Sixteen-year-old William Addison “Add” Caldwell and his older brother, Milton M. “Mic” Caldwell, walked as much as 28 miles across two mountains from their home in Sinking Creek in Craig County, Va., to Blacksburg, and Add became the first student to enroll in Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Virginia Tech) when the new school opened its doors on Oct.1, 1872.
According to records left by President Charles L. C. Minor, Add was nominated for a state scholarship by his county superintendent of schools. Minor’s records also include listings of the names of students who registered by the date on which they registered. The listings are not in alphabetical order, and for the first day, Add is listed first, lending credence to assertions that he was the first student to register, which is substantiated by oral traditions in Craig County. His brother Mic registered several weeks later.
Born on Jan. 10, 1856, probably in his parents' home, at Sinking Creek, Add Caldwell was the second of George Charlton and Lorena Givens Caldwell's nine children.
Add's father—like his grandfather, Archibald Caldwell—was a farmer who owned many acres of land. George's large, two-story frame house, where his children probably were born, still sits above the base of a mountain, providing a panoramic view of the valley farmland that he owned.
Growing up on a farm, Add surely had chores assigned to him, and his father, a veteran of the Civil War, would also have encouraged or made arrangements for his schooling. The method of educating young Add and his school-age siblings, however,
can only be surmised since the county's school records were destroyed by fire. But Craig County historian Jane Johnston says he most likely attended a one- or two-room school since several existed near the family farm. Or, she says, he may have been taught by an instructor hired to come into the home, another method of education popular in the county among more prosperous residents. His last year or two as a Craig County student may have been spent in a public school since that system of education was introduced in 1870.
Since Add was the first to register, he probably was among the students who lived in the Preston and Olin Building, described in an 1872 report to the Commissioner of Agriculture as “a substantial three-story brick edifice, 100 feet by 40, containing three recitation rooms, a chapel, and twenty-four lodging rooms.” Those students who could not get lodging on campus found rooms in town. Since the college had no facilities for providing meals, all students ate in town, many at Luster's Hotel. In 1873 a new building specifically built to serve meals was completed, and students then had the option—until 1881—to eat on campus or in town.
Each year that Add was enrolled, at least one of his brothers was enrolled as well. Mic, who never graduated, was on the rolls in 1872 and 1873 and again during 1876 and 1877. Another brother, Frank B. Caldwell, about two years younger than Add, enrolled during Add's third year and attended three consecutive terms but, like Mic, did not graduate.
Add's scholarship covered his tuition of $30,; his college fees of $10; and, if he roomed in the Preston and Olin Building, his $5 per month room rent (unfurnished).
“Table board” could be had for $12 per month, and coal reportedly was “convenient and cheap.” Students were required to deposit $5 with the treasurer as a contingent fee to cover damages to property. Uniforms cost an additional $17.25.
Like all students enrolled in first-year studies, Add would have been exposed to commercial arithmetic, bookkeeping, algebra, English grammar, geography with map drawing, descriptive astronomy, penmanship, free-hand drawing, lectures on physiology and
hygiene, lectures on habits and manners, lectures on the value of agricultural and mechanical arts to society, French or German, farm or shop practice, and military tactics.
The entire college was under military discipline from the beginning. Students were assigned to one of two companies, A or B, and each wore a standard uniform—a cap, jacket, and pants of cadet gray, trimmed with black. Add, a member of Company B, attained the rank of second sergeant by the middle of his final year in college.
Students also 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. Add, a member of the Maury Literary Society, served on a joint committee representing both societies.
Add's performance in his classes is only partially known. His obituary says he graduated “at the head of his class,” but it is likely that the reporter confused his status as the college's first student, especially since
Add's 1875 report card, mailed to his father in Craig County, lists his grades as follows:
William Addison Caldwell graduated from VAMC with the college's second graduating class in the 1876 commencement exercises, which began on Aug. 6 with a sermon by the Rev. Oscar F. Flippo of Baltimore. Two days later, he listened to the fourth annual address before the literary societies, delivered by Maj. John W. Daniel of Lynchburg. Virginia's Governor Kemper delivered a brief speech. At 5 p.m. the same day, the governor and the college's board of visitors reviewed the corps. On Aug. 9, President Minor presented the diplomas—students at that time received graduate certificates rather than degrees—and Gen. J. H. Williams of Winchester delivered the annual address to faculty and students.
The morning of Aug. 9, the graduating class held an alumni meeting in the Lee Society hall. Following remarks by President Minor and J. Lawrence Radford, the alumni association elected officers for the ensuing year, including Add as secretary.
Following graduation, Add may have returned to Craig County to teach school. Certainly by 1880 Add, Mic, and Frank were living with their parents in Sinking Creek, and all three were teaching school. How long or where Add taught cannot be ascertained, but by 1887 he was living in Roanoke, possibly with his youngest brother, E. Gambill “Gam” Caldwell, working in the general office of Norfolk and Western, and attending First Presbyterian Church. Since Gam and Frank, who had attended VAMC with Add, both worked at one time for Norfolk and Western, the possibility exists that the three worked there together.
Before Add moved to Wilmington, N.C., around 1898—he moved his church membership there in March of 1902—he became interested in the real estate business in Roanoke, but whether he derived an income from the sale of property is not known. His work at the railroad office later prompted a description of him as “a well known and popular employee.”
In Wilmington, Add worked for several large wholesale firms on the wharf: 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.
After Add left the homeplace in Craig County, his brother Mic moved to Radford and later persuaded his parents to sell the family farm in Sinking Creek and move to Radford as well. Two sisters, Grace and Nell—like their brother Add, the two never married—moved with their parents to a house across the street from Mic’s home. During summer vacations, Add visited his relatives in Radford.
Sometime before 1910, Add's health declined, and he underwent surgery for a brain tumor. He recuperated from the operation at his mother's home—his father had died around 1904. The doctor told Add that salt air would be good for him, so he secured a position as a clerk at the Tangmoore (or Tarrymoore) Hotel at Wrightsville Beach near Wilmington in the spring of 1910. The job, which he probably started around the first of June, was to last until Sept.1.
On June 15, 1910, Add wrote his niece, Katherine Caldwell (Mendez), who had developed a fond attachment for this uncle who would play games with her and help her with such chores as capping strawberries. In the letter, which included several pictures of the beach, Add admitted that the hotel was “a fine place to spend the summer” but said he would rather be in Radford. “I have not been here long enough to tell whether the salt air is going to benefit me or not,” he continued. “I am feeling about the same, no worse, no better.” He closed the letter by asking his nine-year-old niece, to “[r]emember me to your grandmother [his mother] and with much love to all of you and especially to yourself, I am fondly yours, Add.”
A few days after he wrote the letter, Add fainted, sustaining a severe fall that apparently resulted in a head injury. Taken to the hospital in Wilmington, he died 10 days later on June 29, 1910. His body was taken to Radford, and his funeral was held in his mother's home. His old pastor from First Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Dr. W. C. Campbell, conducted the service with assistance from three other pastors. On July 1, Add was buried in the Caldwell family cemetery in Radford.
Today, his singular role in Virginia Tech history is commemorated by a state historical marker near his home, a semi-annual Caldwell March by the corps of cadets, the library’s electronic card catalog called the Addison, a statue of his likeness on the Blacksburg campus, and the Caldwell Lounge and plaque in the G. Burke Johnston Student Center.