Electric Vehicles of the Early 20th Century and the H. H. Skinner Papers
With all of the attention that electric vehicles have received in recent years, it may seem at times that they’re a new invention, a product of the same 21st-century march of progress that has brought us smartphones, 3D printing, and virtual reality. But in fact, battery-powered vehicles have been around since the 1800s. According to the Department of Energy’s website, electric vehicles accounted for about a third of all vehicles traveling the nation’s roads and streets in 1900, and sales remained strong into the 1910s. This first heyday of the electric vehicle is documented in the H. H. Skinner Papers (Ms1988-061), a small but fascinating collection in Special Collections & University Archives.
A native of New York state, Herbert Harold Skinner (1886-1971) had worked for several electric companies before becoming an engineer/salesman with the Narragansett Electric Lighting Company of Providence, Rhode Island, around 1909. Three years later, the company became interested in electric vehicles, attracted by their potential as a source for additional sales of electricity, and Skinner’s papers suggest that the young engineer oversaw the company’s foray into electric vehicles. Included in the collection is an in-house report describing how the company would directly benefit from its own use of electrics and how it might realize as much as $188,000 ($5.5 million in today’s dollars) in additional sales per year through the use of such vehicles by its customers. In arguing for electrics, the report delves into their history, technology, and economy.
Although the gasoline-powered vehicle’s eventual and complete dominance of the automotive market may appear to have been inevitable in hindsight, such an outcome couldn’t be foreseen at the advent of the 20th century. The horse, as it had for millennia, continued to serve as the primary choice for personal transportation and short-distance haulage. (Steam-powered cars, relying on a long-familiar technology, also maintained a small place in the market during this era.) Early gas-powered vehicles were difficult to start and operate, and they emitted fumes, smoke, and noise. Battery-powered electrics, in contrast, were simple, clean and quiet–advantages that offset their higher price tags. The electric vehicle was particularly well suited for urban, short-distance driving, and many of the ad campaigns for electrics targeted women; others promoted the technology’s use for commercial delivery or for public services.
In marketing electric vehicles to Providence residents and businesses, Skinner and the Narragansett Electric Lighting Company performed a number of cost-analysis studies, several of which are contained within the collection. In late June, the H. M. Phelps Company conducted a five-day demonstration to determine the cost-effectiveness of an electric delivery truck for the Shepard Company’s local parcel delivery service. The report includes complete details for the demonstration routes and the power used during the five-day period, determining that delivery by electric vehicle would cost the company between $.059 and $.061 per mile and between $.014 and $.019 per delivery. (Supplementing the figures are images of several electric truck and wagon options.) In concluding the report, Skinner extols the virtues of the electric vehicle and its battery, claiming that a full night’s charge would provide sufficient power for a 60-mile route in Providence under ordinary circumstances. Interestingly, one of the benefits listed by Skinner relates to labor. Knowing the desire by businesses to keep all costs low, Skinner asserts: “The electric does not require a chauffeur. When a man has learned to operate the car, he has learned nothing that will justify him in asking for a higher salary. “
Skinner’s customer files contain many smaller studies and reports on electric vehicle performance and cost. In some cases, the reports provide head-to-head cost comparisons with other modes of transportation. A 1913 letter to the Outlet Company, for example, compares the costs of a 1-ton electric delivery truck to those of a horse and accompanying equipment, concluding that the truck would be 51% cheaper to operate. Elsewhere, in a study comparing costs of an electric 4-ton Baker truck with a 4-ton gasoline-powered Packard, the figures show that while the $4500 price tag of the Baker was $1000 higher than that of the Packard, the Baker would cost $1500 less to operate per year. The collection is full of such data and would lead anybody reading it to conclude that electric vehicles were fated to be the mainstay of personal transportation and short-distance haulage for years to come.
As it happened, the Narragansett Lighting Company’s venture into the electric vehicle market was ill-timed, as the confluence of several developments would soon cause the collapse of the electric vehicle industry. Ford’s introduction of the Model T in 1908 further reduced the initial cost of a gasoline-powered vehicle, while the development of the electric starter simplified the starting process. Moreover, as rural road conditions improved, long distance personal transportation became more feasible and demanded a cheap, easily accessible fuel source. Few rural areas had electricity at the time, and gasoline had become a cheap, readily available and inexpensive. Internal combustion technology also continued to advance, somewhat reducing complaints about noise and exhaust.
Of course, none of this happened overnight, and electrics continued to be a significant part of the automotive market for several more years. Soon, however, the battery-powered vehicle virtually disappeared from the nation’s roads and streets. While electricity continued to power such niche vehicles as forklifts, it would be decades before concerns over the environment and the availability of fossil fuels would again spur serious interest in electric and hybrid vehicles as a viable mode of transportation. None of that was obvious to H. H. Skinner and the Narragansett Lighting Company in 1912, however, and in this small collection we can see an optimistic outlook for a then-flourishing industry.
More on H. H. Skinner and his papers may be found in the collection’s finding aid.
Very often when reading old letters, it’s easy to lose a large part of the writer’s meaning, even when the penmanship is perfect and the grammar impeccable. Being far removed from the writer’s time and place, we lose a great deal of the context, of the experiences and culture shared by the correspondents, and may, in our ignorance, overlook accounts of significant events. The C. L. Porcher Letter (Ms1988-072) relates an event in Black history–albeit from the perspective of a white woman–but that aspect of the letter could easily be missed without a careful reading of its contents.
A native of Charleston, South Carolina, Clelia Lightwood Porcher was living and working as a teacher in that city when she sat down to write a letter on September 12, 1876. After briefly discussing a family matter, Porcher remarks that “Isaac was summoned and was out until after one, but Sunday + Monday night the rain was so steady that no disturbance was even looked for …” (“Isaac” was probably Isaac Mazyak, or Mazyck, who appears in the 1880 census as a 24-year-old clerk, boarding in the Porcher home.) Later, Porcher adds that “[t]he Mayor’s and Governor’s proclamation has only had the effect of making them more determined than they were before.” She continues by noting that the city is well protected and the danger likely over, then describes a large meeting of women at the Confederate Home, held for the purpose of organizing refreshments for men serving guard duty throughout the city. (She’s not optimistic about the women’s organization, however: “We were there three blessed hours and came away as wise as I went about what was to be done.”) Porcher also expresses her feelings about the mood in the city: “I have never been so excited in my life before + every body can think and talk of nothing else … We hear the slightest unusual sound during the night, so as you may imagine our sleep is not very profound.” But the following day, Porcher reports that the unrest has been quelled: “[I]t is thought that everything now will be quiet, the only thing is, our men cannot relax their vigilance.”
All of this hints at some civil disturbance experienced in Charleston, but what was it? Who were the “them” to whom Porcher refers? Why were they “more determined” after hearing the mayor’s and governor’s proclamations? A few online searches reveal that Porcher’s letter relates to politics and race relations in Charleston near the end of Reconstruction.
Early in September 1876, Charleston saw two Democratic Party meetings in which several local Black residents spoke about their reasons for abandoning the Republican Party. In a Black Democratic Party club meeting held on King Street on September 6, two Black speakers spoke against the Republican Party. Afterward white Democrats escorted the speakers through a crowd of Republicans that had gathered outside the Democratic meeting. Violence between the two groups ensued, and the intervention of federal troops and an integrated local police force was of little consequence. (Not on hand that first night were the city’s many “rifle clubs”–essentially local militia–which were the clubs to which Porcher refers.) Windows were smashed, stores were looted, a number of people were assaulted, and one white man was accidentally killed.
That Porcher’s letter was written six days after the incident suggests that the unrest continued for some time. In response to the violence, Republican South Carolina Governor Daniel Henry Chamberlain issued a proclamation promising to “secure to every man, of whatever political party, the right to speak, act and vote freely and safely …” Neglecting to state what actions he would take to restore order, Chamberlain called on all citizens to do their utmost in preserving the peace: “The spirit of poiltical intolerance, in all its forms,” he wrote, “is the direst curse which now oppresses our State, and peace and prosperity will never come until that foul spirit is finally exorcised.” Despite his lofty ideals, Chamberlain was seen as ineffective in suppressing the violence. A lack of voter confidence in his ability to quell the violence, coupled with suppression of Black voters and the defection of others to the Republican Party, led to Chamberlain’s defeat in November.
The feelings aroused that fall in Charleston and elsewhere would play out in the national election. Losses by Republicans in November, together with the Compromise of 1877, which led to the withdrawal of the remaining federal troops from the South, ended the promises of Reconstruction. A close reading of the Porcher Letter provides a look at this incident of Reconstruction.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
Remembering Charles Owen, a Beloved Early Campus Figure
Last year, while helping to assemble images for a photographic history of the Roanoke and New River valleys, I ran across a wonderful photo of Charles Owen, known to the students of Virginia Agricultural & Mechanical College (today Virginia Tech) as “Uncle Sporty.” Sometimes a photo really captures your interest and makes you want to learn more about the person shown.
Charles Owen’s longstanding presence at the university began in 1890, when he was hired as a janitor for Barracks Number One (today Lane Hall). (Note that while some sources, including his own daughter’s death record, provide his surname as “Owens,” campus sources invariably identify it as “Owen,” so that is what I’ll use here.) Soon afterward, Owen assumed an additional duty that he’d perform for many years to come: according to Col. Harry Temple’s The Bugle’s Echo, an exhaustive history of the university’s early decades, Owen “took charge of a large snare drum which he attached to a leather belt about his waist. Ten minutes before Reveille each morning he would parade the area in front of the barracks, beating his drum. Sporty could actually beat out tunes on that drum; where he learned the art no one knew.” For nearly 20 years, Owen’s was one of the most familiar faces on campus and likely one of the first to be recognized by new cadets. Reminiscing on his years as a VAMC cadet, Henry Harris Hill (BS, 1907) recalled his first morning at college:
Very early in the morning I was awakened by a far off rumbling sound. For the life of me I couldn’t imagine what the noise was. It gradually came closer, so I got up and went to the window to look. Out on the parade ground was an old colored man beating a drum that looked like it was about five feet deep. The colored man was Uncle Sporty who was waking the boys preliminary to Reveille.
Unfortunately, despite some rather in-depth searching, I could learn little about Owen. The 1900 census recorded a Charles Owens living in Blacksburg with wife Ellen. The Owens’s sizable household included three daughters, Bell, Lucy, and Nellie; the daughters’ husbands, Lev, Hiram, and Reuben (all with the surname Collins); four Collins grandchildren; Charles and Ellen’s adopted son John Hickman; and niece Ella Collins. The census describes Charles Owen as a janitor but fails to record his and Ellen’s ages.
(To throw some confusion on the matter, the census lists a second Charles Owens living in Blacksburg and also working as a janitor in 1900. Later census records indicate that this Charles Owens also worked on campus, but following this man’s documentary trail we learn that he is not the man who came to be known as Uncle Sporty.)
Owen’s photo first appears in The Bugle (the college annual) in 1899. He is shown in a composite photo of other maintenance staff and is identified only as “Sporty Sam.” Given the time period and the fact that another African-American campus employee is referred to as “Smoky Sam,” we can infer that the name “Sam” was almost certainly being used here as a diminutive of “sambo,” a derogatory term that, even if used in jest, showed a flagrant disrespect.
Owen’s photo would again appear in the 1908 Bugle. By that time, he’d picked up the nickname “Uncle Sporty,” and while the term “uncle” when applied to African-American men of that era was also unquestionably derogatory, its use by the cadets in referring to Owen would seem to indicate an improvement of sorts in his status and the affection that they held for him. (We might also bear in mind that the cadets invariably referred to William Gitt, a white man who succeeded Owen as a worker in Lane Hall (and about whom I posted three years ago), as “Uncle Bill.”)
Illustrating the standing that Owen held in the cadets’ minds, his photo appears near the front of the annual, preceded only by the volume’s dedication page.
Below Owen’s photo is a poem, attributed to “J.D.P., ’08” (John Dalrymple Powell of Portsmouth, Virginia), written in the “Negro dialect” commonly used by white writers of the day. While the delivery is demeaning, the sentiments seem heartfelt:
Bein’ as I’se de fust to see yo’ when yo’ come,
And as I says Good-bye
to every one,
And since I takes
most painful care
Of all my boys
throughout the year,
It seems to me most
Dat I should be right
De folks of all dese
friends of mine
And gib’ a greetin’
which dey’ll find,
Dat dough dey lib’ to
be past forty,
Will make dem tink of “Uncle Sporty.”
According to The Bugle’s Echo, Owen continued to perform his campus duties until mid-1909, when, due probably to age and failing health, he retired and left Blacksburg. “He took with him,” writes Temple, “the great well-wishes and gratitude of the cadets.” The Virginia Tech (the forerunner of today’s Collegiate Times) of March 2, 1910 reported that Owen had suffered a stroke, leaving his entire left side paralyzed. Just three weeks later, the newspaper announced Owen’s death. In eulogizing him, the editor offered what he considered high praise, but even here the newspaper could not resist inserting a backhanded “compliment”:
Charles Owen, the old negro janitor who for years has been known by the familiar name of “Uncle Sporty,” and who was loved and respected by hundreds of students and alumni of V. P. I., died at his home last week after a lingering illness. Owen had for many years been janitor of Number One barracks and his sterling honesty and respectability as well as his never-to-be-forgotten duty of awakening the sleepers each morning with the rumbling of his ancient drum, had made him a familiar and unique figure here. He was of the old order, now seen no more among the negroes, and his death is sincerely mourned by everyone who knew him. He is survived by several children, two of whom occupy positions with the college.
The Bugle’s Echo notes that Owen’s standing at the university was such that students proposed providing the pallbearers and a firing party for his burial service, only to find that the funeral had been held before these arrangements could be made. Still, the cadets collected a “substantial sum of money,” according to Temple, “and a huge spray of flowers was ordered to be placed upon his grave.” Shortly thereafter, The Virginia Tech published a poem by M. W. Davidson (BS, 1901) entitled “Uncle Sporty’s Drum,” the third stanza of which reads:
No matter where roams
Hokie’s man, his memory never failing;
He ponders on the
long ago, though often rough the sailing.
The strife is long,
the fight grows hot, and is ever lost by some,
But not by them who learned the way, where Sporty beat that drum.
A memorial also appeared in The Bugle for that year, featuring Owen’s photo and another poem.
Though the newspaper mentioned that two of Owen’s children continued to work at the university in 1910, nothing about them could be found. The 1910 census shows Ellen “Owns,” Charles’ 35-year-old widow, still living in Blacksburg, together with son-in-law “Rubin” Collins and two grandchildren. The census-taker noted that Rubin was working as a janitor in the “VPI Halls.” That same census shows another son-in-law, Hiram Collins, working as a janitor in the “YMCA Hall” (today the College of Arts and Human Sciences Building).
It isn’t easy, given the length of time that’s elapsed since his death and the little information at hand, for us to draw conclusions about Owen’s daily life, to put it in the context of the times, to know how he felt about his work at VPI and the students with whom he regularly interacted. (We haven’t even managed to conclusively identify his surname.) The little that we’ve learned of Charles Owen and his term of service here illustrates the larger, complicated topic of race relations of the era. It may be naïve and overreaching for us to say that Owen’s legacy was one of a slowly evolving, growing acceptance of and respect for African Americans in the campus community, but there can be no doubt that his work contributed to the university’s growth in its early decades, that his longstanding presence helped to instill in the students an affection for their school, and that he continued to be fondly remembered by university alumni for many decades following his death.
Virginia Tech’s history is a complicated one that is much more presumed than known due to an early 20th century blaze. In its early years, the institution served as an allegory of the rough, rag-tag, Appalachian spirit we see still embodied through a beaten-up lunch pail at football games and the largely blue-collar valley that envelops us. Tech, unlike its sister institutions William and Mary and the University of Virginia, has never owned any enslaved people by circumstance of its post-antebellum founding in 1872. Even its predecessor institution, the Olin & Preston Institute, has no record of owning any. That is not to say, however, that the grand 2,600-acre Blacksburg campus has never met or benefited from the harsh legacy of slavery.
Prior to last year, you most likely would not see him listed on the Virginia Tech Black History Timeline. He predates Charles “Uncle Sporty” Owens, Floyd Meade, and even Odd Fellows Hall, all well-known black figures in early Virginia Tech history. If you had the privilege of crawling around the campus of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College about 148 years ago with Addison Caldwell and other “rats,” you’d most likely refer to him as “Uncle Andrew.” He is Andrew Oliver, and he is the first known African-American worker at what is now Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
WHEN: March 2019 (and beyond) WHERE: Wikipedia (see the project page) EXPERIENCE: None, just get started!
We love getting together to collaborate on editing, but we also realize everyone is very busy! Fortunately the highly connected world we live in allows us to bolster the sense of community that we can create through online collaboration.
As the worlds most popular online research tool, serving as the firstand oftenonlystop for many people looking for information on a wide range of topics ranging from general to technical subjects, biographies, and so forth. Frequently touted as an unbiased resource, analysis has shown that there is an alarming gap in content by and about women and other underrepresented groups, falsely suggesting that their contributions to their respective fields are either unimportant or non-existent(read more about that here). Lets help fix this!
Even if you have just five minutes between meetings you can update a resource. Add some images to a page, add a link back to the archival holdings or finding aid from a university, update the citations, proofread a paragraph, or add in-article links to other relevant Wikipedia content.
Have a few more minutes? Add a bio box, create a translation in another language, significantly edit an article, find and upload copyright-free images to Wikimedia Commons, add significant sections such as Career, Early Life, and Seminal Works, or add a completely new article entry.
You dont necessarily need to set up a Wikipedia account to edit! You can get started just by opening an article page and clicking edit at the top of the page. That said, we’re working through the annual Art+Feminism initiative and the important work of tracking statistics is only possible if we all register and use the project dashboard.
To get started. weve created a page with articles to edit, suggestions for areas of enhancement, links to relevant resources for adding content and citations, and links to images in Wikimedia Commons.
Lets spend the remainder of March 2019 updating resources together. Let us know about your progress on the project resource page and make sure to tag @VT_SCUA and #ArtAndFeminism on Twitter or reach out to the IAWA page on Facebook to let us know what youre working on!
Lets make it social and build a community around this important work. Looking forward to seeing the change that we, together, can create!
In the early years of the Great Depression, a team of 15 men and women visited the homes of more than 300 families in Grayson County, Virginia to ask residents dozens of questionssome rather personalabout their homes, their farms, and their lives. The questions solicited data for a survey conducted by the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station and the U. S. Dept. of Agricultures Bureau of Home Economics. Conducted over the course of nine weeks in Grayson Countys Elk Creek and Wilson Creek districts, the survey formed part of a larger study of social and economic conditions in the southern Appalachian highlands. The resulting report was to form the basis for the development of effective and much needed home extension work as well as furnish valuable information of use to the departments of education, public health, the state traveling library, and other agencies (Annual Report of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute Agricultural Experiment Station, 1931). The collected data was later used in Faith M. Williams 1935 report, Variations in Farm-Family Living (in United States Dept. of Agriculture Miscellaneous Publication205, Economic and Social Problems and Conditions of the Southern Appalachian Highlands, available online here.)
Here in Special Collections, the original survey records may be found in the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station Farm Family Study (Grayson County) (Ms1940-023). Nearly 90 years after the surveys completion, the responses generated by it remain a rich source of raw, granular data for a sizable chunk of Grayson Countys rural population at that time. Comprising a painstakingly meticulous record of a community in the southern Appalachian highlands, the survey data could today be used in examining any number of social, economic, agricultural, or other trends.
Today, however, were going to look at the collection from a different angle. For Grayson County local and family historians, the survey responses can provide an unintended wealth of information. Here in a single place are detailed records of 300 of the countys families, providing data on their employment, income, educationeven how many pairs of underwear they made or purchased in a year. As an example, Ive chosen a single family at random to see what the survey can tell us about them. All of the information that follows is derived from the survey itself, with no outside sources consulted:
On June 29, 1931, surveyors T. M. Dean and Amelia H. Fuller visited the Birkett F. and Ruth Sutherland Taylor family of the Comers Rock area in Grayson Countys Elk Creek District. The Taylors were asked to provide information for the 12-month period ending on March 31, 1931. Given the number of questions asked, the visit must have taken the greater part of the couples day.
Birkett Taylor, 42 at the time of the study, was the son of Freel and Bell Harrington Taylor. Ruth Sutherland Taylor, his 38-year-old wife, was the daughter of Alex and Eliza Comer Sutherland. Both Birkett and Ruth were natives of Grayson County, as were their parents. Birkett had attended four years of high school, while Ruth had attended 14 years of school, averaging 16 weeks per year.
Birkett and Ruth had been married for 19 years and were distantly related by blood, being fourth cousins. The Taylors had a rather large family, with four daughters (ages 17, 10, 3 years, and 13 months) and five sons (ages 19, 15, 13, eight, and five). Also living in the household was Birketts 62-year-old mother. The family had no boarders or hired help living with them. (They seem to have had frequent guests, however, having provided an estimated 416 meals to guests during the year.)
The Taylors two-story, 1500-square-foot frame house had been built in 1881 and was remodeled in 1901. Valued at $2,222, the mortgaged home had a sound metal roof and a single-layer, unfinished floor. Stretching across the full front of the home was a porch, seven feet deep; a smaller, 30 x 7-foot porch was attached to the back of the house. The weathered home had 12 rooms including a kitchen, dining room, and parlor. Birkett and Ruth shared their bedroom with three of their children. Four sons shared another bedroom, and two daughters were in a third. Birketts mother, Bell Taylor, had use of the fourth bedroom. The surveyors gave the home a poor rating in terms of cleanliness and neatness. Surrounding the house was a picket fence in poor condition. The yard included shade trees, rosebushes, peonies, and lilies. Nearby were the familys cellar and a vented privy. The home sat on The Taylors 210-acre farm, with 102 acres in pasture and another 55 acres devoted to crops.
In addition to two fireplaces, the house was heated by a woodstove and a coal stove. The family cooked on a woodstove, and the home was lit with kerosene lamps. (The Taylors had spent $50 on 50 cords of wood during the previous year and a dollar on five gallons of kerosene.) A handpump at the sink drew clean water from a spring 500 yards from the house. For bathing, the Taylors used one of two galvanized washtubs in the home, and the family had a gasoline-powered washing machine for laundry. Clothing was pressed with one of three stove-heated irons owned by the family.
The Taylor home was furnished with 15 straightback chairs, five rocking chairs, five tables (in addition to any tables in the kitchen), and a desk. For bedding, the family had five feather ticks, nine straw ticks, and two mattresses. The Taylors also owned three clocks, a piano, a foot-powered sewing machine, and a radio (purchased within the previous year for $30).
There had been no deaths in the Taylors immediate family during the previous year. Reporting on serious illnesses in the family, Birkett mentioned that hed had pneumonia, as had the couples 15-year-old son. Ruth reported having had a baby. During the previous year, the Taylors had spent $20 on dental work and $75 for medical services, and they had received free vaccinations.
The Taylors were members of a church and had tithed a total of $10 during the year. Theyd paid $4 in income tax and $4 in poll taxes. Other expenses included $2 on cosmetics, $2.60 on toiletries and barber visits, $13 on tobacco, and $3.60 on photography. The family had spent nothing on gifts throughout the year, except at Christmas, when two dollars worth of food gifts were distributed within the family. Other Christmas food giftsvalued at five dollarswere given from what the family had themselves produced during the year. No gifts were given outside the immediate family. For the year, total expenditures on recreation and leisure amounted to $42.60.
The Taylors children helped significantly with the farm work, the older boys performing the milking, livestock care, field work, and vegetable gardening. The eldest girl, meanwhile, helped to care for the younger children, cleaned, cooked, and did laundry. The children also picked berries during the year (30 gallons total) and gathered nuts (150 pounds total). With the help of her eldest daughter, Ruth canned 194 quarts of fruits and vegetables, 40 quarts of jams and preserves, 120 quarts of fruit butters, four quarts of jelly, and 122 quarts of meat. They dried another 10 pounds of fruits and vegetables and pickled 44 quarts of fruits and vegetables, 10 quarts of sauerkraut, and 25 quarts of cottage cheese. They’d also made 96 pounds of sausage and 122 pounds of lard. The Taylors teenaged sons had assisted in the butchering of four hogs and one steer and had also hunted wild game, bringing home 12 squirrels and 36 rabbits. The boys had also caught four pounds of fish.
The Taylor farm had produced 75 bushels of apples in the previous year, at a value of $75, as well as two gallons of cherries, valued at $2.00. Other harvested produce included 1200 pounds of white potatoes ($20.00); 112 pounds of beets ($2.00), 5 pounds of carrots ($5.00), 5 pounds of onions ($5.00), 40 pounds of turnip greens ($2.00), 400 pounds of cabbage ($8.00), 20 pounds of lettuce ($1.20), 192 pounds of cucumbers ($4.00), 15 pounds of tomatoes ($15.00), 528 pounds of string beans ($22.00), 120 pounds of dry beans ($7.00), 32.1 pounds of peas ($5.00), and 360 pounds of green corn ($6.00), in addition to many other crops omitted here. Theyd also collected 250 pounds of honey, valued at $50.
In addition to farming, Birkett Taylor worked as a miller and carpenter. He earned little as a carpenter during the year (just $50) but made another $410 in lumber and in another unspecified business. The two eldest Taylor boys, meanwhile, had brought in another $100 by working on local roads. The boys earned an additional $284 in hauling, and three of the boys sold some of the rabbits theyd killed, for $7.20. The Taylors daughters had not worked outside the home but sold some of the nuts that theyd gathered, for $7.80. The familys total income for the previous year totaled $1093.00.
The family supplemented their garden harvest with produce purchased with cash or trade, mostly at the Comers Rock store, three miles distant. During the year, the family purchased 120 pounds of watermelons for $1.50. Theyd also purchased 12 pounds of string beans ($1), three pounds of prunes ($.30), 6.56 pounds of raisins ($1.05), two dozen oranges ($.60), 1.59 pounds of peanut butter ($.60). Among the familys other food purchases were 25 loaves of bread ($22.50), 6 boxes of crackers ($.30), 7.5 pounds of oatmeal ($.90), 6 boxes of prepared breakfast foods ($.60), 24 pounds of rice ($2.40), 12 pounds of macaroni ($3.60), 500 pounds of sugar ($30.00), 25 pounds of brown sugar ($1.50), and candy ($10). They bought no tea and only three pounds of coffee ($.60), but consumed 24 pounds of Postum ($6.00) and three pounds of cocoa ($.90).
The Taylors made most of their own clothing. For the year, they reported spending $46.87 for clothing or materials on female members of the family; $188.65 on the males. Many of these items were purchased at Long Gap, in Wytheville, or through mail-order catalogs, these being cheaper alternatives to the store in Comers Rock.
In the interest of brevity, Ive omitted here much of what the survey tells us about the Taylors. Other survey responses reveal, in detail, the number of times each family member journeyed away from home and for what purpose, the quantity and cost of each article of clothing spent on each family member, the number of pillowcases and screens in the home, which newspapers and magazines were read by the family, and, wellthe list just goes on and on. No less interesting is what the survey tells us about what the family didnt have. For example, one blank response tells us that the Taylors, like many of their neighbors, didnt own a car. Other blank table cells tell us which crops the family didnt raise, which products they didnt purchase from the store, which types of plants werent in their yard, etc.
The image of the Taylors that emerges from the survey is remarkably detailed. Without using a single photo or a word of narrative, the survey responses give us a portrait of one southwestern Virginia family, based entirely on objective data provided by the family itself and the observations of the surveyors.
I should perhaps note here that the data is not easily retrievable. The survey records contain hundreds of individuals sheets divided among several volumes, each volume comprised of several sets of questions, all arranged first by question, then by record number, not by family name. Nor is the survey infallible. (In seeking more information on the Taylors, for example, I found this page on findagrave, which revealed that Mr. Taylors name was Birket rather than Birkett.)
Despite the cumbersome arrangement of the records, they would prove an invaluable tool for any genealogist or local historian whos looking for information on an area family and is willing to undertake a little digging. Moreover, the survey continues to hold inestimable value for its original, intended use. Extending this gleaning exercise over the entire survey, an interested researcher could develop any number of projects from the meticulous records created by 15 workers during that summer of 1931.
More on the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station Farm Family Study (Ms1940-023) may be found in the collections finding aid.