Tunnel Road Rededication of Historical Marker for Stephen Lee

Lee School

Lee’s School for boys in the 19th century in Chunn’s Cove educated many from Asheville’s prominent families, such as the Pattons, the Merrimons, the Sondleys, the Reynolds, the Cheesboroughs, the Bairds, the Hugers, and of course the Lees. The school was considered a “feeder” for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The marker is dedicated to an exemplary educator in the 19th century, who founded a unique school. The actual history of the man and his teaching can be traced through many publications and has been done so in the application to the Marker Program. In 1843 Stephen Lee had established himself in Asheville where in 1844 he opened the doors to the first class of boys on property leased from William Patton on the banks of the Swannanoa. The large mansion that first housed the school was known as the Swannanoa Lodge ((Weekly Raleigh Register). By 1850, he had purchased two hundred acres of property in the Chunn’s Cove area of Asheville (Buncombe County Register of Deeds, 1850) where he relocated the school and built a family home. The brick school building stood on the site until the 1920s. (Tessier,1992–see attached photo.)

Lee’s land holdings during his life reached from the top of Beaucatcher Mountain to the Swannanoa River. An often-repeated story in town, substantiated by various newspaper accounts, was that the name of ‘Beaucatcher Mountain’ in town originated with the Lee’s School boys and Asheville girls strolling along the paths of the mountain that connected Chunn’s Cove and the school grounds with downtown Asheville. (Asheville Citizen-Times, 1932, 1962 and 1988).

Lee’s School came into existence at a particularly pivotal point for Asheville, the South and the nation. It operated for seventeen years prior to the onset of the Civil War in 1861 and for fourteen years after the War that demolished a way of life in the southern states. The aftermath of the Civil War in the South perhaps made Lee’s School more important than before. With the great losses in life and property, Lee was apparently able to guide his students through those difficult times of reframing their personal visions and expectations of the future. He was a credible guide, having sustained almost unthinkable losses himself, with four of his nine sons lost in the War.

In 1935 A. Matthews says: “Colonel Stephen Lee was one of the greatest educators, and one of the most outstanding men in character building that ever lived in Buncombe County. This entire section, though nearly sixty years have passed since his death, yet bears the imprint of his splendid personality and the high ideals of right living and of up-standing manhood that he made upon the minds and hearts of his students. Those “boys” of his in the Sixties and Seventies that still live, yet speak of him with profound respect and love, and in awed tones of finality quote any statement that he made, or opinions that he may have expressed in those days when he was their teacher, friend and adviser.”

In tracking known students, both before and after the Civil War, their accomplishments ran the gamut: the military, medicine, academics, engineering, religious institutions, and public service as mayors, state representatives, congressmen, senators and judges. Thanks to Sallie Lee’s research and the Historical Marker Program, the public will be reminded of the school’s existence for years to come. Ansley Wegner, Administrator of the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program, will be present. The dedication of the marker for this extraordinary teacher and leader will be on Tunnel Road at 4:00 p.m. on June 9th. Parking is available at Homewood Suites, immediately next door to the marker site at 88 Tunnel Road. Those present will gather in the lobby at the Homewood and then walk to the marker site [about 1/2 block]. For those who need to walk on level ground, we suggest parking on Chunn’s Cove Road, just beyond the green space where the marker will be placed.

Now to be clear to many from this area who may read this, there is no relation here to the Stephens-Lee School, an African American School that started in 1923 and was for decades the only secondary education available for African Americans in Western North Carolina. Stephens-Lee was named for two dedicated teachers at that high school and was known for the high caliber of their teachers and their incredible band. The school drew students from a wide area, including Madison, Henderson, Transylvania and Yancey counties as well as Buncombe. The school closed in 1965 when the US government desegregation plan took place.

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