A Special Place for 200 Years
Chapter 6

Blacksburg Educates Its Children:
Early Education in Blacksburg

by Clara B. Cox

Clara B. Cox

Pioneers in the area now known as Blacksburg, initially called Draper's Meadow, were fairly well educated settlers who moved into the area from the Shenandoah Valley in the 1740s, fifty years before the Virginia General Assembly established the Town of Blacksburg. During the early years of the settlement, survival dominated the existence of these pioneers as they worked to feed and shelter themselves and to protect themselves from Indian attacks. Consequently, they had little time-or energy-to establish schools, and few children probably even learned to read and write.

One who did, however, was a son of William and Mary Draper Ingles, Thomas Ingles. Young Ingles had been captured by the Indians during the Draper's Meadow Massacre on July 30, 1755, and held for thirteen years. According to Dr. John P. Hale in Trans-Alleghany Pioneers, after young Ingles returned home in 1768-by then his parents had moved to a site near present day Radford-he acquired "some preliminary and rudimentary foundation for an education." His father then sent him to Dr. Thomas Walker in Albemarle County "to see what could be done in the way of educating him." This action probably indicates that no schools existed locally.

Elsewhere in Virginia, in the seventeenth and part of the eighteenth centuries, various types of schools had developed to provide elementary education: grammar schools, which included reading, writing, and "ciphering"; community schools, formed by heads of various families in a neighborhood combining resources to hire a teacher; endowed free schools, where pupils obtained training in the elementary forms of learning; and the home school, known as the tutorial system, where wealthy landowners provided instruction for their own children and sometimes for those of their neighbors. Similar methods of education later gained favor in the Blacksburg area.

After hostile engagements with Indians lessened and the French and Indian War and the American Revolution ended, settlers could devote more time to their children's education. Most children probably received an education in their own homes, being taught by either their parents or a migratory school teacher, who usually boarded among the families. Children of the larger landowners received an education in their parental homes from a tutor or governess employed by the family, attended schools in other parts of the state or in other states, or were educated at schools operated jointly by several families pooling their resources. In some instances, those who had tutors in their homes admitted the children of neighbors who were social equals.

Around that time, local schools began to appear. Most of them probably took the form of community, or subscription, schools established by parents. These schools, which were prevalent throughout Virginia, became known as "old field" schools because they often were constructed by members of the community in an abandoned field. Each pupil paid a fee, which was used to employ a teacher. One of the earliest schools in the Blacksburg area was the Barger School, which was located between Blacksburg and Tom's Creek. Perhaps this was the school on the land donated by William Black, founder of Blacksburg, specifically for that purpose. Another early school was the Sibold School, said to predate 1800 and located in the same area. These schools were probably community schools, as were the first schools in Montgomery County, which probably existed between 1790 and 1810.

In 1772 one of the wealthier settlers in the area, William Preston, built a plantation house, which he named Smithfield, on land today located within the boundaries of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; he and his wife, the former Susanna Smith, moved into the house in 1774. Preston had studied as a child under a tutor provided by his uncle, Colonel James Patton, and placed a high value on education. Preston hired tutors-one was Patton's nephew, John Breckenridge-for his own children. In Preston's will, he specifies that his wife use her bequest, in part, for the education of their children, "in which it is my will that no reasonable expense be spared. Especially for my sons where their capacities will admit of it, & likewise to assist in the payment of my just debts, under the following restrictions: First, that she continue single & superintend the raising & education of her children-particularly her daughters." Should his wife die before she had distributed her husband's personal estate, he directed his executors to deduct or reserve one hundred pounds for each of his four sons to be paid out on their education. "My intention is, as near as I can judge," he wrote, "to put all my sons on an equal footing in regard to what they shall enjoy out of my estate, as also their education."

Children of smaller landowners usually relied on their parents to give them an education, unless, as reported by G. F. Poteet in "Secondary Education in Montgomery County," the children "were allowed to pay a small tuition or do some work for a large landowner and attend classes taught by private tutors. In the same way, some received an education in the joint schools. Also, the migratory teacher taught the children of these smaller landowners for a few weeks or months out of the year for their board and room and a small fee." The general character and qualifications of these teachers, according to F. D. Surface's history of Montgomery County schools, "was sadly lacking in uniformity. Forty percent, perhaps, were persons of fair literary attainments and substantial character; about forty percent had a very imperfect knowledge of the branches taught, and the remaining twenty percent were tramps of a low order, who went about deceiving the people, never remaining in one place longer than a school term." The latter usually moved on before they were found to be impostors.

Education for poor children was limited. These children were sometimes "bound out" by church wardens and given practical training and experience in some useful trade or occupation and also the beginnings of a literary education.

According to Cornelius Jacob Heatwole, who wrote a treatise on Virginia education in 1916: The idea of universal public education was slow to take form. Public education, administered by the state, was looked upon by the aristocracy as being intended for paupers. The poorer class resented the attempt to pauperize themselves by accepting the proffered aid by the state in giving training to their children. Public education was looked upon, on the other hand, by the more powerful and ruling class as a means of charity intended for "indigents" or dependents. Thus public education could find no place in the social fabric of Virginia, until a strong and powerful middle class developed a truer democracy in which public education could best prosper.

Nineteenth Century Schools

Statewide, public education during the first half of the nineteenth century (1810-1845) consisted almost entirely of the primary grades. In 1810 the General Assembly established the Literary Fund, Virginia's first attempt to create a fund for the entire state and the first attempt to direct expenditures to benefit state education. In 1829 the legislature decided that 10 percent of the fund could be used for building schoolhouses. It took nearly half a century to get Virginia citizens to recognize the system as an effective method for supporting public education.

The Literary Fund also provided financial support for schools for poor white children. Each large community was to have a commissioner appointed by the county court. The commissioner's job was to employ a teacher for the community's indigent children. In Montgomery County, Poteet reports, "the children of the very poor and indifferent parents and orphans were given some literary education and taught a trade under the apprenticeship law established by the state, and enforced very rigidly by the county court of Montgomery County . . . ." At various times, schools in Blacksburg also received support from the Literary Fund to build schools.

The state concerned itself with supporting primary grades between 1810 and 1845; a district system, which presupposed a sufficient density of population to support central schools after 1829; and broader public education that included all elementary grades after 1845-46. Nonetheless, the nineteenth century saw an influx of private schools, which generally had uniform methods of instruction.

Education in Montgomery County during the period 1810-1906 consisted primarily of tutorial and private schools, which served the wealthier class; the "pauper" primary system of schools, beginning in 1818 for orphans and poor and neglected children; and itinerant teachers, who taught in homes in exchange for board and a small fee or in the quasi-public, old field schools, which operated on tuition fees and on donations.

It may have been these old field schools, hold-overs from the eighteenth century, that Surface was describing in 1885: The average school-house of olden times was a quaint and rude structure and would not be tolerated by our people in the light of our present civilization. These houses, as a rule, were not erected for school purposes but were old unoccupied waste cabins, allowed by the owners to be used as school houses. The walls were built of rough, unhewn logs, chinked with round poles and daubed with clay and gravel, without lime, sand, or trowel. The chimney was built of wood and mud and sometimes of undressed stone. The fireplace was from four to six feet wide, and the hearth so large that the entire school could assemble thereon and have a considerable jollification under the pretext of "warming." The floor was laid with rough planks (if not puncheons), without nailing, so that abundance of ventilation was secured. The window was made by sawing out one log and putting in one sash the full length of the house and containing but one row of panes, while on the inside and near the window was erected a writing shelf, at which all were required to write in proper succession. The benches were made of puncheons or slabs, with legs inserted through auger holes, and all arranged in rectangular order, that the "schoolmaster" might take in the whole situation at one glance of the eye.

These schools lacked any grade structure, with each pupil constituting a separate class. Nor were there any standard texts among the schools or even within the same school. "Hence," wrote Surface, "there were frequently in the same school half a dozen different books treating of the same subject. This rendered a proper classification impossible and was, doubtless, the most insuperable barrier to the old school system."

The teacher's control of the school seemed to have been of paramount importance. According to Surface, "The teacher who used the rod most liberally and could create and maintain the most profound consternation in the school room was considered the most successful."

In Montgomery County the mid-nineteenth century saw the birth of academies, with several located in Blacksburg. Academies, generally called "classical schools," started in New England and New York State and moved southward in the second half of the 1700s. In Virginia, they became the most popular form of schooling-one or more were established in every county generally between 1820 and 1860-and served the majority of children in the commonwealth. These schools taught the classics, higher mathematics, and the sciences (physics, chemistry, and botany) and also gave instruction in the elementary subjects. Other than chartering the academies or passing acts enabling them to conduct lotteries to raise funds to erect buildings or add to their endowments, the state had no connection with them. Within this same period of time-1830s-1850s-churches in Virginia became particularly interested in fostering secondary and higher education. The effects of that "great wave of discussion," as Heatwole called it, is also evident in Blacksburg.

Many private schools in Virginia were forced to close during the Civil War. But after the war, a number of them not only resurfaced but entered a new era of expansion and popularity as Virginians looked to education as an escape from chaos. The private school movement in Montgomery County continued until the last one for whites closed its doors around 1906. Christiansburg Industrial Institute, however, remained in operation as a private school until 1935, when the county school board took it over as a public high school for Negroes. According to Poteet, "The private schools and academies of this period provided the only means of a secondary education to the youth of the county because Virginia did not recognize secondary education as a state function until 1906." These schools opened the door to a change in public sentiment toward a state system of free public schools.

Little information remains about the private schools that were common in Blacksburg during the nineteenth century. The following summaries provide some of the surviving information concerning these schools and the history of the public institution of higher education in Blacksburg, which also started during this period.

Locksley Hall

Evidence exists that Dangerfield Dobyns taught school early in the nineteenth century on Roanoke Road near Blacksburg. The school was called Locksley Hall by the students. In an 1833 survey notebook, James Herron mentions the location of Dobyns' house and describes him as "a learned expounder of the alphabet in the neighborhood for the past forty years." Whether the school continued or whether it closed and a new one by the same name started is not clear, but Miss Florence Johnson from Norfolk taught a private school known as Locksley Hall in Blacksburg for two years, 1869-1871. Children of the Lawsons, Blacks, Palmers, and Lybrooks attended the private school.

A Girls' School

Early in the nineteenth century, the Presbyterians in Blacksburg reportedly operated a school for girls. The school was located in the former Burke Tavern on Main Street.


Between 1825 and 1830, Colonel Edward E. Hammet tutored advanced scholars at Smithfield and in Blacksburg (the location could not be ascertained, although it may have been a Preston home on Main Street). Hammet had come to Montgomery County at the invitation of Colonel James Preston, a descendent of William Preston.

Blacksburg Female Academy

The first officially recognized academy in Montgomery County, the Blacksburg Female Academy, was incorporated by legislative act on March 13, 1840. The school was established "for the education of females in or near the town of Blacksburg," and its trustees included Henry Ribble, Adam Wall, Charles Black, John Peterman, William H. Peck, Alexander Black, Robert T. Preston, Edwin J. Amiss, William Thomas, John Barger, and Younger Hardwick.

John and Mary Black and Alexander and Elizabeth Black sold a lot to the academy's trustees for five dollars, essentially donating the land. The trustees erected some buildings between 1840 and 1842 and successfully applied in 1842 for a loan from the Literary Fund to pay for them. The trustees also applied, unsuccessfully, to the school commissioners of Montgomery County for surplus funds. The two-story brick building, with one-story brick ell, was located on Water Street (today's Draper Road) beside the present-day armory building. It became known as the "White Building."

During the early days of the academy, teachers included Sue, Ellen, and Johnnie Peterman. It has been said that the eldest of the Peterman sisters-Ellen or Johnnie-experienced a disappointment in love and "took the veil," a long black veil that covered her face. Reportedly, she was never seen without it before the sisters moved to Radford.

Two students at the academy were Jane Black, daughter of Charles Black, and Lizzie Black, daughter of Dr. Harvey Black. The curriculum was divided into preparatory and classical departments. The academy, which had a small student body, was sold to the Hunter's Lodge of F. and A. Masons in 1858, who changed its name to the Caldwell Masonic Female Institute.

Christiansburg Industrial Institute

In 1866 Captain Charles S. Schaeffer, an agent of the Freedmen's Bureau, started a school for Negroes in the edge of Christiansburg and named it the Christiansburg Industrial Institute (later, the "Industrial" was dropped from the name, and the school became known popularly as CI). A new building was erected in 1867 on Zion's Hill between Christiansburg and Blacksburg, followed by an addition in 1869, more buildings in 1873-74 and 1885, and acreage for a farm in increments between 1895 and 1905. Between 1874 and 1885, the Freedmen's Association of Philadelphia became interested in the school and began contributing money for its support and development. From 1895 until his death in 1915, Booker T. Washington served as a consultant to the school, enhancing its reputation. CI, which provided African-Americans throughout the region with high school and elementary courses, as well as teacher training courses and a limited number of other courses of college rank, ended its history as a private school on July 1, 1935, when the Freedmen's Association leased it to the Montgomery County School Board. Operation of the school continued until 1966. About five years before it closed it doors, its students were allowed to attend the high schools that served their home communities-they had to make application-and the first black students to attend previously all-white schools in Blacksburg did so in 1961.

Rev. Charles Martin's School

The Rev. Charles Martin established a male academy in 1850. The academy was still operating in 1872, when one teacher was teaching twenty-six boys. Tuition at the school, which had ten-month sessions that ended in June, was four dollars per month, while board cost another fifteen dollars per month and students paid an additional incidental fee of twenty cents per month. The school was probably similar to a number of small private schools operated during the period. Pastors of various churches started most of them to supplement their meager salaries, and the schools usually did not survive very long.

Olin and Preston Institute

Before the Martin school opened, several trustees of the Blacksburg Female Academy decided that a school should be created for boys in the Blacksburg community. The Baltimore Conference of the Methodist Church, which included Blacksburg, had focused on the need for Christian-influenced education at an annual meeting, and the Blacksburg Methodist delegates who attended the meeting left it inspired to establish a school of their faith in Blacksburg.

In 1850 the Methodists purchased four or five acres of land for $650 from Jacob and Mary Keister and constructed a building on property just southeast of the present entrance to the Alumni Mall off Main Street. According to Poteet, "The building of the institute at Blacksburg for young men was a very important event in the town. The citizens contributed largely to the undertaking and were allowed to select part of the name. They chose the name Preston, which was the last name of Colonel William Ballard Preston, who was very prominent in political circles." Preston was a well-known Montgomery County businessman, farmer, statesman, and nationally known politician. The Methodist Church chose the name Olin after Stephen Olin, a beloved Methodist minister who had served as president of Randolph-Macon College. The school opened in 1851, with William R. White as its principal. William H. Dawson, who taught mathematics, French, and Latin, apparently headed the school when it closed.

Three years after opening the school, the trustees requested that a charter from the state be granted to a board of trustees named by the official governing body of the Methodist Church. The Baltimore Conference appointed twenty-four men to serve as trustees under the charter, which was granted by the General Assembly on February 28, 1854. The act to incorporate Olin and Preston Institute calls the school "a seminary of learning for the instruction of youth in the various branches of science and literature, the useful arts, and the learned and foreign languages."

But the new school fell on hard times, a victim of pre-Civil War verbal and political battles that divided the Baltimore Conference and left the school with practically no financial support. By 1858 the trustees of Olin and Preston could no longer keep up payments on money borrowed to construct the school's single building.

The following year, John M. Lyle, part owner and operator of White Sulphur Springs, brought suit against the school for money it owed him, probably for constructing the school building. According to tradition, Lyle, a widower, was courting a Blacksburg woman who refused to marry him if he foreclosed on the school. Thus, he agreed to let the trustees continue to operate the school in order to gain a new bride. But, like many schools in the South, the Olin and Preston Institute was forced to close during the Civil War, which redirected male teachers and students to the battlefield and resources to the war effort.

Preston and Olin Institute

After the war, Peter Henry Whisner, the Blacksburg Methodist minister, led a drive to reopen the school. Lyle had died, leaving the school in the possession of his son, John Lyle, Jr., a lawyer and judge, who was eager to settle the estate so he could move to Texas. The Blacksburg Methodists appealed to the Baltimore Conference and to the Virginia Conference for support, probably spurring an argument over which branch of the conference owned the school. Through some clever legal maneuvering, the trustees got the school into the possession of the younger Lyle, bringing an end to Olin and Preston Institute. They successfully petitioned for a charter, issued on January 2, 1869, for a "seminary of learning" in Blacksburg known this time as the Preston and Olin Institute.

Whisner presided over Preston and Olin in 1870, followed by Thomas N. Conrad in 1871 and Whisner again in 1872. Like the Martin school, sessions lasted ten months, ending in June. Tuition was five dollars per month, with an additional incidental fee of seventy-five cents per month, and board was twelve dollars per month. One of the school's students was F. D. Surface, who later became superintendent of Montgomery County schools and wrote a history of education in Montgomery County. By 1872, the last year of the school's existence, sixty boys were enrolled.

The school prepared its students for college, the professions, and business. The course of study was divided into two departments: preparatory (during Conrad's presidency, H. C. Ewing, assisted by Col. A. Grabowski and C. C. Rhodes, was principal of this department) and collegiate, which embraced classical and scientific courses. Students could join the Preston Literary Society to practice literary and forensic activities.

The new charter placed the school under the control of the southern branch of the Methodist Church, directed by a new board of trustees. Lyle, sold the property to the new board but retained his $2,946 lien as security for his debt. To garner wider support, the board expanded its membership to fifteen, but financial problems continued to beset the school. Hearing about the debates in the General Assembly over disposition of land-grant monies due the state to establish a college of agriculture and mechanical arts, the trustees determined to pursue the funds.

The Rev. Whisner and Dr. Harvey Black, both Blacksburg members of the Preston and Olin Board of Trustees, carried the proposal to the General Assembly. The two men agreed that the institute would give up its name and turn its property over to the state in exchange for establishing the land-grant school. They also promised that Montgomery County would donate $20,000 to the school if it were located in Blacksburg, a promise that county citizens agreed, in a later referendum, to fulfill-the vote was 1,137 to 154. The promises and political maneuvering resulted in the legislature passing a bill appropriating two-thirds of the land-grant money to establish the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (VAMC) in Blacksburg. The bill was signed by Governor Gilbert C. Walker on March 19, 1872, giving birth to the school that would become, after several name changes, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, the largest institution of higher education in the commonwealth.

Caldwell Masonic Female Institute

The Caldwell Masonic Female Institute probably started in 1858 when the Hunter's Lodge of F. and A. Masons purchased the Blacksburg Female Academy. Ten members of the lodge subscribed $50 each to purchase the academy. The school, which operated under the guidance of the lodge, may have had as trustees Dr. Harvey. Black, Dr. James A. Templeton, and Dr. T. T. Jackson since they advertised the "next session" in 1859. The first principal was the Rev. J. M. Humphreys, who apparently remained in the position during the school's change-of-hands, followed by G. G. Boyd for a short time. Boyd's successor may have been George R. Pace. In late 1858 the lodge decided to erect a new building, and bonds were sold to raise the necessary funds. While the Caldwell Masonic Female Institute continued to serve girls, the lodge decided to admit boys under the age of nine as well.

By 1861 the school was facing financial difficulties, probably created by the onset of the Civil War, and by 1869 it had closed. On December 2, 1872, the Blacksburg District School Board purchased the school property for $850. The sale may have been precipitated by a suit instituted against the trustees, who had become indebted.

Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College

Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College opened its doors as Virginia's white land-grant institution on October 1, 1872, and William Addison "Add" Caldwell of Craig County became the first student to register. Students studied agriculture or mechanical arts, both three-year certificate programs. At least two members of VAMC's first graduating class in 1875 were residents of Blacksburg: Harvey Apperson and Adoniram Judson Evans.

During its early years, VAMC faced profound political interference and scant financial support from the state. But when it secured John M. McBryde as president in 1891, his successful leadership, enhanced by his reorganization of the curriculum and his vision for a more professional and technical school, helped change the fortunes of VAMC. They also promoted a name change from the General Assembly in 1896: Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute. The name was shortened in popular usage to Virginia Polytechnic Institute, then to Virginia Tech or, simply, VPI.

After McBryde, the college generally continued to grow and to evolve. The campus began to acquire its trademark neo-Gothic buildings constructed of local limestone in 1917. Four years later, President Julian A. Burruss opened the school's doors to women. But most women's programs were moved to Radford College in 1944, when the land-grant institution merged with that school. The move prompted another official name change: Virginia Polytechnic Institute, with the Radford school becoming Radford College, Women's Division of VPI.

Following World War II, the return of veterans spawned heretofore unmatched growth in enrollment and a resultant expansion of academic programs and the physical plant. But growth reached its zenith under President T. Marshall Hahn, Jr., who led the transformation of the military college into a major research university. In 1964, Hahn dissolved the merger with Radford and eliminated the military requirement for male students. Both actions spurred unprecedented increases in enrollment, program offerings, faculty size, and building construction-followed by yet another official name change in 1970: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

The school, still popularly known as Virginia Tech, continues to serve the higher education needs of students from throughout the world, including many Blacksburg High School graduates. It provides employment for large numbers of residents throughout the region and is the site for numerous athletic and cultural events. The university, which celebrated its 125th anniversary during the 1997-98 academic year, now serves over 25,000 undergraduate and graduate students in eight colleges. The students, who come from nearly 100 countries, enroll in almost 200 bachelor's, master's, and doctoral programs. The multinational faculty and student body lend Blacksburg an international flavor not found in other Southwest Virginia communities, and the university continues to exert a profound influence on many aspects of Blacksburg life. For example, it played a key role in developing the Blacksburg Electronic Village, which has catapulted Blacksburg to international fame.

The New Public Free School System

In 1845-46 the General Assembly passed a series of acts that broadened public education for whites to include all elementary grades, and in 1868 the state, still in the throes of reconstruction following the Civil War, adopted a new constitution, which provided a framework for "a system of universal, free elementary education." The system, developed by William H. Ruffner, Virginia's first superintendent of public instruction, created a public school system for both races, although it called for separate schools for black and white children. The system, which was introduced in 1870, met with violent opposition in Montgomery County since public education had been considered something provided solely for the poor. Regardless, a number of public free schools were organized in the county in 1871. Some were located in rented or private houses; others were built by the districts. These public schools probably led to a decline in private schools since few records exist of any after that time.

The Act of 1870 established a system of uniform elementary education for all children in Virginia between the ages of five and twenty-one, and at least by 1879 Montgomery County had two graded schools, one for whites and one for blacks. The pupils who enrolled in the few courses offered on the secondary level paid a small tuition fee.

The number of schools increased rapidly after 1871. According to F. D. Surface, "[I]n the year 1874 there were schools numbering fifty-eight, forty-seven white and eleven colored, with an enrollment of 1,927 white children and 537 colored - total, 2,464; and an average attendance of 1,098 white children and 537 colored; total 1,411."

Statewide, the number of public schools declined by the end of the 1870s as a result of the public debt following the Civil War. But the election to political power of the Readjusters, who reversed the decline in state spending for education, led to renewed growth in public schools throughout the commonwealth. In Montgomery County, the number of schools and the number of teachers employed increased steadily, and Surface reported that by 1884 the county boasted "eighty-one white and seventeen colored schools, with an enrollment of 3,037, and a total average attendance of 1,846." The following year, the county had eight graded schools. "We have now schools in every part of the county, and so situated as to be accessible to the entire population. Our houses, in most cases, are good frame or log buildings, yet we are sorry to say that many are unfit to be occupied during the winter season." In 1903-04 at least one of four graded schools in Montgomery County was located in Blacksburg, with Roland Cook serving as its principal.

The ungraded schools in the county were probably one- or two-room buildings that dotted the countryside. They probably had a single teacher. The academies that had operated earlier served as ready-made facilities for the public school system, as evidenced by the local school board's purchase of the Caldwell Masonic Female Institute.

Education in the Twentieth Century

The first decade of the 1900s brought unprecedented commitments to education in Virginia, as Governors Andrew Jackson Montague and Claude A. Swanson placed major emphasis on good schools, although financial support for white schools increasingly exceeded that for black schools. During this period of strong support for public schools, the General Assembly passed legislation on March 14, 1906, to establish and maintain a system of public high schools, requiring four units of English, three units of mathematics, two units of history, two units of science, and five units of electives to graduate. Thus was born the system of public education that has generally remained in place, with some alternations to add kindergarten, special education, and special focus areas-e.g., vocational education-later in the twentieth century.

Evolution of Blacksburg High School

The 1906 legislation gave rise to a new high school in Blacksburg. That year, the Montgomery County School Board applied to the State Board of Education to make the Blacksburg graded school a high school of the third grade, or a two-year school, and it was first called Blacksburg High School (BHS) during the session of 1906-07. The school was located in a new building added to the old Blacksburg Female Academy (later named the Caldwell Masonic Female Institute) on Water Street (today's Draper Road).

Two years after it opened as a high school, BHS became a second class, or three-year, school. It became a first-grade, four-year high school in 1913-14 and was placed on the state accredited list. The school had an enrollment of sixty-nine that year.

In 1916 BHS moved into a larger, two-story building on a site between Draper Road and Otey Street. The facility cost $10,000. Today, that building houses the landscape architecture and the urban affairs and planning programs of Virginia Tech's College of Architecture and Urban Studies and is known as the Architecture Annex.

In 1918, under the provisions of the Smith-Hughes Act, BHS joined twenty-nine other Virginia high schools in becoming a vocational agricultural high school. To accommodate its new status, a two-story agriculture and shop annex was constructed, at a cost of $8,000, beside the existing building in 1921. For a time, the school was named the Montgomery County Agricultural High School and was open to pupils from all parts of the county free of tuition. Home economics was added to the high school's offerings in 1924; a commercial department followed in 1927.

Although the high school building was expanded during the mid-1930s, it still lacked an auditorium and gymnasium. In 1935 the school superintendent outlined a plan to finance the building of an armory on the school lot. When completed in 1936, the armory served the Blacksburg school as an auditorium. The building was financed by funds from the federal Public Works Administration, the state, the Town of Blacksburg, and the school board. By 1947, inadequate classroom space forced school officials to use a Quonset hut to help resolve the space crunch.

While the high school was wired for electricity, fixtures had been installed in only a few rooms. "Consequently," reported a bulletin issued by the VPI Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station in 1935, "on dark days the eyes of many children are subject to severe strain." Nor did the other schools of the area have electricity, a particular hindrance on dark days and at night meetings. The Lions Club of Blacksburg agreed to appropriate $25 toward installing lights in the rooms of the Blacksburg public school most needing these facilities (the school is not identified), provided the school board would match the amount. The board voted to accept the offer and to install 12 lights. Later, the board greed to pay the light bills at schools, provided patrons of the schools would have the buildings wired.

The curriculum and graduation requirements changed over the years, reflecting the trends of the times. For a student to graduate from high school in 1927 required sixteen academic units and sixteen qualitative units. Physical and health education were added in 1934. In 1943, with World War II raging and airplanes playing a critical role in the war, boys age sixteen and older could take classes in aircraft at the VPI Airport, earning two units of credit toward graduation. With the construction in 1952-53 of a $171,000 vocational school building, industrial arts was added to the curriculum, making Blacksburg High School the first white school in the county to offer the course. Vocational office training programs with on-the-job work experience were approved in 1958 for the high school. Students wanting to obtain their automobile operators' licenses first began receiving behind-the-wheel training in 1969.

Another significant change occurred on September 1, 1952, when all high schools in Montgomery County began operating on a twelve-grade basis. Each high school added an eighth grade, which meant that pupils would attend elementary school for seven years and high school for five years. Four years after the eighth grade was added, only eighteen students graduated from Blacksburg High School.

Also in 1952, English Construction Company of Altavista won the contract to construct a new building to house Blacksburg High School, and the work commenced on June 3, 1952, on the corner of Main and Eheart streets on the same plot as the new vocational building. The new, 71,500-square-foot high school included twenty-six classrooms, a gymnasium, a 998-seat auditorium, library, and cafeteria capable of serving 400 students when it was fully equipped. Six hundred students moved into the building in January 1954, 200 less than the building's maximum capacity. Within two years, the building faced overcrowding, forcing school officials to hold classes in the cafeteria and in a converted basement storeroom.

Individuals and civic groups in Blacksburg set about preparing a new athletic field at the high school site in 1952, working on landscaping, installing a fence and lights, and erecting bleachers. Their completed project was dedicated during ceremonies on November 6, 1953.

The field, the new high school building, and the new vocational building, located on twenty-three acres of land, cost about $1 million. For the first time, Blacksburg's high school students had an auditorium, gymnasium, and athletic field they could call their own. Perhaps reflecting pride in the new facilities and civic interest in education, the local newspaper increased coverage of school activities during the 1950s.

In 1962 an addition to BHS was completed, but five years later, the school board started proceedings to acquire a tract of 29.497 acres on Patrick Henry Drive in Blacksburg for a new high school building. Construction on the new high school began in January 1971. When the high school was moved to this site in 1974, the Main Street facilities were converted to the Blacksburg Middle School. The new high school building, which boasted over five acres of floor space on three levels, included a 1,189-seat auditorium and a 2,000-seat gymnasium.

But a leaking roof plagued the new school, and the Montgomery County School Board filed three lawsuits, ultimately seeking a total of $1.625 million in damages. Meanwhile, the board accepted a bid of $199,400-plus another $10,833 to install a new roof joint to deflect water-to reconstruct about 70 percent of the roof. But before the work commenced, leaks damaged the school's electrical system, forcing officials to close the school for safety reasons.

Teachers and administrators for the high school and the middle school developed a plan to shuttle 2,100 students to five sites in Blacksburg and Christiansburg and between classrooms in the high school and middle school. Some 300 sixth graders were moved into two Blacksburg churches, and eighty BHS students were transported to Christiansburg for vocational classes. Up to 400 students were transported to and from the middle school for each class period. Officials operated the emergency plan for about two weeks, when roof repairs allowed them to move two-thirds of the students back into the high school.

In 1978 the school board agreed to an out-of-court, cash settlement of more than $371,000 in its case against the architectural, contracting, supply, and insurance firms involved in the construction of the roof. But the leaks had cost the board over $560,000 in repairs, labor, materials, and other expenses.

Development of Elementary Schools

Two years after passage of the act creating high schools in Virginia, the Strode Bill of 1908 provided a subsidy fund to encourage elementary graded schools, which took the place of one-room and one-teacher schools in rural districts. The bill also set minimum sizes for schoolrooms, called for sanitary facilities, and provided for sight and hearing tests for all children.

By 1929 Blacksburg had one elementary, or graded, school, where eleven teachers taught 444 white students. Two primary schools served African-American students that year, but by 1935 the black community was using a single, two-room school. Called Blacksburg Negro Elementary, the school was located on Clay Street. Federal funds and state Literary Fund loans were secured in 1934 to build a grammar school for whites at the corner of Roanoke and Water (Draper Road) streets. Today that building, known as the Media Building, houses several units of Virginia Tech's Office of University Relations. By 1949 crowding in the school forced officials to schedule shifts for first and second graders, with first graders attending school from 8:30 a.m. to noon and second graders from noon to 3:30 p.m.

In 1952 the school board directed Superintendent Godbey to ask the Blacksburg Planning Commission and Town Council to recommend a site for the erection of a new Blacksburg Negro Elementary School, and later in the year, the board voted to purchase land at the intersection of Bennett Street and Harding Avenue for the site. At the same time, the board decided to close the Glade Negro School and bus that school's pupils to the new school. Constructed of brick, the new school had only two rooms for first through seventh grades. Residents of the area where the new school was proposed appeared as a delegation before the Blacksburg Town Council to protest its construction.

The year 1956 brought additional innovations to the schools in Blacksburg. The Kiwanis Club sponsored the first safety patrol, drawing twenty-seven male participants its first year. And the Junior Woman's Club of Blacksburg helped establish a special education class in a building owned by the Church of God across the street from Blacksburg Elementary School. One class of seventeen "emotionally handicapped" children got under way in the fall, meeting in the basement of the church.

On September 27, 1960, voters in the county approved a $3-million building program that included money for two elementary schools and an addition to the high school in Blacksburg.

After acquiring property for the elementary schools and on the recommendation of the Blacksburg PTA, the school board agreed to name the new school, which would be located on Tom's Creek Road and Watson Street, the Gilbert F. Linkous Elementary School after the board's longtime member and chair. Another new school on Airport Road would become the Margaret J. Beeks Elementary School, named after a longtime, award-winning teacher and principal. At the time, the school system included the Blacksburg Graded School for black students and the Blacksburg Elementary School for white students. In 1965 the board decided to sell the latter school property at public auction (it was purchased by Virginia Tech for $310,000 on September 15, 1965). When the Beeks school was completed in 1963, twenty black students applied to attend it, leaving enrollment at the graded school at six pupils. The board voted to close the graded school, located on Harding Street, giving its two teachers only thirty days notice. In 1964 the board opened bids for an addition to Beeks and moved the special education class from the old Blacksburg Elementary School on Roanoke Street to the armory property.

In 1972 the school board discussed the need for kindergarten spaces in existing schools and new schools to meet state requirements. The state required the submission of plans for county kindergarten programs by 1973, and the programs had to be operational immediately after the plans were approved. The board decided to construct a new elementary school on Harding Avenue in Blacksburg, which would house four kindergarten spaces. Additions to Beeks School would provide five kindergarten spaces, with identical units planned for Gilbert Linkous School. Even before kindergarten became a state-mandated education program, kindergarten-age children in Blacksburg had available to them the Blacksburg Kindergarten. The Methodist Church had opened the "school" on September 3, 1953, in the Church Annex.

The town's newest school, Kipps Elementary, opened in 1994 to more than 450 students in kindergarten through fifth grades. Naming the school created a flurry of suggestions and a number of letters to the editor in local papers. Faced with an overwhelming public dislike of the name officials had selected-West Blacksburg Elementary School-the school board decided to ignore its 1972 policy to name schools after their geographic location, opting instead to honor Mae and Florence Kipps, two sisters who had taught a combined total of seventy-five years at Blacksburg High School, by naming the school after them.

In recent years the private school has also reappeared as part of Blacksburg's educational environment. In 1971 a small group of parents and teachers opened the Blacksburg New School, an open school community funded by tuition that emphasizes self initiative. The school, which opened in a twelve-room frame house at 204 Roanoke Street, is ungraded although it uses public school grade level standards as a minimum requirement for each student. When it first opened, it spanned kindergarten through third grades, but by 1982 it had expanded to include the fifth grade. The school moved to larger facilities on Whipple Drive in 1986. In 1997 school officials announced plans to add a sixth grade for its thirty students and said that a seventh grade might be added later.

Another private school, the Montessori Primary School, opened in 1976 in two rooms of the Northside Presbyterian Church, serving a small class of pre-schoolers. Within seven years, it was seeking a site to build a facility for its first through third grades.

Twentieth-Century Education Issues

Several significant educational issues existed in parallel with debates over physical facilities during the twentieth century. One involved transportation for students to and from school and became an issue in 1924, when the school board determined that it would furnish no transportation for high school students "as the law does not provide for it." In 1933, however, the board changed its mind and purchased a bus. Before that time, wagons, trucks, and buses had been privately owned and operated under contract to the board. BHS served as the high school for an entire district, but pupils in outlying areas up to five miles away, who comprised three-fourths of the student body, had transportation problems. Students riding the four available buses to take children to high school in 1933-34 were charged $2 per pupil per month. Poor transportation availability and these charges made school attendance difficult for rural children and played a role in the relatively poor high school enrollment of county children. The fee was dropped in 1934-35, increasing high school enrollment by 20. In 1941 the board voted to prohibit the use of school buses to transport athletic teams, a decision that was rescinded in 1945, when the board decided that school buses could be used, with some reservations, for regularly scheduled ball games.

Married female teachers found themselves at the center of another issue. On June 23, 1934, the school board adopted a resolution against employing married women as teachers "except in cases where a married woman has an invalid husband and for that reason is not able to contribute to the support of the family, or where a married woman teacher has a husband who, without his own fault, is without employment and unable to get employment and for that reason cannot contribute to the support of the family." A bill of complaint asking for an injunction to restrain the board from acting on the resolution was filed five days later, but the court ruled in favor of the board. In 1940 the board decided that a woman teacher who married during the school term would not be allowed to complete the remainder of the school year. The resolution barring married women teachers remained in effect until August 9, 1941.

Another significant issue in the twentieth century revolved around integration. Tracy A. Martin, in her master's thesis "Black Education in Montgomery County, Virginia, 1939-1966," says that "most white Montgomery County residents followed the state's leadership" in defying the Supreme Court decision in 1954 to desegregate educational institutions. Ellison A. Smyth, in his book RetroSpect, remembers the attitudes prevailing in Virginia following the 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education. With Senator Harry Byrd calling for massive resistance and campaigning to close public schools rather than obey the court's ruling, "this resulted in sharp and determined divisions in the state. The politicians in the eastern part of the state especially, where there were more blacks, tended to support the Byrd dictum: close the schools rather than integrate." According to Smyth, an officer of the state PTA counseled the PTA in Blacksburg to stay out of the conflict and let politicians handle the issue. "When the floor was open for discussion, I asked why the PTA should not be concerned in a matter so deeply affecting the education of our children. Mary Linda [Smyth's wife] added a motion calling for a study of what could be done if an effort was made to close our Blacksburg School. After the meeting we were severely criticized for expressing such views."

But in Montgomery County, Martin reports, citizens followed the leadership of Virginia's U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, a strict segregationist, "first ignoring, then resisting, and finally delaying desegregation." On June 3, 1954, the Montgomery County School Board voted unanimously to support the ruling of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Dowell J. Howard, who had issued a memo calling for schools to operate on the same basis as always.

In Blacksburg, according to Smyth, the Ministers' Association asked the PTA to "petition the governor and legislature to re-open the closed schools [elsewhere in the state], and nullify the Massive Resistance laws." All Blacksburg ministers, "were united in the effort to maintain our public education system." Smyth and his like-minded friends, both black and white, worked to overturn the Massive Resistance program, resulting in the formation of the Council on Human Relations in Blacksburg. Meanwhile, the president of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Dr. Walter S. Newman, had closed all buildings on campus to any group with a black member, including the Association of University Women. In Newman's defense, a conceivable loss of state support for Virginia Tech may have spurred his action.

In April 1961 two black children, Phillip Harmon Price and Jacqueline Iris Lewis, applied to transfer from Christiansburg Institute to Blacksburg High School at the beginning of the 1961-62 term, followed soon after by a third student, Anna Christine Price, a seventh grader at the Blacksburg graded school. In a letter to the superintendent of schools, Reuben E. Lawson, the attorney for the students, requested that BHS be desegregated, and the applications of the students were forwarded to the State Pupil Placement Board for action. A cross burned on the grounds of BHS that spring was seen as a protest to integration. Apparently the students' request for transfer was denied because Montgomery County School Board minutes indicate in August 1961 that the pupil placement board was "holding hearings in Roanoke on appeals by Negroes originally denied transfers to white schools in Roanoke County, Blacksburg, and Lynchburg." Price and Lewis received assignments to BHS; they enrolled and attended their first classes on September 5, 1961. The application of the third student was denied by the placement board for scholastic reasons.

The board issued the county's desegregation plan in 1965 and wrote a letter to parents that "Montgomery County will not use the Christiansburg Institute as a regular high school beginning 1966-67." The board determined to operate CI for the remainder of 1966, then to sell the buildings and lands and invest the proceeds in the New River Vocational Technical School.

A more recent education issue in Blacksburg involved disagreement over whether Blacksburg Middle School should be moved to new facilities at a new site or should be expanded and its existing facilities renovated. Twice the Montgomery County School Board voted to build a new school on the outskirts of town, but the county's Board of Supervisors supported renovation or expansion of the present facilities. Two Virginia Tech architecture professors spearheaded a movement, which included a petition with 600 signatures, to renovate the downtown school, and in May 1997 the school board approved plans for an expanded and renovated Blacksburg Middle School.

Today's Schools in Blacksburg

On its 200 birthday, Blacksburg can boast five elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school as part of the public education of its children. Several private schools also operate within the town limits, and Virginia Tech remains a major force in the community.

Public Schools

Margaret Beeks Elementary School on Airport Road enrolls over 450 students in kindergarten through fifth grades. Harding Avenue Elementary School serves nearly 300 students. The new Kipps Elementary School on Prices Fork Road has about 470 students. Gilbert Linkous on Toms Creek Road enrolls more than 400 and includes special education classes, Chapter One Reading, and classes for children who speak English as a second language. And Price's Fork holds classes, including special education classes, for about 225 students.

The enrollment at Blacksburg Middle School-about 870-has forced the Montgomery County School Board to approve an expansion of the school building. The middle school includes grades six, seven, and eight and offers special education courses and high school credit courses. It serves students from Blacksburg, Price's Fork, McCoy, Mt. Tabor, and Ellett Valley.

Blacksburg High School serves over 900 students in grades nine through twelve. School facilities include fifty-two classrooms, an auditorium, gymnasium, computer lab media center, two vocational education shops, and a greenhouse. The high school offers advanced placement, honors, vocational, remedial, and special education courses.

Private Schools

Blacksburg Christian School on South Main Street enrolls about fifty-five students and serves kindergarten through sixth grades. Blacksburg New School on Whipple Drive, serves over forty children in kindergarten through sixth grades. Dayspring Early Learning Center and Christian Academy, located on the corner of Clay and Prospect streets, provides a Christian education to about 140 students, pre-school through twelfth grades. Gateway Christian Academy on Harding Road serves about 100 students in kindergarten through twelfth grades. And the Montessori Children's House and Elementary School provides toddler, pre-school, kindergarten, and primary programs for children eighteen months to nine years of age.


During the early part of its history and through much of the eighteenth century, Blacksburg was not unlike other communities in western Virginia in educating its children. But when Dr. Harvey Black and the Rev. Peter Whisner decided in 1872 to seek the state's land-grant money in a move to salvage the failing Preston and Olin Institute, the two men changed the face of education in Blacksburg. The institution established in Blacksburg through their efforts and through the support of the people of Montgomery County has evolved into the largest institution of higher education in the commonwealth-Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

The development of higher education has had substantial impacts on public education in Blacksburg. The highly educated populace that the university has enticed to Blacksburg has brought with it a keen awareness of the value of education, a value instilled in numerous Blacksburg children. That value is reflected in the educational achievements of Blacksburg's children. For example, Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores of seniors at Blacksburg High School in recent years have exceeded state and national averages, and about 85 percent of BHS seniors are accepted by colleges and universities. Education, then, is an important element in the life of Blacksburg as the town celebrates its bicentennial.

Clara B. Cox manages public service communications for Virginia Tech's Office of University Relations, where she is the managing editor of the public policy magazine, Virginia Issues & Answers. She wrote and co-edited Generations of Women Leaders at Virginia Tech and Images & Reflections: Virginia Tech, 1872-1995.


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