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ON THE HISTORIC
FLORA MACDONALD CAMPUS
The grave of two children of Flora Macdonald, who were re-interred
on the campus in 1937.
An early May Day Celebration
at Flora Macdonald College
place for a garden, the like of which
cannot be found, and here is a place for
a girls’ school, the need of which is
unequaled.” On September 30,
1896, the Red Springs Seminary
for Young Ladies opened in a small
wooden building with ninety students and a faculty of "six cultured educators". Assisting Dr. Vardell in his work was his wife, the former Linda Lee Rumple,
herself an accomplished musician and a graduate of the New England Conservatory
of Music. It was under her direction that the conservatory of music was established.
Its prestige grew so quickly that, in 1903, the name of the institution was changed to
Southern Presbyterian College and Conservatory of Music. These two dedicated
educators continued to work side by side for thirty-four years and, under their
leadership, the college flourished and gained widespread prestige and recognition.
The original frame building was soon replaced with the imposing brick edifice that
stands today. In 1916, in recognition of the Scottish heroine who had lived nearby
and in deference to the overwhelming Scots influence in the area, the school
assumed the name Flora Macdonald College.
Scottish heritage influenced every area of college life and helped create the unique atmosphere of the campus which was felt by every visitor. Dr. Vardell had a keen interest in Caledonian history and was able to assemble a significant collection of artifacts and relics related to Flora Macdonald as well as Prince Charles Edward Stuart. Every new student was taught the “Highland Fling” and their colorful tartan costumes became a well recognized aspect of the annual college May Day celebrations that drew huge crowds of visitors to the campus.
On September 14 of 1964 Vardell Hall, named in honour of Dr. Charles G.
Vardell, opened on the former FMC campus. Dr. Vardell believed that young
women should receive as much education as possible, and the graduates of
Vardell Hall are living proof that he was indeed correct. Vardell Hall Preparatory
School & Junior college was conceived through the joint efforts of Colonel Leslie
Blankenship and the Town of Red Springs. Dr. William P. Matthews served as
the first president of the school, followed by Miss Charlotte Hunter, Captain
Asbury Coward and Elizabeth S. Nelson. In 1969 the junior college division was
discontinued and Vardell Hall continued strictly as a preparatory school. Though
founded as an interdenomenational school, the influence and guidance of the
Scots Presbyterians was very much in evidence. Vardell Hall closed in 1973,
bringing an end to another chapter in the life of the campus.
Robeson Country Day School, originally located in Lumber Bridge, opened its
doors in 1969 with 52 students in six grade levels. By 1972 this had increased to
about 200 students the the original buildings were long since outgrown. In 1973 RCDS moved into the campus recently vacated by Vardell Hall and the halls were once again filled with the sounds of young people. The first graduating class of four Seniors matriculated in the impressive auditorium in 1975. The following year the campus was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Mrs. Hal (Eloise) Kinlaw served as the first Headmistress of RCDS immediately followed by Dr Neil McMillan Powers, a native of St. Pauls, who was formerly the Assistant Headmaster of St. Mary's Country Day School of Hillsborough.
In 1981, the student body voted to change the name of the school to Flora Macdonald Academy in deference to the heritage of the campus. The following year Mr. Eugene McKeithan, whose wife was a graduate of Flora Macdonald College, was appointed Headmaster. On the evening of March 28, 1984 Red Springs was struck by a series of tornados that devastated the town. FMA did not escape and the building sustained serious damage. Classes were held in two area churches and, later, in trailers on the school athletic field while the storm damage was repaired. At this time substantial changes were made to the building. These included the closing of the upper floors, the grossly insensitive demolition of the Bedinger Memorial Library, and its subsequent conversion into a gymnasium. Thousands of trees were felled in the gardens, which have never fully recovered from the storm.
FMC founder Dr. Charles G. Vardell, centre, with Cameron of Lochiel and his wife Lady Hermione during their
visit to the campus in 1923.
The end of Flora Macdonald College came in 1961 when, against the wishes of students, faculty, and area residents, the Presbytery merged the college with Presbyterian Junior College in Maxton to form a new school located elsewhere.
By 2013, FMA was suffering from crippling financial obligations. The Board of Trustees determined to dissolve the corporation and terminate the school. Rather than see the campus stand empty once again, Mrs. Joseph Lowe (Moye), a graduate of Vardell Hall, Mrs. Eleanor Fields, an FMC alumna, and Red Springs native Miss Patsy Conoley arranged for a new corportation to operate a school on the campus. They were assisted by a number of individuals, both near and far, and in 2014, FMA became Highlander Academy without any interruption in the education of the students. Concerned as to the stability of the school, a number of parents moved their children to other institutions, however, Highlander has begun to thrive while rebuilding the size of our student body. Mrs. Deborah Childress Duncan was appointed Headmistress in July 2016 and brings her thirty years of educational experience to Highlander, where she has already made a tremendous positive impact.
The above-mentioned circumstances have put Highlander Academy in a somewhat unusual position. We are a very young school, but one with a very righ heritage to draw upon. FMA, and now Highlander Academy, carries on many of the traditions of Flora Macdonald College and Vardell Hall. One of these is the annual May Day celebration held on the first Saturday in May. English customs are combined with Scottish music and dance, in acknowledgement of the Scottish heritage of the school. On May Day crinolined girls process from the beautiful gardens to the front portico where the May Queen is crowned and reigns over the morning’s festivities. The traditional May Pole dance, sword dance and bagpipes are always a part of the celebration. Along with many others, this time-honoured tradition has become an integral part of life at Highlander Academy.
The movement for higher education for women in North Carolina led to the
founding of the Red Springs Seminary in 1896. The Fayetteville Presbytery
of the former Presbyterian Church in the United States determined to
establish a school for girls in the area. Coming forward with an offer of
$2500, four acres of land and forty students, the town of Red Springs was
chosen as the site for the new school. Red Springs was well known for the
healing properties of the mineral waters from which the town takes its name.
In addition, it was largely populated by the descendents of Scottish
Highlanders who held both religion and education amongst their highest values.
Dr. Charles Graves Vardell was selected as the founding president of the
proposed school and he threw himself wholeheartedly into the work. Standing
on the edge of the swampy future site of the school he declared, "Here is a
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