Although Holbrook Normal College lasted only seven years, it had a profound effect on the field of education in Knox County and beyond. Many of its graduates became teachers and principals in the surrounding area and two in particular had a lasting influence on their students and fellow educators. Those two were E.E. Patton and Hassie Kate Gresham.
Those two former Central High School principals were graduates of Holbrook Normal College or its successor for a brief time, the Tennessee Normal College. E.E. Patton graduated in 1900 and became Central’s principal (1918-1919). He was a Tennessee State senator later and Knoxville mayor (1944-1945). Hassie K. Gresham-graduated in 1902 shortly after the name of the school changed. She became the state’s first female high school principal as Central’s principal (1919-1947).
We can credit Col. J.C. Woodward and his Fountain Head Improvement Company for bringing higher education to Fountain City. In 1900, Woodward bought the Fountain Head Hotel and Resort, expanded the park and impounded the lake. His progressive real estate company soon created a housing boom.
Woodward and other city fathers realized that a college would provide another stimulus. They calculated that eight to 10 boarding houses would be required to house and provide food service for some of the students.
Having heard of the National Normal University in Lebanon, Ohio, with 1,850 students and its offspring, Valparaiso University in Indiana with 8,000 students, they approached that school’s founding family, the Holbrooks, with the idea of a college in Fountain City.
In 1892, G.M. Beall, the agent for the Ohio school, visited the prospective 13-acre site overlooking the business district and the park and was impressed with the potential for the school and the offer of assistance from Woodward’s land company.
The architectural firm of Baumann and Baumann was retained to design the three-story pressed brick main building, two wooden dormitories for male students to the west of it and the impressive 12-room president’s home on the east side. Female students lived in the nearby Fountain Head Hotel. A local construction company, W.H. Dawn and Company, contracted to construct the $41,400 project and had it ready for occupancy by April 1893. Classes began on Sept. 4, 1893, with an enrollment of more than 100 students.
Josiah Holbrook II, a professor and the secretary of his father’s school in Ohio, came to Fountain City in 1892 to oversee construction of Holbrook, to develop the curriculum and to hire the faculty. Holbrook remained the president of the school until 1896 when he returned to Lebanon. A series of presidents succeeded him: John J. Crumley (1896-1898), James C. Blasingame (1898-1900), Wyatt C. Blasingame (1900-1902) and William S. Bryan (1902-1904).
While the major purpose of the college was to train teachers, there were also several other departments, including commercial, fine arts, science, military and music. The college greatly enhanced the cultural life of the community through its frequent lectures, musical concerts and plays.
Eventually, the land grant colleges and religious colleges nearby, particularly Carson-Newman in Jefferson City, made it very difficult to keep a large student enrollment and it closed in 1900. The campus and buildings were sold to the Tennessee Baptist Association for $13,000. In 1902, they obtained a new charter from the state and changed the name to Tennessee Normal College.
Two months later, on Aug. 12, the main building was destroyed by fire. Fortunately, the insurance was sufficient for rebuilding. School was conducted in the hotel and the hotel annex until the new building was ready to occupy.
A comparison of “The Normal Advocate” (Vol. 2, No. 1, July 1901) and the “Tennessee Normal College Catalogue” (Gaut-Ogden Printers, Knoxville, 1902) indicates that the curriculum and the goals of the institution remained much the same, even though the name changed.
By 1904, it had become obvious that the competition with the land grant colleges and state and church-supported schools was again too great. The buildings and property were sold to Knox County and used by Central High School until 1931, when it was replaced by the structure still used for some of its classrooms by Gresham Middle School.
Note: The term “Normal School” originated in France in the early 19th century. The French concept of an “ecole normale” was to provide a model school with model classrooms and a model for teaching practices. Although American normal schools were originally for educating teachers, many developed into colleges or universities offering degrees in other fields.
References: A History of Fountain City (2000), Central High School: A Century of Pride and Tradition (1906-2006) and Fountain City: People Who Made a Difference (2016).