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Pre-founding Activities

Events leading to the founding of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College date to the mid-19th century. The Baltimore Conference of the Methodist Church, which included Blacksburg, had focused at an annual meeting on the need for Christian-influenced education, and the Blacksburg delegates to the meeting left it inspired to establish a school of their faith in Blacksburg. In 1850 the Methodists purchased five acres of land, located approximately where today’s Alumni Mall joins Main Street and down to College Avenue. The project was an important event for the town, and local citizens were allowed to select part of the name of the new school. They chose the name Preston for Colonel William Ballard Preston, a well-known Montgomery County businessman, farmer, and statesman and a nationally known politician. The Methodist Church selected the name Olin after Stephen Olin, a beloved Methodist minister and former president of Randolph-Macon College. Olin and Preston Institute, a school for boys, opened in 1851, with William R. White as principal. The town already had a school for girls: the Blacksburg Female Academy, incorporated by legislative act in 1840.

On Feb. 28, 1854, the state granted a charter to the new school. The act to incorporate Olin and Preston Institute calls the school “a seminary of learning for the instruction of youth in the various branches of science and literature, the useful arts, and the learned and foreign languages.”

The following year, the trustees had a three-story brick building constructed on the school property.

The school had expected to receive financial help from the Methodist Conference, but as a result of pre-Civil War bickering between the North and South, little financial help materialized, and the school sank heavily into debt. In 1859 the Olin and Preston Institute was sold by court order to John N. Lyle, owner and operator of White Sulphur Springs, a summer resort east of Blacksburg, to settle a claim for money owed to him. Since Lyle had been a contractor, it is possible that he had constructed the school building, and his claim against the school may have resulted from that work. According to tradition, he was courting a Blacksburg woman who refused to marry him if he foreclosed on the school. Thus, he agreed to let the trustees continue to operate the school in order to gain a new bride. But like many schools in the South, the Olin and Preston Institute was forced to close during the Civil War, which redirected male teachers and students to the battlefield and resources to the war effort. William H. Dawson apparently was the last president.

In 1862 Congress passed the Morrill Land Grant Act, signed into law by President Lincoln on July 2, 1862. The Morrill act provided that each state would be apportioned 30,000 acres of public land, without mineral deposits, for each senator and representative in Congress, according to the representation based on the 1860 census. The income from the sale of these lands would be used to establish at least one college in each state in which the major objectives would be the teaching of agricultural and mechanical arts. Scientific and classical studies were also to be part of the curriculum, and it was required that military tactics be taught. The act also stipulated that none of the income from the land sale could be used to erect or maintain buildings, and only one-tenth could be used to purchase land.

Because of the Civil War, Virginia could not accept the provisions of the Morrill act at the time of its passage, although a “Unionist” legislature, meeting in regular session at Alexandria during the war, accepted the land-grant provisions for the state on Feb. 5, 1864. However, it made no effort to secure the funds. Gov. F. H. Pierpont reminded the legislature of the fund in December 1865 and even made a speech on the need for a “polytechnic school” in the state. For the next six years practically every existing educational institution in Virginia became engaged in the struggle to win a share of the benefits of the land-grant proceeds. This vying became so intense that it was dubbed the “War of the Colleges” by the media.

Virginia was readmitted to the Union in January 1870, and the reconstructed legislature accepted the land-grant provisions for the commonwealth in February. Two years later the General Assembly passed a bill authorizing the State Board of Education to sell the land scrip and invest the proceeds. G. F. Lewis of Cleveland, Ohio, bought the entire 300,000 acres that Virginia had been allotted for its two senators and eight representatives. The sale amounted to $285,000, which was invested at 5 percent a year in Virginia bonds.

Meanwhile, Peter Harrison Whisner, a Blacksburg Methodist minister, had begun a drive to reopen Olin and Preston Institute. Lyle had died, leaving the school in the possession of his son, John Lyle Jr. The Blacksburg Methodists appealed to the Baltimore Conference and to the Virginia Conference for support, probably spurring the argument that ensued over which branch of the conference owned the school. Through clever legal maneuvering, the trustees got the school into the possession of Lyle Jr., who then sold the property to a new board of trustees created to operate a new school, which was renamed the Preston and Olin Institute. Lyle retained a lien against the school. The “new” institute received a charter on Jan. 2, 1869, for a “seminary of learning.”

The new charter placed the school under the control of the southern branch of the Methodist Church. But like its predecessor, the school, which prepared boys for college, the professions, and business, faced financial problems. While struggling to put the institute on a sound financial basis, the trustees heard about the debate in the state legislature over the disposition of the land-grant funds and decided to pursue the funds for their school.

Whisner and Dr. Harvey Black, a Blacksburg physician and the only trustee to serve both the Olin and Preston Institute and the Preston and Olin Institute, discussed the matter with state Senator John E. Penn and Delegate Gabriel C. Wharton, who agreed to support the Preston and Olin petition in the legislature. Penn suggested that Montgomery County citizens might be able to contribute $20,000 if the funds went to the Blacksburg school. With this inducement he introduced legislation in the Senate, which voted on March 13, 1872, to accept the offer. The House of Delegates followed suit the following day.

On March 19, 1872, Gov. Gilbert C. Walker signed the bill establishing the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College at Blacksburg. The bill provided that two-thirds of the land-grant monies ($190,000) received by Virginia would go “to the Preston and Olin Institute, in the county of Montgomery” provided “the name of said institute shall be changed to the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College.” (The other third of the funds went to Hampton Institute, although the legislature transferred the black land-grant to Virginia State University in 1920.) The bill also provided that a number of students equal to the number of members in the House of Delegates would be admitted to the new school without paying tuition or fees.

On March 21 the legislature passed an act empowering Montgomery County or any nearby counties to open the polls for legal voters to decide whether their respective county should raise money for VAMC. In an unusual coincidence, the county court judge who ordered the referendum in Montgomery County was John Lyle Jr., who still held a lien against Preston and Olin Institute. (He later executed a deed giving the Preston and Olin trustees clear title so that the institute’s property could be transferred to VAMC.) Montgomery County citizens went to the polls on May 23, 1872, and voted by an overwhelming 1,137 to 154 majority to honor the $20,000 pledge. Soon after the vote, the board of supervisors issued bonds for the money.

After signing the enabling legislation for the college, Gov. Walker appointed a board of visitors for it with the authority to select a president and a faculty, to handle all matter of discipline and student life, and to develop a curriculum. The first board members were D. C. DeJarnette, John Goode Jr., J. R. Anderson, W. T. Sutherlin, Robert Beverly, Joseph Cloyd, W. A. Stuart, J. T. Cowan, Dr. Harvey Black, J. C. Taylor, William H. Ruffner, and Lewis E. Harvie. Ruffner, as superintendent of public instruction for the state, was an ex-officio member of the board. Dr. Black was chosen rector of the board, and Ruffner was elected secretary at the group’s first meeting, held at the Exchange Hotel in Richmond, on March 25 and 26, 1872.

At the board’s next meeting—a three-day session on July 18-20 at Montgomery White Sulphur Springs—members considered several major items of business, including the acquisition of property, organization of the college, curriculum, and selection of a school secretary/treasurer.

The board accepted a deed conveying the property of the Preston and Olin Institute—one building and five acres of land—to VAMC. It also signed a contract with Col. Robert T. Preston to purchase that portion of his estate known as Solitude, including the house (today, the oldest building on campus), principal farm buildings, and about 250 acres of land. The price was $85 an acre.

According to an analysis and summary of VAMC by J. P. Cochran, the board decided to offer an initial three-year program of study with the first year the same for all students. In the second and third years, the agricultural and mechanical students would have separate programs of study. Completion of the requirements would lead to a certificate rather than a degree in the student’s field of study.

According to Cochran, “The first-year curriculum specified instruction in commercial arithmetic, bookkeeping, algebra (through equations of the first degree), English, geography and map drawing, descriptive astronomy, penmanship and free-hand drawing, physiology, hygiene, habits and manners, French or German, farm or shop practice, military tactics, and lectures on the sociological value of the agricultural and the mechanical arts.

“During the second year, both the agricultural and mechanical students would study geometry, plane trigonometry and mensuration, history, literature, French or German, and the composition of essays. The agricultural students were to receive instruction in surveying, agricultural engineering, agricultural physics and mechanics, and agricultural architecture and machines. The mechanical course for the second year students required the additional subjects of descriptive geometry, physics, and mechanics.

“In the third year, students of both curricula were required to attend classes in French or German, psychology or ethics, political economy, business economy, and government. The third year agricultural students were to study agricultural chemistry and geology, with special emphasis on soils and geographical structures of Virginia; agricultural botany and zoology; systems of farming, planting, gardening, dairying, fruit growing, and stock raising, with special emphasis being placed on climate and crops of Virginia; and farm economics, including labor, accounts, buying, selling, and renting. The mechanical students were to study analytical geometry, industrial chemistry, mineralogy, metallurgy, steam engines, mill wheels and gearing, planing and boring machines, and building and building materials. The students were also to attend lectures concerning water power, timber, metals, ores, and minerals of the state.”

Many of the first-year courses must be considered as preparatory courses. The curriculum for second- and third-year students was more in keeping with the courses usually taken by first- and second-year students in liberal arts colleges, with the exception of the courses in agricultural and mechanical arts. Consequently, the institution during the early years of the college was more like that of a junior college than a four-year college.

The board also discussed the military tactics requirement, with William H. Ruffner expressing the following sentiment on the issue: “The act of Congress having been passed during the war, the clause requiring military tactics to be taught may have been prompted by some intention to establish the Prussian military system over the whole land. But if such an idea ever existed it has passed away, and there now seems no disposition on the part of Congress to be exacting with regard to the military features in these technical schools. In point of fact, the colleges which received the land grant have, with a few exceptions, given no prominence to this feature and would be glad to omit it altogether.

“Still, whilst the law exists, military tactics must be taught in some form. We do not understand that the term ‘military tactics’ covers the whole ground of military science and tactics but has special reference to field evaluations. Therefore an opportunity given to the students for military drill would satisfy the law. Some of the disciplinary regulations might be usefully adopted, if it should be concluded to board all the students on the college grounds.”

Since Ruffner made it explicitly clear that it only would be necessary for the new college to provide an opportunity for military tactics, it is rather ironic that the college required practically all able-bodied undergraduate males to take military training from the time the college opened its doors until the corps of cadets was made a voluntary option in 1964. In fact, the military tactics feature was to be a point of debate and friction at the college many more times during its first 100 years, leading once, in the early years, to a fist fight between President Charles L. C. Minor and Professor James H. Lane, for whom Lane Hall is named.

At the July meeting the board also decided to fix the president’s salary at $2,000 and professors’ salaries at $1,500. V. E. Shepherd was named treasurer and secretary of the faculty. Charges to students not exempted by law were fixed at $30 for tuition and $10 for college fees; a cadet uniform cost $17.25. Students would be required to deposit $5 with the treasurer as a contingent fee to cover damages to property. The cost of an academic year would be about $200.

At the board’s third meeting on Aug. 14, this time at Yellow Sulphur Springs, not far from Blacksburg, members appointed a president for the college: Charles Landon Carter Minor, a graduate of the University of Virginia and former president of the Maryland Agricultural College. Reportedly, Minor won the race by one vote against Charles Martin, a Hampden-Sidney graduate. The board turned to the appointment of the faculty after it rearranged the curriculum plan it had developed in July, leaning now toward a typical literary institution. Martin was named chair of English language and literature with responsibility for ancient language; Lane, a Virginia Military Institute graduate, chair of natural philosophy and chemistry with additional responsibility for military tactics; Gray Carroll, a graduate of the University of Virginia, chair of mathematics with additional responsibility for modern language. The board was unable to reach a decision on a chair of technical agriculture and mechanics, who would also have responsibility for natural history, and postponed the appointment until the following January 1873. Thus, the agricultural and mechanical college was to begin operations without a teacher of agriculture and mechanics.