East Tennessee Normal School: an early history of ETSU

Tanner Cook • Oct 5, 2019 at 11:15 PM

The humble college that sits in the heart of the Appalachian mountains that the people of Johnson City now know as East Tennessee State University did not start out hustling and bustling like it is today. 

In 1911, ETSU started out as the “Normal School,” which is a somewhat archaic term that means it was a training school for primary teachers. It was a popular term across Europe that was used through the late 19th century and gained popularity in the United States. 

It focused on a secondary definition of the word “normal” which referred to a “model” or “pattern.” 


After Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia and brought the Civil War to a close in 1865, there was boom in the emergence of normal schools across Tennessee to try to unify an education curriculum across the state. However, the funding was limited and progress stalled prior to 1900. 

Still in the early 20th century, teachers were being certified by local authorities and there was not an established educational curriculum. The great majority of teachers were not only without college training but also without high school training.

An ability to pass an examination by the local authorities was the only qualification to teach. An average teacher salary of slightly over $130 a year and a school term of only 93 days also are indicative of the state of affairs.

In 1903, 78% of Tennessee's public school teachers held third grade certificates, implying no training for their work rather than a common education.

A change needed to happen. 


By an act of the General Assembly in 1909, the State Board of Education was authorized to establish three normal schools for the training of white teachers — one in each grand division of the state — and an agricultural and industrial normal school for black students.

Since counties and municipalities were authorized by law to issue bonds for establishment and location of the normal schools, competition became heated among the cities statewide to be selected for a new school.

The state did not want to pay for land and limited funding for buildings requiring the cities to make aggressive bids to be submitted to the State Board of Education.

Along with Johnson City, Sweetwater, Athens and Dayton were finalists for the East Tennessee Normal School site. Johnson City's offer was by far the most aggressive in East Tennessee.

The city and Washington County each pledged $75,000 in bonds, free land was offered, free utilities including electricity and water, and a streetcar line would be extended to serve the new campus.

Even the editor of the Johnson City Comet, Cy Lyle, lobbied for the normal school to come to Johnson City. 

Lyle’s “Plea for Johnson City” ran in the Nashville American on Oct. 15, 1909 and was reprinted in the Comet on Oct. 21. It read “In the beginning when God finished the universe, he rested from his labors in East Tennessee, and found that he had an immense amount of mineral wealth left over after giving all portions of the world their quota.

“This he piled up around Johnson City and covered it with earth that the sluggard might ‘root hog or die.’

“With lavish hand, He fringed the mounds with the giant timber and the clinging and creeping verdure that have called forth the admiration of the world. Standing upon the highest of these peaks God looked over his handiwork, smiled at its rugged beauty and completeness, and stepped easily into heaven.”

Some of the reasons that Lyle cited for the normal school to be in Johnson City were “It is the most rapidly growing town in the south and property acquired will continually enhance in value as the years roll into history.

It is here that Uncle Sam spent nearly $3 million building the Mountain Branch of the National Soldiers Home and is maintaining it.

Thousands of visitors come here annually to see this home and all are amply repaid for their trip of any length. This national park with its miles of flower bordered drives and cement walks is a revelation, and is always open to the public.

Johnson City’s railroads reach in the most direct manner all parts of the contiguous section and make it the ideal location from the point of accessibility.”


On Dec. 2, 1909, the State Board of Education came to the decision to award Johnson City with the East Tennessee Normal School after having been in session for more than two days.

Once the news reached Johnson City, an article in the Comet read that “every whistle in the city was dampened with steam and the lusty throated songsters conveyed the glad tidings to the community and the rejoicing was ‘above Normal.’ ”

The plans began almost immediately for where the school was to be in the city and there were two finalists. One was in Carnegie (east Johnson City) and a second in south Johnson City across from the National Soldiers Home.

George Carter — founder of the Clinchfield Railroad — was developing hundreds of acres in south Johnson City in his "Carter Addition" that included residential areas (Tree Streets) and industrial properties (Model Mill) and the Normal School was seen as a major enhancement for his developments.

To seal the deal with Gov. Patterson and the Board of Education, Carter bought property to round out the campus and began construction of a road. For the great "railway builder of the Appalachians," this was not an out of character event as George L. Carter was not known to be outbid when he set out to secure a project.

The original campus included five buildings — the administration building, the President's home, the women's dormitory, the dining hall and the heating plant.

Sidney Gilbreath was the first President of East Tennessee Normal School. The Normal School led by Gilbreath performed as intended as he aggressively promoted teacher education and boldly supported the case for public education throughout East Tennessee.

When the Normal School was first built, the city decided to move classes from the old Science Hill High School into the Normal School for a couple of years while a new building replaced the old one. The old Science Hill High School — which stood near the present Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church stands today — had been in use since the 1860s. The new school was built on the same plot of land. 


On Oct. 2, 1911, the Normal School opened and 29 students registered on the first day. There were two course of study that were offered, a four-year high school curriculum and a two-year normal school curriculum. 

The Normal School consisted of the departments of education, English, history, science, languages, industrial training, agriculture and the training school. 

Navy blue and gold were chosen later in 1911 as the school colors. As the years went on, more and more courses were added like Latin, domestic science, piano, violin and voice, among others. 


The women’s basketball team completed the 1917-18 undefeated, going 6-0. 

The school’s first yearbook, “Old Hickory” was published in 1919. 

The first football team was fielded in 1920. The “Normalites” finished the season 3-3.

In 1922, the first gymnasium was constructed. That same year, Taylor Hall, the men’s dormitory, was completed. 

In 1923, the school’s first newspaper, “Chalkline,” was published. In 1924, the school’s baseball team finished undefeated. 


In 1925, the Normal School changed its name to the East Tennessee State Teachers College and Dr. Charles C. Sherrod was inaugurated as the second president of East Tennessee State. 

The most recognizable building from the early days of the Normal School still stands today as the University School. The building was originally called Alexander Hall and it acted as the Training School. It was built in 1928. 

The impact that the Normal School made on Johnson City both economically and culturally along with the education system in the state is impossible to comprehend.