Entertainment and Recreation
Little in the way of entertainment and recreation existed for the people of Blacksburg before the turn of the century, except for church-related activities. During that time, life was hard, and citizens worked six days a week, including many ten-hour days, just to keep their families fed. The people living in town did attend many of the public functions at Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute (popularly called Virginia Tech or VPI), such as commencement exercises, Lee and Maury Society debates, lectures, band concerts, and dances. Others spent their free time visiting with family and friends and seeing who was coming and who was going. Often, church-related activities provided the only opportunities the citizens had for any activities outside the home. Some men and boys spent time hunting and fishing, and during the summer months, vegetable and flower gardens consumed any spare time.
Blacksburg's first theatre opened in 1909. Like the two theatres that followed, it was called the Lyric. The second Lyric, which opened in 1910, was located at the corner of Main and Jackson streets. A new third Lyric theatre was built on College Avenue and remains a place of entertainment for Blacksburg residents. When the "new Lyric" was built, the old one became the Little Theatre, where serial cowboy movies where shown on Saturday. The Little Theatre showed silent movies, and a woman whose last name was Cradock played the piano to accompany the action on the screen. Since that time, many individual and mall theatres have come and gone.
In the fall of 1913, Blacksburg citizens held a fair where they could show off their farm and garden produce. Corn, wheat, vegetables, the best horse, the best chicken, the best apple, the best quilt, and the prettiest baby were all on display to be judged. Athletic events-dashes of all kinds, relay races, potato races, and catch-the-greasy-pig contests, for example-tested athletic prowess. Such events were welcome opportunities for people to meet their friends and neighbors and to catch up on local happenings.
By 1928 a group of affluent people from Blacksburg, Christiansburg, and Newport had started a golf club called the Cohee Country Club, located a couple of miles from downtown Blacksburg. Money was soon raised among the members to construct a club house, where dinners and dances were held. VPI cadets also attended dances at the clubhouse, with the college band providing the music. This club provided many hours of entertainment for some people, but when the depression hit the country, the club experienced hard times, and by 1935 it had suspended operations. A small group of citizens purchased the facility. In 1956 the Blacksburg Country Club membership bought it for $32,000. This group built a new club house and later added a swimming pool and upgraded the golf course. The property was sold in 1970 to the Town of Blacksburg for $378,000. Operated today by the town, the property continues to provide many people with a place for entertainment and recreation.
The citizens of Blacksburg, in great numbers, have always attended the college's athletic events, beginning in the late 1800s. The college sports program and today's fine showing by the Blacksburg High School teams give local people many hours of pleasure. Many residents consider the fall season to have arrived in Blacksburg as soon as the football schedule is announced. If there should be a weekend when a game is not played at home, that is the weekend for local brides to set the dates for their weddings. Football is the first priority, which indicates how loyal local citizens are.
By 1936 the national government had become concerned that many of the country's young people did not have any recreational facilities. Summer recreational camps were established for rural youth; at these WPA (Works Progress Administration) sponsored camps, the youth learned hygiene, ethics, and moral conduct and had a good time as well.
In 1938 the town received some equipment, such as tables, chairs, tennis equipment, croquet, and golf clubs, for the recreational use of local youth.
Six years later the local Lions Club expressed its concern for recreation in Blacksburg by paying a director to conduct programs during the summer months. These summer playground program activities included ball games, swimming, pet shows, bowling, marbles, and arts and crafts. By 1959 the Blacksburg Recreational Council, sponsored by the town's service organizations, had been formed.
Today, Blacksburg has superior recreational facilities and organizations for its youth. A town park, two swimming pools, a Hand-in-Hand Playground, and a golf course, all under the guidance of a full-time recreational director and staff, leave no one, child or adult, lacking for recreation.
In recent years, Blacksburg was the location for a segment of the Tour duPont bicycle races. This event brought great pleasure to bicycle enthusiasts and spectators.
The highlight of the slower-living summer months in Blacksburg is the Steppin' Out street fair. Begun in 1976 as Deadwood Days by a small group of downtown merchants, this event has grown into a large and well attended street fair that features arts, crafts, music, and food. The annually designed fair T-shirts have become collectors' items. Several downtown streets are closed to traffic, and for two days, the citizens of the town and county have a happy time enjoying the activities provided by the street fair.
From a time when sitting on the porch, rocking, and talking was a big event, Blacksburg has now become so busy that some might wish for a return to the days of sitting and rocking.
Blacksburg has always had an abundance of churches; in fact, as far back as 1934, when there were seven churches in town and 1,400 citizens, some have considered the town "over churched." Of those citizens over ten years of age, approximately 50 percent attended church.
Although another church was already holding services in Blacksburg, the first church organized in the town proper was the Presbyterian church. Established in 1832, it had twelve charter members who had been members of the Christiansburg Presbyterian Church and wanted a church closer to their homes. In 1847 they built their first brick building at 117 South Main Street. Though still standing, this building has not been used as a church for many, many years. In 1904 the congregation built a new church on Roanoke Street. This building, which features beautiful Tiffany stained-glass windows, is now owned by the Church of God congregation. Today, the Presbyterians worship on Eakin Street in a beautiful new sanctuary that houses one of the largest church congregations in town.
The Methodist congregation began in the late 1700s as a small group of worshipers meeting in the McDonald home several miles outside the town. By 1798 they had organized a group in town and had built their first log structure. In 1830 they built another log church, where Adam Croy, the sexton, blew a horn to alert people that it was time for church services to begin. This small church lasted only ten years, and in 1830 the congregation built a lovely brick church with a steeple and white columns in the front. In 1906 this church was replaced by the Whisner Memorial Methodist Church, named for a favorite pastor. This growing congregation later built and occupied a much larger sanctuary. Its properties now cover most of the city block where its first church structure was located. Because the Olin and Preston Institute, which was established in 1851, was sponsored by the Methodist Church, many of the school's original professors and students were of the Methodist denomination, and Methodism always had a large number of representatives among the institute's faculty, staff, and students.
The third oldest church in Blacksburg was formed by the Baptists, another group of like-thinking people wanting a place of worship. In 1852 a "newly constituted church in Blacksburg was admitted as a member of this [Baptist] body" with seventeen charter members. They soon started building a small church on the corner of Roanoke and Church streets, but the building was never completed. It was eventually condemned and destroyed. Sometime in the late 1800s, the congregation built a second church on the same site. In 1903 a third building was erected, but it was later sold to another denomination when the Baptist congregation built a newer and lovelier church on the corner of Roanoke and Water (Draper) streets. When the fast-growing denomination outgrew that building, it purchased property on Main Street and built a new sanctuary in 1953. This denomination continues to grow and prosper.
The fourth oldest church in Blacksburg belongs to the Episcopalians. This congregation, organized in 1857, constructed its only church building in 1879 when Blacksburg's population was only 800. This congregation still worships in its original stone edifice, enhanced and enlarged by the addition of a tower and several additions and renovations over the years.
The Lutheran Church in Blacksburg began when several worshipers at the old Saint Peter's Church at Matamoros near Prices Fork wanted a church closer to their homes. The original Lutheran congregation had been organized in the 1750s by original settlers to the area, and several groups of Lutheran worshipers had been sponsored by the church at Matamoros. The Lutherans in town built their first church in 1883 and worshipped there until they built another church on the corner of Prices Fork Road and Toms Creek Road, taking their beautiful stained glass windows and furnishings from their original church.
Blacksburg's African-American citizens principally worship in two churches in town. The first to be organized was the Baptist group, which started in the early 1800s. In 1874 this congregation, which became known as the African Baptist Church, purchased land on Clay Street and built a church, where members continue to worship today. The second African-American church is the Saint Paul's AME Church on Penn Street.
The 1860 census lists four churches, while a quick search in today's telephone book reveals more than twenty different church affiliations.
In the 1889-1895 period, one family living on Roanoke Street went to church each Sunday morning and night, went to prayer meeting each Wednesday night, and spent Sunday afternoons reading the Bible and praying at home, lending evidence to the importance of the church in the lives of citizens. Even though this family belonged to the Methodist Church, family members were just as likely to attend any of the other churches in town, depending on the weather, who was preaching, who they wanted to see, and where they wanted to be seen. A spirit of community was strong. The Lutheran Church was always preferable at Christmas because services were enhanced by a lovely decorated tree. When a former slave who had been raised in Blacksburg returned to preach at her church, then the family went to that church to hear her.
Two Blacksburg churches have burned over the years. In December 1958 in 15-degree temperature, the former Blacksburg Baptist Church that had been sold to the Church of God congregation burned to the ground, leaving a big, empty space where the building once stood. Many town residents felt the loss of such beautiful windows and woodwork. The other church suffering fire damage was the Church of Christ building on Eakin Street. Fortunately, this 1990 fire did not totally destroy the church, which has since been rebuilt.
The churches of Blacksburg have always felt a great responsibility for the religious needs of the university students. Consequently, most of the larger churches have employed a special minister to the students and have established separate facilities for their community needs. Over the years, these student groups have contributed greatly to the churches and the town's well being.
In 1970 the United Christian Aid, consisting of members from the Baptist, Christian, Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, was formed to unify the separate welfare needs of citizens. Many school children needed clothes, food, and medical attention, which a unified group could better provide. Christmas-basket giving was screened and administered by the group, and the needs of fire victims were also met. The organization was very successful and served a real need in the community. One service not administered by the group was aid to stranded travelers, which is still handled by the police department.
The Ministerial Association, an organization of the ministers of the churches in town, has always assumed responsibility for the religious welfare of citizens.
Churches and their loyal members have always played an important role in the life of Blacksburg and its citizens. Perhaps that is one of the reasons Blacksburg is a special place.
Clubs and Organizations
If Blacksburg can be considered "over churched," then it definitely is over organized. There is some type of club or organization to take all the energy, time, and money that every adult and child in Blacksburg has to give. One of the earliest organizations in town was the Masonic Lodge, which was formed locally in 1856. Men's organizations have always been popular, and the Masons, Odd Fellows, Red Men, Lions, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Kiwanis, and other clubs have provided the opportunity for some very good public service. But in 1932 the town had, among its men's clubs, the Stern Old Bachelors Club, whose motto was "Millions for defense, not a cent for matrimony." It seems that most of those old bachelors had to give up membership because matrimony got in the way.
The Blacksburg Women's Club was organized in 1907. It was started by a group of prominent women who were concerne about the water and sewer situation in town, the poor condition of the railroad station, the movies being shown at the local theatre, and the scarcity of cultural activities. These women prepared a Thanksgiving dinner for fifty-four convicts working on Blacksburg's roads. They sold war bonds during World War II and encouraged the erection of a fence around the cemetery to keep livestock from grazing over the graves.
Garden clubs were formed, and their members beautified the town and helped clear many areas of trash and weeds.
In 1927 members of churches, fraternal groups, and social clubs in the community formed an organization called the Community Federation to promote better health, education, and treatment for the needy. With little available in the arts, music, and other cultural activities, this organization sponsored art shows and concerts. The federation developed a systematic way to get Christmas charity baskets to needy people. Health and sanitation formed a major focus for this organization since the town was growing quickly and needed more and better sanitation facilities. Many children arrived at school unfed, and this organization worked to get a school-lunch program started. The Community Federation successfully promoted many other worthwhile programs impossible for a single organization to accomplish. The success of this now disbanded organization is still being felt in the community.
Citizens have usually had access to church-related clubs and organizations, and with so many churches in town, there are many such clubs.
Women have generally seemed to be more concerned with the cultural and aesthetic conditions of life, and this concern has resulted in the formation of the Music Club, Art Club, Book Club, and branches of these organizations.
Sport and social clubs have always been popular in Blacksburg. Bridge clubs helped fill the social need for many women before the "new age" of women in the workplace began. Now, there is not much time for socializing.
The children of the town have had the opportunity to belong to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Future Farmers of America, Hi-Y Club, Junior League, and Junior Music Club in addition to all kinds of school and athletic organizations.
In 1934 Blacksburg had thirty-six adult and thirteen youth organizations of various types, not including church groups. Today the town has an organization, club, or support group, from Alcoholics Anonymous to Zeta Psi Fraternity, for every person in or around town. Blacksburg has become so organized that a person could easily spend all day and half the night attending meetings; many do and accomplish many good works.
Wars and the Military
Blacksburg has always sent her sons-and in later years, her daughters-to war when the country called. In 1898 the short-lived Spanish American War attracted the town's interest because local citizens were concerned when the popular Colonel Shanks, commandant of cadets at VPI, was called to active duty. Residents read each newspaper they could obtain, especially the Washington newspapers, to learn about the war. They studied maps and pictures and discussed all the details. Many VPI cadets also left college to enter the army and serve in the war. No information could be found to determine if any other local citizens fought in this four-month war.
World War I made a great impact on Blacksburg. Many local men went "over there" to serve their country, and those who returned were assimilated back into the small town that was Blacksburg at the time. The contributions of the men from Blacksburg and their noble deeds will always be remembered and appreciated by those people who stayed at home and waited. The names of those Blacksburg men who served in WWI were listed on a plaque that hung in the Lyric Theatre lobby. The plaque is now missing, but the names of those men who lost their lives are among the fifteen Montgomery Countians whose names are engraved on the memorial monument in Christiansburg's town square.
As was the case in many small towns in America, World War II forever changed Blacksburg. When WWII started, Blacksburg and VPI had grown in numbers and, therefore, had more men to send to war. Many from the town were called to service. In October 1940 the total registration for selective service for Montgomery County was 2,918 men and 509 VPI students. Blacksburg always had a large group of men to leave for service when the draft call came. Since many VPI cadets also were registered with the Montgomery County Selective Service, the county always filled its quota.
During the war, town civilians mobilized for their own protection. Blacksburg was divided into areas, and an air-raid warden supervised each area. Their charge was to protect life and property in case of bombings. "This is a war against civilians as well as the military," the people were told, and they made preparations to protect themselves. Air-raid sirens were mounted on tops of town and campus buildings. These sirens were tested between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. in January of 1942, as well as at other times.
The town planned to hold a total blackout practice in August 1942. Testing of the communication systems was practiced before the August date so that Civil Defense workers could report the results of the blackout. Each warden took his upper-half-darkened flashlight and patrolled his area, looking for those persons who might forget and turn on their lights.
The building of the powder plant, less than ten miles away, had the biggest impact on Blacksburg. Hundreds of people came to this area to live and work at the government-owned Radford Army Ammunition Plant, which was started on September 7, 1940. The Hercules Powder Company contracted with the government to make powder at the plant for the war effort. The first powder started down the line on April 5, 1941, almost seven months later. The concentrated efforts of many dedicated people who had the war needs foremost in their minds made this giant task successful. Just over fifty years later, a new sub-contractor replaced Hercules, and powder is still being produced on a limited basis.
Blacksburg and the surrounding towns were not prepared for the large influx of people who came to work at the "Powder Plant," as it was called. As a result, people lived in any spare rooms available, and the housing situation became so acute that people lived in renovated chicken houses and men slept in shifts in boarding houses. A proposal even surfaced to use the Blue Ridge Overall Factory in Christiansburg as a dormitory to house workers. The abundance of people with money to spend caused rents to skyrocket so fast that a local board to stabilize rents was requested by area mayors. Sometimes the new residents brought their wives and children with them, and the schools overflowed; there were more children than the limited number of teachers could effectively instruct.
The war also spurred people to marry, and in 1940, 244 licenses were granted in Montgomery County, the county's largest number of permits ever issued for weddings in one year. Many people wanted to have a few happy memories to carry with them when they went into service.
With a high proportion of able-bodied men in the armed forces, many of the men in Blacksburg who were too old or disabled for the army went to work at the Powder Plant. Even some women who had never worked outside the home or even considered it went to work at the plant. They were true "Rosie the Riveters" and worked on the powder lines wearing their coveralls and scarf snoods. The availability of good jobs with good pay pulled many families out of poverty. Even today, the ups and downs of the Powder Plant affect the local economy.
Being so close to the arsenal during the war created added concern among the townspeople about air raid possibilities. A number of small children were so frightened when a plane flew over their houses that they ran inside to hide. The large and active force of air-raid wardens made residents feel safe when the practice air-raid alerts sounded.
Blacksburg suffered the same shortages as other localities in the United States and followed the rules by rationing sugar, tires and gas, meat, shoes, and many other items. In December 1944, when the town was immobilized by huge snow drifts, a fuel shortage occurred, and the Brown Dairy and the Roop Dairy could not deliver milk. Local rationing board Number 61-2 was responsible for giving permits to purchase new or retread tires. Since people had to car pool to get to work at the powder plant, only those Hercules employees, doctors, and essential defense workers were likely to get new or retread tires.
Since food was rationed, people were encouraged to plant "victory" gardens, and in April 1943 the practice began of closing businesses on Wednesday afternoons so merchants could work in their gardens. Each man, woman, and child had his or her own ration book, and many a housewife quickly learned to manipulate the stamps and red and blue tokens to provide the available foods to feed her family.
One of Blacksburg's biggest projects during the war was the collection of scrap metal. The national government planned to reach peak production of steel in 1943 and needed more scrap metal. On September 1, 1942, the Town of Blacksburg launched a scrap metal drive, which resulted in the collection of 44,000 pounds of metal. The metal was piled at the intersection of Main Street and College Avenue and was enclosed by a fence. As people passed by, they threw onto the pile everything from pots and pans to tin-foil chewing-gum wrappers. The drive for scrap metal became so contested that it was even suggested that the cannons in the cemetery and the wrought iron fence around the Montgomery White Sulphur Springs monument be added. While those ideas were rejected, almost everything else went onto the pile.
The citizens of the town were as elated as the rest of the country when the war finally ended and Blacksburg men could return home to start life again. The town lost a number of men, and their supreme sacrifice will always be remembered and appreciated. Their names are listed among the 101 Montgomery County war dead on the monument in Christiansburg.
The end of World War II brought an influx of new residents to Blacksburg. Many of the ex-GIs who came to pursue an education under the new GI Bill were accompanied by their families. Blacksburg still has many of those residents who came during and after WWII and elected to stay.
WWII barely seemed over when Blacksburg men were called again to fight. The last two conflicts-Korean, 1950-1953, and Vietnam, 1961-1975-have also affected the community, mainly because of the large number of male students on campus. Fortunately, only seven Montgomery County men are listed on the Christiansburg monument as giving their lives in the Korean Conflict.
In 1961 the Vietnam Conflict created much distress in town. With numerous young men who were eligible for service living in the town, demonstrations and marches against this unpopular war caused much soul-searching. As in other wars, Blacksburg men went to the war; thirteen of them did not return.
The Virginia National Guard, which was formerly known as the Virginia Protection Force, had a unit in Blacksburg. Men from this unit were among those National Guardsmen who were called to active duty in September 1940. In 1947 a National Guard unit was formed-the Heavy Morter Cannon Company of the 116th Infantry. Captain Michael Spann commanded the unit, which was accompanied by a heavily armored tank. Spann was also the high school all-sports coach and physical education teacher. This unit held sessions in the Armory for many years until the unit was combined with the Christiansburg unit.
Health and First Aid
Blacksburg's location in the Allegheny Mountains, with the resultant clean air and relatively unpolluted water, has contributed to the general good health of local citizens. At one time, the county in which Blacksburg is located had four mineral springs resorts, which attracted people from throughout the world for the healing waters and climate. When economic conditions and better travel arrangements made it possible for people to travel more widely, these resorts lost their popularity, and the number of visitors to them declined.
In its early years, Blacksburg was plagued by several outbreaks of typhoid fever. As early as 1887 the town council directed that the town water springs, the town's source of water, be inspected to ascertain their cleanliness because typhoid fever cases were occurring. In 1890 an unusually severe epidemic made the town realize that it needed a better water supply.
Smallpox cases also occasionally occurred. Since it was one of the most feared illnesses, extreme measures were taken in February 1902, when travel was banned between the town of Oakvale and Blacksburg because a case of smallpox occurred in the West Virginia town. Concern was also aroused when a boy from the Preston family returned from the University of Virginia with smallpox. Dr. Harvey Black quarantined himself with the boy until all danger was past. By July 1904 the town council decreed that all town residents be vaccinated for smallpox. Again in 1939, smallpox returned to the area when several emigrants came to work at the Merrimac Mines.
Blacksburg has had the usual measles and grippe epidemics. The year 1890 was unusually hard for the grippe, and the 1918 flu epidemic was so bad that doctors and nurses tended the sick night and day. College closed for two weeks when three students succumbed to the disease.
Measles hit the children of the town in 1938 in unusual proportions.
By 1939 the idea of cleanliness in food handling caused the town council to require inspection of food handlers and, shortly thereafter, to require the inspection of local restaurants and other places serving food to the public.
The late 1950s brought polio clinics to town. These clinics were held in the schools and even in supermarket parking lots to assure that all people had access to the immunization doses.
The Community Federation was especially active in providing ways and means for county school children to receive every opportunity for health maintenance. Until that time, few organized efforts helped the needy children of the community.
Blacksburg has kept abreast of medical education. A modern county health department, in existence since 1935, has helped the community become more healthful and educated.
Planned Parenthood was organized in 1985, and an AIDS awareness program in 1993.
The people of Blacksburg have always had good physicians. The first physician to serve the community was Dr. Thomas Lloyd of Botetourt County, who came to the area in 1780 to serve the Preston family. The Ribble family of physicians, headed by Dr. Christopher Ribble, who was reported by the family to be George Washington's physician, lived in the Westover Hills area. Dr. Harvey Black, Dr. Thomas T. Jackson, and Dr. Jonathan Evans at the Montgomery White Sulfur Springs resort were prominent physicians in the 1850s and 1860s. Virginia Tech has always had a physician on staff to care for the medical needs of its students, and most of these doctors cared for the town citizens as well. The most prominent college physician of long ago was Dr. W. F. Henderson. Dr. Kent Black, son of Dr. Harvey Black, also practiced medicine in Blacksburg. During the 1930s and 1940s, three physicians in Blacksburg were Dr. Charlie Frank Mangus, Dr. Ford Lucas, and Dr. David Phlegar.
The citizens of Blacksburg and the surrounding area faced disadvantages in health care because the community had no hospital. Many a woman raced the stork to Christiansburg, Roanoke, or Radford, and many an ill person suffered until he or she could get to one of these hospitals. Without a hospital, general physicians and specialists hesitated to come to Blacksburg to practice medicine. In the 1970s a concentrated effort got under way to get a hospital for Blacksburg. This effort succeeded, and the town and county now have a hospital and physician specialists to address the health needs of citizens.
No account of the health conditions of the town would be complete without mentioning the Blacksburg First Aid and Life Saving Crew, now called the Blacksburg Volunteer Rescue Squad. This group of citizen volunteers began their work as part of the fire department. In 1951 the group of men formally organized into a group, with Paul D. Oakey as its first president, and was duly chartered. Appropriations from the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors enabled the group to purchase a truck and be prepared for services by July 1951. The non-stock, non-profit group continued as part of the fire department until 1986, when the two split their operations. It continues to have a good relationship with the fire department and to share facilities, but administrative procedures have been handled separately. The rescue squad has always maintained high standards of training to ensure the best care for sick and injured citizens. With its use of the latest and best methods of rescue work, it has won prizes for advanced live-saving techniques.
The staff of forty-eight active members responds to about 1,600 calls a year. Because of the high regard in which the squad is held, its annual appeal for funds is very successful, enabling it to purchase the newest and best equipment for its work.
Fires and the Fire Department
The sight of a fire racing across the mountain is just as frightening today as it was in 1890, when Salt Pond Mountain was blazing. Neither the little village of Blacksburg nor the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College had a fire department at that time, but the men from the town and cadets from the college went to help extinguish the forest fire.
The town fathers were always concerned about the possibility of a large fire and whether the town's springs could furnish water for all its needs. In 1896 when the college requested permission to lay water lines through the town, the councilmen requested that five to ten water plugs be installed along the water lines.
In July 1897, with no fire-fighting equipment and the cadets away from school, the large home of Alex Black on Main Street burned to the ground. The loss of this fine home emphasized the town's need for fire-fighting equipment. Being a small community, Blacksburg could not afford to purchase any equipment. A couple of years later, the town council did give $50 for entertainment for the cadets to show appreciation for their help in fighting fires in the community. Also in 1899 the council was preparing to borrow money to purchase fire hose and pipe for fire control. Later that year, the VPI fire-fighting unit was organized. When the fire whistle blew, the cadets quickly joined the town men to fight any community fire.
On the night of March 27, 1923, the ten-room building on Main Street belonging to Dr. J. I. Gardner burned. This building also included the Farmers and Merchants Bank, a barber shop, and John Warren's Press Shop. The VPI cadets quickly helped control the fire. A short time later, on May 26, 1923, the Lester and Black Hardware Store burned when a spark started a fire in the paint department of the store.
Soon after these fires, a group of local men met to organize a town fire department. Their decision was made easier by the realization that the summer absence of the cadets left the town with little fire protection. The town purchased some fire equipment during the early years of the department, but the first real fire truck would come several years later.
One of Blacksburg's oldest buildings burned on January 20, 1927, at 4:00 a.m. in 15-degree temperature. This building, known as the Blacksburg Inn, was located on the corner of Washington and Main streets. The building, partially constructed of logs, is thought to have been built before the founding of the town. The town and campus fire fighters could not save the old building but concentrated on saving the adjacent property.
Another big fire in town occurred in March 1933, when the Blacksburg Motor Company caught fire from a spark, which ignited oil on the basement floor. The resulting black smoke could be seen for miles, and the town and campus fire fighters again fought to extinguish the blaze.
In 1942 the town acquired its first real fire truck, a 1941 Chevrolet truck with a pumper made by the Oren Fire Apparatus Company of Roanoke. With money in short supply, Irwin Howard paid for the truck until the town fathers could reimburse him. This then-modern piece of fire-fighting equipment joined the old ladder wagon and other make-shift equipment in a storage place in the garage under the old town hall. Today that highly decorated truck has been repainted, repaired, and polished and sits alongside the old hand-pulled ladder wagon in the new Fire Department Museum on Prices Fork Road.
From its beginning, the Blacksburg Fire Department has grown steadily in volunteers, equipment, and training. In 1958 the department moved to new, modern facilities on Progress Street. In 1979, when the town and university began to build high-rise buildings, the town, university, and Montgomery County joined forces to purchase a $200,000 fire truck to have in readiness. It did not matter that there was no building big enough to house this huge piece of equipment. That problem was soon solved when an extension was built to its parking place.
The department likes to be on the cutting edge of technology with equipment and training, and it is now shopping for a new $900,000 fire truck. The old one may be for sale for the right price. Measure your garage first.
The Blacksburg Fire Department has always been staffed by a volunteer crew of dedicated and brave people. Forty fire-fighters answer the 900 fire calls per year. The department hopes to remain a volunteer unit for many more years because such an arrangement allows it to use its money for the best equipment rather than for salaries for fire fighters. Now when the cry of "Fire! Fire!" goes out, Blacksburg has one of the best and most dedicated crews of fire fighters to answer the call.
Crime and the Police Department
Back in 1871, when Blacksburg was chartered and started electing councilmen and holding meetings, the constable, or sheriff, was one of the first officers duly elected. The constable's duties were many and varied. Not only did he have to chase robbers, arrest murderers, and run bad people out of town if the occasion presented itself, he was also directed to inspect the streets, collect the taxes and fines imposed by the town council, and do anything else the council needed. His salary was one-fourth of the taxes he collected and one-half of the fines he was able to get from people. At least with his income based on taxes and fines, he was diligent about his job of collection. May times the poor people of Blacksburg had no money to pay their taxes, so they had to pay with stock-the four-legged kind. Then the problem arose of selling the said stock so that the constable could obtain his income. No record was found on how this problem was handled.
The town was small and little happened to require much effort by the constable, but when the college was started and began to have commencement exercises, things changed. Just as it is today, more police help was required to handle the crowds and traffic that came to Blacksburg for the annual event. In the very early days, two extra men were required at the June occasion, making a total of three policemen.
Blacksburg's police and crime history really begins with the crime wave of 1885. The town council was called into special session, and the decision was made to offer a $20 reward for the "person or persons who tore up the steps of the Presbyterian Church, broke open the Episcopal Church, and threw bombs or 'baby wakers' at Mrs. Mateer's house." This episode caused the council to pass an ordinance against selling bombs-also known as firecrackers-in the town limits, but it was soon rescinded since shooting firecrackers was a favorite Christmas sport.
By 1889 the biggest problem, that of the consumption of alcohol, led to the primary duty of the constable: keeping imbibers under control. There was no place to put these back sliders, and the council authorized $65 to build a "lock-up" to house the offenders.
December 1920 brought the first major robbery, that of $1,120 taken from the safe at the Norfolk and Western Railway station. The first armed robbery took place in 1936 when the Western Union office was robbed at gunpoint.
In 1946 the town purchased the first police car for Sergeant C. W. Akers. Today, the police department has seventeen marked cars, two vans, one crime van, one prisoner transport vehicle, and nine unmarked cars.
The newspapers of 1950 let citizens know that the town now had "24-hour police protection to keep burglars and other trouble makers out of this town," with police shifts from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., and the chief's shift from 6:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The chief at the time was the very popular "High Pockets," or Dave Sumner. To the little children of the town, his most important duty was to stand at the corner of Jackson and Main streets and help children cross the busy street when school began and ended each day. He was very tall, and his pockets were very high to a little child. His career was greatly enhanced when he received an appointment as a guard in an important Washington, D. C., building. It was said that he soon realized how much better a small town policeman fared, and he later returned to Blacksburg to live out his life.
In 1978 twenty-nine men worked on the police force. Today, the nationally accredited law enforcement agency has sixty-six full-time employees and ten part-time employees, of which forty-nine are officers. These public servants' primary mission is to protect the lives, individual liberty, and property of all people within the town. They patrol 190 miles of streets and answer over 18,000 calls for service.
Blacksburg's low crime rate is the result of good training, a sensitivity to different cultures, and an ability to recognize hate crimes. Even with a progressive outlook., Blacksburg's largest crime numbers continue to be property crimes of larceny and vandalism. A small but constant problem is the disappearance of street signs, which sometimes show up after graduation ceremonies.
Even the police department is not free of personnel problems. Investigations have led to the resignations of two chiefs of police and changes in administration and supervision.
Blacksburg has had at least three murders to blot its historic record. One was the shooting of an English war bride by her husband. The crime happened on the main street of town, leaving several small children motherless. The other tragedy happened when an assailant broke into the home of a popular Virginia Tech professor and shot him and his wife. This terrible incident caused the town great sadness for the loss of these two citizens.
In 1988 a nine-month arson spree became the most serious crime to ever hit the town, according to Mayor Roger Hedgepeth. Several other fires and four fires in one night from one end of town to the other, all related to the building construction business, resulted in over a quarter million dollars in damages. The crime was finally solved and the arsonist apprehended.
The police department has had the other usual crimes to deal with: student parties, three big embezzlements, a 1973 "pot" cultivation try, shoplifting, drug trafficking, illegal parking, and speeding.
From a little town with a constable, who inspected the streets and collected the taxes, to a large force to keep law and order, Blacksburg's citizens can feel safe and secure under the watchful eye of the Blacksburg Police Department.
Deaths, Burying, and the Cemetery
The Westview Cemetery provides the place of final rest for the citizens of Blacksburg. It began as a few acres deeded in 1832 to trustees of the little unincorporated village of Blacksburg and was known as Blacks Woods. The land had originally belonged to the Black family who had also provided the acreage for establishing the town.
In 1880 the town fathers assumed responsibility for maintaining the cemetery. Their duties included having the grounds cleaned, making the area secure from intrusion by stock, locking the gate, and giving the key to the mayor. Evidently the town was not very diligent in its responsibilities because in August 1895 a local citizen wrote in her diary that she had been to the cemetery and found it overgrown with briers and bushes. An approved day of cleaning was proclaimed, and the citizens helped with the task. In February 1900 A. [Alexander] Black and his wife sold to the town for $1 an additional one and three-quarters acres for use as a cemetery. The Blacks requested that a fence be built, that the lots sell for $5 each, and that the money be used for the upkeep of the cemetery.
By 1959 an additional eight acres had been purchased, and today the cemetery comprises seventeen acres and lots sell for $300 each.
On May 31, 1902, a monument to the Confederate dead was placed on a raised mound of earth in the cemetery during a dedication ceremony. The women of the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy had held many money-raising projects, including a very successful oyster supper, to accumulate the $55 to pay for the monument. Dr. Harvey Black Apperson was the ceremony's main speaker.
The cannons, cast in 1895, on either side of the monument are Spanish-American War vintage. They were originally used by the cadets at VPI in their training exercises. After World War I, the federal government had numerous surplus cannons and offered them to the nation's towns and cities. Blacksburg wanted its own cannons and requested some from the War Department. On October 5, 1920, the War Department informed the mayor that the commanding officer of VPI had been instructed to turn over two guns and carriages to the town. The original plan called for locating the guns on the public school grounds, but they were placed at the cemetery instead, where they have remained since.
Funeral customs change over the years. Before the days of modern embalming and refrigeration, funeral services usually took place the day after death, even in winter. Services were usually very simple. Tip Evans, the local cabinet maker, furnished the simple wooden coffins that were needed. The first undertaker was a Mr. Helms, whose business establishment was located in front of the Lutheran Church on Turner Street. The age-old custom of viewing the body took place in the home of the deceased, where the funeral was conducted, and then the family and friends proceeded with the body to the cemetery. How Firm a Foundation seemed to be a favorite hymn for the occasion.
One of the most notable funerals to take place at the Westview Cemetery was that of Colonel Charles A. Ronald. A commander in the Civil War's famous Stonewall Brigade, he was a local attorney and state legislator and was well liked and respected by the Blacksburg citizenry. His funeral took place on July 1, 1898. A first-person description of the event reported that the procession up dusty Roanoke Street included many old Confederate soldiers, twelve carriages and buggies, many people on horseback, and others following on foot. The procession, services, and return march took an hour to pass by the observer's house.
Another notable funeral some fifty years later was that of James S. Schaeffer. Schaeffer had been the mentor and director of the VPI regimental band, the Highty Tighties, which had started as the Goose Creek Band in 1908. Schaeffer had taken a little college band and turned it into one of the best marching bands in the country, winning many awards and honors. When he died and was buried on November 27, 1951, he was accorded the highest tribute the corps can bestow: the streets were lined on both sides from the Lutheran Church to the cemetery by cadets standing at attention and saluting the body when it passed. The band led the funeral procession but played no music. It was a most impressive and respectful tribute to Schaeffer and his contributions.
Today, Terrell Sheppard and his crew care for Westview Cemetery under the guidance of a committee appointed by the town council. Cows no longer trample the grounds, briers no longer grow on the property, and signs of neglect no longer exist. A town's concern and care of its citizens is reflected in how it cares for its citizens' final resting place.
"If you don't like the weather in Blacksburg, just wait thirty minutes, and it will change." "Blacksburg weather is the worst in the world; just ask anyone." "This weather we are having is very unusual." These statements about Blacksburg's weather have all been heard on more than one occasion, but a search of weather events, as related in newspapers, diaries, and letters reveals that Blacksburg weather goes in cycles, just as it does in the rest of the world.
Blacksburg has had several notable weather happenings. On December 17, 1890, a twenty-inch snowfall-another account says two and one-half feet-covered the ground. A December 26, 1894, snow storm was the beginning of an eleven-week period when the ground was covered with snow. According to a diary entry for February 11, 1895, the snow was so deep in Blacksburg that the men of the town could not get wagons to the mines at Coal Bank to retrieve coal for citizens' stoves. The snow drifted eight feet high, and shoveling the roads proved to be such a major undertaking that college boys helped clear the roads to the mines. Only then could wagons bring the much-needed coal to town to heat the houses and relieve the suffering from the cold.
In 1910 a big snow storm closed the college, a most unusual happening because the college required all students to live on campus, and it was assumed that all students could walk to classes.
The winter of 1959-1960 will long be remembered because it snowed every Wednesday and Saturday for weeks. Snow piled inch upon inch, and drifts accumulated, covering cars and hiding familiar landmarks. The roads to Prices Fork, Mt. Tabor, and Glade and North Main Street were tunneled out by a big blowing machine brought to Blacksburg to clear the roads. Schools closed, not just for days but for weeks. And no one saw the ground from February 14 through most of March.
January 1966 was another bad weather time, when thirty inches of snow fell, causing the college to cancel classes for the first time in years.
The "Blizzard of the Century" occurred on Saturday, March 13, 1993. A fast-moving Nor'easter produced wind and thirty-eight inches of snow, crippling the community. By Monday the sun shone and people slowly dug out.
The thirty-five-inch snow storm of January 1996 is another notable weather event in Blacksburg. This storm occurred before students returned from Christmas break, or it would have provided the students with another holiday from classes.
Blacksburg has also had its share of floods. When one considers that Blacksburg and the surrounding area have four branches and several branchlets of Strouble's Creek, it is no wonder that the town has experienced flooding. Those springs that furnish our water supply can also cause a problem when the rains cause little Strouble's Creek to go on a rampage. Blacksburg is situated in a bowl-shaped depression surrounded by mountains, and when rain clouds get trapped, they drop their moisture into creeks and streams. Rain and snow do not fall evenly over the town, however. Sometimes the south end of town will receive a downpour, while not a drop of water will fall on the north end of town.
Blacksburg has experienced several notable floods. In July 1914, 2.3 inches of rain fell, and in June 1916, 3.84 inches fell on the town, each within a twenty-four-hour period. The year 1927 was another time of great rainfall, causing the New River to flood and making crossings impossible at many points along the river.
In the late 1930s a cloudburst over Palmer Hill-now the location of the town golf course-caused flooding of the South Branch of Strouble's Creek. The area around Main and Eakin streets was under two or more feet of water, and Mr. Gay's garage, which was underground, filled with water.
On July 9, 1943, another flash-flood occurred when 2.5 inches of rain fell in thirty minutes. It "washed out Victory gardens, drowned chickens, flooded basements, and caused 100s of dollars of damage," according to one report. Since all of Strouble's Creek waters flow to the college Drillfield and into its Duck Pond, the lower Quadrangle on the campus was covered with water.
In the afternoon of May 14, 1992, a deluge of 3.6 inches of rain fell in a very short time on the south side of town, causing quick flooding. On the campus, the Donaldson Brown Center was flooded when the water filled air ducts and poured into the dining room, turning the lobby into an indoor swimming pool and leaving a million dollars of damage to the facility. Just two days later, another rain storm flooded the town, but damage was less severe. On August 26, yet another rain storm occurred, creating an indelible memory of the summer of 1992 and its water problems.
The cool mountains of Southwest Virginia are not always cool enough. The temperatures of July and August can rise to 100 degrees but generally do not remain that high for long periods. These hot spells of summer are hard to remember when the cold winds of winter blow across the town, and January to March can be very uncomfortable. In February 1898 it was so cold that one resident reported in her diary that she wrapped her flower pots in blankets to keep her plants from freezing-and they were inside the house!
Before the days of central heating, it was not at all unusual for ice as thick as a pane of glass to form on water buckets and wash bowls. Filling the ice house by cutting six-inch-thick pieces of ice from the farm pond was an annual chore. But the ice was appreciated during the hot summer weather since there was no refrigeration.
Ice and sleet storms are also part of the local weather scene. January 1982 proved a dangerous time for trees. The entire state suffered a severe ice storm, which caused much tree damage, the effects of which can still be seen today.
February 10-13, 1994, was another bad weather day not soon to be forgotten by Blacksburg citizens. A severe ice storm left numerous residents with four days of no electricity and an even longer time of discomfort for outlying areas. After three days without electricity, the water pressure in the town storage tanks dropped, depriving some areas of water. Tanker trucks brought water into town, and citizens carried their water home in jugs and jars.
Regardless of these reports of bad weather, Blacksburg usually enjoys warm, gentle breezes in the spring, when fruit trees bloom, leaves bud on the trees, and the season changes in the Appalachian Mountains. The other good weather time is Indian summer, when days are hot and nights are cool and leaves turn to beautiful reds, oranges, and shades in-between. Many people think that the fall season in Blacksburg is next to heaven's best.
Return to Table of Contents