Spartan wrote that it was in the southeast corner of the building, though Masonic custom would have placed it in the northeast corner. College historian David Duncan Wallace speculated that the building might have been built such that the cornerstone was beneath an internal wall.

By the early 1950s, with the college’s centennial looming, officials began to search for the cornerstone in earnest. While he was reading an old issue of the Advocate in November 1953, freshman George Duffie discovered that the cornerstone was in the northeast corner of the building. On March 2, 1954, the lead box was removed from the cornerstone, but a leak in the box had caused most of the contents to be ruined. After a few months of display in the library, the contents were replaced in the cornerstone in a ceremony on Founder’s Day 1954. A plaque above the cornerstone will keep members of the community from forgetting where the cornerstone rests in 2054.

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