Clear Creek’s loss of the Rocky River Academy to Harrisburg around 1824 had worried residents for decades, and talk about building another school of its kind was a subject that often came up in the conversations of Philadelphia Presbyterian Church members. However, the problems and issues of the Civil War and Reconstruction had taken front and center. The idea of building an academy seemed an impossible, far-distant dream for the people of Clear Creek. However, there was a special person who would make the dream come true — a bachelor named John Bain, a long-time member of Philadelphia, who had been orphaned at an early age and reared by his older brothers and sisters.
According to Dr. Steve Bain, a Texas A & M professor who visited the area a few years ago in search of his relatives, “the Bain family, headed by William Bain, Sr., emigrated to America from Scotland during the 1700s. With high hopes for the future, they assumed leadership roles in a number of endeavors, including education, in their new country.” The Bains settled in the community of Hopewell in North Mecklenburg County and then moved to Clear Creek around 1750. John Bain (1773-1830) and Elizabeth Wilson Bain (1770-1853) married in 1753 and had seven children – William, James, Elizabeth, Martha, John, Robert, and Nancy. There is no record of any of the children going to college, but William, the oldest son, had a teaching contract in 1836. None of the Bain siblings ever married and made their living on a 700-acre farm off Lawyers Road (now present-day Cheval).
The sole survivor of the family and the sole owner of the farm by the late 1880s, John Bain asked and was granted permission from Philadelphia Church to establish Bain Academy. Why did he make such an important decision? One theory is that he wanted young people to have a better chance in life than he had experienced and he realized this was possible through education. Another theory is that John Bain’s caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. C.P. Shaffer, influenced him.
Workers built the two-story brick academy in record time and opened the doors to students in 1889. John Bain funded the building at a cost of $2,800 and a porch was added later at a cost of $300. “The building consisted of five rooms, three downstairs and two small rooms separated by a hall down the middle. The stairs reached a large room upstairs that could be divided into two by folding doors. Nothing before or since had happened so quickly. The first commencement was held May 22, 1890” (The Presbyterian Gathering on Clear Creek by Russell Martin Kerr).
Bain Academy flourished and even attracted students from afar who boarded with local families. About 200 students were enrolled in the first session. The boys took turns chopping wood, building fires, and carrying water since there was no janitor. The academy offered a well-rounded curriculum that not only included the three R’s but physics, rhetoric, oratory, and Latin. It was the first graded school in Mecklenburg County, and all its teachers were college graduates (not a requirement at the time). Discipline was strict, especially under Professor Spence, the first principal, who sat in a swivel chair in the lower room and kept a watchful eye on all the students. At the end of chapel services, he might call out the names of students who had not paid attention. Boys – and girls, too – could be suspended for one to four days for infractions. According to Russell Martin Kerr, “No one was allowed to speak without permission and then for a limited time only and woe to the student who was caught disobeying the rule….Boys and girls were not allowed to have any communication except during the entertainments.”
The original academy burned in 1903, but the community rebuilt the structure within a short time and studies continued without interruption. Bain Academy soon earned a reputation for excellence. In 1924, Philadelphia Church turned the school over to Mecklenburg County, but it continued to be funded by the John Bain Trust through 1935. The school was enlarged and expanded, per a design by Louis Asbury. The first AIA architect in North Carolina, he is credited with a number of outstanding buildings, including the Montaldo’s Building, which still stands in Charlotte. Bain High School became one of only two high schools in the county that prepared students for any college in North Carolina. Its graduates became doctors, lawyers, city officials, ministers, merchants, teachers, stenographers, bookkeepers, farmers, and homemakers. Today a K-5 elementary school, Bain has served students in the Mint Hill area continuously since it was founded 129 years ago.
Historic Bain Restoration is an ongoing effort to restore and repurpose the auditorium building on the Bain School campus. On Nov. 6, Mint Hill citizens will vote on a $3 million bond referendum to restore and repurpose the old school into a cultural arts and civic center that can be used for small concerts, plays, meetings, art space, and more. For more information, visit www.savebain.com.