VPI Recollections

1906 TO 1910

by Henry H. Hutchinson, Class of 1909

I was born during the Great Blizzard of 1888 and as a kid was a puny sickly, spoiled brat. In time I went to public school but in my early teens had a private tutor as I wasn't doing well in school and was growing too fast. My mother told me that I grew over 12 inches in one year. The tutor didn't work, so father sent me to Staunton Military Academy where we were taught with the rule of the hickory stick. That stopped my growing so fast. I got a little idea of studying instead of growing and was prepared to enter VPI in the fall of 1906 as a sophomore rat.

The first thing I remember of VPI after registering and getting instructions on classes, schedules, rooms, etc., was walking back from the old "Shops", where I had to go to see about a schedule for making up on freshmen shop and foundry work. I fell in beside a tall gangly fellow like myself and found that he too was a sophomore rat. His name was TP Hicks. We have been good friends ever since. Although his profession of civil engineering, and mine of mechanical engineering have led us on different paths after graduation, we have continued getting together every few years.

Our life as sophomore rats the first year was like any other rat, except that as we became recognized as sophomores we got very little hazing, since being in most sophomore classes with the sophs who did most of the hazing, they accepted us as one of them. What little hazing we got was from Juniors and Seniors, who sometimes used us to run their errands, just enough to keep us aware that we were not quite full-fledged VPI men yet. However, some of the fresh rats got what was coming to them and more, too.

Our uniforms were the blue blouse with high stiff collar and gray trousers with a strip down the side. For dress parades in suitable weather, we had white trousers. To wear civilian clothes, we had to get permission, except when working in certain shops or laboratories, or in some athletic practices or games. In the hottest weather we wore the hot blue blouse buttoned up tight at all times when in public places, class rooms, etc. Cadet uniforms had insignia on the sleeves, however, the Assistant Commandants who lived in our barracks had regular US army insignia and an Army uniform. An Assistant Commandant was assigned to each cadet barracks building. These Assistant Commandants were mostly post-graduate students of sub-professors of the faculty. One of these Assistant Commandants was on duty every day and available to the daily Guard as might be needed.

Senior Cadets could wear the Senior Cape, instead of an overcoat, if they wished to and could afford it, but were not required to have it. These capes were almost ankle length, blue and white lining for infantry cadets or red lining for artillery cadets. We were proud to strut around in them, throw the right flap over the left shoulder and assume a Napoleonic attitude, or throw the flaps back over each shoulder with the lining showing to assume a "Washington Crossing the Delaware" attitude. I kept mine for many years after graduation. It made an excellent blanket on some cold Canadian winter nights until the moths got into it. Then my sister had it cleaned and made into a rug.

Unless physically disabled, all cadets had to wear their uniforms and attend all military formations and answer to roll-calls. Exception was occasionally made for physically handicapped cadets though they had to wear the uniform. Our uniforms were made at Kelsey's Tailor Shop on campus. Of course, our trousers had to be clean and pressed at all times. To keep the crease in our trousers, we would fold them carefully, lay them on the slats of the bed, put the mattress and bed clothes on top, and then sleep on them. That overnight pressing service was a big help!

The use of tobacco and, of course, liquor was forbidden. The use of liquor was cause for dismissal. The use of tobacco was a cause for demerits and sometimes extra guard duty of marching up and down in front of barracks in uniform and arms at attention for specified hours.

Our rooms were furnished with: iron single bed frames, wood slats and a folding corn shuck mattress that folded in the middle, a wooden washstand, a basin and soap dish, water bucket, and slop bucket. You furnished your own blankets and linen. Also provided were a table with book shelves, two wooden straight chairs, and a clothes rack and a few more shelves. There was one bare electric bulb hanging over the table. In cold weather we sometimes had steam heat from a large radiator beside the window. Incidentally, these steam pipes also served as a telegraph line to warn other rooms that were on the same branch that an inspection was on the way by code raps which would carry to other rooms on the branch.

Daily (except Sunday) routine was: 6:30 Reveille Roll call outside, 7:00 Room inspection; 7:30 Breakfast Roll Call, march in formation to Mess Hall, then back to chapel in formation; 8:30 Sick call for those wanting medical attention or excuses; 9:00 Classes started, one generally had two or three classes each morning; 12:00 noon, Dinner call and Roll call, march to mess hall and back. After dinner each student had one or two periods in either shop, laboratories, technical field work, or drawing room. 4:00 p.m. Supper Roll call, march to mess hall and back to barracks, then dismissed and free until call to quarters at 7:00 or 7:30 p.m. All cadets were supposed to be in their rooms or otherwise accounted for from then until reveille the next morning. There were variations to the above on Saturday afternoons and Sundays and special Holidays.

Our dormitory doors were always supposed to be locked when the room was not occupied, also after we went to sleep. Each cadet had one key to his room. A duplicate key to each room was kept in the guard room for the use of any inspecting Officer of the Guard. The duplicate keys each had a brass tag with the room number stamped on it. All keys for each barracks were strung on a chain in number sequence. On night inspections a guard orderly accompanied the inspecting officer and unlocked each door for the Officer who checked to see that the correct occupant was present, and for anything else that might be wrong. The jingle of those keys as the orderly preceded the Officer, was always a warning to us of the approaching inspection, and saved us many a demerit. (The use of those locks was a joke anyway, for practically any of the door locks could be 'sprung' with a celluloid card, or lacking that, with your starched white straight collar always worn with our uniform.

If there had been any incipient fights between underclassmen they were separated by their classmen or cadet associates. The next morning after chapel they were brought out behind the chapel by an upper classman, a referee chosen, and they were allowed to fight it out in clean barehanded boxing. This was all arranged by cadets and no report submitted to the college authorities. They generally heard about it somehow, but unless one was seriously hurt they took no action about it.

Incidentally after Taps at night your room had to be ventilated by leaving your window open at least 6 inches until you got up in the morning. During that time the steam heat was turned off. This was tough on some winter nights. As noted above the two night inspections by the Guard would report any room not properly ventilated and the 'room orderly' would get demerits therefor.

In addition to the roll calls mentioned, our rooms were inspected during the day by the officer of the day, a senior cadet, in the time between reveille and breakfast a division officer, a senior cadet, and at night by the officer of the day of sergeant of the Guard. At the night inspection any absence of the occupants of the room was reported.

Each day the Guard was assigned, consisting of a cadet officer, a cadet sergeant, a corporal, and 2 privates. One or more of the guard were in the Guard Room at all times while on duty. All cadets, if they left their room during hours, they were supposed to be in their rooms had to sign out or in and give their reason and name. This Guard Room was on the first floor of the third division of Barracks No. 1. Since there were no toilets or showers in any of the barracks except in the basement of Barracks No. 2, this was a great inconvenience to cadets except those in Barracks No.1, especially on winter nights.

Reveille was sounded from about 6 to 6:30 a.m. by 'Old Uncle Billy,' who played a kettle drum in a loud continuous roll as he marched through the first floor of each barracks.

The first month or so our military training or drill consisted of the Manual of Arms and School of the Company, then we had battalion formations and some elementary tactics, and usually Dress Parade on Saturday and special occasions. Inspection at Dress Parade was very strict, any dirt or smudge on the uniform or arms, or variation from the proper dress for that occasion, brought bad marks, as well as any variation from strict uniformity in action. It was a chore, at first, but after a while we became proud to be part of a spectacular drill with the band and all its pomp and circumstance.

The Cadet Corps consisted of five infantry companies, one battery of artillery, and the cadet band. The infantry, of course, only drilled with rifles and side-arms, the artillery in ordinary parade only drilled with their side-arms (cavalry sabers). The two old muzzle-loaded cannon were only brought out for special occasions, such as sham battles or to make special salutes on special occasions. We had no horses to draw the cannon or caisson but we cadets pulled them around by hand. Incidentally these two old guns were received as a prize to the VPI Cadet Corps for excellent drill at Buffalo, New York, World's Fair Exhibition in about 1901. At the Jamestown Exhibition in 1907, we did not do as well, as we were in disgrace due to activities on campus the night before we entrained for Jamestown.

The 'disgraceful' incident referred to above was occasioned by the usual last night celebration before the summer vacation, which customarily was to burn our old cornshuck mattresses in large bonfires out in front of the barracks. That night, however, some cadets broke into the magazine where our cannon powder and small arms blank cartridges were stored, confiscated them and distributed them to as many cadets as would take part in the celebration. When the bonfires of mattresses was in full flame a volley of rifle fire from one of the barracks signaled the start for tossing bags of black artillery powder from the barracks' windows into the fire. The resulting display was naturally spectacular and continued for about a half-hour before the commandant could get his staff together find a bugler to sound the long roll, by which time all the stolen ammunition had been expended. We assembled and listened to the most stinging but retrained address from Colonel Jameison, who finally informed us that instead of calling off the Jamestown trip we would proceed as planned only that we would be under arrest, restricted to camp at Jamestown, except for the parades in which we had been scheduled, and we would be dismissed after those activities were over. In this case the innocent suffered with the guilty, but there were few that were completely innocent.

The Fire Department of the College consisted of hose reels and hose, a ladder truck fully equipped, both drawn by manpower, and a number of red glass kerosene lanterns. The manpower consisted of the Battery which was trained in handling fire equipment as well as infantry drill, artillery drill, and saber drill. I remember one night when the whole corps accompanied the football team to a game. There were a few cadets who for various reasons could not accompany the corps. It was a cold drizzling rainy night and some of those left over cadets 'borrowed' some of the firemen's red lanterns, borrowed as much hand soap as they could, shaved it up, went down the Huckleberry tracks to where there was a steep grade and soaped the tracks. Of course the train bringing the cadets home was delayed some hours when it started slipping its locomotive wheels. The whole corps was hours delayed in getting back to barracks and bed. They made it hard on those students who had stayed in barracks.

Each class elected their own officers and acted as a unit in strictly class affairs. For instance, one serious case occurred: A cadet was charged with stealing from another, and charged therewith before his class officers where it was confirmed. The case was then referred to the college Commandant and the College President, who gave permission to execute the verdict. The whole corps was assembled in battalion formation, the guilty cadet escorted to the front, the verdict read to him, then the stripe and anything else identifying him with VPI, ripped off his uniform, then he was paraded under guard by the whole battalion with muffled drums through town, then marched through two files of the whole battalion while they booed or spat at him, and told never to return to the town or VPI, and that his personal effects would be sent to his home. This had much more effect on students than just being officially dropped from the rolls by the College.

Speaking of stealing, in cadet eyes stealing from another cadet was a crime, but stealing from the college orchard or from public services was not, if it was not fastened to the ground. A few years after I graduated from VPI, I was talking to the Comptroller or Treasurer of the N&W Railroad Company in Roanoke and he told me that he would 'rather haul cattle in parlor cars than to haul VPI students in cattle cars."

Every winter when the first heavy snow fell, heavy enough to make plenty of snowballs, we had the first snow battle. All freshmen rats were marched to the drill field, divided into two halves of about equal size, pitted against each other. The rest of the corps stood on the side lines and three snowballs at any rat that seemed to be sluggish in action, or else at just anybody. Of course many of the rat snowballs were thrown at the upper classmen so it really was a general melee. I never knew a cadet to be hurt seriously, but it was a great time to release those pent-up feeling of us all.

Bonfires to celebrate a victory were not officially permitted but were occasionally made after some unexpected football victory. Then they were made up of anything burnable that was left loose in or around Blacksburg, on the College grounds, or in the county for some distance around. I remember one instance when a high bonfire was topped by a Chick Sales (outdoor privy) stolen from a professor's house on Faculty Row. OF course the whole student body had to pay for any claims submitted for such stolen property from the Contingency Fund deposited when we matriculated.

As would be expected, there was always a gripe about the food provided in the college Mess Hall. This was always called 'growley', but was good, plain, substantial nourishment and plenty of it. There was as much milk as one could drink, a meat dish, two vegetables, sometimes a sweet dessert called 'boss,' and no coffee. Sometimes the homemade rolls made good missiles but were never deadly if they hit their target. I gained twenty pounds in the four years that I ate the food, though I had been considered a persnickety eater at home. The waiters in the Mess Hall were all students working their way through college, and they saw that each table was amply provided with seconds whenever asked for. A cadet officer or 'non-com', or both sat at each table and saw that order was maintained. The cadet staff and assistant Commandants sat at a special staff table and did not march with the corps to and from meals.

Another snow incident was during my senior year when we were scheduled to play a football game with, I think, George Washington University and we had about 10 inches of snow fall. It was before the days of mechanical snow plows, so we borrowed every snow shovel, spade, coal shovel, broom, or suitable board that we could find, assembled the whole cadet corps and put them to work. By game time we had the whole grid exposed but the grid lines were almost non-existent. The snow was piled just outside the side lines and served as an outline of the field. The ground was not frozen and so the game went on. In no time at all it was almost impossible to tell one player from another. As the game went on, every few minutes a player was carried off the field and down to the hospital. The worst of it all was the G. Washington University won. However, there were no permanent injuries.

Speaking of football, one year I accompanied the team as manager, (though I did little managing, all the real managing was done by the coach and by Prof. 'Sally' Miles, who was graduate manager), to Clemson, South Caroline. After the game, when we settled up between managers and we were paid the traveling expenses, as was customary in those days, I found that the South Carolinians still had their post- Civil War prejudice against paper money, for I was paid off from the gate receipts with several hundred dollars in coin! I needed cash to pay for the Pullman tickets for the return. Banks were closed so I had a grip or hand bag loaded with silver dollars, half-dollars, quarters, dimes and nickels to carry to the railway station and on to Spartanburg, where we get our Pullman car. I had to carry it in my arms for fear the handles of the bag would pull out. To add to my nervousness, as we traveled on the 'local' to Spartansburg, the train stopped at every fence corner and one or two rough looking men with shotguns got on at each stop and entered the car. When they saw us in uniforms they would tun around and go into another car. When we finally arrived at Spartanburg, the armed men got off and disappeared, much to my relief. At the ticket window I found out the cause of my nervousness. In jail was a prisoner and it was feared there would be a lynching of the man in jail, and the local authorities had put out word that the State Militia had been asked for, to help protect him. Maybe our uniforms helped prevent the lynching party for I never heard or saw anything further about any violence in Spartanburg that night. However, the ticker office was my salvation in unloading most of my heavy load of silver.

In athletics, outside of football, there was little of general interest. Each class would sometimes organize their own football teams, receiving some training and instructions from the official football coach, and frequently the coach found varsity material therein. Baseball was not popular and I remember no baseball games while I was there. Once a year we had a field day, running hurdles, high jumps, etc., but the contestants were self trained unless they requested advice from the football coach. We had tennis courts available but lightly used. No golf available, and no swimming pool. There were no athletic scholarships permitted, but sometimes a group of alumni would secretly finance a likely high school player through his first year.

Inter- collegiate rules permitted no tuition paid football player, nor could one play for more than four years on a collegiate team. I think this rule was the cause of a break in athletic relationship between VPI and UVA, about 1905-06, when VPI played Hunter Carpenter during his post graduate year, but I am not sure of the details.

No national fraternities were allowed, but there were two groups which in secret dominated the politics of the corps. One of these took in no members below the Junior class, the other probably 'pledged' some sophomores. Both groups worked toward electing the best men to influential offices by personal efforts and I believe had a great beneficial effect in the level of ideals and morals of the whole cadet membership. With few exceptions, the members of these two 'Fraternities," were successful in their careers after leaving VPI, though not always high in scholastic standing.

Dr. McBryde was President of VPI the first year I was there, but I don't remember ever seeing him, probably because he was elderly and soon to be retired from he post. Everybody who knew him was high in their praises of him and his ability. The second year I was there Dr. Barringer took over the Presidency, and I seemed to feel the change in the atmosphere of the institution. Barringer gave man-to-man talks to the students, giving good advice that parents often failed to give to their children, giving personal interviews to students in trouble, etc. He also invited many of the upper classmen to his house for purely social evenings or meals. I think this had considerable effect on the elevation of the general morale of the Corps. I was extremely sorry that Alumni politics adversely applied to him, more or less caused his departure from VPI.

I think we had some very excellent professors at VPI during my four years, especially in the engineering fields with whom I came in intimate contact, namely: Professors Glass-eye Randolph, Charlie Vauter, Doc Williams, J,S.A. Johnston, Bosco Rasche, and Sally Miles. They all taught us something besides straight technical subjects, but were experts also in their specialty. I often remember their advice which I am sure was of considerable influence on my tight decisions in after life. Quotations that come to mind at this moment are:

'An engineer is a man that can do for one dollar, what a damn fool can do with two.'

'There are two things in life that when one needs them, he needs them badly- a dress suit and a revolver.'

I think it was Bosco Rasche who taught us how to cuss out a person without using a single vulgar or profane word. He could do it, and many of us got it when we deserved it.

Social life at VPI was somewhat limited due to the tight schedule during the week. Of course there were attractive girls in Blacksburg and among faculty families whom the cadets would meet in the natural course of events. Nature would take its course. However, for freshmen it was risky. IF the sophomores found out that a freshman rat was dating a specific girl, the rat was likely some night to find that his trunk, bedding, books, etc., had moved to the front porch of the home of the girl's parents.

Permissibly, there was the German Club, Glee Club, many regional Clubs and hobby clubs that could get permission for meeting at not too frequent dates. The predominant German Club was selective in its membership and it was considered to be an honor to be a member. They held seasonal Dances, generally with an imported orchestra. Most dances were formal 'Card' dances. A member generally made out the card for his partner for each number. Each number generally consisted of first, a figure march led by a club officer or leader. After the figure the orchestra would switch to a waltz or two-step. Then, a stag could break in and dance with the girl until broken in by another single man. This sounds very stiff and boring to the young people today but it actually was not. Each lady was generally presented with a favor and, or, a bouquet of flowers at Finals. This bouquet was almost always American Beauty roses if available.

One inflexible rule of the German Club was that a member could not have a drink of liquor for 12 hours before or during the dance. I only know of once that a member showed up smelling of liquor. He was quietly called off and a new escort provided for the girl.

The Glee Club put on several very creditable performances and the Ben Greet Players also acted 'al Fresco' several times. Long country walks provided us with healthy pastimes on Sunday afternoons.

Probably my best friends while I was at Blacksburg were Paul P. Huffard of Wytheville, Virginia, T. Paret Hicks of Rockville, Maryland, Rufus M. Johnston of Charlotte, North Carolina, Mouse Williams of Charleston, South Carolina, and Herman B. Hawkins of Suffolk, Virginia. These I have tried to keep in touch with ever since graduation. On our class 50th Reunion in Blacksburg, Hicks, Johnston, Hawkins, and myself had a grand reunion. It happened that in '09 near graduation time, Hicks, Johnston and I took three days off and tramped up to Mountain Lake. On the tramp up the mountain along the road we say an old raw-boned horse grazing along the roadside. Johnston, who had short legs and had trouble keeping up with Hicks and myself, climbed on the back of the old nag and said, 'see you at the top,' and rode ahead. In about an hour we reached near the top of the grade and found Johnston resting in the shade and the horse ambling back down the road. After the reunion in 1969, the same three decided to drive up to Mountain Lake, and about halfway up the mountain we recalled the incident of the old stray horse. He had hardly finished laughing at that incident when we came up to another bony horse grazing along the road! Rufus refused this time to get out and ride him.

I have written the tale of our life For a sheltered people's mirth, In jesting guise but ye are wise, And you know what the jest is worth. (With apologies to R.K)

"With a 'Hoki, Hoki, Hoki, Hi!'"

--Henry H. Hutchinson, '09, February 1973.

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Last updated May 4, 1998