Centre College

Historical Marker #923 in Danville commemorates Centre College, an institution of higher learning that the Washington Post has called "one of the premier intellectual gathering points in its region."

Founded in 1819 by former governor Isaac Shelby, Dr. Ephraim McDowell, and other prominent residents, the Commonwealth of Kentucky initially provided funding for the college. In 1824, however, the Presbyterian Church took control of the school. Therefore, many of the early presidents and teachers were Presbyterian ministers. Among these was the Reverend John C. Young (1803-1857), an educator and antislavery advocate who raised funds, increased the number of students and faculty, and placed the school upon solid footing.

While Centre found success in the early nineteenth century, the school faced its greatest trial during the American Civil War. As a border-state institution, graduates fought on both sides of the conflict. In 1862, the war literally dropped upon the college doorstep. That summer, Confederate armies invaded Kentucky and occupied much of the state. When rebel troops passed through Danville, they placed sick soldiers in Old Centre, the main college building. Elizabeth Patterson, the wife of a Centre mathematics professor, wrote that, "At night, the college campus would be lighted up by cheerful campfires around which the soldiers at the hospital would gather, sitting upon logs of firewood and singing rebellious songs, such as 'Dixie.'"

On October 8, 1862, the Battle of Perryville was fought ten miles away from Danville. When Union soldiers arrived in town after the battle, they evicted the sick Confederate soldiers and placed their own ill troops in Old Centre and other campus buildings. Danville soon became full of sick soldiers, with most of them ill from typhoid fever and dysentery. Patterson stated that illnesses spread to the civilian population. "Not a day passed without one or more funerals," she wrote. "Several ladies of prominent families died from this fever."

Centre officials also suffered. The college president, Lewis Warner Green, was a Presbyterian minister and the school's first graduate. After helping sick Union soldiers, Green caught an illness and died in May 1863. His funeral in Danville's Bellevue Cemetery was reputedly the largest that the town had ever witnessed.

When the soldiers departed after occupying the buildings for several months, damages were severe. Desks, books, and a downstairs chemistry laboratory were destroyed, furniture was burned for firewood, and windows were broken. One former student noted, "There was not much left except the walls."

Despite these hardships, Centre survived the Civil War. In 1921, the college made national headlines when their football team defeated Harvard, which was then the national champion. Recently, both the New York Times and ESPN called Centre's 6-0 victory one of the greatest upsets in sports history.

For the next several decades, the student body, endowment, and reputation of Centre grew. In 2000 and 2012 Centre hosted the U.S. vice presidential debates. The college is consistently ranked highly by U.S. News, Forbes, and other publications. There are now approximately 1,300 students at Centre.

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