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The Minor Years (1872-1879)

With Charles Landon Carter Minor as president, Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College opened its doors on Oct. 1, 1872. The first student to register was William Addison “Add” Caldwell of Sinking Creek in Craig County. Sixteen-year-old Caldwell—he was born on Jan. 10, 1856—had walked from his home, 28 miles away, with his older brother, Milton M. “Mic” Caldwell, who also enrolled later in the academic year. Other students trickled in—only 29 by the end of the first week—prompting Minor to write during the first month, “We have now 30 students matriculated, and there are, I think, a dozen more, of the vicinity, holding back in hope of some abatement of accommodation in the way of delay such as they have been used to received [sic] from the Preston and Olin Institute. We are in correspondence with a good many others, but [it is] plain that our beginning is to be smaller than had been expected by most of those who were best informed in the matter.”

Calling the students “plain lads for the most part,” Minor also wrote that he was “embarrassed by the fact that the wants of the students who have come to us have forced us to vary materially from the strictly technical training enjoined by the organization committee's report.” Later, in his report on the college to the state, he said that many of the students came with “the scantiest preparation,” which made it necessary for VAMC to “include much of the work properly belonging to the high schools, or even the grammar schools, thus leaving it impossible to do all that is to be desired in the special technical courses.”

Minor placed advertisements in newspapers around the state, and in mid-November newspapers reported that 60 students had registered and "the tide of entrance is steadily flowing on to as full numbers as can be comfortably accommodated." By the end of the first academic year, 132 young men—all from Virginia—had enrolled, causing Minor to complain that the school’s academic/classroom building—the Preston and Olin Building—was inadequate.

During the first year, the board of visitors employed two additional faculty members to teach agriculture and technical mechanics. The faculty remained unchanged in size or personnel until the 1875-76 session.

The college was originally divided into three departments: literary and scientific for traditional courses and technical for courses in agriculture and the mechanical arts. The curriculum remained virtually intact until the beginning of the 1877-78 session, when a preparatory department was formed to provide students with poor academic backgrounds an opportunity to improve enough in basic courses to enter college classes.

In addition to their classes and studies, students participated in a literary society that they organized during the college's inaugural year. The one society was succeeded by two societies that became, in 1873, the Lee Literary Society and the Maury Literary Society. These societies, which focused on public speaking, debate, and creative writing, started the first student publication, The Gray Jacket, in 1875.

The final exercises that marked the end of the first year lasted for four days. The exercises began on Sunday, July 6, 1873, and ended the following Wednesday night, when Gov. Gilbert C. Walker delivered the commencement address. There were no graduates at the first closing exercises.

A major milestone in the history of the college was the graduation of the first class at the end of the third year. On Wednesday, Aug. 11, 1875, at 11:00 a.m., college officials awarded graduation certificates—not degrees—to 12 students. Six graduated as associates in agriculture, three as associates in mechanics, and three as associates in agriculture and mechanics. All 12 were Virginians.

Add Caldwell, the college’s first student, was not among the first graduates. He took an extra year to complete his studies in agriculture and graduated the following year. Upon his graduation on Aug. 9, 1876—graduation ceremonies began on Aug. 6 that year—he was elected secretary of his class alumni association. After graduation Caldwell taught school in Craig County before becoming a clerk for Norfolk and Western in Roanoke. In later life, he worked for several large wholesale firms on the wharf in Wilmington, N. C.: the Stove Company, Mr. W. B. Cooper, Messrs. Blair & Haly, and the C. C. Covington Company, traveling part of the time out of Wilmington. Perhaps one of these companies sold molasses since the Virginia Tech Alumni Association reported in 1911 that Add had been a salesman for a molasses firm. Caldwell, a bachelor, died at the age of 54 on June 29, 1910, in a Wilmington hospital after suffering a head injury in a fall. At the time of his injury, he was working as a clerk at the Tarrymoore Hotel at Wrightsville Beach, N. C., after doctors told him that salt air would be good for him following surgery for a brain tumor. He was buried in the family cemetery in Radford, where his parents and several other family members had settled after he had left home.

When VAMC opened, its principal facility, the Preston and Olin Building, was “a substantial three-story brick edifice, 100 feet by 40, containing three recitation rooms, a chapel, and twenty-four lodging rooms,” according to an 1872 report to the Commissioner of Agriculture. Those students who could not get lodging on campus—rent for an unfurnished room there was $5 per month—found rooms in town. Many of the students lived in rooms at Lybrook Row, which was located on North Church Street, adjacent to the present Christ Episcopal Church. They created so much commotion that Lybrook Row became known among Blacksburg citizens as “Hell’s Row.” Since the college had no facilities for providing meals, all students ate in town, many at Luster's Hotel, located on Main Street. In 1873 a new building constructed specifically to serve meals was completed, and students then had the option to eat on campus or in town. Beginning with the 1881-82 school year, however, the college required all students to live and board on campus. Room rent was approximately $15 per month when bedding, furniture, and fuel were supplied. Board was about $12 per month.

The first school year at VAMC ran from Oct. 1, 1872, to the last Wednesday in July 1873. During the second year, summer vacation was replaced with a vacation that began around Christmas and lasted until late February. The 1873-74 session began on Aug.13, ran until Dec. 22, resumed Feb. 24, and continued until the second Wednesday in August. President Minor justified the new school term, writing that the winter vacation was “best suited for an institution of this character” because “the study of farm operations is interrupted at a less important season of the year, besides students from other sections of the country, while escaping the severity of winter in the mountains, will remain at college during the most pleasant and healthful part of the year.” VAMC followed this schedule for nine additional years, then returned to a conventional academic year after repeated faculty and student requests.

The board of visitors met in Blacksburg on June 2, 1874, and drew plans for locating and erecting two academic buildings, two faculty homes, and a home for the president, to be constructed in that order. The cornerstones of the two new academic buildings were laid during the August 1875 graduation exercises. The First Academic Building (razed in 1957 to make room for a new wing of Rasche Hall) was occupied in October 1876, the first major building constructed since the college had opened. The Second Academic Building (razed in 1957 to make room for a new wing of Brodie Hall) was completed six months later. The president’s home, first occupied in 1876, later became part of the present Henderson Hall. A wooden building, known as the Pavilion, was completed in the summer of 1879 for use as a drill and assembly hall. The Preston and Olin Building was converted into a barracks in 1878.

Enrollment at the new college continued to grow rapidly during the early part of Minor’s administration, almost doubling to 255 during the 1875-76 session. Since half of the students then had to live in town and were not supervised when off campus, they spent much of their time dreaming up and performing acts of mischief. This situation led to many complaints from the townspeople and to a great deal of friction among faculty members as to what to do about it. Gen. James H. Lane, who was in charge of teaching military tactics, and several other faculty members wanted to see the college organized along military lines similar to those at Virginia Military Institute, but Minor and some of the faculty members did not. Friction between the two factions grew stronger as time went on and reached a climax when Minor and Lane got into a fistfight one day during an argument over the matter. The dissension at the college also became a matter of public knowledge and, as confidence in the management of the college declined, so did enrollment. It reached an all-time low of 50 in the 1879-80 session.

A pro-military faction took over the board of visitors, and at its meeting on Aug.10, 1879, the board decided to establish rigid military discipline and require all students to reside “within the bounds of the college grounds.”

At a board meeting on Nov. 13, 1879, members reorganized the college, removing Minor from the presidency. At the same meeting the board established an A.B. degree, the college’s first degree, explaining, “The college is suffering loss in students and in public estimation from the want of the usual symbols of graduation, which operate as a powerful incentive on the students in their struggles for prizes of distinction that lie within their immediate view and can be attained by systematic and sustained effort.”

At its December 1879 meeting, the board elected Dr. John Lee Buchanan, president of Emory and Henry College and a native Southwest Virginian, as the second president of VAMC.