The Life of Andrew Oliver, Virginia Tech’s Little Known First African American Worker

Guest Post by Juan Pacheco

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.

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University seals and logos

The university has a lot of ways to identify itself quickly: a university shield and seal, a university logo and athletic logo, a motto (Ut Prosim,“That I May Serve”), a tagline (“Invent the Future”), and many other icons that signify who we are. But these have all changed over the years, along with the official school name and nicknames. I’d like to share with you just some of the items from the University Archives, which show the different depictions of our shield, seal, and logos.

From our founding in 1872 until March 1896, the university was called Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College. Below are two photos of students in athletic gear with sweaters that use different versions of the VAMC initials, one with a large V and AMC surrounding it and one with a large C and VAM inside of it.

The VAMC seal below has symbols for the university, some that continue into the current Virginia Tech seal. The VAMC seal depicts a ribbon with the name; above is the “lamp of learning,” a common symbol for an institution of higher education, sitting atop two books; and below are two quill pens. Within the ribbon are several objects, including a bail of hay, a cotton plant, surveying instruments, rifle with bayonet, a book, a wheel, and a plow.

Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College seal
Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College seal

In March 1896, the university’s name changed to Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute, which was often shortened to Virginia Polytechnic Institute or V.P.I. (In 1944, this shortened form became the school’s official name.) At the same time, President John M. McBryde and his son decided to develop a motto (Ut Prosim), a coat of arms, and a new seal, which includes the motto and coat of arms.

Since this time, the university seal has included the “lamp of learning” and a ribbon of the university’s name, both carried over from the VAMC seal, and the coat of arms, split into four quadrants. The upper left quadrant is the obverse side of the Commonwealth of Virginia seal, an Amazon woman representing the Roman virtue Virtus defeating royal tyranny, a symbolic reference to Virginia’s involvement in the American War of Independence. The upper right shows the surveyor’s instruments, another carryover from the VAMC seal, to illustrate the university’s commitment to engineering. The bottom left seal is a chemical retort and graduate, an addition from the VAMC seal because of the university’s new (as of 1896) commitment to scientific studies. Finally, the bottom right portrays a partially husked corn cob, a replacement for the cotton plant and bail of hay in the VAMC seal, to represent the school’s ongoing commitment to agricultural research.

Below are other versions of the university seal and the VPI initials from this time period, on just a few objects and art pieces we have in Special Collections. The VPI initials on several objects below are all intertwined, while an earlier photo shows students in athletic outfits with a large V with a small P inside.

Interesting to note is the different versions of the representation of Virtus in the first quadrant of the seal. Officially, the Virtus of the Virginia seal should be an Amazon woman and the victim a Roman-style emperor, but several versions of the university seal depicted Virtus as a man. In the painting below, Virtus is a knight. Disturbingly, in the early 1960s, someone drew Virtus and the defeated person as a caricature of a cowboy or early white settler defeating a Native person, possibly because of the Draper’s Meadow massacre in Blacksburg’s early history. It was not used in many places, and it certainly wasn’t used long, as the Board of Visitors in 1963 officially adopted the university seal using the Amazon portrayal from the Virginia seal.

In 1970, the university’s name changed one final time to our current title, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, shortened often to Virginia Tech or VT. The seal has remained the same, except with the full new name surrounding the coat of arms, lamp of learning, and motto, but new logos have been developed. In 1991, the university adopted the logo of a shield with the War Memorial pylons and 1872 founding year, and in 2006, the “Invent the Future” tagline was added, which is sometimes incorporated into the school logo. An athletic logo of a V with a T inside was adopted in 1957, much like the VP on the students above, and in 1984, two art students, Lisa Eichler and Chris Craft, won a competition to create the current athletic logo with a V and T connected.

Below are the current seal and two buttons, one with the athletic logo on the left and one with the university logo on the right.

If you’re interested in learning more about university logos, seals, and other traditional university symbols, such as the HokieBird and the word Hokie, I suggest looking at some of these additional sources, as well as coming in to Special Collections, of course!

The Crush

A Young Blacksburg Woman Falls Victim to Infatuation

We may be just a little late for Valentines Day, but of course the subject of love is never pass. And that brief, trite introduction leads us to the 1919 diary of a young Blacksburg woman named Olivia Tutwiler. Pouring her heart into a small composition book, this young schoolteacher gave vent to the frustration and consternation caused by a crush that she had on a cadet at nearby Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institutenow Virginia Tech. Along the way, Tutwiler provides us with some insights into what life was like for a young woman in a small, sleepy college town a century ago.

The diary spans the first two months of 1919 and was written by Tutwiler while she was away from workher school in nearby Riner, Virginia, apparently having been closed during an influenza outbreak. Purchased at a local estate sale 95 years later, the diary was donated to Special Collections last year. Whether Tutwiler maintained a journal only during this short period or was a lifelong diarist, we dont know.

Tutwilers diary is somewhat unusual in that the entries are written as though addressed to the object of her affection. The entry for January 1 sets the tone for much that follows: So dear boy I saw you again to-day and spoke to you too. Oh boy if you only knew how much I love you. On the following day, Tutwiler provides a description of the young man: I couldnt help thinking of you. I like your black hair its [sic] so nice and crisp with just a little bit of curl and blue eyes. What makes you have dimples and be so altogether good looking and adorable, she writes.

For the next several weeks, Tutwiler chronicles her failed attempts at winning the affection of this young man. Each time romance seems about to blossom, however, her desires are waylaid by a a miscalculation, the cadets reticence, or Tutwilers own pride and code of conduct. On January 5, she summarizes the challenge of her lovelorn melodrama:

Youre really the most extraordinary boy Ive ever seen. No one seems to be able to get anything out of you one way or the other. I used to think you cared a lot for me but Ive evidently been mistaken from all I hear and see. Its [sic] a funny thing how boys will be in love with one girl and still try to make all the others think hes wildly in love with them by acting if not speaking. They all seem to do it and I suppose youre [sic] no exception to the rule.

Frustrated by the young mans seeming hesitancy and insincerity, Tutwiler on January 14 reports taking the as much initiative as she dared within the strictures of polite society of the day:

I had to see you so I called you up to come down tomorrow night so I could see about the bastket-ball game + candy pull. And youll never know that it was mostly to see you. How your voice changed when you knew it was me over the phone. Like you were so glad. Were you? I do hope you will take me to one of the games. And I went in the drug store just to see you too. Foolish and crazy but you dont know so what difference does it make?

Just who was this reportedly handsome fellow, who won the heart of at least one steadfast admirer? Unfortunately, his identity will have to remain a mystery. Throughout her diary, Tutwiler refers to her beloved only as dear boy. She slips on one occasion (January 18) and uses his given name, Charles. A little digging found that there were no cadets named Charles in the VAMC class of 1919. There were two in the class of 1920, but neither had black hair. The class of 1921, however, had no fewer than five students named Charlesplus a Charlieall with dark hair. Of these, only Charles Thornton Huckstep had hair with just a little bit of curl. Though his hair doesn’t appear jet black in his photo, he seems the most likely candidate.

Charles Huckstep, class of 1921. Could he have been the "dear boy" to whom Tutwiler was writing?
Charles Huckstep, VAMC class of 1921. Could he have been the “dear boy” to whom Tutwiler was writing?

Given the lengthy discourses about her crush, we might be excused for imagining Olivia Tutwiler pining away alone in her room and for expecting her diary to hold nothing of interest. In fact, however, Tutwiler lived a very active social life, and her diary would be of interest to local historians as a record of a young womans activities in Blacksburg early in the 20th century. Tutwiler frequently attended VAMC basketball games, parties (including her own Valentines Day party), and movies. She also picked up some temporary work at the Extension Service and was active in her church.

Also of interest to local historians would be Tutwilers mentions of the flu epidemic, soldiers returning from service in World War I, and road and weather conditions. Researchers might also benefit from her passing comments about acquaintances, such as this catty remark on January 7: Miss Logan has her spring hat already [sic]. Doesnt it seem foolish to be wearing one with snow and ice on the ground? She also briefly shares her opinion of a number of cadets.

Even as Tutwiler set her heart on an unobtainable suitor, so too did she inspire unreciprocated feelings among several other young men. January 5: I like Bush a lot and I believe if Id fall in love with him. January 17: Its [sic] funny that you and Fred should both like the same picture isnt it. He insisted that I give him one this afternoon but I didnt. January 23: [Johnnie] asked me if I wanted to wear his V.P.I. class ring. January 25: Oglesby insisted on one of my pictures but nothing doing. February 9: I didnt know [Pat]d ever try to kiss me but he did twice and I had to tell him a few things. February 17: Had a letter from Hampton to-day and he said how much he loved me

When Tutwiler finally returns to her school on February 2, we learn something of her experiences as a young teacher in a rural community, as she navigates between parents and school officials. At her boarding house, she endures local gossip and less-than-desirable living conditions, while at work, she contends with a crowd of indifferent and unruly students, as in this entry from March 4: Gee but Ive had a time to-day. I just got so mad at dinner when two of my kids set the field on fire. The seventh grade just doesnt seem to know a thing. I kept Frank and Fred in until 4:30 to day [sic] and made them learn poetry. They certainly are bad. I had to slap both of them to-day.

Never far from Tutwilers thoughts, however, is the elusive cadet.

By January 27, Tutwiler is already questioning her feelings: Do I love you or do I not? Her entry of February 6 reflects deeper thoughts, as she questions her motivations: I want you oh so much dear dear heart or is it only what you stand for now. Her February 25 entry finds the young teacher looking into the future, wondering what it will bring: I would like to know how all this is to turn out and whether youll ever love me or Ill ever love Bush. We may all drift apart and perhaps Ill fall in love with some one else. By this time, just a few weeks after commencing her diary, Tutwiler seems ready to admit a temporary defeat and look for love elsewhere.

Mentioned only a few times in passing within Tutwilers diary is the name Bunker. Henry Harris Bunker Hill, a native of Scottsville, Virginia, obtained both his bachelors (1907) and masters degrees (1909) in chemistry at VAMC. By the time Olivia Tutwiler was pouring her deepest feelings into a composition book, Hill had already been employed as a professor with the university for a dozen years.

Henry Harris “Bunker” Hill, VAMC class of 1907.

In 1922, Olivia Tutwiler married Hill, and the couple would have two children. She continued to teach, eventually opening a school of her own in the Blacksburg Presbyterian Church. She retired from education in 1969, following a 50-year career. Of teaching, her obituary quotes her as saying I certainly have had a good time teaching and I surely do hate to quit. I have been most fortunate, not only to have a job I like to do but to be paid for it. Though things didn’t take the direction she wanted in 1919, Olivia Tutwiler seems to have had a happy life. One has to wonder, though, whether she sometimes took out her diary after a long day and pondered over her youthful infatuation.

You can read Olivia Tutwiler Hills diary in its entirety here. We’ll soon add a complete transcript of the text. The diary’s finding aid contains more biographical information on Tutwiler. We also hold the papers of Bunker Hill, the finding aid for which may be found here.

When Orange Became The New Black (and Maroon the New Gray)

1896, a Formative Year for Virginia Tech Football

With a new school year about to start, and Lane Stadium soon to be filled with cheering fans, we cant resist offering a little lesson from Hokie History 101. Well, this piece may belong in a 200-level course, since weve included a few obscure facts that the average fan isnt likely to know.

In recognition of its broadening curriculum in science and technology, the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College in 1896 became the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute. The new name being more than a mouthful, it was shortened in popular usage to Virginia Polytechnic Institute, or VPI.

The schools fledgling football program underwent changes of its own that year. Early on, the college had adopted school colors of black and cadet gray, but when worn on a striped football jersey, the colors resembled a prison convicts uniforma similarity that undoubtedly became a source of ridicule from opposing teams.

Norbon R. Patrick, a guard on the 1893 team, poses in the jersey that necessitated a change of school colors.
Norbon R. Patrick, a guard on the 1893 team, poses in the jersey
that necessitated a change of school colors.

A committee reviewed the colors used by other colleges and decided that burnt orange and Chicago maroon would provide a unique color combination (as indeed it did and continues to do). The new colors debuted not in the opening game of 1896, but in the second game, at home against Roanoke College, on October 20.

The black jersey sported by the 1895 team, just prior to the schools name change, featured the letters AMC encircled by a large C in white.
The black jersey sported by the 1895 team, just prior to the schools name change,
featured the letters AMC encircled by a large C in white.

The first orange-and-maroon jersey featured an oversized V under a smaller P, reflecting a de-emphasis of the word Institute in popular usage of the schools name.
The first orange-and-maroon jersey featured an oversized V under a smaller P, reflecting
a de-emphasis of the word Institute in popular usage of the schools name.

Changes came to fan support, as well. By the 1890s, the college cheer, or yell, had become a popular means of boosting enthusiasm at campus athletic events. As long as they incorporated the name of the college and / or team, the words in these yells werent as important as the rhythm and tone. Cheers relied on creative, invented words–words that were easy and fun to yell–as is evident in the first yell adopted by VAMC:

Rip, Rah, Ree,
Vah, Vah, Vee,
A. M. C.
Ree, Ree,
A. M. C.

An abridged, peppier version of the longer yell seems to have been used more frequently by fans at games:

Rip, Rah, Ree!
Va, Va, Vee!
Virginia, Virginia!

By the 1895 season, the students had adopted a new, somewhat more complex college yell, published in the 1896 Bugle:

Hicki! Hicki! Hicki!
Sis! Bom! Bar!
A. and M. College,
Wah! Who! Wah!
Vivla! Vivla! Vivla! Vee!
Virginia! Virginia! A. M. C.!

The “Wah! Who! Wah!” bit may have been a little too reminiscent of the “Wah-hoo-wah!” yell of University of Virginia fans, and the 1896 Bugle records a separate yell that was used to cheer the 1895 football squad :

Do! Do! Ha! Ha! Dom-i-di-i-dee;
Wah! Wah!
A. M. C.
Hip Hip, Hip, Hurrah!
Virgin-u-a!, Virgini-u-ah,
Wee! Wee!
A. M. C.-c-c-c-c-c-boom!!!! Football

The schools new name rendered these yells obsolete, but rather than simply incorporate the new name into existing yells, the Athletic Association sponsored a contest for a new yell (which, as things turned out, is fortunate, or we might otherwise all be cheering Lets go, Hickies! or be members of the Do Do Nation today). The composer of the winning entry would receive a five-dollar prize.

Oscar Meade Stull (1874-1964), a senior majoring in applied chemistry and serving as cadet first lieutenant and adjutant, put his imagination to work in composing a cheer that used fun, invented words and incorporated the schools new name:

Hoki, Hoki, Hoki, Hy!
Techs, Techs, VPI!
Sola-Rex, Sola-Rah.
Polytechs Vir-gin-i-a!
Rae, Ri, VPI!

Oscar Meade Stull, '96, the first person to ever hear the What is a Hokie? question.
Oscar Meade Stull, ’96, the first person to ever hear
the What is a Hokie? question.

Stulls submission became the winning entry and is said to have made its debut when the cadets traveled to Richmond and participated in the laying of the cornerstone for the citys Jefferson Davis monument on July 2, 1896. As Stull recalled some 60 years later, I was surprised when my yell was accepted, but I needed the five spot. In addition to the fiver, Stull earned a lasting place in Virginia Tech history. The legacy was an unexpected one. In a 1956 letter to Virginia Tech library director Seymour Robb, Stull wrote, I am more surprised in recent years that [the Hokie yell] has endured for 60 years!

According to various histories, 1896 also marked the year in which Floyd Hard Times Meade (1882-1941) came to be associated with the football team. Just 14 years old at the time, Meade worked part-time in the campus mess hall and was adopted as an unofficial mascot by the team. As mascot, Meade frequently performed at games dressed as a clown in orange and maroon, his antics probably not so dissimilar to mascots of later years. Meade would later figure prominently in the evolution of the teams mascot and traditions. But his is a story for a future blog post.

Floyd Hard Times Meade, from the 1899 Bugle.
Floyd Hard Times Meade, from the 1899 Bugle.

The traditions begun in 1896 served the team well. The VPI gridders won that first orange-and-maroon game over Roanoke College 12-0, and the team eventually went 5-2-1, ending the season with a 24-0 rout of then-archrival VMI. The eight-game season was the longest played since the teams founding, and though it would be nearly a decade before VPI regularly played that many games a year, the success of that season proved the feasibility of scheduling more games.

It would take some time for an e to be added to Stulls hoki, and though his cheer incorporated the names Techs and Polytechs, the school seems to have made little effort in promoting the use of these names. The Cohee, an 1897-1898 publication of the Athletic Association, makes no mention of the names; the press most often referred to the team simply as V.P.I. or by generic terms such as the Blacksburg eleven. It would be several years before VPI teams came to be known more commonly as Techs, Polytechs, or Techmen; more than a decade to be known as The Gobblers; and still longer to be called The Hokies, but the seeds for all that has followed were sown in 1896.

You’re Accepted!

We seem to be on a roll lately with posts about Virginia Tech history. While that isn’t all we’re about, I’m not oneto ruin a good thing. Plus, as I was looking for this item the other day, I thought it might be fun to post. It’s an acceptance letter to Virginia Agriculture and Mechanical College, dated September 23, 1873. (For those of you keeping track, that’s only the second year VAMC was accepting students!)In some ways, this item is a sneak peek. It’s part of a collection that has yet to be processed (more on that in a moment), but it’s one of those tidbits that was begging to be shared.

Acceptance letter to Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, to "G. D. Showacre, Esq.," dated September 23, 1873.
Acceptance letter to Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, to “G. D. Showacre, Esq.,” dated September 23, 1873.

The handwriting is a bit squashed in places, but this letter reads:

G. D. Showacre, Esq.

Dr Sir, I have the pleasure of informing you that the Faculty has appointed you a State student in this College. You will please report in person as soon as practicable, and a failure to do so within thirty days will forfeit the appointment.

Very respectfully yrs

V. E. Shepherd

Secretary Faculty

Actually, it’s less a letter and more of a note. Formal, to be sure, but still only two sentences: You’re accepted. Show up in the next month or don’t show up at all.Quite direct and to the point. In any case,”G. D. Showacre” is actually George D. Showacre from Greene County, Virginia. He attended VAMCfor three years, from 1873 to 1876–clearly, he showed up! This is an exciting piece of university history for us and we’re lucky it survived this long.

This item is part of a donation received by Special Collections last year. The collection hasn’t been processed yet, but once it is, it will be available as the Showacre Family Collection. In addition to the letter, it includesa handwritten copy of a funeral sermon for Charles Showacre delivered by William Runyan on May 22, 1864. That being said, just because a collection isn’t processed, doesn’t mean it’s off limits! If you’d like to see the letter in person, you’re welcome to visit us. We’ll be here.

Of Triple Deckers, Hell Row, and Late-Night Dumps

The New Student Experience, 1872-1902

As with any college town, August brings to Blacksburg a sudden shift from near-dormancy to feverish activity. Streets clog. Parking spaces disappear. And piles of modern lifes necessitiesfrom box fans to microwave ovens, from flat-screen TVs to mini-fridgesalign sidewalks as families and volunteers move new students into their appointed dorm rooms.

In the early years of Virginia Techthen known as Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical Collegestudent move-ins were much different. In 1872, the schools inaugural year, the new, non-local student arrived by train unaccompanied, alighting at the station near Christiansburg. The additional eight-mile journey by hired carriage to Blacksburg could take as long as three hours on roads that were sometimes nearly impassable. It wouldnt be until 1904 that a spur linethe Huckleberry Railroadwould allow for a much easier (though, at a scheduled 40 minutes, still-lethargic) trip from Christiansburg.

Upon arriving, the more sophisticated freshmen were probably unimpressed by their new surroundings. Blacksburg was barely a spot on the map at the time and couldnt provide much comfort and entertainment to young men far from home. The campus itself consisted of but five acres and a single building. Though it rose above the surrounding countryside, the three-story edifice was less than grand. Samuel Withers, who entered the school in early 1873, uncharitably wrote, The architect who planned it must have been a genius, for it was a classic in its ugliness.

Former home of The Preston & Olin Institute, the lone VAMC campus building included classrooms, offices, a chapel, and student lodging.
Former home of The Preston & Olin Institute, the lone VAMC campus building included classrooms, offices, a chapel, and student lodging.

The building contained only 24 lodging rooms, which made for cramped quarters. Even after packing three cadets to a room, fewer than half of the first years 172 students could be accommodated.

This photo of triple-deckered bunks was taken around 1902, another of the schools many growing-pain periods. Note how the bunks are tied together with rope.
This photo of triple-deckered bunks was taken around 1902, another of the schools frequent growing-pain periods. Note how the bunks are tied together with rope.

As sometimes still happens today, with enrollment exceeding available rooms, students had to find alternative, off-campus lodging. Many acquired room and board in private homes. Others took up residence in structures hastily built by local entrepreneurs who saw in student rentals a potential windfall. One such building, at the corner of Church and Roanoke streets, was officially named Lybrook Row. The building apparently gained a somewhat notorious reputation, however, and was more familiarly known to cadets as Buzzards Roost and Hell Row. Still, these first-year cadets of what was then an all-male military school could take some comfort in living off-campus, where they were less subject to the control of upperclassmen.

Though Lybrook Row had fallen into disrepair by the time this photo was taken, one can see that it was a very basic affair and likely deserved the appellation Hell Row.
Though Lybrook Row had fallen into disrepair by the time this photo was taken, one can see that it was a very basic affair and likely deserved the appellation Hell Row.

As there were initially no dining facilities on campus, students took meals with local families or at the nearby Lusters Hotel. Others formed their own private messes to provide for themselves. By mid-1873, however, the college had erected a mess hall; after the addition of more lodging in 1881, the school required all students to live and eat on campus.

The fare in the early mess halls could best be described as basic, and though the college claimed to make every effort to provide good materials, and to have them properly cooked and neatly served, the mess didnt have the reputation of todays Virginia Tech Dining Services for culinary excellence. In the 1881/82 catalog, administrators noted apologetically, [N]ecessarily, the living at seven and a half dollars per month must be plain. After one too many poorly prepared meals, one student expressed the frustration of many when he wrote in the 1900 Gray Jacket: I am so weary of sole-leather steak / Petrified doughnuts and vulcanized cake / Weary of paying for what I dont eat / chewing up rubber and calling it meat.

Mess hall interior, ca. 1900.
Mess hall interior, ca. 1900.

1888 saw the opening of Lane Hall (then known as Barracks No. 1), able to house 150 students. While the accommodations were still meager by todays standards, the new building contained such appreciated amenities as steam heating and, on the ground floor, hot and cold running water. Electric lighting was added in 1890. The furnishings, made by students in the college shops, included austere bedsteads, tables, chairs, and bookcases. Students provided their own mattresses, linens, water- and slop-buckets.

The spare furnishings of a barracks room included a straight-backed chair, a washstand, and a bed that appears somewhat less inviting than the floor.
The spare furnishings of a barracks room included a straight-backed chair, a washstand, and a bed that appears somewhat less inviting than the floor.

Then as now, students personalized their rooms with decorations. With no members of the opposite sex to be seen on campus, many male cadets adorned their walls with the female formor at least as much of the female form as was allowed by Victorian-era strictures.
Then as now, students personalized their rooms with decorations. With no members of the opposite sex to be seen on campus, many male cadets adorned their walls with the female formor at least as much of the female form as was allowed by Victorian-era strictures.

As with students immemorial, the VAMC cadets participated in many unauthorized activities and pranks. Though regulations forbade it, they drew water from the barracks radiators to fill the washtubs in their rooms for a hot bath on Saturday nights. And with the new availability of its primary ingredient, the water bomb soon became a campus mainstay, to the chagrin of pedestrians near the barracks.

The housing of all students under one roof brought with it unintended results. Hazingor the “application of extra-curricular controls over the behavior of the freshmen, as Douglas Kinnear called it in his 1972 history of Virginia Techbecame ritualized after the construction of Lane Hall and probably caused many a first-year cadet to wish hed never heard of Blacksburg.

In the middle of any given night, a new student was likely to be dumped from his bed, a favorite practical joke inflicted by upperclassmen. This scene, probably staged, was photographed in 1899.
In the middle of any given night, a new student was likely to be dumped from his bed, a favorite practical joke inflicted by upperclassmen. This scene, probably staged, was photographed in 1899.

Despite all of the inconveniences and discomforts endured by the new students, they came to love their school devotedly and, as alumni, to remember it fondly and support it proudly. It must have been exciting for that first generation of students to watch the continual improvements made in the campus and to see it grow into the university it had become by the mid-20th century. There can be no doubt, though, that when they visited, they could be heard to comment upon how easy their successors had things.

The University Archives contain a wealth of materials that offer glimpses into the early days of Virginia Tech. The photographs, campus maps, student scrapbooks, and published histories in our collections trace the schools evolution from a one-room school to the dynamic, modern research university that it is today.

A Moment of “Solitude”

Last week, I was over at Solitude for a meeting, so I have the building on my mind. In the four and a half years since I came to Virginia Tech, it’s found little ways to pop up every once in a while through reference questions, outreach opportunities, and occasional visits. And every time, I learn something new.

Solitude, 1890s, then a private residence.
Solitude, 1890s, then a private residence.

Solitude, 1931
Solitude, 1931

Solitude, 1967
Solitude, 1967

You can see many more pictures of the building online, as well as interiors from when the building was a private residence. The original house, part of which is still part of the modern structure, was built in the early 19th century by the Preston family of Smithfield. The first known expansion was in 1851, when the house belonged to Robert Taylor Preston, son of Virginia Governor and Colonel James P. Preston. Robert, who lived in the house until his death, wrote a locally famous call to arms from the house in 1863.

Robert Taylor Preston "Call to Arms," 1863, pg. 1
Robert Taylor Preston “Call to Arms,” 1863, pg. 1

Robert Taylor Preston "Call to Arms," 1863, pg.
Robert Taylor Preston “Call to Arms,” 1863, pg. 2. His note finishes with “Come therefore men of Roanoke & join us of the mountain & drive back the invader of our homes & firesides or die in the attempt…Shall we march without our neighbours I trust not”

Following the Civil War, the property remained in Robert’s hand. However, in 1871, he sold it to the state to be the basis for the new land grant institution, Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, with the condition that he and his wife could remain in the house. Preston died in 1880 and his wife. Mary, in 1882.

After Mary’s death, Solitude was the campus infirmary. By the 1890s, the house was private residence for faculty and it continued to be so well into the 20th century. After World War II, when the need for married student housing was on the rise, there were trailers on the surrounding land. The house itself was used as a club for students. It later reverted to a private residence and then, in the 1970s, was used by various departments on campus. In the 1990s, the building was closed while funds were raised for renovations. And in 2011, Solitude was reopened and is currently used by the Appalachian Studies Program.

This, by the way, is the VERY short history of the house. We have many, many resources in Special Collections on everything from renovations to photographs, newspapers stories to documents created in the house, and the complex history of the Preston family. If you’re curious, you should pay us a visit, But the real treat is visiting Solitude. Renovations may have hidden much of the older building, but it is still there underneath, overlooking the Duck Pond. The oldest building on campus is still with us today, as a gentle reminder of Virginia Tech’s long history.

Treasures from the McBryde Family Papers

Members of the McBryde and Bolton families sitting on the front steps of the president's house on Christmas
Christmas at the President’s House, 1891
Front, from left, Susan “Susie” McLaren McBryde, James Bolton McBryde, Belle Campbell Bolton, ?, Charles Neil “Saint” McBryde; back row, Maria Lawson Bolton, Anna Maria McBryde (Davidson), Channing Moore Bolton, Elizabeth Hazelhurst Bolton, Meade Bolton McBryde, Cora Bolton McBryde, President John McLaren McBryde, and Dr. Robert James Davidson, far right

A recent gift of images and family papers from Larry McBryde, great grandson of former Virginia Tech President John McLaren McBryde, helps us to step back in time to 1891 when John McLaren McBryde accepted the presidency of V.A.M.C. at age 50 and the campus looked very different. The collection includes images of the campus as it used to be.

Campus view including president's house
Virginia Tech President’s House, 1891

distant view of Virginia Tech president's house in sepia tones
Elevated rear view of the Virginia Tech President’s House, 1891

Campus view with presidnet's house seen from a distance.
Distant view of the President’s House. House is gabled building to the right.

A Difficult Decision for President McBryde

Letters included in Larry McBrydes gift illuminate a very difficult decision in President McBrydes career. His letter of May 12, 1904 to his son Charles Saint,” tells of his decision to decline the offer of the presidency of the University of Virginia (UVA). The UVA Board of Visitors voted unanimously to elect him president and to allow him to dictate his own terms. McBryde had strong ties to UVA as he had studied there until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 when he returned to his birthplace of Abbeville, South Carolina and joined a Confederate volunteer company. After the war he moved to a 1,000-acre farm near Charlottesville in 1867 and took an active part in organizing a Farmers Club.

image of letter written by Presidnet McBryde to his son, Charles "Saint"
President McBryde’s letter of May 12, 1904 to his son Charles “Saint”

President McBrydes letter to Carter Glass about his faltering decision to decline the offer and to continue as president of Virginia Tech includes reflections on the role of president.

In his gracious reply to McBryde’s letter of refusal, Carter Glass asserts, I believe the V.P.I is getting to be a greater institution for Virginia than any other.

Image of the letter from Carter Glass to McBryde regarding his declining the presidency
Carter Glass’ letter in response to McBryde’s declining the UVA presidency

image of Presidnet McBryde outdoors with two dogs
President McBryde c.1920s

McBryde, Father of the Modern VPI, resigned as president effective July 1, 1907. He was given the title President Emeritus and granted the first honorary degree awarded by the college, the honorary Doctor of Science degree. The first graduate degree for completion of studies beyond the bachelor degree was the Master of Science (M. S.), awarded in 1892 to his son, Charles (Saint). We invite you to view these and other historical materials in the Special Collections Reading Room in Newman Library.

Could That Horsewoman Be Mary G. Lacy, the First Professional Librarian at Virginia Tech?

IMage of Susan and John, Jr. on horseback with young lady behind John, Jr. and two other ladies nearby
Susan (“Susie”) and John, Jr. on Horseback with Friends

Larry McBryde identified two of President McBrydes children in the photograph, from left, Susan Susie McLaren McBryde and John McLaren McBryde, Jr., his own grandfather. Since he knows that Susie was friends with Mary G. Lacy, the first professional librarian at Virginia Tech, Larry McBryde wonders if she might be one of the other young ladies in the picture. Mary G. Lacy served as Head Librarian from 1903 -1910. She was followed in that position by her sister Ethel A. Lacy, who served as assistant librarian from 1907-1909 and then as librarian from 1910-1913. Mary Lacy also had the assistance of Mary A. Ernst, later Mary Ernst Phillips, cataloguer, from 1904-07. The very first head librarian at Virginia Tech was Professor V. E. Shepherd, who also served as treasurer and secretary of the faculty from 1872-73 to 1874-75. Professor Shepherd went on to serve as professor of Latin, modern languages, and book-keeping. Students, including R. J. Noell (1883-84, 1885-86), W. H. Graham (1886-1887), and A. W. Drinkard (1891-92), were librarians until Mary G. Lacy took up her post. The current head Librarian at Virginia Tech is Tyler Walters, who is the Dean of the University Libraries.

Any further images of or information about Mary G. Lacy would be gratefully received by the University Archives. Please contact Tamara Kennelly, University Archivist, 231-9214,

–Tamara Kennelly