August 15, 2013

Traces of Laurel: Laurel Seminary, Part 2

By Jan Sparkman

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — I want to start off this column by congratulating the historical society’s long-time, dedicated worker, Shirley McCowan, on being chosen one of this year’s Laurel County Homecoming honorees.  Shirley is and has been active on a number of fronts around the county for a long time, and nowhere has she given more of herself and her talents than to the Laurel County Historical Society.  Working with her at the society since the 1970s, I have been able to observe her exemplary service first hand.  I am happy to see her honored for it.

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Laurel Seminary opened its doors in the fall of 1858.  It was soon acclaimed for its high academic standards and for the opportunities for a better education that it offered to the youth of Laurel and surrounding counties.  It seemed set to become the jewel in London’s crown.

Then, in the Fall of 1861, the coming of the Civil War to Laurel County shattered that hope.  C.B. Faris wrote:  “. . .further progress of the school was at an end until peace and quiet should be restored.”  Dr. W.S. Doak, who had been employed to run the school, returned to his practice of medicine; his assistant, J. B. Banton, became a captain in the Federal Army and lost his life at the Battle of Stone River.  His body was brought back to London and buried at the Randall Cemetery.

Faris goes on say: “During the war both armies, the Federal and Confederates, at different times camped upon and occupied the Seminary grounds, and before the trustees were aware of it, broke into and occupied the building as a hospital and commissary.”

The trustees hastily moved what they could find of the school’s library and other valuable equipment to a private house.  Much of what had been purchased for the school’s opening in 1858 was gone without a trace and most of what was left was badly damaged.  The new fencing around the school’s property was burned, seats and desks destroyed, windows broken and the rooms defaced.  Faris calls it “a general wreck.” 

Fortunately, the war finally came to an end and the people once more looked to the future.  At Laurel Seminary, the trustees began to repair and replace what had been lost and the school reopened with a “competent corps of teachers.”  Faris concludes:  “The cause of education was again prosperous and Laurel Seminary . . . . did greatly assist in elevating the people from the degradation into which the evil influences consequent upon war had lowered them.”

Laurel Seminary existed until it became part of the London Common School District around the turn of the 20th century.  By that time, Sue Bennett Memorial School had been established, marking a new chapter in Laurel County’s educational history.  The Baptist Association briefly used the buildings of Laurel Seminary as a Christian school but that organization closed after two and a half years.  The Laurel Seminary site and its buildings were then used by the graded school.

Did I say that the site of Laurel Seminary was roughly where London Elementary stands today?  Parts of the original building remained throughout several renovations of the graded school, disappearing completely by the time the elementary school that most of us remember was built.

In Russell Dyche’s booklet, “The Laurel Seminary,” you will find more on the financial struggle of the school during the time it was run by a Board of Trustees, as well as lists of the names of teachers over the years.  It’s very interesting .

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The Laurel County Historical Society is located at 310 W. 3rd St., London, (formerly the Laurel County Health Department).  The library is open on Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. until 12 noon.  For further information, contact 606-864-0607 during library hours, or 606-224-3767 at other times.  Visit the historical society’s website:  Email the society at or Jan Sparkman at