Mount Sequoyah Retreat and Conference Center was founded in 1922 by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, which comprised the states of Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. Called the Western Methodist Assembly, it was planned as a summer retreat, spiritual center and faith-based training facility west of the Mississippi River. Located on what was then called East Mountain, the site was chosen in part due to a generous offer from Fayetteville. The city pledged 400 acres, $35,000 in seed money, connections to all city utilities and construction of a road to the mountain top. Other considerations included the site’s natural beauty, its centrality in the South Jurisdiction and its proximity to the University of Arkansas. The Fayetteville location was chosen over proposed sites in or near Siloam Springs, Rogers, Mt. Magazine, Mena Arkansas and Neosho, MO.
According to an article in the March 16, 1922, edition of the Fayetteville Daily Democrat, news of the assembly’s arrival was nothing short of sensational. “The decision of the commissioners representing Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri reached at Fort Smith last evening between 11:30 o’clock and midnight was telephoned here immediately and by midnight the entire town had been made aware of it by the ringing of bells, which rivaled the Armistice signing celebration.”
East Mountain was subsequently renamed Mount Sequoyah in honor of Cherokee Chief Sequoyah, creator of the Cherokee alphabet, who, according to board minutes from 1922, “doubtless tented upon the very spot we have chosen, which was a favorite camping ground for Indians.” Fayetteville’s seed money, a small loan and proceeds from the sale of lots were used to finance the construction of a chapel, cottages, a cafeteria and a superintendent’s home, among others. Mount Sequoyah’s grounds opened for the first time in the summer of 1923 to the delight of the Methodist church. In an undated report issued to the Arkansas Press Association sometime in the late 1920s, Bishop James Atkins of Lake Junaluska Assembly in North Carolina attended the opening and “declared [Mount Sequoyah] one of the most beautiful spots in the world.”
Shortly after the inauguration, construction began on what is believed to be the institution’s oldest building, the 1924 Parker Hall.* Parker is a stone and brick building with a grand hall on the first floor and sleeping quarters and bathrooms on the second. Built by the Epworth League, a young-adult division of the Methodist Church, Parker still functions as a group retreat location. In 1927, Mount Sequoyah’s second signature building was constructed by the Women’s Missionary Society and named Elza-Stephens-Remmel Hall. A four-story dormitory made of brick with stone wainscot, Elza-Stephens-Remmel towers over Mount Sequoyah’s 32-acre campus. The building is used to this day for conferences, workshops and lodging for large groups.
While the dates for major construction at Mount Sequoyah range from 1924 to 1989, most of what we see today was built from 1927-1965. The Rev. Sam Yancey, who served as superintendent from 1927-1950, oversaw the construction of several cottages, Clapp Auditorium, Yancey Lodge, Vesper Point, the Cross at Overlook Park and campus walkways. A key piece of what one writer calls the “Golden Years” of Mount Sequoyah, Yancey was a tireless advocate who travelled far and wide to promote awareness of the retreat. In 1940, he was proud to report to the Board of Trustees that “I have picked up quite a bit of cash for the Assembly during the year and for the first time in the history of the Assembly we have had cash in the treasury and have been able to pay all bills when they come due.” For context, his proposed general fund budget for 1941 was $15,810, a figure that included expenses for “telephone and telegraph.”
In the early 1960s, another building boom was initiated thanks to a five-year master plan and a jurisdiction-wide fundraiser. In addition to the construction of Louisiana Cottage, Arkansas Cottage and brick in-fill for the previously open-air Clapp Auditorium, the chief result of this capital campaign was the construction beginning in 1963 of Galloway Dining Hall, a 6,200 square-foot facility that can serve over 200 people. In Dec. 2011, Galloway was given a new roof and vestibule and remains the retreat’s main dining area. With the exception of the 1989 Bailey Center, which is used for conferences and workshops, significant construction at Mount Sequoyah has not occurred in nearly 50 years.
Mount Sequoyah’s central function is to serve as a training place for the South Central Jurisdiction, which spans eight states: Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Formed in 1939, the South Central Jurisdiction contains 11 Episcopal areas presided over by 11 bishops. Approximately 1.8 million United Methodists reside in the South Central Jurisdiction.
While the physical presence of Mount Sequoyah is defined in large part by its more than 40 structures, the diverse natural beauty of the grounds also contributes to the retreat’s enduring appeal. The founders of Mount Sequoyah intended it to be that way. When the retreat was first configured, a landscape architect was employed. Harry and Stella Ware, memorialized by a plaque at the Cottage Circle gazebo, donated sugar maples in 1922. Today, an array of trees and flowers explode with color and fragrance each spring, and in the fall, the changing leaves are picturesque. Today, Mount Sequoyah is adorned with maples, oaks, hickories, dogwoods and crepe myrtles, roses, lilies, jonquils and azaleas.