When Alice Lloyd made her way by horse and buggy to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky a century ago, doctors had said the sickly New Englander had little time to live. She was looking for a place with a warmer climate that might ease her health problems.
Instead, she found her life’s purpose.
A reformer struck by the poverty and lack of schools, Lloyd started a community center in a narrow valley along Caney Creek in Knott County in 1917 to educate children and try to improve health and housing.
She rarely left afterward, working tirelessly to raise money for what ultimately became a four-year, liberal arts college that trustees named for Lloyd after her death in 1962.
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Alice Lloyd College grew up along the creek and steep hillsides overlooking the two-room cabin where Lloyd lived in the early days. The college, which has about 600 students, is unique as one of a handful of work schools in the country, along with Berea College.
Full-time Alice Lloyd students are required to work at least 10 hours a week cutting grass, answering phones, cooking meals or doing other jobs on campus, or in service projects in the community.
In return, students pay no tuition if they are from the college’s service area, which includes 40 Appalachian counties in Kentucky and 68 in four adjacent states.
The college has had a tremendous impact, educating generations of teachers and other professionals who have stayed in the region, supporters said.
“We have provided a lot of the leadership of the communities … the local public servants,” said Stephen Wilson, a history professor at the college. “It’s a pretty remarkable record.”
The college is still incorporated under the name of the center Lloyd started, the Caney Creek Community Center.
There will be a ceremony to mark the centennial of the center during the college’s Appalachia Day Homecoming in October.
‘Forgot my ills’
Lloyd grew up well-off in Massachusetts and attended Radcliffe College before becoming a journalist, but she had been ill all her life because of a spinal disease that left her partially paralyzed, according to a history of the college called “Miracle on Caney Creek,” by former President Jerry C. Davis.
When she was 40, doctors told her she wouldn’t live much longer in cold New England.
Around the same time, a friend of Lloyd’s who was a Presbyterian minister told her he had abandoned a mission in the far-off hills of Eastern Kentucky, on Troublesome Creek in Knott County, after having no luck converting Baptists, according to the book.
The minister offered to let Lloyd have the cabin at the mission, and another friend gave her a horse and buggy. Lloyd and her husband and mother got to the cabin in the winter of 1915-16 after a six-week trip.
Lloyd found a place that was relatively isolated and poor, with few decent schools or roads and many people living in substandard houses.
Companies hungry for coal had built rail lines and camps with modern amenities elsewhere in Eastern Kentucky and hired thousands of workers, but that boom had not yet touched Knott County.
“Comparing my lot with my neighbors’, what had seemed my mountain of trouble became so small that I was ashamed. It was then that I buried my past, forgot my ills,” Lloyd told an interviewer with Reader’s Digest in 1953.
It wasn’t long before she was confronted with the task that would occupy the rest of her life, when a father of nine named Abisha Johnson came to see her.
Johnson told Lloyd he’d had a vision of her coming to his community, Caney Creek, to teach his children. If she would come, Johnson said, he would give her a strip of land and a cabin.
Lloyd’s family had instilled in her an ideal of service. She told Johnson, whom she would later call the “Summonser,” that she would come.
‘The leaders are here’
Lloyd and her mother, Ella Geddes, moved in 1917 to a small cabin Johnson had built for her a few steps from the creek. Her husband had left her to return to Boston by then.
Lloyd set up the community center with the goal of providing education free of charge, improving health, housing, water quality and sanitation, and conserving land and trees, according to Davis’ book.
She had four elementary-school students at first, said Joe Alan Stepp, who has been president of the college since 1999.
Lloyd believed strongly that “The leaders are here, waiting to be trained if given a chance,” but she had to overcome the suspicion of some residents about outsiders.
Once when Lloyd wanted to hold a community meeting, people wouldn’t enter the building because there were cans of fuel oil under it and there was a rumor that Lloyd was a German spy and would blow up the hall with residents inside.
Lloyd had the cans moved into the creek and held the meeting.
Another time, when Lloyd told a man he would have to leave a house the community center had helped build because he’d been making moonshine under it, he got drunk and shot through her office window just over her head, according to “Miracle on Caney Creek.”
But Lloyd, once described by a trustee as “the stubbornest woman in Kentucky,” persisted and won friends and supporters in the community.
“Over time they grew to respect her,” said Wilson, who is writing an updated history of the college.
Lloyd wrote to people she knew in the Northeast seeking donations for her efforts to provide free education.
She couldn’t use her right hand, so she spent hours each day pecking out appeals for money or goods with her left hand on an old Oliver manual typewriter.
She sent a thank-you note to anyone who donated, no matter the amount.
‘Keep this miracle alive’
Those appeals eventually led to her getting an assistant, June Buchanan, who became her right arm.
Young women at Wellesley College had donated money for a recreation hall at the community center, and Buchanan heard about it from other students after she entered the elite university for graduate studies in philosophy and ethics.
Buchanan was intrigued and arranged to visit Caney Creek in early 1919, splitting off from the rest of her family at Ashland while they went on to Florida on vacation.
Buchanan and a friend took the train to Wayland, in Floyd County, the nearest rail stop to Caney Creek.
A local man accompanied them the rest of the way to Lloyd’s school, a distance of perhaps 14 miles, riding by moonlight on horseback. They rode in the creek because it was the easiest route.
Lloyd pressed her into teaching first-graders the next morning, Buchanan told Davis for his book, which was based largely on Buchanan’s memories.
Buchanan left after her vacation was over, but came back a few months later and stayed at Caney Creek until she died in 1988, three weeks short of age 101.
In time, Lloyd essentially became a recluse, spending 12 hours a day writing appeals for donations and thank-you notes, while Buchanan and administrators tended to other details.
Mrs. Lloyd knew, and I did too, that Almighty God would continue to send friends who would keep this miracle alive.
Lloyd’s initial idea was to set up a model community, but by the early 1920s she and Buchanan were convinced what the mountains needed most was professionals, such as teachers and doctors, to be community leaders, according to the Kentucky Encyclopedia.
To that end, she and Buchanan and local supporters established the two-year Caney Junior College in 1923.
There were two students in the first graduating class in 1925, but between then and 1955, its students went on to start more than 100 schools in Appalachia, Stepp said.
The primary and high schools and the college lived on a shoestring as Lloyd and Buchanan tried to sustain and expand facilities and programs.
Buchanan said there were times when there was no money to pay workers during construction of one large stone building, but they kept at the job on the promise that the money would come, and it did.
“Mrs. Lloyd knew, and I did too, that Almighty God would continue to send friends who would keep this miracle alive,” Buchanan told Davis.
Pippa passes through
Lloyd and Buchanan came up with the unusual name for the town of Pippa Passes, which is essentially the campus of the college, from a Robert Browning poem about a child laborer named Pippa.
On her annual holiday, Pippa passes through villages singing cheerfully that “God’s in his heaven — All’s right with the world!”
The college stayed afloat and added buildings even through the Great Depression in the 1930s.
When an accreditation team visited in 1951, however, it noted some real shortcomings.
The team recognized the good academic record of graduates, the school’s meticulous financial accounting and the “high, unselfish” purpose of administrators.
However, it also said the library was too small, the physics laboratory was inadequate, lighting was substandard in all buildings, there was no equipment for chemistry classes, some dorms were still heated by open fireplaces and there were no extra-curricular activities, according to “Miracle on Caney Creek.”
The school didn’t have money to fix the problems, but it soon would.
A January 1954 story on Lloyd in Reader’s Digest prompted thousands of people to suggest that Ralph Edwards feature her on his popular television show “This is Your Life,” and Edwards did it.
Lloyd hadn’t left Pipppa Passes for years and was too shy to go on TV voluntarily, so Buchanan and others coerced her to go to California with a story that the trip was to meet donors. The show’s premise was to surprise subjects with a retrospective of them from people they’d known.
At the end of the Dec. 7, 1955 show, Edwards made a plea for donations to “keep Mrs. Lloyd’s great dream alive.”
Within days, the post office started delivering dozens of mail bags filled with donations that one newspaper called a “blizzard of dollar bills.”
The college received nearly $200,000, according to “Miracle on Caney Creek.”
The small wood cabin Lloyd moved to in 1917 still stands on the campus, but is dwarfed now by taller buildings.
Alice Lloyd became a four-year college in 1982 with the goal of attracting more students. That was under Davis’ leadership.
In the same period, the school renewed a link to its past by establishing the private, K-12 June Buchanan School for children of college employees and students from the area, and added or expanded other buildings and programs.
Under Stepp, the college has spent millions over the last 15 years to upgrade buildings on the compact, tree-shaded campus lining Caney Creek, and has begun construction on a campus center that will ultimately cost nearly $20 million, with money set aside to endow maintenance. The school does not borrow money for construction or other needs.
The college also has added several majors in that time, including entrepreneurship, accounting, kinesiology and special education, and a dual degree in nursing.
The school guarantees the cost of tuition to every qualified student from its area. About 97 percent come from the area and won’t pay tuition, Stepp said.
Students do have to pay for room, board and fees.
The most a student would pay is $8,600 a year, though the work requirement would cut that amount, and the school applies financial aid a student receives to that cost, reducing it further, Stepp said.
Some students end up paying nothing, he said.
“I would argue that Alice Lloyd College makes the greatest financial commitment to its students of any college in the nation,” Stepp said.
The school was supporting nearly 800 students in the 2016-17 school year — about 600 at the college, nearly 120 at the June Buchanan school and more than 50 in graduate programs, Stepp said.
Stepp said the school receives 5,000 to 6,000 applications for admission annually. It will probably admit about 200 for the 2017-18 year, he said.
The college itself does not directly take federal aid. It did in the 1960s and early 1970s, but when the grants dried up the school suffered and enrollment dropped.
In addition, Davis said in a 1988 interview that he felt taking the federal money undermined the work ethic and instruction in values at the college.
Instead, Alice Lloyd relies on fundraising, primarily from foundations, businesses and individuals.
The school’s 2017-18 budget will be $15.2 million, Stepp said.
That’s aside from maintenance and construction needs and efforts to build up the school’s endowment.
“We have to do a lot of fundraising,” Stepp said.
The college’s endowment has tripled since 2000, reaching $39.9 million in February.
‘We want to be better’
Alice Lloyd is not affiliated with a religious denomination, but Stepp described it as a Christian school that provides a character-based education. He keeps a copy of the Ten Commandments on his office wall.
“Our students, when they graduate, should be prepared for a lifetime of service — service to God first and service to their fellow man,” Stepp said.
Students must abide by a code of conduct that says public displays of affection are inappropriate and requires professional attire one day a week and at all convocation activities.
The school has kept the work requirement for students not only to pay for tuition, but as a way to teach self-reliance and a work ethic.
The school also still uses a philosophy in teaching called the Purpose Road that Lloyd and Buchanan put in place decades ago, aimed at instilling purpose, setting goals and promoting good values.
The philosophy even shows up in street signs. The main street through campus is called Purpose Road; side streets include Consecration, Perseverance, Character, Faith and Integrity
More than 80 percent of graduates return to their home areas, Stepp said.
“You can go anywhere in the area and you’ve got deep ties to Alice Lloyd College,” Stepp said.
Several students said in interviews that they chose Alice Lloyd because of its Christian underpinning and its family feel.
Teachers and administrators live on the small campus with students, promoting a closer relationship.
Kyle Coleman, 21, of Chesapeake, Ohio, said he had considered going to Ohio State University but visited Alice Lloyd on the recommendation of a friend and knew immediately it’s where he wanted to be.
“I really loved the campus and the family feel,” said Coleman, who graduated May 6 with a degree in biology and plans to attend dental school. “You’re not just a number in a system.”
Free tuition was also a valuable consideration, several students said.
“I didn’t want all that debt before going into medical school,” said Kristen Fitch, 21, of Paintsville, who graduated with a degree in biology on May 6 and plans to become a doctor.
Many schools strive for increased enrollment, but Stepp said he envisions Alice Lloyd staying about the same size for the foreseeable future. Enrollment growth will be tied to endowment growth, he said.
“Our goals are stay out of debt, control spending and grow the endowment, while staying true to our mission — educating leaders for Appalachia,” he said. “We want to be better.”