While there is much about the beginnings of Epworth School (which later became Brevard Institute), the lives of its founders, Fitch and Sarah Taylor, are also noteworthy. Their passion and drive led them to open the Epworth School after they saw the need for education in Western North Carolina. Fitch said, “We learned that the pressure on [the Home Industrial School in Asheville] was great, that from 125 to 150 worthy girls were turned away each year […] We believed here was an opening for us…”
Fitch and Sarah Taylor were well traveled, only moving to Western North Carolina from Philadelphia “after losing health and fortune.” Fitch Taylor was born in 1838 to Fitch (Sr.) and Esther Taylor in Brooklyn. Census reports list Fitch, Sr. as a “master hatter,” with his son noted as a “clerk” and “salesman” in later New York census reports. Marjorie Craig, who was drafting “The History of Brevard College and its Forerunners,” noted that “he served his country as captain’s clerk in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and as acting midshipman on board the United States Sloop-of-War Levant.” Craig also noted Fitch’s talents in music, leadership and teaching young people.
In 1866, Taylor married Sarah Helliker from Philadelphia. They complimented each other both in the home and as partners in teaching, eventually as principal and assistant principal of Epworth. They lived in East Orange, NJ, Brooklyn, NY and St. Louis, MO and traveled throughout Europe before finally arriving in North Carolina in 1890. The mountain climate and the couple’s declining health drew them to Asheville before they settled in Brevard and opened the school in 1896.
Once established, Fitch and Sarah Taylor were active members of the Brevard community. Fitch Taylor was even thanked in an April 1896 edition of The Brevard Hustler as part of a group who helped the editor out while he was ill with pneumonia for two weeks. They had one son, E. Fitch Taylor, who lived in NY and Philadelphia before falling ill and returning to Brevard, where he died in 1897 at only 28 years old.
The 1900 Census lists that their residence included one boarder, an 18-year-old white woman named Maud Wilson, and one servant, a 17-year-old Black man named Harper Allen. Everyone within the residence was recorded as able to read and write. Fitch taught “the books” while Sarah taught homemaking. Together, they gained the community’s trust and provided a service that many less privileged children would otherwise not have had access to.
While running the Epworth School, the couple faced many financial hardships, despite the educational need and the school’s eventual success within the community. To open the Epworth School, they sold their furniture to raise funds. The school was first located at the Henning House (located on Main Street) and then moved to the Red House on Probart Street. Both locations boarded students. Records indicate that while the Taylors made sure their teachers were paid, they only narrowly avoided debt and made little income as the principals of the school. There were multiple appeals for support and the school did charge tuition, but these fees regularly went unpaid. The couple was quoted more than once as trying to “make one dollar do the work of three.” By 1902, Taylor said that if the school “has to struggle for bare existence in the coming years as it has in the past, it were better to let the work cease.” Fundraising efforts and plans drawn for a new location were eventually successful, but this building (later to become West Hall) wasn’t completed until after the Taylors stepped down as administrators in 1903.
Fitch died in March 1909; a Brevard News article reported his death as a result of Bright’s disease, a kidney disease now referred to as acute or chronic nephritis. “The loss of this good and useful man is felt to be a calamity to the whole community. So deeply was his personality impressed upon the people, so sincere was the affection felt for him by all, that his death appears to be a public rather than a private visitation.” Following his death, Sarah boarded with local families, including the Herrings on Morgan Street, the Hunts on Probart Street and finally the Kilpatricks on Jordon Street. She died of heart disease in July 1932. Fitch, Sarah, and their son (E. Fitch) are all buried in Oak Grove Cemetery.
Photographs and information for this column are provided by the Rowell Bosse North Carolina Room, Transylvania County Library. Much of this article was informed by The History of Brevard College and The Forerunners, written by former Brevard College faculty Marjorie Craig but ultimately never published. A copy of her drafted manuscript is available to reference in the Rowell Bosse North Carolina Room. This article was written by Local History Associate Erin Weber Boss. For more information, comments, or suggestions, contact NC Room staff at [email protected] or 828-884-1820.