S. P. Lees Collegiate Institute

By Stephen D. Bowling

A little after 2:30 on the afternoon of November 18, 1882, John J. Dickey rode into Jackson and forever changed the history of Eastern Kentucky. His legacy remains in the numerous colleges, churches, and community centers that he helped establish for the betterment of the mountain region.

Rev. John J. Dickey

Sitting high on the hill overlooking Jackson, the Lees College Campus of Hazard Community and Technical College is today one of his proud accomplishments. The oldest and most recognizable structure on the campus is the Administration Building.

Construction started in the summer and fall of 1886 on the tall stately brick building which still stands at the end of College Avenue, formerly known as Academy Street.  The building became the center of a five-acre campus extending over some of the most desirable lands in Jackson.

Lees College had a storybook beginning with a simple lame horse. Rev. John J. Dickey, a Methodist Minister from Flemingsburg, on his way to Pikeville, rode into Jackson astride his horse because he was “curious about the people of Breathitt.”  Upon arriving in Jackson, he spent the night with George W. Sewell and found that his horse was unable to make the journey the next morning.  Mr. Dickey told the Sewells of  his interest in establishing a school in the mountains and over the next few days the Sewells convinced Rev. Dickey that he “could not find a better place than Jackson.” 

Classes started in the Circuit Courtroom of the Breathitt County Courthouse but enrollment soon outgrew the room and classes were frequently suspended due to court sessions.  The need for a new building was soon apparent.  At a meeting held in the courtroom, local citizens met with Rev. Dickey and a New York philanthropist who was interested in building a school.  The group voted to buy land on which the new academy building would be constructed.  The charter was granted by the General Assembly in 1884 and construction was started.

An architect’s rendering of the Lees Collegiate Institute as it was designed. What was constructed differed from the original plans.

Rev. Dickey himself helped build the old Academy Building, staying up numerous nights building fires in the buildings to ensure that the plaster cured.  Bricks for the building were made by hand and fired in a makeshift furnace erected near the site of the school which was ultimately completed at a cost of $6,280. 

For the next four years, Rev. Dickey acted as principal of the newly established Jackson Academy until 1891 when the school was sold to Central University of Richmond, Kentucky after the school was sued to settle a debt it owed of $2,280.

Under the leadership of Central University, the name was changed to the Jackson Collegiate Institute, and the school was transformed into a college.  During this period in the history of the school, considerable sums of financial support were given by Mrs. Cyrus H. McCormick, of Chicago, Illinois, and Mrs. Susan P. Lees, of New York.

An early view of the Lees Colligate Institute showing the Administration building and dormitory known as Little Hall.

In 1893, Mrs. Lees’ generous financial contributions ensured that the school would continue to educate the future leaders of the mountains and the school was renamed the S. P. Lees Collegiate Institute in honor of her gifts.  In October 1906, the school passed from the control of Central University to the Kentucky Synod of the Presbyterian Church (Southern Assembly) where it remained until 1995.  After expanding its curriculum, the school was rechartered as a two-year college in 1927 and renamed Lees Junior College.

In 1995, Lees Junior College requested admission into the Kentucky Community College System and Rev. Dickey’s “little school” became a campus of the Hazard Community and Technical College System in 1996.

An aerial view of the Lees College Campus in the 1960s after the removal of the Barkley Stadium and before the construction of the tennis courts.

Through the transitions and years, the stately administration building stood as the center of the Lees College campus.  Through two major fires, numerous administrators, disputes, and tremendous success, the “college building” as it is commonly known remain the most visible and identifiable structure on the campus of Lees College. 

Renamed the J. Phil Smith Administration Building by the Board of Directors, the building stands today as a monument to the generations of educators and students who have transformed the mountains because the opportunity for an education close to home came as the result of a lame horse and a man with a vision.

© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Breathitt County, Education and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to S. P. Lees Collegiate Institute

  1. Brandon Gross says:

    I always love to read articles about the history of Lees College. There definitely is a lot of history that surrounds that campus. It’s a good article.
    I just want to point out though: The overhead photo caption says “Barclay Stadium” but it was spelled Barkley. I don’t know if that was a typo. I’m sure you know (or maybe not) but the Barkley Bowl or Barkley Stadium was built around 1929 and was named after former KY US Senator and later Vice President of the United States, Albert Barkley.


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