In 1897, opening a college in the wilderness of Northeast Georgia must have seemed to some like a prescription for failure. The area was accessible by few roads, mostly crude dirt strips paved with sapling trees. A band of New England transplants, assisted by a Methodist minister, the Rev. Charles C. Spence, obtained a charter from the State of Georgia, organized a board of trustees, bought books, hired faculty, and secured space for classes and dormitories. On September 1, 1897, amid much fanfare and ceremony, the opening exercises for the J. S. Green Collegiate Institute were held in downtown Demorest, and the entire student body, from first grade to college juniors, marched up the hill from the square to begin their studies.
In its first year, the J.S. Green Collegiate Institute (the name was changed to Piedmont College in 1903 and to Piedmont University in 2021), enrolled 367 students, an astonishing number given the rural nature of the area and the scant population. Parents in some cases sacrificed their meager possessions to make certain their children could attend.
By 1899, the school was beset by financial difficulties. Enrollment was strong at just under 400 students, but the support the college founders had hoped for from the state’s Methodist churches was not forthcoming. Strapped for funds after cashing in his own life insurance policy to support the college, Rev. Spence turned to Congregationalist churches for help. The Pilgrims brought Congregationalism to America in 1620. The church went on to found some of the oldest educational institutions in the U.S., including Harvard in 1636 and Yale in 1701, among numerous others. Piedmont became the first in the South when the American Missionary Board of the Congregational Church took it under its wing in 1901. While remaining an independent institution governed by its own board of trustees, Piedmont has enjoyed a close relationship with Congregational churches ever since. Today, students from across the U.S. and around the world who might otherwise never hear of Piedmont are introduced through the churches, and this association has provided the university with a rich mix of students from many cultures and backgrounds.
Across campus, symbols and landmarks that pay homage to Piedmont’s historical ties to Congregational churches abound. None are more prominent than the Mayflower weathervane. First secured atop the chapel steeple in 1970, the Mayflower has become a Demorest and Habersham County landmark. The weathervane, 187 feet above the street, is a replica of the English ship that transported the first Pilgrims, and with them the Congregational Way, to the New World four centuries ago. Since that time, the Mayflower has become a cultural icon. To many, the vessel represents hope, courage in the face of uncertainty, and liberty.
Growth of Piedmont
As Piedmont grew in the early 20th century, it began building a reputation as “the little college that could.” Through two world wars, the Great Depression and the turbulent 1960s, the college remained an oasis of learning. When financial difficulties developed, the administration, faculty, students, alumni, and friends who had grown up with the college were always there to pitch in to help the institution persevere and grow.
In 1971, Piedmont completed a building program and established an endowment. In 1995, the college offered its first graduate-level program, the Master of Arts in education, and other graduate programs soon followed. In 1996, the college opened a campus in Athens that today offers degree-completion and graduate programs to nearly 500 students. As the 21st century dawned, the college continued to improve the Demorest campus while adding new career-focused academic programs to adapt to a changing economy.
A Bright Future
In recent years, Piedmont has added new residence halls, a new student center, and the Sewell Center for Teacher Education, which provides a home for the university’s largest academic unit. To enhance its growing fine arts program, the college also added three state-of-art community-facing facilities that are among the finest in Northeast Georgia: Swanson Center for Performing Arts and Communications, the Mason-Scharfenstein Museum of Art, and the Conservatory of Music.
At the same time, Piedmont doubled its athletic footprint from fewer than 10 teams in 1990 to more than 20 in 2021. The college also emerged as one of the top Division III athletic programs in the region. Piedmont has been the recipient in multiple years of the USA South Presidents Cup, an award presented annually to institutions with the top-performing men’s and women’s athletic programs in the league.
As the campus, academic offerings, and athletic programs grew, so did Piedmont’s reputation. During a decade when many small colleges struggled, Piedmont was drawing students beyond its traditional recruiting area. Enrollment increased and crested at 2,600 in 2020. U.S. News ranked Piedmont among the top 50 “regional universities” in the 12-state South Region in 2019.
Recognizing the dramatic growth and transformation at the institution, Piedmont’s Board of Trustees approved in 2020 a proposal to change the college’s name to Piedmont University. Its four academic schools — Harry W. Walker Walker College of Business, R.H. Daniel College of Nursing & Health Sciences, College of Education, and School of Arts & Sciences — would also become colleges. During that same year, Piedmont also announced plans to relocate its Athens campus to a modern, four-story brick building at 1282 Prince Avenue and purchased 90 acres adjacent to the Demorest campus for expansion.
As Piedmont prepares to celebrate its 125-year anniversary, the university is expanding online offerings, laying the groundwork to launch the university’s first major capital campaign, and has a goal to grow its residential student population to more than 1,000. The “little college that could” has grown into a regional university while remaining true to its historic identity, core values, and emphasis on a liberal arts, real-world education.