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By the 1830s, the growing population of western Virginia highlighted the need for institutions of higher learning in that part of the state. In 1838, the Western Virginia Education Society succeeded in raising funds for a local college. In 1839, Baptist-affiliated Rector College opened its doors in Pruntytown. Named for Baptist Reverend Enoch Rector, it was the first successfully operating college in western Virginia. For over a decade, the college educated western Virginians in a variety of subjects. Yet strict discipline eventually eroded the college's enrollment, and the death of its energetic president Reverend Charles Wheeler in 1851 further hurt the college. In 1855, Rector College burned in a fire and never reopened. Today, the "Pruntytown" West Virginia historical marker references Rector College, a humble reminder of the school's role in affording higher education to antebellum western Virginians.

Historical marker to Pruntytown, which acknowledges Rector College

Historical marker to Pruntytown, which acknowledges Rector College

Reverend Enoch Rector, for whom Rector College was named

Reverend Enoch Rector, for whom Rector College was named

As settlers poured across the Allegheny Mountains in the early 19th century, a growing need for institutions of higher learning emerged. Although western Virginia lagged in developing colleges, by the 1830s, efforts were underway to establish institutions of higher learning in the region. In 1831, first attempt failed, when a proposed Wheeling University failed to garner enough funding to take any students.

In 1838, Reverend Joshua Bradley, a graduate of Brown University, established the Western Virginia Education Society. The Society raised funds and gathered subscriptions to open a college and succeed, in no small part to the help of Reverend Enoch Rector. A well-known minister, who across is fifty-four years of service reportedly gave 10,000 sermons and baptized 1,200 people, Rector donated $4,500 to the fund, and as a result it was named in his honor. Many Baptists, fearful of secular education, supported the creation of a church-sponsored college.

In November 1839, Baptist-affiliated Rector College opened its doors in Pruntytown. Rector College was the college to successfully admit and graduate students in western Virginia (now West Virginia). Its inaugural class contained seventy students and seven faculty. Although Rev. Bradley served as the initial president, it was his successor, fellow Brown graduate Reverend Charles Wheeler, who helped Rector College grow and enjoy a period of success in the 1840s. The college offered courses in mathematics, philosophy, geology, astronomy, languages, and more. The possessed a library of nearly 3,000 volumes for students' use (1/3 of which personally belonged to Reverend Wheeler). They opened a female seminary. The college educated a number of prominent local western Virginians.

Over time, however, Rector College began to struggle. As West Virginia historian Otis Rice has noted, "Part of the difficulty undoubtedly stemmed from an increasingly strict discipline and a rigid segregation of the sexes."[2] The 1851 death of energetic Reverend Wheeler only contributed to the college's problems. In 1855, a fire burned the college down, and it never reopened. Bethany College, founded in 1840, remained the only college to offer higher education in western Virginia through the Civil War.

Today, only a reference in a West Virginia state historical marker acknowledges the role that Rector College played in offering western Virginians a rare opportunity for a collegiate education in the antebellum era.

1. Debra K. Sullivan. "Education." e-WV: West Virginia Encyclopedia. Web. Accessed September 24, 2020.

2. "Unique Man In the Baptist Church--One of the Oldest Ministers in the State Dead." February 11, 1898. Clarksburg Telegram. Web. Accessed via Chronicling America on September 24, 2020.

3. Otis K. Rice. The Allegheny Frontier: West Virginia Beginnings, 1730-1830. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

J.J. Prats, Historical Marker Database,

Katy Lund, Find A Grave,