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Chapter 1 -- The Early Years

The Early Years

The Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College opened in 1872, having as its only building the Preston and Olin Institute structure. Old alumni will remember that this building, converted into three stories, later used as a dormitory, then again restored to two stories and used as the shops building, afterwards forming the nucleus of the quadrangle shops building, was destroyed by fire in 1913. This building was on the hill, just within the present alumni gateway.

The first president was Dr. C. L. C. Minor, and his faculty consisted of Gray Carroll, professor of mathematics; Dr. Charles Martin, professor of English; and General James H. Lane, of North Carolina, who had fought at Manassas, was commandant and professor of mathematics. The students roomed and boarded where they could in town, as there was no dormitory and no mess; and this occasioned the construction of the long, one-storied building of many rooms on the cross street west of the present Presbyterian church, now known as "Lybrook Row," where many of the cadets roomed. In those days the building was known by a less euphonious name, doubtless in keeping with the actions of the inmates. These students took their meals in the building now owned by Dr. Roop, then known as "Luster's Hotel."

In 1873 Mr. C. W. C. Davis was made professor of mechanics; and Dr. M. G. Elzy professor of chemistry and agriculture. Until September, 1882, the sessions extended through the summer, and there was a winter vacation. In 1874 Professor Davis was replaced by Mr. Jackson, who soon resigned, being succeeded by General Boggs. In the same year the buildings known as the First and Second Academic Buildings were begun; a house was built for the president, which is now the main part of the infirmary; and three professors' houses were added. One of these latter, remodeled since partial destruction by fire, is now the administration building; one, the present commandant's house; and the third, later used as a lecture hall for the agricultural department in the time of Professor Nourse, was removed to give room for the present library, built originally for the college auditorium, and the material of this house was used in the construction of the house now occupied by Professor Burkhart. These six buildings were constructed with money appropriated by the Legislature for the purpose. The whole amount was $60,000, and about 60% went into these buildings.

Shortly after organization, the faculty was divided into two factions as to policy, discipline, and management of the school. This resulted in a personal difficulty between the president and the commandant. Recognizing that under such conditions the college could not succeed, the board of visitors removed President Minor and Professor Martin in November, 1879, and elected Thomas N. Conrad as professor of English. On December 10, 1879, Dr. John L. Buchanan was elected president. The Legislature of 1879-80 removed the entire board of visitors, and the Governor made his new appointments so late that they were not confirmed. They nevertheless acted, and continued in office until 1881-82. This board decided on a complete reorganization of the college, and in 1880 declared all chairs and offices of the college vacant.

Dr. Buchanan thus served for only six months, for at the next meeting in August an entire new faculty was elected. General Scott Shipp, the late distinguished superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, was made president, with a faculty composed as follows: Dr. M. P. Scott, chemistry and agriculture; J. E. Christian, mathematics and physics; Colonel W. W. Blackford, mechanics. Later Colonel Blackford was appointed superintendent of buildings and grounds, and to him we owe the beginning of our lovely campus, so much admired by visitors. Mr. Hart was elected professor of English. General Lane resigned and the position of commandant was not filled until 1885. But very little stress was laid on the military feature, the board of visitors having required the faculty to reduce it to the minimum within the terms of the law.

General (then Colonel) Scott Shipp accepted the presidency, but resigned within a day of his arrival on the grounds, and Mr. Hart acted in that capacity during the session of 1880-81. In June, 1881, Dr. John L. Buchanan was again elected president. If conditions had been better, Dr. Buchanan would doubtless have exerted a marked influence for good on the future of the college, for he was already well known as an educator and he was a gentleman of comprehensive mind and liberal culture. Dr. Buchanan has recently died, in January, 1922, at the advanced age of 93 years, having in his time filled such important positions as president of Emory and Henry College, Randolph-Macon College, Martha Washington College, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Arkansas, besides the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College.

The board which elected Dr. Buchanan to the presidency at Blacksburg, and which doubtless would have supported him, was removed by the Legislature of 1881-82. Governor Cameron, elected by the Coalition-Readjuster party, appointed an entirely new board, which unfortunately deemed it necessary to reorganize the college. In January, 1882, this board declared all chairs and offices vacant, except that of treasurer. Captain Thomas N. Conrad was made president, and in February the board met and re-elected Professors Scott and Christian, elected Mr. J. X. Morton professor of Latin and primary English, and Mr. Grimm professor of English. Professor Grimm, however, did not serve and his place was taken by Professor Morton. Later, Mr. V. E. Shepard was selected to instruct in modern languages, and was subsequently given a professorship. Colonel William Ballard Preston was requested to give lectures on agriculture and to instruct in military science and tactics.

In 1884, upon request of the board for the detail of an army officer, Lieutenant John C. Gresham, of the 7th U. S. Cavalry, was chosen as commandant of cadets and professor of military science and tactics. He reported for duty in July, 1885. Preferring work in the field, however, he resigned in 1887, after proving himself to both students and faculty an efficient and popular officer.

Upon the election of Governor Fitzhugh Lee, another board of visitors was appointed, which at once proceeded to reorganize the college. General L. L. Lomax, a distinguished officer of the Confederacy, was elected president, and Professors Scott, Christian, Morton, and Preston were re-elected. Mr. James H. Fitts, a former ensign of the Navy and an Annapolis graduate, was elected professor of mechanics and manager of the shops, and Mr. Fielding P. Miles, professor of chemistry. These gentlemen assumed charge of their departments in July, 1885. Lieutenant John T. Knight, of the 3rd U. S. Cavalry, a native of Virginia, was detailed as commandant of cadets and reported for duty in August, 1887, serving until 1890.

student demonstration
A demonstration by the students during the days of "Mahonism." This building was then used as a dormitory and afterwards as shops. Dr. T. N. Conrad was then president.

An agricultural experiment station having been established in connection with the college in 1888, Colonel Ballard Preston was elected director of the station and professor of agriculture. In the same year, from money appropriated by the Legislature, a new brick barrack building was erected at a cost of about $20,000. The bricks for the building were made locally and a handsome grove that stood west of the experiment plats, beyond the Price's Forks road was sacrificed for burning the bricks. This building was steam-heated and equipped with furniture made at the college shops, which were then in the small wooden building east of the present mess-hall. This brick barrack was known as the "New Barracks," now referred to as "The Old Barracks" or "Barrack No. 1." Up to the building of this the students were quartered in the Preston-Olin building, later remodeled by General Lomax for a machine shop.

In June, 1889, the board established the chair of French and German, and Mr. T. P. Campbell was elected thereto, reporting for duty in September of that year. Professor Campbell is still in charge of this department, being at present, in point of service, the oldest member of the faculty.

The year 1890 saw many changes. Professor Miles, of the chair of chemistry, died; Colonel Preston resigned as director of the experiment station and professor of agriculture; Mr. R. C. Price, of the Miller School, was elected to the chair of chemistry; Mr. A. F. Gully to that of agriculture, and Mr. W. E. Anderson as superintendent of shops. Mr. Gully declining his election, Professor D. O. Nourse, so kindly remembered by all who knew him, was elected in his stead. Lieutenant John A. Harmon, of the 7th U. S. Cavalry, was detailed as commandant of cadets. Those who were here during Colonel Harmon's time of service will remember him with love and admiration for his sterling qualities as a man and an officer. The first trips taken by the corps as a military body were under his charge, and at the naval rendezvous at Norfolk, and later, at the exercises of the unveiling of the monument to the soldiers and sailors, in Richmond in 1894, it was largely due to Colonel Harmon that the corps made the excellent reputation that their later trips have continually increased. In later life, Colonel Harmon was connected with the establishment of the Quito and Guayaquil Railroad in Equador, where he died.

Dr. W. B. Conway resigned as college surgeon in June, 1890, and Drs. Kent Black and W. F. Henderson, both former students, were appointed, officiating on alternate weeks.

In the spring of 1891 Professor Anderson was made professor of electricity and physics in addition to his superintendency of the shops, but in 1893 he resigned both positions.

From the founding of the college in 1872 up to 1891, we note the following material developments:

The Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College began in 1872 with nothing but the inadequate Preston-Olin building and limited grounds; with a faculty of three or four members; with constant changes of administration, practically no support from the State and discouraging political interference; yet by 1891 there had been provided a barrack building for housing the students; two academic buildings of brick, with a few lecture rooms and a poorly equipped laboratory for chemistry, and a few offices; a building for the experiment station, used also for a horticultural building, with a small greenhouse attached; four houses for professors, with the old "Solitude" mansion refitted; a machine shop by the conversion of the old Preston-Olin building; a large frame structure for assemblies; and a smaller frame house used as a shop. The planning and laying out of the campus had been started, and an army officer had been secured as commandant and military instructor.