Change in Operations

August 2021 Update:

  • Beginning August 9, 2021, Special Collections and University Archives will be open Monday-Friday from 8am to 5pm
  • Appointments will not be required, but strongly encouraged (**see below)
  • Appointments can be made by visiting the SCUA Seat Reservation page (instructions are included on this page)
  • Virtual reference help remains available at specref@vt.edu or by phone at 540-231-6308
  • Newman Library hours of operation and those of other University Library branches are also available online

**By making an appointment, you will help us limit the number of researchers using our Reading Room at any one time for health and safety; guarantee you a seat at the requested time; and help us plan for your visit, for example, making sure materials needed are onsite and available.

We are pleased to be able to return to closer-to-normal services, but we also appreciate your patience during changing times. If you have questions about our operations or policies, please feel free to contact us at specref@vt.edu or by phone at 540-231-6308.

We kindly ask that all visitors to Special Collections and University Archives comply with the current university mask policies, available online. Our staff are happy to provide you information on the current policies and expectations. Please contact specref@vt.edu or by phone at 540-231-6308.

Deadly Obsession

Homer Davis and His Unusual Legacy

With the Halloween season upon us, our thoughts naturally turn to the eerie and macabre, and so I thought I’d tell you today about the morbid souvenirs collected by a creature who once haunted American cemeteries from coast to coast.

Okay, Homer Davis was no ghoul. But if I’d opened by saying that this would be a post about somebody who enjoyed visiting cemeteries as a pleasant past-time (as many people do) and took photos of the noteworthy graves that he found within them, you’d have been less inclined to take a moment to read about a nice  little collection here in Special Collections and University Archives that deserves some attention.

The Homer E. Davis Papers (Ms2001-051) contain materials collected by a Civil War enthusiast and amateur historian, including Civil War maps, memorabilia, and publications—the types of things found in any number of other such collections. Born in 1922 and a veteran of World War II, Homer Davis was working as a stockbroker when health problems forced him into early retirement in 1971. It was this forced retirement that led to an unusual component of his collection.  In his newfound leisure time, Davis began visiting and photographing the gravesites of Civil War generals. Because that’s a relatively short list of people, Davis’s interest soon expanded to the resting places of other Civil War veterans, and eventually he began documenting the graves of other noteworthy individuals, including  politicians, entertainers, authors, and others. And so the Homer Davis Papers include photographs documenting approximately 12,000 gravesites in all 50 states.

Davis was hardly alone in his interest in graveyards. Cemeteries have long been frequented by those seeking a tranquil retreat or a link with our shared past. The hobby of visiting cemeteries with a view toward preservation of gravesites through photography is a relatively recent one, however. Today, millions of gravesites are photographically preserved on findagrave and other websites through the efforts of “gravers,” but during Davis’s active years, 1971-1982, few people were making a systematic effort at photographic preservation, and it’s a good bet that some of the gravesites visited by Davis have since fallen into ruin or have even disappeared, with his photographs being their only surviving record.

 

 

A few random gravesite images from among the thousands photographed by Davis: poet-author Carl Sandburg, abolitionist-statesman Frederick Douglass, and actress-singer Lillian Russell.

Though without attention to craft, seemingly composed in haste, and sometimes lacking in sharpness, Davis’s photographs preserve the setting and appearance of the subject matter. He often took multiple photos of a single gravesite, attempting not only to document the entire monument, but the inscriptions thereon. Like a good hobbyist of any kind, Davis was a stickler for details, and the verso of each photograph contains the name of the interred, the location of the grave, the date of the photograph, and a brief description of the deceased’s claim to fame. Complementing the photo collection are Davis’s cemetery research folders (one for each state and the District of Columbia), including research notes, correspondence, local maps, and—most significantly—information on individual cemeteries.

Among the lesser-knowns memorialized by Davis is Timothy Dexter (1748-1806) of Newburyport, Massachusetts, identified by Davis on the verso as an “[e]ccentric merchant and author of a humorous autobiography. The town clown.”

The back of the photograph documenting the grave of Philip John Schuyler contains a mini-biography of Philip John Schuyler, Revolutionary War major general and congressman.

Tragically, Homer Davis’s life was cut short as a result of injuries received in an automobile accident during a Michigan graving excursion in 1982. When Peggy Davis, his wife and graving companion, died in 2000, Davis’s papers (and a sizable Civil War book collection), were donated to Special Collections and University Archives. (A selection of Davis’s gravesite photos from southwestern Virginia were scanned soon after the donation and may be found in our Imagebase.)

Because the Davis papers were the first that I processed at Virginia Tech, I have a bit of a soft spot for them, and I hope they’ll see more use in the future. Certainly, they’d be of interest to anybody researching general burial practices and specific burial places, or possibly the nature of celebrity, or somebody exploring graving as a hobby or even the compulsive world of hobbyists. In fact, Special Collections and University Archives and our researchers have been the ultimate beneficiary of the disparate passions of a number of hobbyists, from the collections of amateur ornithologists Eugene Law and Harold Bailey, to the railroad memorabilia collected by Wythe County’s Wayne Perkins, and from the research notes of several family and local historians to the scrapbooks of many Virginia Tech students. But none are quite as unusual as the legacy of Homer Davis.

A Collection of Distinction: The William S. Newton Papers, 1862-1879

A few days ago, a colleague asked me to distribute a job announcement from a nearby university. This is a pretty common practice and there are a lot of job searches underway. But this one caught my attention because the position description referred to building “distinctive collections.” I found the phrasing as an attempt to be clever, but more importantly it highlighted an archival challenge—to decide which archival and manuscript collections are the most or least important. Assigning the value of “distinctive” to collections is problematic since all collections are unique in some way and thus distinctive. Perhaps “distinctive” is another way of saying that the origins or provenance of the collection are significant (e.g., an unpublished manuscript that unearthed in J.D. Salinger’s backyard), that the collection is the “crown jewel” for the institution, or perhaps that it was just very expensive. 

To me, a distinctive collection is one that has the potential to attract great research interest and can be used by researchers for multiple purposes. It is easy to pursue a collection, either through purchase or as a donation, that you believe has great research value, but it is always unknown whether others, such as colleagues and researchers, will have the same opinion. I spend a large amount of time considering which archival and manuscript collections would be a good fit for Special Collections and University Archives at Virginia Tech. Most days, I spend some amount of time talking or corresponding with potential donors, reviewing dealer catalogs, seeking opinions from others on potential acquisitions, or searching through online auction listings. My goal is to identify collections that support research and the major collecting areas that we highlight in the blog. Working closely with collections once they arrive is not my normal routine, but sometimes I remain involved in organizing and creating access to the material that I helped bring in the doors.

As a recent example, I have spent many hours working with the William S. Newton Papers, 1862-1879, which is one of my favorite acquisitions in the past five years. The story begins in early 2017 when I saw a listing for the collection in an auction catalog. Newton’s story fit well with the department’s collecting areas and researcher groups. The collection includes about 170 letters Newton wrote to his wife and children during the Civil War. The letters document the Civil War experiences of an Ohio surgeon serving in Virginia and West Virginia from 1862-1865. The collection also includes a postwar letter describing his experiences at the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain, which occurred in Pulaski County, approximately twenty miles from Blacksburg. Newton was assistant surgeon of the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry and near the end of the war served as surgeon of the 193rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

William S. Newton spent most of his Civil War service in Virginia and West Virginia. The following map includes many of the locations mentioned in Newton’s letters. John Formby, The American Civil War: A Concise History of Its Causes, History, and Results, Maps (New York: Scribners, 1910), map 10.

As for some background, William Smith Newton was born on February 6, 1823, near the small town of Harmer, in Washington County, Ohio. The town, now part of Marietta, was located where the Muskingum River flows into the Ohio River, with Virginia (now West Virginia) located on the other side to the south. He was the son of Oren and Elizabeth Fuller Newton. His father, Oren, was an important figure in the community and was involved in farming and the grindstone industry. Like other members of his family, Newton attended Marietta College. He completed his freshman year, 1842-1843, but he did not continue with courses or graduate from Marietta College. Instead, he took an interest in medicine and enrolled as a medical student in fall 1843 at the Medical College of Ohio in Cincinnati. Newton graduated in 1845 from the Medical College of Ohio and returned to Harmar.

In 1845, he married Frances Ann Hayward of Gallipolis and they relocated to Ironton, Ohio several years later. They had seven children during their marriage. Three of their children, Oren Hayward (1846–1858), Lewis Garland (May–October 1848), and Fanny Lillian (1857–1858), died before reaching adulthood. In 1862, when William enlisted in the Union Army, they had three children, Edward (Ned) Seymore (born 1850), Valentine Mott (born 1852), and Kate May (born 1860). Another child, John Beverly (born November 9, 1863), arrived during Newton’s military service.

In the fall of 1862, Newton was appointed assistant surgeon of the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry which has just been organized into five companies at Ironton. For the next three years, Newton wrote a steady stream of letters to his wife and children. Those incoming letters were kept together and most likely stayed with the Newton family after the war. At some point, the letters ended up in private hands, most recently with a well-known collector of antique firearms. Sometime in the 1970s, the owner of the collection at that time allowed most of the collection to be microfilmed for use at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus. Thus, only a handful of researchers who either knew how to contact the owner or were willing to suffer through using microfilm made use of the collection. My search yielded one master’s thesis and a few books on Civil War military history that referred to the William S. Newton Papers. Clearly, access to the collection was limited and it deserved to be in an archival repository. I shared these details with colleagues on campus and in the department and all agreed that the Newton Papers would be a wonderful addition.

On Tuesday, February 21, 2017, I waited on the phone as a live bidder for the Newton Papers to be auctioned. After several bids, we were the successful bidder and a few weeks later the Newton Papers arrived Blacksburg. In the weeks and months that followed, the collection was given a catalog record and put in the backlog for later processing. In the meantime, I shared the news with many potential researchers and invited them to come look at the collection even though it was still unprocessed. In the months that followed I continued to suggest the Newton Papers to graduate students and other Civil War researchers. Surprisingly, I received a very small response and the collection was hardly used.

Despite limited interest from researchers, I was still convinced that Newton deserved more attention. In 2019, I decided to make the Newton Papers a priority. I began working through the included transcripts (which were rife with errors) and in just a few weeks I had become very familiar with the collection. A surprise offer of weekly hours from a graduate student from the history department to help with the transcription work kept the project active. As a potential output for all this work, I had a random conversation with a colleague at the University of Tennessee Press about the collection and they suggested that it would be a great fit for the Voices of the Civil War series. After a lot of consideration and some hesitation, I decided that a book of Newton’s edited letters (not an interpretative work) would be a great way to promote the collection and draw researchers to Civil War collections at Virginia Tech.

I was astonished with the depth of the letters and the range of topics discussed. Newton’s letters focus on many significant topics of the Civil War era—military maneuvers, race relations, politics, medical practices, and life among officers in camp. Newton reported on his work as a surgeon. He managed several hospitals (both in seized buildings and in the field), tended to patients, ordered supplies, arranged for the wounded to return home, and informed families of the loss of a loved one. Newton’s letters mention taking care of soldiers who he knew personally from his medical practice. Although a non-combatant, Newton experienced frequent skirmishes with Confederate raiders and was part of several significant military campaigns. His letters describe significant battles in West Virginia and Virginia, most notably the Second Battle of Kernstown, the Battle of Opequan (Third Battle of Winchester), and the Battle of Cedar Creek. Of note, Newton’s October 8, 1867 letter to Ohio adjutant general Benjamin R. Cowen documents his most harrowing moments during the Civil War—Newton’s capture by Confederates following the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain in May 1864, his role in operating on wounded Confederate General Albert Gallatin Jenkins, and his brief imprisonment and release from Libby Prison later that month. Other letters describe his working relationships with officers in the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

After the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain in May 1864, William S. Newton and other medical staff were captured by Confederates and sent to Libby Prison (pictured above) in Richmond. Newton stayed at Libby Prison only three days, but later attributed his poor health to the deplorable conditions he experienced there. Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.41823

Newton’s letters reveal the close connections between friend and enemy. For example, in October 1863, Newton was given charge of a Union hospital located in Charleston, West Virginia. In an October 10 letter, he explained “Our Hospital is in one of the finest houses of the town, and I am quartered in the parlor with a nice bed, cane bottom chairs & sofas, all belonging to some rebel, but I will take good care of them, and see they are not abused.” Two days later, Newton wrote “Last evening on examining the portraits hanging around the parlor, I discovered one that looked like John Ruby. On going to the book case, I found two or three with John C. Ruby written in full. I then enquired and found that not only his, but that of wife sister-in-law, Mother-in­law, & Father-in-law, all in very large gilt frames, was this not a discovery.” Ruby was born in Gallia County, Ohio, which may explain why Newton knew him and his family. Newton concluded the letter saying “John Ruby is Quartermaster in 22nd Va. Reb Reg., and I am here living in his house & using his furniture. So the world moves, and such is war.”

The limited status of emancipated slaves in society was another element in Newton’s correspondence. In August 1863, Newton’s letters first mentioned Mary Ann McDonald, a former slave who was emancipated by the Union army following the raid of Wytheville. It is likely that Mary was sent to the hospital for examination and Newton claimed responsibility for her wellbeing. He decided to send Mary to Ironton to assist his wife and family. As part of the plan, Ned and Mott met her in Charleston, West Virginia, and took her back to Ironton. He was concerned that “negro traders” in Charleston might “steal her away from the boys before they get a boat,” but she safely made it to Ironton. Newton explained to his wife that Mary “belongs to you, that your interests are hers.” He suggested that “the boys teach her to read” and possibly write, but Newton made clear that Mary did not have any level of independence. In an August 23 letter he told his wife “You can make, or mold her into anything you desire.” The addition of Mary to the Newton household was not an easy adjustment. The letters were unclear on the details, but rumors about Mary’s trustworthiness circulated through Ironton and found their way back to Newton. The breaking point was the accusation that Mary had stolen personal items from the family. Some of the lost articles were later discovered and had simply been misplaced instead of stolen. Newton’s inquiries confirmed that all accusations against Mary were unfounded. Nonetheless, by October Newton’s wife had lost all trust in Mary and discharged her from service. She was no longer mentioned in their correspondence and there are no existing records to trace what happened to Mary Ann McDonald in the decades that followed. These and other letters make clear the overt racism throughout white society during this period.

In August 1863, William S. Newton sent Mary Ann McDonald, a former slave who was emancipated by the Union Army following the raid of Wytheville, to Ironton to work for his wife. In this August 23, 1864 letter Newton explained that Mary could learn how to ready and write, but he outlined few other freedoms. A few weeks later, Mary was wrongfully accused of stealing personal items and the arrangement ended.

Newton’s letters expressed a deep interest in family affairs. His letters advised on family matters such as buying and selling property back in Ohio, naming his newborn child, advising his teenage son Ned to live an upstanding life, prescribing medicines to remedy illnesses in the family, and preparing a new farm for when he could return home. His letters conveyed a deep sense of loneliness, especially for his wife.

As a possible cure for Newton’s homesickness, two of his children, Ned and Mott, visited him in camp. During the day, while he attended to the sick and wounded, his children would fish in nearby rivers and streams for their evening meal. On July 5, 1863 Newton explained:

Ned hardly has time to accompany me. He is very busy fishing, spends the day catching the little ones for bait, then at night puts out his trot, with 30 or 40 hooks. He wants me to tell you that he caught one on Friday morning weighing ten lbs. The soldiers had a good laugh, for he used one of the boat oars as a club, with which to pound the fish over the head, because it did not hold still. The only wonder is, that he did not knock it loose from the hook. He was alone at the time, and captured five in all.

In a July 5, 1863 letter to his wife Newton described the fishing exploits of his teenage son Ned.

My favorite letters were those written directly to Ned. In a February 24, 1864 letter, Newton scolded Ned for a variety of offenses. He wrote:

What would be your feelings, if a man, should you see another man, a stranger, impose upon your mother; would you not risk your life in resenting the imposition, or insult! If not, you are not of my blood or kindred. Then how much more despicable is he, that would abuse, or offer an insult to his own mother! . . . You certainly are not demented, or crazy, yet how could I suppose a boy almost 14 years of age, could commit such indiscretion. I truly hope no one knows of it.

In addition to disrespecting his mother, Ned was also playing with firearms. In the same letter Newton wrote:

Did you think it would afford me any happiness, to know that you were taking the gun out, contrary to my express command, and have you reflected that if, some accident should take place, how much misery you might cause to your parents & others.

Like any parent would, Newton outlined a remedy to get Ned back on the proper path—penmanship. Newton explained:

Character is said to be exhibited in the penmanship. If yours is the true exhibit of character, how uneven & unbalanced it must be. I fear your energy & resolutions are short lived, and to little purpose. Can you not do better! Will you not try! And before I see you, let me see some specimens of improvement, both in penmanship & character. Your happiness as well as mine depends upon it.

In a February 24, 1864 letter William S. Newton advised his son Ned that penmanship built character and contributed to a successful life.

Newton’s later letters, especially those written in 1865, focused on his dreams for the postwar. He purchased a farm in West Union, Ohio from Benjamin F. Coates (colonel in the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry) and advised his boys to begin preparing it for the family. There was a clear sense that Newton believed that farming represented an idyllic lifestyle and way to teach his children the value of hard work and patience. He wrote more letters to Ned during this period, and it appears that the teenager was again having behavior problems but took an interest in joining the church. Newton wanted both of his boys to be men of business instead of “town loafers.” Newton’s instructions for growing crops, cleaning fencerows, and tending to a new home were aimed at teaching Ned important life lessons in a more wholesome setting with fewer temptations.

After the war, Newton and family settled in Gallipolis and not in West Union. Newton resumed his medical practice, served as postmaster in Gallipolis, and participated in reunion activities with his former regiment. Included with the collection is a copy of Newton’s pension application. He suffered from several maladies which he attributed to his brief imprisonment at Libby Prison in 1864. Newton died on Saturday, November 18, 1882, just a few months shy of his sixtieth birthday. 

Newton’s letters are as much about daily life and society of the 1860s as they are about the military or medical details of the Civil War. The more I followed clues in Newton’s letters the larger the puzzle of people, places, and topics became. I connected with descendants of the Newton family in Ohio and Florida, who were excited to learn more about their ancestors. In the months that followed, which included working remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I continued to work on the project. During the summer of 2021, I finalized the processing and posted the finding aid to the Virginia Heritage database. The book of edited letters was accepted as part of the University of Tennessee Press’s Voices of the Civil War series and is scheduled to be published sometime in the spring of 2022. My involvement with this collection was significant, but the good news is that there is much more for researchers to discover by reading Newton’s letters.

I suppose the Newton Papers count as a distinctive collection for Virginia Tech because they were expensive, expansive in content, and touch on multiple research areas. But, the more I thought about the concept of a “distinctive collection” the more I wanted to avoid the term which sounds like certain collections should be prioritized from the larger whole and treated differently. Instead, the Newton Papers are an excellent addition to the already strong collecting areas of the Civil War in Virginia and Appalachian history at Virginia Tech. In other words, on its own merits the collection is wonderful, but it is even more significant when placed alongside other similar primary sources. As usual, I will be on the lookout for more collections that have such attributes. In the meantime, please come to the first floor of Newman Library and spend some time with the William S. Newton Papers, which are significant, unique, and far more than just distinctive.

Recently Processed Collections

After a year and a half without student workers onsite due to the pandemic, SCUA finally has a number of students in the department working on a variety of projects! I’m fortunate right now to supervise a couple of them on a number of processing projects in our different collecting areas, including the University Archives, Local/Regional History and Appalachian South, and the American Civil War, among others.

The Records of the Virginia Tech Dean of Students, Henry J. Holtzclaw, RG 8/2a, pertain to the work of Holtzclaw, who was the first person to serve as Dean of Students (also called Dean of Men) at VPI from 1923 to 1924. The collection is predominantly of correspondence between Holtzclaw and others at the university, such as President Julian Burruss, the Athletics Director C.P. Miles, and many other well known names from this time period.

The collection shows the intricacy and detail to which the Dean was involved in the everyday operations of the university. Holtzclaw helped develop the timetable and schedule of classes as well as the annual catalog. He oversaw the students’ attendance, handling requests for resigning from the university and their discipline in relation to hazing, poor grades, and rules violations. Dean Holtzclaw was also involved with the student organizations. One item of particular interest relates an incident when the Corps of Cadets was called to help put out a fire in town.

The Records of the Lee Literary Society, RG 31/14/11, and the Records of the Maury Literary Society, RG 31/14/12, contain the records and ephemera of the societies from 1873 to 1929. The two student organizations split from the first student group at VAMC, the Virginia Literary Society, and they co-published the Gray Jacket, one of the first student publications.

The Theodore Winthrop Papers, Ms2021-004, contains items by and about Winthrop, who has the distinction of being the first Union officer killed in the American Civil War. Winthrop served on the staff of General Benjamin Butler, when he was killed at the Battle of Big Bethel in Virginia on June 10, 1861.

Signature of Theodore Winthrop from the Theodore Winthrop Papers, Ms2021-004
Signature of Theodore Winthrop from the Theodore Winthrop Papers, Ms2021-004

While only one item, the Virginia Tax Receipt, Ms2021-009, is a unique document from 1859 as it identifies a freedman’s tax payments for Peter Logan of Chesterfield, Virginia. Looking through the records on Ancestry.com, Peter Logan (ca. 1810-1880) is a Black shoemaker from Chesterfield County, Virginia.

Virginia Tax Receipt for Peter Logan, 1859, Ms2021-009
Virginia Tax Receipt for Peter Logan, 1859, Ms2021-009

The Southwest Virginia Photograph Album, Ms2021-014, document a local family’s life in Virginia, including a visit to VPI, and the Danville Photograph Album, Ms2021-015, depict nurses and doctors at a hospital in Danville, Virginia.

The Blacksburg Lions Club Records, Ms2021-022, document the work of the local Lions Club, primarily their charitable work with eye and ear diseases. We also received a number of music books, mostly men’s choral music and a couple Lions Club books, which will be added to the Rare Book Collection.

Some other collections recently processed:

The Birds and the Bees: or, Murder most fowl

Millard L. Foley was a bird salesman in Salem, Virginia active during the 1950s and 1960s. The M. L. Foley Collection (Ms2012-031) is a collection of correspondence related to his business. It was purchased by Special Collections and University Archives in 2012 for inclusion in our Local and Regional History and the Appalachian South collections and, despite my interest in birds, I had never had occasion to look at it before this summer. When I did look through it, I discovered some interesting correspondence between Foley and clients.

Most of the correspondence is pretty basic and rather what one would expect of correspondence from a small business offering mail-order sales. There are many inquiries from readers of Allen Publishing Company’s Game Bird Breeders, Pheasant Fanciers and Aviculture’s Gazette (also known as Bird Breeder’s Gazette or simply the Gazette). These are typically followed by a customized form-letter response. There are, however, a few series of correspondence that stand out from the rest. And there’s one in particular that caught my attention and seemed like a fun highlight for the blog.

The series of letters begins simply. Henry Safranek of Lebanon, Connecticut sends a simple inquiry to M. L. Foley asking about Elliot’s pheasant hens and Cheer pheasants. It’s short and basically the same as the other correspondence in the collection, but it begins a back-and-forth that is pretty neat to read.

Letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated October 17, 1959

Lebanon Conn.
Oct 17 1959.

Mr. M.L. Foley

Dear Sir:

I am interested in buying 1 or 2 Elliot hen phesants, also pair or trio of cheers. Please let me know what you are asking for them.

Thank you
Henry Safranek
Lebanon
Conn.

Foley sent his typical response. In a letter that is all business and responds directly to Safranek’s questions, Foley let him know that he was out of Elliot’s for the year and that he had some Cheers available. Very simple, businesslike correspondence. Nothing remarkable.

Letter from M.L. Foley to Henry Safranek dated October 19, 1959

October 19, 1959

Mr. Henry Safranek
Lebanon, Conn.

Dear Sir:

Thank you very much for your inquiry on ornamental pheasants. I am very sorry that I do not have any more Elliots. I sold the last pair only yesterday. I have one trio of Cheers, breeders, left. The two hens laid 43 egges this season. But I will tell you that the Cheer cock is afraid of these two hens and will breed only occasionally. Another cock will have to be placed with these hens. I am offering them at twenty dollars ($20.00) for the two hens and with or without the cock.

We would appreciate your order and give it our most prompt attention.

Yours very truly,
M. L. Foley

Things start to get interesting with Safranek’s next letter. Within a couple of days, Safranek’s second letter arrives with further inquiries. He also provides some description of his prior experiences as a bird breeder and an explanation of why he is looking for an Elliot’s hen.

Page 1 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated October 23, 1959

Lebanon Conn.
Qct 23 1959

Mr. M.L. Foley

Dear Sir:
Thank you for your reply to my letter and am sorry that you have no Elliots hen left. I only bought my pair last spring and lost my hen from eating rat nip. We have been troubled with pack rats this summer and one must have carried a piece of bread into their pen as I lost her the next day.

I don’t know much about rare phesants as this is my first year with them, and although your offer on the cheers is O.K. I don’t know where I could get another cock bird from. So think my best bet is trying to buy a young pair to start with.

My Elliot hen laid about 20 eggs half of which were deformed and which I did not set. Out

Page 2 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated October 23, 1959

(2)
of the 10 which I did set 5 were good but I lost them after they hatched. I had them with 6 bantam chicks under a bantam hen. I guess that they were much to flighty for her and she killed them on me the second day.

I use to raise 4 to 5 hundred ring neck under bantams each year but no longer have time to take care of that many birds, so as a past time I thought I would try a few pairs of rare phesants.

The only person that I have met that raises rare phesants around here is Mr. Steve Rebello of Sumerset Mass. who has some of the most beautiful phesants I have ever seen. I bought a young pair of Lady Amhersts from him and raised 8 young ones. I was both suprised and happy that they bred the first year.

I see by your ad. in the Gazette that you also have Erckel’s francolins. What are

Page 3 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated October 23, 1959

(3)
you asking for a young pair as I would like to try raising some.

I would also appreciate it if you could send me the name of any reliable place here on the east coast where I could buy an Elliot hen, as the express charges are so high when you have birds shiped from out west.

Thank you
Henry Safranek
Lebanon
Conn.

Hens dead from apparently eating rat poison? Deformed eggs? A bantam chicken hen murdering all the young pheasants!? The drama in this one letter is amazing. But, the series continues. Foley doesn’t take the bait of the ornithological drama in Safranek’s letter. His response is very businesslike and indicative of his usual style of customer service. He provides the information asked for, the appropriate prices, and an offer of service, but doesn’t delve into the tales of troubles with the birds.

Letter from M.L. Foley to Henry Safranek dated October 31, 1959

October 31, 1959

Mr. Henry Safranek
Lebanon, Conn.

Dear Sir:

Ralph Meachum of Rockingham, N. C. or Walter Oakie of Winston Salem, N. C. will probably have an Elliot hen for sale. I visited them a short time ago and they had some at that time. I would say that the express charges would be about seven dollars.

Ihave one pair of proven breeders in Erckels and one pair of this years hatch left. Am offering the breeders at $25.00 and the young at $10.00. You should be able to get a Cheer cock from Meachum or Oakie or Rebello for about $8.00. If you should like to have any of these birds, I would be glad to ship them , upon reply from you.

Yours very truly,
M. L. Foley

Then, we suddenly have a letter from Safranek for an order of some Erckel’s Francolins. What’s odd is that this letter is in cursive and the handwriting seems very different from the printed text in the other letters. I thought at first that this might have been a letter from Henry Safranek and that the others were possibly from his son. In researching that, I discovered that the author of these letters was likely Henry Safranek, Junior (born September 1, 1927; died September 17, 1991). So, I was correct that the letters were written by Henry junior but he was 32 years old at the time and, as far as I could find, didn’t have children of his own, so they weren’t written by a child with this one by a parent. I did, however, find that he had a sister and, from a later letter, I know he lived near or with his mother. So, maybe one of them wrote this letter for him? Anyway, other than that, everything seems to be in order. Maybe we’re done talking about dead birds? Is this the end of our dramatic correspondence?

Page 1 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated November 11, 1959

Lebanon Conn.
Nov. 7, 1959

Mr. Foley,
Dear Sir,

Thank you for the nice letter you sent me and the information I asked for about the Eliott Hen.

Enclosed you will find a check for $10.00 for which I want you to send me a pair of the young Erckels you wrote about in your letter

So kindly send by express to my nearest station which is.

Henry Safranek
Willimantic,
Conn.

over.

Page 2 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated November 11, 1959

I thank you again
yours,


Henry Safranek.
Kick Hill Rd.
Lebanon.
Conn.

I wasn’t able to find a response to the order letter from Foley. Presumably, he sent the Erckel’s Francolins with a note and the note wasn’t copied into the collection. Our next entry in the series is from Safranek again. This letter is much longer and we have yet another dead bird! This time, the weather seems to be to blame. Safranek asks about housing conditions for the young birds, debeaking the birds to combat possible cannibalism, and recommendations for breeders to purchase another hen from.

Page 1 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated November 19, 1959

Lebanon Conn.
Nov. 19 1959

Mr. M.L. Foley

Dear Sir:

I received my birds Tuesday afternoon, and they arrived in very good shape. They were O.K. but today Friday when I came home from work I found the hen dead. we have had a week of very cold weather It hasn’t been above 32° since they came and has been down to 14°. I will now have to locate another hen. Do you leave your francolins out all winter? I have a small coop in their pen which they have been using. and they have plenty of cover. They are a rather pretty bird. and I sure hope to be able to raise them. would you know where I might buy another hen. I see that you have debeacked them, do they

Page 2 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated November 19, 1959

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have a tendency to be cannibalistic?

I really don’t have any idea as to how to produce higher fertility in phesants, as never was faced with that problem when raising ring necks. I always keep extra cocks and in the spring used those that were most aggressive and showed the most development. Also having the breeding pens together where the cocks could see each other seemed to help, by making them jealus I would say.

I have only one pair each of phesants so I am afraid that I will have to just rely on luck and will try your feeding program on them, for now. I believe that to much interbreeding has been one of the reason that rare phesants have this draw back.

I sent to Paul R Hartzog of Niles Michigan for my Elliot hen and also bought a pair of black or dark throated goldens from him. They are the best birds that I have bought so far. My first Elliots came from North Carolina and although they were feathered beautifully they had crooked.

Page 3 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated November 19, 1959

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toes and that has been enough to stop me from buying any more from him. When you pay 35 to 40 dollars a pair for birds plus express I think that you should get the best or at least should be told before hand, about such things. I also bought a pair of young Blue Manchurians from him that are extremely nice and hope to raise some this comming spring.

I would appreciate any information that you found helpful in raising your Elliots as my chicks were so active that is what must have prompted the hen to kill them as I wrote you in my last letter.

I always used eggs and hand pressed cottage cheese on my young phesants beside keeping good phesant starter in front of them.

Also in regards to higher fertility in phesants I read where one breeder put his cocks under lights for about 4 to 6 weeks before putting them in with his hens. This proved to be very helpful in making game phesants and don’t know how it would work with ornamentals.

Page 4 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated November 19, 1959

(4)
If you have extra birds that you could try it with it might prove to be beneficial.

As I have only started last spring with rare phesants, will have to rely on the trial and erro system for now. I sure appreciate any information anyone gives me that they find helpful and might be helpful to me.

Thank you
+
Regards.
Henry Safranek

Next, we get a letter from Foley expressing condolences for the dead bird and providing advice on raising the birds and on who to buy a new hen from. Still avoiding that drama. Things are still businesslike but a bit of Foley’s personality begins to show through. It’s a bit more personal than any of the other letters so far.

Letter from M.L. Foley to Henry Safranek dated November 29, 1959

November 29, 1959

Dear Sir:

Was very sorry to here that the hen died. I am quite sure that it died of shock. Although we had not had any freezing weather until a few days after I shipped them. Shock is usually what kills birds in shipment also. I have seen healthy birds die just from catching them in the pen and releasing them again in a few minutes. Either from shock or a heart attack. In very hot weather I never disturb my birds at all. When they start to flying or beating against the wire they may die from shock or over exertion or a heart attack. I am by no means an expert on birds or claim to be. I am just relating to you my own personal experiences. Francolins will pick feathers as much as any of the other birds. I set my eggs under bantams but put them in an incubator the last two days for hatching. From sad experience I have found it is better to raise the young in brooders rather than under hens. Especially the rarer birds. As for putting the cocks under lights I would think that the hen would start laying too soon and you would lose some eggs from freezing unless you checked very closely many times a day. I lost some last year and am not nearly as far north as you. I intend to to go to North Carolina soon and will try to locate another hen for you. If you can get one I will ship it and will give you a pair of Nice Goldens. The freight want be any more.

Where did you get the Manchurians?


Sincerely,
M. L. Foley

The next letter from Safranek is another lengthy discussion of his bird raising experiences. The discussions are becoming more of a back and forth at this point and less of a customer spilling their troubles out to a vendor. At this point, it’s apparent there is a bit of familiarity developing between the two.

Page 1 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated December 14, 1959

Lebanon Conn.
Dec. 14 1959.


Mr. M. L. Foley

Dear Sir:

I received the birds today Monday and they are all O.K.. I want to thank you for your trouble in getting me the Erckel’s hen and also for the pair of goldens, which you sent. If I have any luck with my birds next year, will send you either a pr. of Dark Throated goldens, or a pair of Amhersts, if you would like them.

I have been away on vacation all last week so did not read your letters until this Saturday. I called the Express office at once but they did not have the birds in. They came tonight at 5:30 Dec. 14th.

Since I wrote to you the last time I ordered a pair each of Swinhoe’s and versicolors, from Paul Hartzog. Which I have received.

I am afraid that I am buying more birds then I will be able

Page 2 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated December 14, 1959

(2)
to handle and have called it quits for this year.

I now have 10 pr. of phesants counting your goldens plus the Erckel’s a 2 year old pr. of Black Shouldered Peacocks and a 2 year old trio of Blue’s all of which I bought last fall I have all my phesants together in one large 18’x24′ pen, with the exception of the Blue Manchurian which have a 12’x18′ pen of there own. I bought my manchurians from “OAKIE”. They have gave me no trouble so far in keeping them all together and hope to be able to leave them that way until about the first of March when I will seperate them.

I bought a pair each of cheers, Bel’s and w.c. Kalij from Mitchell’s game farm in Anchorville Mich, and would have sent them back if I knew for sure that I would have gotten my money all back. They were the most bed ridden birds that I have ever seen. I have had them about a month now and still cannot get my crested Kalj hen looking like anything. She was almost dead when I got her, so I wrote to them about it but never did get an answer. They were like rails and had the dullest looking feathers, no shine and even

Page 3 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated December 14, 1959

(3)
the coloring around their eyer was a very dull almost purple color. I have been feeding them graded raw carrots + grapefruit skins, which they seem to like very well especaly the cheers. Plus cooked potatoes and pears. Beside keeping a mixture of 50% scratch feed and 50% Turkey fatting pellets in front of them at all times.

They have all begun to look like something now, but I have little hope for the w. c. Kalj hen.

The Erckel’s male has become a real pet and hope that before long will have him eating out of my hand.

I only want one more pair of phesants and they are Impeyans which I hope to afford next fall.

In regards to using lights on phesants, you only use them on your cocks. For about 4 to 5 weeks before putting them in with your hens. I wish that I could remember where I had read that article and could send it to you. I do know that Beacon Feeds made reference to it in there pamphlet on raising phesants and will try ang get you one of there booklets the next time that I am near one of there feed stores.

Page 4 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated December 14, 1959

(4)
Enclosed you will find a check for $5.00. I want to thank you again for your troubles and the goldends and hope to repay you some day.

Regards.
Henry Safranek
Kick Hill Rd.
Lebanon
Conn

The next letter comes after the new year from Foley to Safranek, though it is addressed “Dear Sir” and there is no indication in the letter just to who the letter is directed. I was able to determine that this is a letter to Safranek based on the letter that follows it. That letter from Safranek to Foley in mid-January is sadly the last in this series. In these two letters we learn more about these men than in any others in the series. Foley is a hobbyist beekeeper in addition to raising and selling birds. Foley also apparently co-owned a construction firm as his main job. We learn so much in this letter about him. Then, in the following one, we learn about Safranek. We learn that he lives within proximity to his mother (possibly with her, but that’s unclear) and that he used to be in the Army.

Letter from M.L. Foley dated January 10, 1960

January 10, 1960

Dear Sir:

We really enjoyed the maple syrup on buckwheat cakes yesterday. Thank you very much. Hope you liked the honey. I have ten stands of bees that I try to take care of plus the birds. The bees are a lot of work at certain times but I enjoy doing it. This year I had 210 pounds from eight of the stands which is a reasonable average for this area. The other two were or are new swarms. They wern’t in too good condition when I bought them and it took most of last year to build them up. I have a really fancy set up for a hobby bee keeper. I like everything about abeet keeping bees except the bottling of the honey, and that is really a job. I live only a few blocks from downtown Salem and four miles from the heart of Roanoke. The city limits ajoin. So there isn’t to much bloon for the bees. If you have any spare time you might try them as another hobby.

I am half owner of this company and we do from small to medium commercial work. We just completed a $116,000.00 sewer line construction in Mt. Hope, W. Va. We have about a $60,00.00 job to start soon in Morgantown, West Va. We work all over W. Va. and most of eastern Virginia. I have to depend a lot on my wife to take care of my birds, but so far I have been able to work close to home during the egg laying and hatching season. I don’t think it is going to work that way this year.

I have 12 pens 15×10 ft, 3 pens 14×15, 3 pens 15×17 and 1 pen 12x 30ft. All are 7′ high. Hve just finished a 12x36x12 ft high duck pen. Am waiting on my Federal permit to get a pair of wood ducks. The duck pen has a spring in it and I buried an old bath tub in the spring to make a duck pond. Therefore have plenty of clean water and no trouble. Hope to get a pair of Mandarin ducks soon. Also have seven 4×8 pens with wire floors. You must absolutely raise your Cheers on wire until they are nearly fully grown.

I have as breeders the following, 1 pr Blue Manchurian 1 trio Cheer 1pr Silvers 1 trio Golden 2 trio Reeves 1pr Erckels 2 pr Elliots 1 pr & 1 trio Swinho 1 trio Amherst 1 pr W G Kalij and also had Blacknecks Ringnecks Mutants and Bobwhite quail but am not going to raise any more of the last four.

This is too much letter, so long,

M. L. Foley

Page 1 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated January 14, 1960

Lebanon Conn.
Jan. 14, 1960

Dear Sir: Mr. Foley

I received your very nice letter today and am glad that you enjoyed the maple syrup. I wanted to get it to you for Christmas but, the store where I usually buy it was all out and they had to order more. You know how long it takes to get things around christmas. I also want to thank you for the honey, which we have been using to glaze sweet potatoes an to base chickens with, when we roast them..

At one time there were a lot of bees kept around this area but since about the early 40s most of the small farms which had them have been turned over to raising chickens and everything that one thinks of as a quaint little farm has just about dissapeared, from around this area.

Although we live out in the country about 7 miles from Willimantic and 35 miles east of Hartford, I own less then an acre of land and have to depend on using my neighbors land for raising any thing.

I have just finished cutting enough cedar poles to build a 30 x 125 foot pen this spring and hope to start some small pens to raise my young ones in this weekend. I have always raised my young ones in small pens 2x4x2 with a 1×2 ft. coop at one end. This worked out very well for me and will take care of a hen and about 12 chicks for 2 to 3 weeks. Moving them every day to new grownd is the only problem. I am glad that you told me about the cheers so will have to make other arangements for them. I did try a small battery brooder once and had leg trouble with my birds so have never tried it since.

That sure was a very nice deer that you got this fall and you should be proud of it. I don’t do any hunting myself, We do spend alot of time at the shore though. I have a small runabout with a 35 horse motor on it and spend almost every Saturday and Sunday water skying claming, Crabbing or just riding around on Lond Island Sound with it.

I’m afraid that I am also guilty of havnig to have someone take care of my birds. I have to be at work at 7 am so my mother feedsand waters them in the morning and when I get home I do what is left to be done. Mother is always giving me hell for having stuff around and having to take care of it but she really enjoys it as much as I do.

An old army buddy of mine came from Roanoke and always wanted me to come home with him but I never did. I was stationed in the Honor Guard at Washington D.C. for 2 years and had plenty of opportunity to make a trip down with him, but I’m not fond of really hot weather and D.C. was enough for me. He had and old motorcycle which he pushed back and forth on. I think I could have taken it. I did make several trips to Luray and up into Cumbland Maryland. Infact we took a trip to Luray this fall up though Penn. into New York it is very nicecountry down through there and my Mother and Aunt really did enjoy it. I wanted to take the
(over)

Page 2 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated January 14, 1960

entire sky Line drive into Winston Salem and back through Norfolk Va. along the coast home. We met some very nice people at Luray caverns who said that Spring is the best time to go South when all of the Roderdendrums are in blossom so we decided to make that trip another time. We enjoy travling very much. So from now until spring I will have to really get busy and get all my pens made. Because when the summer comes we are off. We are planing on making a trip through Canada and around the Great Lakes this year if all goes well.

Regards
Henry Safranek
Lebanon.
Conn.

These last two letters are very personal and there seems to be a genuine connection. Sadly, I do not know whether the two ever met in person or whether their correspondence continued. Foley continued writing letters over the next few years but there are no more in the collection to or from Safranek. Foley’s main correspondent from this point on is a man in Barranquilla, Colombia named Jose Raimundo Sojo who helped Foley source ducks for his bird business. I have yet to fully read that correspondence but if I find any more bird murders, I’ll be sure to blog about those letters, too. Of course, you can stop by Special Collections and University Archives and look through all the letters yourself! Just ask for the M. L. Foley Collection (Ms2012-031).

The New Look in Newspapers for the Campus that Doesn’t Really Care

February 23, 1962.

It began innocently enough, with a genuine plea for assistance publishing The Virginia Tech, the student newspaper of the university then known as Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

March 2, 1962.

Before long, the request turned a bit passive-aggressive, containing thinly veiled references to an unappreciative student body and threats to shut down the newspaper.

Continue reading “The New Look in Newspapers for the Campus that Doesn’t Really Care”

We Are Better Than We Think: April 16th remembrance exhibit online

Metal piece by artist Eric W. Schuttler, VT Class of 1993, inscribed “We are better than we think, and not quite what we want to be.” (H00203, Ms2008-020)

Every year Special Collections and University Archives, in partnership with the University Libraries and Virginia Tech Student Engagement and Campus Life, hosts annual remembrance exhibits to highlight the outpouring of love and support the university received in the aftermath of the tragedy of April 16, 2007. Although we are unable to host substantial physical exhibits this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we have continued the remembrance exhibit online.

The exhibit We Are Better Than We Think: Selections from the April 16, 2007 Condolence Archives highlights the items Virginia Tech received following the events of April 16th. It features artifacts, children’s letters, poems, and more with messages of love, hope, and peace, most of which have not been displayed for exhibition before.

Visit the exhibit online at https://tinyurl.com/April162021Exhibit.

The title piece of the exhibit, “We Are Better Than We Think” by Eric W. Schuttler (pictured above) is on display in Newman Library near the 2nd floor entrance, April 12 thru April 23 during the library’s open hours. (No other items are on display.)

For more information on the university’s remembrance events, including the virtual 3.2-Mile Run in Remembrance, please visit https://www.weremember.vt.edu/.

Wading Through a Life: Processing the M. Rupert Cutler Papers

Rupert Cutler with a group of volunteers on a park clean-up day

For the last 5 months, I have been kept busy with processing the recently acquired papers of Rupert Cutler, a prominent environmentalist and activist who has lived and worked in Roanoke since 1991. He was Assistant Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Jimmy Carter, and since has served in leadership roles in several environmental organizations such as the Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, and The Wilderness Society, among others. He has also served on Roanoke City Council and on the boards of Opera Roanoke, The Western Virginia Land Trust, the Western Virginia Water Authority, and the Nonprofit Resource Center of Western Virginia. He was also the executive director of The Explore Park, and has been instrumental in establishing a number of conservation easements and parks in the New River Valley.

Two awards and a name badge illustrating Dr. Cutler’s service to his community.

Processing this collection has proved challenging on a number of levels. The first, and most pressing of these are the time restrictions caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In order to create as much distance between employees as possible, I only have access to the building that houses the collection three days a week. When the grant that funds this project was written, a five day work week was assumed. In order to keep the project on track, I need to spend every moment that I am onsite processing, which is intense and draining. I’ve needed to plan my work very carefully to make the most of my time on campus and at home.

The second challenge has been the size of the collection. It spans 142 boxes and 6 decades. Cutler was and still is an extremely active and engaged figure, and he saved a great deal from his life. It is wonderful to have such a deep and broad look into his life, but the scope of materials is also a little daunting.

Finally, the third major challenge of working with this collection has been the need to categorize materials that resist easy sorting. Cutler blended personal, professional, environmental, and political on many occasions in his correspondence and works. It can be difficult to decide where to put a letter that references his environmental activism, his service on City Council, and casual news about mutual friends in the same missive. Based on the evidence of his papers, Cutler made friends easily and had a knack for bringing his many interests together, which has proven somewhat troublesome when neat descriptions are called for.

The time constraints of working on this collection have limited the amount of time I can spend with any one document, and expediency demands a balance between the materials being loosely sorted in a way that will mostly allow researchers to find what they’re looking for, and putting each item in its own folder with a thorough description of its themes. I think I’ve found a good compromise of specificity and generality, but the process has really driven home for me the importance of critical thinking and decision making skills to the work of an archivist. I hope I’ve made the right calls, but only time can tell.

Processing the personal papers of almost anyone can raise significant moral quandaries, and this collection is no different. It is a great privilege to rifle through the records of another person’s life, and the resulting information needs to be treated with respect and care. There is a constant need to balance accuracy with sensitivity. Historically, archivists were meant to be unbiased and without emotion, simple conveyors of fact into posterity. However, it is crucial for the modern archivist to recognize that such impartiality is actually impossible to achieve, and to make the best of it. The simple act of choosing to promote one collection and allow another to fall into obscurity is biased, and such decisions cannot be avoided, nor can the many hundreds of more fraught choices. 

Nowhere are these tricky questions of right and wrong and justice and accuracy and kindness more common and immediate than in personal papers. We all must do our best, and sometimes we fall down. Growth is the important factor, for collection creators and the archivists who work on their legacies. Erasing our mistakes doesn’t make them go away, and just as important as evidence of our successes is that of our failures, and how we respond to them. It would be unfair to the collection creators and the world to deify or demonize people who were just being human. I find the humanity of the people represented in the collections I work on to be the most valuable part of the record, and that reflecting my own humanity in the decisions I make about the collection is the best way to move forward. I hope posterity agrees.

Pulaski’s Calfee Training School

As often happens while looking for something in Special Collections and University Archives’ Historical Photographs Collection, I recently ran across an unexpected item that caught my interest. In this case, it was a school photo that I’d never seen. Captioned “Calfee Graded School, Pulaski, Va., 1917,” the photo features students and teachers of Pulaski County’s segregated school for African-American children. The caption identifies the principal of the school, more formally known as Pulaski Training School, as M. E. W. Buford.

I was unable to find much information on the school’s early history, unfortunately. Conway Howard Smith’s The Land That Is Pulaski County (1981) tells us that the two-story, brick school was built on the west side of Main Street in 1894. A 1921 education report records that year’s enrollment of the school as 276 students.

By the 1930s, the 40-year-old Calfee Training School had fallen into a state of disrepair, and leaders in the African-American community were pushing for an accredited replacement. Local physician Percy C. Corbin and others called for a school that would be of equal quality to that of its counterparts for local white students.

The need for a new school became more urgent in 1938, when the school pictured above was destroyed by fire. Ultimately, the school board funded a new elementary school, to be located across the street from the original location. The new facility, featuring eight classrooms, was completed the following year at a cost of approximately $35,000.  

Rather than investing in a new facility for students of high school age, however, the board chose to bus the county’s older Black students to Christiansburg Industrial Institute in neighboring Montgomery County. (At the time, Pulaski County was served by three high schools for white students.) Because the bus ride of approximately 30 miles was so time-consuming, it deprived the transported students from participating in after-school activities, limited their study time at home, and created untold additional problems. The unsatisfactory arrangement ultimately led to a 1947 lawsuit,  Corbin et al., v County School Board of Pulaski County, Virginia, which became part of a larger collection of local class-action lawsuits initiated by the NAACP Legal Defense fund to equalize the education of the races. According to the National Archives website, the Pulaski County suit ended in a victory for the plaintiffs on appeal in Baltimore’s U. S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1949. A hollow victory, however, the case’s conclusion apparently brought little change in practice, and it became the last in the NAACP’s efforts toward equalization, as civil rights activists soon began to instead focus their energies on the goal of school desegregation.

The Pulaski County school system finally became integrated in 1966, and the Calfee School closed. Through the succeeding decades, the school building has served several different purposes and has gradually fallen into disrepair.

Today, the Calfee Training School—the school built in 1939—is again in the news, as efforts are underway to restore the building and give it a new purpose. If existing plans are realized, the new Calfee Community & Cultural Center will include a museum, a childcare center, a community kitchen, and office space for non-profits, all while preserving a significant piece of local history.

Dr. Benjamin Bova and “Real Science Fiction”

Dr. Ben Bova passed away on Sunday, November 29, 2020 from COVID-19 related pneumonia and a stroke. Bova did a great many things in his life—he was a journalist, a technical writer, an editor, a teacher, and more—but likely will be remembered by the general public most often and most fondly for his hard science fiction stories and for his editorial stewardship of flagship magazines Analog (1972-1978) and Omni (1978-1982).

I won’t spend much time eulogizing the man, because I did not know him and those who did already performed the task powerfully and articulately. Instead, I want to explore a few examples of Bova’s work from our collections and his belief in hard science fiction (referred to by Bova as “real science fiction”) as a serious means of grappling with societal issues. Bova once explained “real science fiction” in a column he wrote for the Naples Daily News:

When I say “real science fiction,” I mean stories based solidly on known scientific facts. The writer is free to extrapolate from the known and project into the future, of course. The writer is free to invent anything he or she wants to – as long as nobody can prove that it’s wrong.

Thus science-fiction stories can deal with flights to the stars, or human immortality, a world government, settlements on other worlds. All of these things are possibilities of the future.

Things like mobile phones, earbud headphones, and the internet on which you’re reading this once existed only in the fantastic worlds of the pulp magazines but now are not only real but commonplace. Bova’s own work predicted solar-powered satellites, the space race of the 1960s, human cloning, virtual reality, and even the Strategic Defense Initiative, among other trends and events.

Because hard science fiction hews closely to contemporary scientific knowledge while building alternative worlds and surrogate solutions to modern problems and extrapolated concerns, and because Bova was born into the Great Depression, grew up during World War II, and became an adult during the Cold War, many of his stories explore various scenarios in which, and the methods by which, societal power is concentrated and dispersed. Below are a few examples of such stories from Bova’s substantial ouvre.


The Dueling Machine
(1969)
In this book, Bova predicts both virtual reality and the internet. The titular Dueling Machine around which the plot is centered allows aggrieved individuals to enter an artificial arena through networked virtual reality setups, combat one another according to an agreed upon set of rules, and leave the experience unscathed in the end, win or lose. The machine has ushered in a new era of peace – one that allows mankind to indulge in its baser instincts without true injury. That is, until someone discovers a way to use this means of peace to kill.

What better way than this machine to avoid the horrors of war experienced in the 1930s and 40s and under the threat of which many lived during the Cold War years thereafter? And how terrifying might it have been in that context to consider the very mechanism of that tenuous peace being seized by those who seek war?

Millennium (1976)
Millennium is set in 1999 on the moon base Selene. Both the American and Russian inhabitants of Selene call themselves “Luniks” and the two communities have a good working relationship. On Earth, however, the Americans and Russians are careening toward nuclear war and both sides try to pull Selene into the conflict. Instead, the American and Russian leaders on the moon proclaim the independent nation of Selene and seize control of the orbiting stations that control the American and Soviet defense satellites.

Years before the Strategic Defense Initiative (nicknamed by many “Star Wars”) of the Reagan administration, Bova predicted the use of satellites as a safeguard against ballistic missiles and arguably, how that technology would affect the nuclear stalemate between the USSR and America.

Test of Fire (1982)
This re-write of Bova’s 1973 When the Sky Burned grapples very explicitly with the most feared result of the Cold War tensions of the time. The story takes place after a giant solar flare wipes out the populations of Europe, Asia, and Africa and the USSR destroys much of North America in what it mistakenly believes to be retaliation. The last bastion of civilization as we know it exists on the Moon in a lunar base that needs fuel from the now savage Earth.

To explore the possible politics and societal constructs of post-annihilation humanity, Bova anchors the story around the family at the center of the lunar base’s leadership, a group whose motives are often in conflict and whose moral failings are many, as they seek what they need on Earth.

Ben Bova’s work demonstrates how deeply he cared about the global community, and how carefully he marked its failings and successes. He married these observations with his belief in “real science fiction” as a predictive and at its best prescriptive force in society, to create stories both intriguing and instructive. Here, I will leave you with Bova’s own simple description of “what could be”:

If our political leaders had been reading science fiction, we might have been spared the Cold War, the energy crises, the failures of public education and many of the other problems that now seem intractable because we were not prepared to deal with them when they arose.

We could be living in a world that is powered by solar and nuclear energy, drawing our raw materials from the moon and asteroids, moving much of our industrial base into orbit and allowing our home world to become a clean, green residential area.

But very few of us read enough science fiction to learn how to look into the future and see the possibilities of tomorrow, both the good and the bad. Certainly our political leaders are constantly surprised by each new crisis. They don’t look into the future any farther than the next election day.

Science fiction, at its best, is an experimental laboratory where you can test new ideas to see how they might affect people and whole societies. To my mind, it should be required reading for everyone.

Virginia Tech’s Special Collections and University Archives owns as part of the William J. Heron Speculative Fiction Collection thousands of novels and roughly 4,500 issues from over 200 titles of British, Australian, and primarily American pulp magazines, dating from the 1910s through the 1980s.