Historic Banner Elk Presbyterian

Since its earliest beginnings, Banner Elk Presbyterian Church has had an interesting history, rich in service and ministry. The church dates its beginning as 1893 when 22 people made their professions of faith in response to the preaching mission of a Presbyterian evangelist, Rev. Dr. Robert P. Pell.

For the next few summers, a young seminary student, Edgar Tufts (1869-1923), assisted in mission activities in a wide mountain area which included Banner Elk. With his encouragement and supervision, the first Presbyterian Church building in Banner Elk, said to be one of the “prettiest little churches” of its kind ever seen, was completed and dedicated in 1896.

Historic Banner Elk Presbyterian first church

When he graduated from seminary, Rev. Tufts returned with his bride, Mary Elizabeth Hall (1874-1958), to be pastor of Banner Elk Church as well as four other small churches. “Miss Bessie” brought her piano from Virginia – the first in Banner Elk. For many years, she guided congregations in singing, taught children to play and sing – her ministry of music.

As church membership grew, Tufts shared his dream of building a church of native stone in Banner Elk. Many of the local mountain men were skilled in stone-craft, but rockwork previously had been used only for chimneys and foundations. Nowhere in the immediate area had the beautiful and plentiful native stone been used for an entire building.

The congregation was small in number and material wealth, but great in faith and dedication. Offers for materials and labor came from many sources, and much work went to raising funds to purchase property and begin construction in 1912.

Stories are still told of the community spirit which developed as  local residents of all denominations assisted in the church construction, coming together each Saturday to help with the “new” idea of using plentiful native stone, instead of wood, to construct the building. Men and older boys hauled loads of big rocks from their farms and the river in wagons, which were often pulled by oxen. Children, including those who lived at Grandfather Home, carried water and collected piles of small rocks to be used in the cement.

Historic Banner Elk Presbyterian

The children, knowing they were assisting in important work, also found creative ways to earn and save pennies. Each week women brought brimming picnic baskets of food and generously contributed their energy and talents to help with the many tasks required. The multi-year building of the church became quite a community event as everyone eagerly joined in the work.

Two large puddingstone slabs were hauled up from the Elk River to be set into the front outside walls. These rare, unusual stones are estimated to be a billion years old, made of small rounded field stone of varying kinds and colors, held together by fine cement-like sand carried during the Ice Age by glaciers. Early settlers in the area thought the formations resembled European Christmas pudding.

The native-stone building was finished in 1915, complete with beautiful stained glass windows, the first that many people had ever seen. When the windows arrived in Elk Park on the Tweetsie train, ox-drawn wagons brought them to the church. Many people took picnic lunches to witness the spectacle. The bell in the tower was installed the following year.

Historic Banner Elk Presbyterian

There are several versions of how the stone pulpit was discovered by a logger in the deep woods on Beech Mountain. Stories agree that the stone was “meant to be” part of the new church which was being constructed in Banner Elk.

Local men, with the help of a logging sled drawn by oxen, hauled the mighty stone eight miles through rugged mountain terrain down to the site of the church. The stone pulpit, completely in its natural state, was firmly set in concrete on the ground under the new building and the floor of the sanctuary was built around it. Later, a smooth rock slab was set on top to hold the Bible. Read more about the stone pulpit.

Edgar Tufts Banner Elk

Early on, the church sought to minister to the varied needs of the people in this area as well as to provide for rich Christian nurture and spiritual growth. As soon as the church was established, its work extended to include several nearby outreach locations, including Beech Mountain, Pigeon Roost, Hanging Rock Chapel, and an active Sunday school at the foot of Bald Mountain which became Arbor Dale Presbyterian Church. Read about the Tufts traveling pump organ.

In 1942, a major renovation of the sanctuary took place to insulate against the cold weather. The inside rock walls were covered in insulation and wormy chestnut lumber, probably milled on site. During the early 1900s, a blight killed the American chestnut trees. The trees had great strength and remained standing – but insects bored into the wood, leaving holes and discoloration. The strong wood was readily available at the time. Today, wormy chestnut is very rare and in great demand by craftspeople.

Throughout the years, the original stone church building has been enlarged and renovated many times as the congregation has sought to meet ever-changing needs. The educational building was added in the 1950s. The Lewis & Hitchcock pipe organ was installed in 1993. A major expansion and renovation of classrooms and office areas were completed in 2003. The fellowship hall and kitchen were remodeled and refurbished in 2013.

When Rev. Tufts saw a need, he did not stop until he found a solution and the much needed funding. He introduced preserving ice by cutting it from the Millpond and storing the ice blocks in sawdust-filled ice houses. He also had a dam built on the Elk River to bring electricity to Banner Elk in 1912.

Lees-McRae Institute

Rev. and Mrs. Tufts found many eager young minds with no opportunities for education, so they invited youth to their home to read. Next, they began a one room school in their attic. Word about the “preacher’s school” spread across the mountains with requests for a boarding school. In 1900, the first dormitory opened and “Lees-McRae Institute” began with 12 girls.

Grandfather Home

As Rev. Tufts traveled and visited families in the mountains, his heart was burdened with the numerous orphans he met. Thus, the Grandfather Orphanage was established in 1914, later becoming Grandfather Home for Children and operating until 2022.

In December 1922, Rev. Tufts rode horseback through the very cold and snowy mountains to Blowing Rock to preach. Along the way, he delivered warm clothes and provisions to four isolated elderly women at Grandfather Mountain. When he returned home on Christmas Day, he had a cold which turned into pneumonia. He died at the age of 53 on January 6. He had survived two earlier bouts with tuberculosis.

The first physicians in Banner Elk were recruited by Tufts. He met William Cummings Tate (1886-1960), a young doctor at the lumber camp. Tufts was later impressed when Tate played the organ at Pineola Presbyterian and a strong friendship began. Dr. Tate and his bride, Maude Malcolm (1887-1971), moved to Banner Elk from Knoxville in 1910. He became one of most beloved and trusted  saddle-bag doctors in western North Carolina – and a leader in the church.

Grace Hospital, Banner Elk

Dr. Tate answered calls at any hour. He set up two rooms for patients in his home. Mrs. Tate often provided a meal or overnight bed for patients’ families. Rev. Tufts made multiple trips to New York to secure donations for larger medical facilities. In 1924, a fireproof hospital with 25 beds was dedicated near the church, serving nine mountain counties. Today, it is Tate Dorm at Lees-McRae College.

Dr. Tate and Rev. Tufts worked together to provide medical care for the mountain area, adapting to needs as time passed. A nurses’ training program taught local women important skills to help the hospital and its services grow. The first hospital, begun by Rev. Tufts and served by Dr. Tate, continued to minister to the community, building new facilities and providing more medical services.

Rev. Tufts believed that the church’s mission should encompass not only preaching and teaching, but also healing and sheltering, as seen in his commitment to building not just our church, but the foundations for Lees-McRae College, Grandfather Home for Children and Cannon Memorial Hospital. This mission has also continued through generations as Banner Elk Presbyterian Church supports and partners in many areas of ministry.

Today, this friendly, dedicated, inclusive church family consists of both full-time and seasonal members from various backgrounds and faith traditions. Members work in unity of spirit and in deep commitment to share energy, resources and enthusiasm in serving needs locally, nationally and globally. Read about our current ministries and ways we are helping in our community.

Click the following links to learn more about our history: