Mars Hill is a town that is rich in history, character, and people. It is known for its beautiful mountain views and picturesque setting. The town’s history is inextricably linked with that of Mars Hill University, the oldest educational institution still in its original location in western North Carolina. The college provides town residents many educational and cultural opportunities
The history of the town is linked with its tie to education. The town of Mars Hill itself developed after the residents established an educational institution which would grow into Mars Hill University. And, the university today is linked to a historical marker in the town which reflects the tie of the school to traditional music. Bascom Lamar Lunsford was born here and his collection of music and his letters are housed at the university. Also on the university campus is the Rural Heritage Museum with exhibits about the history of the area. The university would also be affected by the Civil War as recounted in the Civil War Trails marker on the university campus. The townspeople’s commitment to education is also reflected in the historic Anderson Rosenwald School.
A walk down Main Street can immerse you in the history and the culture that contributed to the character of the town. Many of the houses in the blocks surrounding the center of town tell the story of Mars Hill’s growth from its birth until today. There are homes of distinguished members of the community; homes used as boarding houses for students at the college; businesses that reflect the economic development of the town; and a church that can trace its founding to the same time as the establishment of the town itself.
Mars Hill, NC
The Gem of the Blue Ridge Mountains
Owen Theatre was constructed in April 1918 and originally served as Mars Hill Baptist Church. Founded in 1887, Mars Hill Baptist Church once held services in Mars Hill University’s main building. A one third acre lot was sold by local citizens to the church and a small building was constructed on the site in 1900. By 1907 however, church officials deemed the building unsafe and the congregation held their services on campus again until 1918.
In the early 1910s, church officials approved architectural plans for a new building but the church struggled to find funding until the arrival of Reverend Jesse R. Owen in 1914. Along with his role in the church, Rev. Owen also served as a faculty member and trustee of the College.
With his help, Mars Hill Baptist completed construction and on April 21, 1918, Rev. Owen held the first service in the new church. Mars Hill Baptist occupied the building until 1954, when they moved to a newly constructed building located on the corner of present-day Bailey and Main streets.
In preparation for the move, church officials agreed to sell the old church and adjoining parsonage to the college on May 5, 1953. Mars Hill College used the building as the campus chapel until 1968. Once religious services ended, the building was renamed Owen Theatre in honor of former college trustee and Mars Hill Baptist Church Rev. Jesse Owen and repurposed as the home for the theatre arts department.