The now defunct Burritt College was founded in 1848 at Spencer, Van Buren County, as a preparatory school and junior college under the auspices of the Churches of Christ. The college was an early coeducational institution with a classical curriculum along with strict moral and religious codes.
The first president, Isaac Newton Jones, a graduate of Irving College in neighboring Warren County, left after only one year. William Davis Carnes replaced Jones in 1849. Carnes implemented coeducation and expelled students who drank alcohol. He also petitioned the Tennessee General Assembly to pass a law prohibiting the sale of liquor within a four-mile radius of a chartered school in an unincorporated area. Shortly after this law passed, the president’s home and girls’ dormitory mysteriously burned. Carnes left Burritt to accept the presidency of East Tennessee University (now the University of Tennessee) and was succeeded by John Powell in 1857.
The college closed during the Civil War, and Union troops occupied the buildings. Both Carnes and Powell returned to Burritt in the years following the war and reestablished a strict moral, religious, and intellectual tone for the college. In 1890 William Newton Billingsley, an 1873 Burritt graduate, became the college’s eleventh president.
A fire in 1906 destroyed another campus building, and the college briefly closed. After reopening, Burritt College prospered for several years, but its enrollment declined after the opening of state normal schools in Murfreesboro and Cookeville in the early 1910s. With the establishment of a public high school in Van Buren County, Burritt College could no longer compete for students and closed in 1939.