A Special Place for 200 Years
Chapter 10

Business and Industry in Blacksburg

by Joanne M. Anderson


Joanne M. Anderson


Early Blacksburg

Reading contemporary business books and magazines could lead one to believe that "entrepreneurship," "home-based business," and "home schooling" were invented during this decade. In fact, we are just experiencing what was commonplace in Blacksburg from the beginning.

Early settlers came to the area short on cash-if they had any at all-and long on spirit, confidence, and ambition. They were primarily farmers, self-sufficient folks who grew their own food, made clothes and quilts, built houses and barns, and were able to meet their basic needs from the land. There was little skilled labor or laborers, so farmers, their wives, and their children worked side by side, contributing what each could to maintaining and improving their life.

But little businesses were in the works, as evidenced by receipts exchanged by early residents. Among the Preston family papers dating between 1760 and 1787, for example, is a bill for "making 1 big wheel and 1 little wheel," another for "distilling 60 gals. of whiskey," and yet another for "carrying down the Indians to the Court House." One can conclude that a wheelwright, a distiller, and a driver of sorts were doing business.

When Blacksburg was formed in 1798, there was one store, a log meeting house, blacksmith shop, tannery, and tavern in town. The store, at Main and Jackson streets, was owned by John Preston. The general store in a small town was as much a social center as a place to buy merchandise, and "buying" goods was often done on credit or trade. Because all transportation was via horseback well into the 1800s in Blacksburg, a good blacksmith could keep busy year round. The tanner most likely traded for his hides from trappers and traders passing through. From these he could make jackets, shoes, boots and saddles-things beyond the capabilities of the average farmer.

The very early country doctors did not keep an office or office hours. They were on call at any time and traveled to homes and farms with their black bag of supplies. In Early Blacksburg History by T. N. Conrad, Dr. Floyd, a physician of the village, is depicted as "no less prominent as a physician than as a statesman, and as quaint as prominent." Dr. Floyd is also referred to as "old Gov. Floyd," but it is not clear if he served as a doctor before or after serving as governor or both.

Before schools were built, children were schooled at home by parents or a teacher. The teachers were generally unmarried women who lived with various families in town.

Taverns have always held great appeal, and tavern keepers were self-employed people who provided spirits and, possibly, food, along with a place to socialize, exchange news, and arrange business deals. It was not uncommon in early Blacksburg to see a drunken man on the street at night. Women usually did not go out after dark.

Americans have always valued education as a means of gaining knowledge to improve life. Though removed from the cultural and big economic centers of the fast growing United States, the people of Blacksburg also cherished education. The Blacksburg Female Academy was incorporated in 1840. A male academy-the Olin and Preston Institute-was organized a decade later. Its successor, the Preston and Olin Institute, which received a charter in 1869, eventually became the site of the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, today's Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, popularly called Virginia Tech. These educational facilities provided a need for more teachers and student materials, which translated into business opportunities for clothing, accessories, supplies, and lodging. Operating a boarding house with rooms to rent, sometimes with meals included, was considered a respectable way for a woman to have her own business.

In the mid nineteenth century, Rufus Sarvey ran a general store. From his 1845 ledgers, one can see that a pair of ladies shoes cost $1.25; a fine hat, $3.50; ribbon was fifty cents; a set of buttons sold for a quarter; and a bottle of caster oil was nineteen cents. Flannel cost forty cents per yard. At another store, William Thomas sold half a pound of pepper for thirteen cents and two padlocks for seventy-five cents. Sarvey sold his store to Charles Lyle in 1883.

By 1848 Charles Smith operated a tailor business. The town also sported a hotel, where people apparently stayed short-term or resided long-term; three cabinetmakers; a tanner; and several shoemakers. According to an 1850 census report, most residents still listed themselves as farmers or laborers, but a peddler, preacher, teacher, and basket makers have also been noted.

The Montgomery Messenger published its first issue in 1869. The newspaper has changed hands and publishing strategy a number of times, with a new publication, the Blacksburg Sentinel, debuting in October 1996.

The Late 1800s

Following the Civil War, Blacksburg experienced strong growth, and at the time of its incorporation in 1871, it could boast three churches, three hotels, four dry goods stores, a confectionery and grocery store, wagon maker's shop, harness shop, three cabinetmakers, a lawyer named Charles Ronald, and two physicians- Dr. Harvey Black and Dr. T. J. Jackson-who worked at their residences.

The town apparently had some enterprising delivery men, as evidenced by the incorporation into the town by-laws of rules targeting "any wagoner, cartman, or drayman." Specifically, a one-dollar fine would be implemented for any of these people found conducting business on the Sabbath or allowing a horse with cart to gallop in the town limits.

Dr. W. B. Conway moved to Blacksburg in 1871, and around 1916 he wrote about that year in his memoirs. He remembered three hotels, an old tin shop, the remains of a tanyard, four dry-good stores, one grocery store, the post office, two working tanyards, two physicians, two blacksmith shops, two wheelwright shops, three cabinetmakers, one lawyer, and a pottery shop. Dr. Conway opened a drug store and the first private bank, Conway and Hubbert.

By 1877 a Blacksburg business directory listed another attorney, James H. Kent; a bank; druggist; boot and shoe maker; milliners; painter; carpenter; wagon factory; dentist; contractors; and a watchmaker and jeweler. In all, the directory listed twenty-six businesses. It is not known if these listings resulted from a paid advertisement or what percentage of Blacksburg businesses were included. In the directory, Conway's Safety & Stirrup advertised gentlemen's and ladies' saddles. One cabinetmaker, S. O. Barton, also advertised as an undertaker. The Virginia House and Blacksburg Hotel were the lodging properties listed. Other hotels in Blacksburg at various times included the Colonial Inn, Green's Hotel, Old Brick House, and Luster's Hotel.

From 1872, when Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College opened, until 1879, when enrollment at the new land-grant college dropped to fifty students, most students had to live in town, creating a need for hotels and local boarding houses. An 1885 photograph shows the City House and Virginia House across the street from one another at one end of Main Street. Each is a two-story wood structure with porches and columns on both levels.

In a book published in 1892, Southwest Virginia and the Valley, a writer called Blacksburg a "center of trade for the surrounding county, but mostly supported by the college. Generally speaking, merchandise is high-priced and of poor quality."

Progress and growth continued throughout the nineteenth century. A general merchandise store, originally known as Black and Payne Company, was founded in 1890 and supplied material for cadet uniforms to Virginia Tech. It also stocked horse collars, tobacco, tools, and general hardware as well as a meat market. The business operated under different names for more than half a century.

In 1891 the Bank of Blacksburg, now the National Bank of Blacksburg, was founded in a room at the Green Hotel (later the Colonial Hotel) at the site recently occupied by Grand Piano and Furniture Company. The bank moved to several locations downtown but always maintained its fundamental purpose of contributing to the growth and development of the community.

At a February 15, 1892, town council meeting, a "special license tax" was assessed on local businesses as follows:

Dr. Black, physician $10 Any lawyer $5
Dr. Henderson, physician $10 Alex Black, merchant $10
Dr. Foote, dentist $5 Hardwick Bros., merchants $5
Eakin & Co., hotel $3 Bodell Bros., merchants $2
J. W. Lester, hotel $3 Luster & Co., merchant $5
M. S. Grissom, livery $6 Eakin & Co., merchants $6
W. C. Grissom, butcher $5 Effinger, mess house $10
W. W. Bennett, butcher $7 Telephone Co. $3
Bank of Blacksburg $8 Any real estate agent $5

A few conclusions one can draw about business in Blacksburg at this period might be that doctors, one merchant, and the mess house may have been considered or documented to have the highest revenue since they had the highest license fee.

The tax for merchants varies by five to one, so perhaps their size or annual revenues were measured and the fee levied accordingly. The mess house is probably one of the first restaurants. The presence of the livery attests to the volume of horse traffic. The butchers most likely provided much of the meat for the students in town.

The list for special licenses three years later includes a druggist; a restaurant operated by Anderson Harvey, noted as "colored"; and a second livery. The taxes were still quite varied, and at a town council meeting later that year, it was decided that "all lines of business should be uniform." The license fee for doctors and dentists was reduced to five dollars; the fee for merchants, butchers, and livery men was also set at five dollars. "Houses of entertainment" would pay three dollars. In 1898 formal licenses were required for boardinghouse keepers.

The "houses of entertainment" might have included bowling and billiards since the town ordained in 1905 that "the owner, proprietor lessee, or keeper of any ten pin or bowling alley, pool or billiard room run within the town for compensation shall not allow any minor or person under twenty-one to play at ten pins, pool, or billiards unless consent of a parent in writing" was received.

Toward the end of the century, Virginia Tech installed an electric plant, and a short-lived publication, Blacksburg Post, reported that three hacks made daily trips to meet the trains in Christiansburg. Perhaps one entrepreneur made three trips or maybe three drivers were all in business for themselves.

The newspaper also praised the town for having "eight good stores on Main Street, a good barber shop, and oysters in season." The latter would indicate at least one restaurant, most likely in one of the hotels. Coal-mining operations in the county were expanding, and the Montgomery Intelligence Company started a telephone system, employing Miss Lenora Shafer as its first local operator.

In 1899 meat and lard each cost ten cents a pound, and two-and-a-half-dozen eggs cost thirty cents. One could purchase forty pounds of flour for one dollar and a pound of coffee for sixteen cents.

The Twentieth Century

With the turn of the century, "most residents had a cow and a garden," and the country witnessed the dawning of the era of motor vehicles and with it, more business opportunities. In 1903 a geology professor at the college brought a motorcycle to town, a local resident owned a Stanley Steamer, and yet another man had a "Brush" auto with a friction clutch.

Businesses known to exist at this time included a dry goods store, a flour mill and ice plant, two drug stores, stables, a blacksmith shop, two hotels, a feed and grain store, and the general store of Brown and Lybrook.

Fifteen years after the first motion picture, Thomas Edison's Record of a Sneeze, was released, the Lyric movie theatre opened in a building opposite the former military laboratory. It was moved downtown in 1930.

A January 5, 1919, news clipping from the Lynchburg News reported progress and problems:

The progress of Blacksburg from a mountain village to a town of real importance has been rapid during the last 10 years. . . . [M]uch remains to be done. Some of these things, it is hoped, may be brought about during 1919. The town needs, first of all, a real live weekly newspaper. The streets are in bad condition and need attention very much. And there should be a revival of community spirit which existed to a certain extent several years ago. The board of trade seems to have lapsed into a state of coma. . . .

Also in 1919 two Heavener brothers bought the Luster-Black garage on Main Street. Two years later, they opened the Blacksburg Filling Station and, the following year, secured a Chevrolet dealership. Over the next thirty-five years, the Heaveners sold cars from their Blacksburg Motor Company. They experienced a peak year in 1950 when they sold 129 cars. Robert Heavener's business philosophy was that "business success is simply the result of good management in action." He further believed in "never forgetting a customer and never letting one forget us."

In 1924 a new 7,000-square-foot store was built at the corner of Main and Roanoke streets, and Blacksburg Motor Company constructed a new 11,000-square-foot garage. The garage had "a very unique feature, as well as a very serviceable one to tourists, a ladies rest room."

The Great Depression did not adversely affect Blacksburg as it did many towns, and a Montgomery News-Messenger article on January 6, 1932, reported that "industrial conditions in and about the town have been normal, business has maintained its usual level, the two banks have remained firm, there has been some building, mostly of homes of the modern type." The article closed by stating, "The year 1932 holds promise of future development and expansion of Blacksburg."

Black and white television arrived in the 1940s and with it a plethora of electric appliances. An enterprising Eugene Smith opened a store with a General Electric franchise to sell electric refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, irons, dryers, electric ranges, and a host of small things like toasters, percolators, clocks, and fans. While Smith had no formal background in the appliance business, he felt that "business opportunities were looming in home modernization."

Over the next several years, stores were bought and sold, and new ones were always opening. The Blue Grass Market changed hands and names. The Hobby Shop opened as Hardin's Hobby Shop. Strickler Furniture Company opened, selling not only furniture, but also guns, radios, fishing rods, and Zenith and Philco products. By the end of the 1950s, Blacksburg's prosperity was noticed by out-of-town businessmen. John Norman, a men's clothing merchant in Roanoke, decided to open a shop in town, and Sigmund Davidson, also from Roanoke, planned Davidson's Charwood Shop here. The Cook brothers in Radford purchased a local cleaners and laundry. The Black-Logan Department Store became the Guynn Department Store, and the first Poly-Scientific building was under construction.

There is always a need for barbers and hairdressers, especially in a town with cadets in residence. In 1951 haircuts jumped in price from sixty to seventy-five cents, and the price of a shave went from thirty-five to forty cents. "We've got to eat, too," lamented one barber. "It's a matter of everything going up," reported a writer, referring to the increase in the town budget from $20,000 to about $120,000.

Many businesses opened in the next few decades, along with manufacturing plants and engineering firms like Wolverine Gasket, Federal-Mogul, Litton Poly-Scientific, and Electro-Tec. Mish Mish came to town in 1970, and the hospital was built the next year. Radio Shack opened in 1975, along with a plant store called The New Leaf, and Eagle Express opened in 1977. After this, bakeries, grocery stores, book stores, and a plethora of shops and services came to town.

The Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center (CRC), conceived in the 1980s, became a reality with the first ground-breaking in 1988. Presently, the research center includes nine buildings, approximately sixty-five companies, and 1,000 employees. By the year 2000, more than a dozen buildings will comprise the CRC.

It is no surprise that a Corporate Research Center has been established in Blacksburg since students have always been ingenious and technically-oriented. Back in 1874, when telegraph lines followed only the railroad tracks, a group of students built a connecting line from Blacksburg to Christiansburg, which served the community until a branch line of the railroad connected the towns in 1904. In the early 1900s, several mechanical engineering students rigged an old buggy and mounted a one-cylinder, reciprocating gas engine on it. It was unpredictable and most often would get half way up a street, only to quit and have to be pushed back to the shop.

Business and industry, entrepreneurship, and self-employment have been an integral part of our town for two centuries. While much of it can be attributed to having a large university in town, there are businesses and working people who locate in Blacksburg because it is a small college town with a positive and progressive outlook.

Like those early settlers, today's local business people embrace confidence and ambition while being drawn to the quiet beauty of the region and friendly spirit of the community.


Joanne Anderson is the innkeeper of Clay Corner Inn and a freelance writer. She writes for national and regional magazines, and her first book, Small Town Restaurants in Virginia, will be released in April 1998.

Blacksburg's Mayors
and the
Evolution of
Town Government
Chapter
Index


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