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Virginia Tech Historical Data Book, Section 1.2:
Prefounding Activities

Events leading to the founding of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College date back to the middle of the 19th century, when several Methodist leaders in and around Blacksburg decided to establish a "seminary of learning" for the young people of the community. This school -- named Olin and Preston Institute after Rev. Stephen Olin, a distinguished Methodist educator, and Col. William Ballard Preston, a well-known businessman, politician, and resident of Montgomery County -- opened in Blacksburg in 1851. It received a charter from the state on February 28, 1854. The incorporating act stated that the purpose of the seminary was "for the instruction of youth in the various branches of science and literature, and useful arts, and the learned and foreign languages." Rev. William R. White was first president of the Olin and Preston Institute.

The school had expected to receive financial help from the Methodist Conference, but as a result of a North-South dispute little financial help was forthcoming and the school ran into heavy debt. In 1859 the Olin and Preston Institute was sold by court order to John N. Lyle, owner and operator of White Sulphur Springs, a summer resort east of Blacksburg, to settle a claim for money owed to him. Lyle agreed to let the trustees continue the school's operation, but it was forced to close during the Civil War.

Another event, and the most important of those that led to the birth of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, was the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act, which became law when President Lincoln signed the bill on July 2, 1862.

The Morrill Act provided that each state would be apportioned 30,000 acres of public land, without mineral deposits, for each senator and representative in Congress, according to the representation based on the 1860 census. The income from the sale of these lands was to be used to establish at least one college in each state in which the major objectives would be the teaching of agricultural and mechanical arts. Scientific and classical studies were also to be part of the curriculum, and it was required that military tactics be taught. It was also stipulated that none of the income from the land sale could be used to erect or maintain buildings, and only one-tenth could be used to purchase land.

Because of the Civil War, Virginia was unable to accept the provisions of the Land Grant Act in 1862, although a "Unionist" legislature, meeting in regular session at Alexandria during the war, accepted the land grant provisions for the state on Feb. 5, 1864. It made no effort to secure the funds, however. Governor F.H. Pierpont reminded the legislature of the fund in December 1865 and even made a speech on the need for a "polytechnic school" in the state. For the next six years practically every existing educational institution in Virginia became engaged in the struggle to win a share of the benefits of the land grant proceeds.

Virginia was readmitted to the Union in January 1870, and the reconstructed legislature accepted the land grant provisions for the state in February. Two years later a bill was passed authorizing the State Board of Education to sell the land scrip and invest the proceeds. G.F. Lewis of Cleveland, Ohio, bought the entire 300,000 acres that Virginia had been allotted for its two senators and eight representatives. The entire sale amounted to $285,000, which was invested at 5 percent a year in Virginia bonds.

Meanwhile, the Blacksburg Methodists, led by their minister, Peter Henry Whisner, had decided to try to reopen the Blacksburg school that had been sold to John Lyle. Lyle had died by then, so his executor sold the property to a new board of trustees that reopened the school under the name Preston and Olin Institute. The renamed school was incorporated with collegiate powers on Jan. 2, 1869, with Whisner as president.

While struggling to put the institute on a sound financial basis, the trustees heard about the debate in the state legislature over the disposition of the land grant funds and decided to seek the funds for their school in Blacksburg. Whisner and Harvey Black, one of the institute's trustees, discussed the matter with state Senator John E. Penn and Delegate Gabriel C. Wharton, who agreed to support the Preston and Olin petition in the legislature. Penn suggested that Montgomery County citizens might be able to contribute $20,000 if the funds went to the Blacksburg school. With this inducement he introduced legislation in the Senate; it voted on March 13, 1872, to accept the offer. The House of Delegates followed suit the
following day.
Governor Gilbert C. Walker signed the bill establishing the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College at Blacksburg on March 19, 1872. The bill provided that the college in Blacksburg would receive two-thirds of the land grant funds ($190,000) with the remaining one-third to be given to the Negro college, Hampton Institute. The bill also provided that a number of students equal to the number of the members in the House of Delegates would be admitted to the new school without paying tuition or fees.

On March 21 the legislature passed an act empowering the Montgomery County supervisors to raise the $20,000 which had been pledged. On May 24 the citizens went to the polls and by an overwhelming 1,157 to 157 majority voted to issue bonds to appropriate the money. The final act authorizing sale of the bonds by the county was passed June 4.

Governor Walker immediately named a board of visitors for the college with the authority to select a president and a faculty, to handle all matter of discipline and student life, and to set up a curriculum.

Serving on the first Board were D.C. DeJarnette, John Goode Jr., J.R. Anderson, W.T. Sutherlin, Robert Beverly, Joseph Cloyd, W.A. Stuart, J.T. Cowan, Harvey Black, J.C. Taylor, William H. Ruffner, and Lewis E. Harvie. Ruffner, as superintendent of public instruction for the state, was an ex-officio member of the board. Black was chosen rector of the board, and Ruffner was elected secretary at the first meeting of the board, held at the Exchange Hotel in Richmond, March 25 and 26, 1872.

The next meeting of the board was a three-day session at Montgomery White Sulphur Springs July 18-20. Among the major items of business was the presentation of a plan of instruction and matters dealing with property.

A deed of conveyance of the property of the Preston and Olin Institute was made at the meeting. The property consisted of the one institute building and five acres of land. A contract was also made with Col. Robert T. Preston for the purchase of a portion of his home estate, known as "Solitude," including the house, principal farm buildings, and about 250 acres of land. The price was $85 an acre.

The board decided to offer an initial three-year program of study with the first year the same for all students. In the second and third years, the agricultural and mechanical students would have separate programs of study.

The first-year curriculum specified instruction in commercial arithmetic, bookkeeping, algebra (through equations to the first degree), English, geography and map drawing, descriptive astronomy, penmanship and free-hand drawing, physiology, hygiene, habits and manners, French or German, farm or shop practice, military tactics, and lectures on the sociological value of agriculture and the mechanical arts.

During the second year, both the agricultural and mechanical students would study geometry, plane trigonometry and mensuration, history, literature, French or German, and the composition of essays. Agricultural students were to receive instruction in surveying, agricultural engineering, agricultural physics and mechanics, and agricultural architecture and machines. Mechanical students were required to take the additional subjects of descriptive geometry, physics, and mechanics.

In the third year, students of both curricula were required to attend classes in French or German, psychology or ethics, political economy, business economy, and government. Third year agricultural students were to study agricultural chemistry and geology, with special emphasis on the soil and geographical structure of Virginia; agricultural botany and zoology; systems of farming, planting, gardening, dairying, fruit growing, and stock raising, with special emphasis on climate and crops of Virginia; and farm economics, including labor, accounts, buying, selling, and renting. Mechanical students were to study analytical geometry, industrial chemistry, mineralogy, metallurgy, steam engines, mill wheels and gearing, planing and boring machines, and building and building materials. The students were also to attend lectures concerning water power, timber, metals, ores, and minerals of the state.

Many of the first-year courses must be considered in the nature of preparatory courses. The curriculum for second- and third-year students was more in keeping with the courses usually taken by first- and second-year students in liberal arts colleges, with the exception of the courses in agricultural and mechanical arts. Consequently, the institution was more nearly like a junior college than a four-year college in the early years.

The military tactics requirement was also discussed by board member William H. Ruffner at the meeting. He said: "The act of Congress having been passed during the war, the clause requiring military tactics to be taught may have been prompted by some intention to establish the Prussian military system over the whole land. But if such an idea ever existed it has passed away, and there now seems no disposition on the part of Congress to be exacting with regard to the military features in these technical schools. In point of fact, the colleges which received the land grant have, with a few exceptions, given no prominence to this feature, and would be glad to omit it altogether.

"Still, whilst the law exists, military tactics must be taught in some form. We do not understand that the term 'military tactics' covers the whole ground of military science and tactics, but has special reference to field evaluations. Therefore an opportunity given to the students for military drill would satisfy the law. Some of the disciplinary regulations might be usefully adopted, if it should be concluded to board all the students on the college grounds."

Since Ruffner made it explicitly clear that it only would be necessary for the new college to provide an opportunity for military tactics, it is rather ironic that practically all able-bodied undergraduate males were required to take military training from the time the college opened its doors until the corps of cadets was made a voluntary option in 1964. In fact, the military tactics feature was to be a point of debate and friction at the college many more times during its first 100 years.

At a July meeting the board decided to fix the president's salary at $2,000 and professors' salaries at $1,500. V.E. Shepherd was named librarian, treasurer, secretary of the faculty, and proctor. Charges to students not exempted by law were fixed at $30 for tuition and $10 for college fees; a cadet uniform cost $17.25. The cost of a session would be about $200.


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Last Modified on: Tuesday, 25-Sep-2001 08:16:06 EDT