V.11, NO.2

In and Out of Context Blacksburg's "Roots"

Since much of this issue of CONTEXT is being devoted to Virginia Tech's hometown of Blacksburg, it seems appropriate here to give some historical background about the town, now the state's largest "non-city." Predating formation of the town itself was an early frontier settlement, founded by James Patton around 1748 and called Draper’s Meadow after a family living there (in the area near the present day University Duck Pond). Patton and a nephew, William B. Preston, carried military supplies to Draper’s Meadow in July 1755 to defend to settlement, but while they were there some Shawnee Indians perpetrated a terrible surprise massacre, killing Patton and most of the 10 families of settlers. Preston escaped however, and in 1772 acquired much of his uncle’s lands, including Draper's Meadow and acreage to the west and southwest. On this land he built a plantation house, surrounded it by a stockade, and moved his family there in 1774. Preston named the plantation "Smithfield," in honor of his wife, Susannah Smith Preston. Preston died in 1823. After Susannah died, her son James Patton Preston (later Governor of Virginia) inherited the estate. In 1843, after James’s death, the land was divided into three estates-"Smithfield," "Solitude," and "Whitethorn"--inherited by his sons, William Ballard, Robert T., and Francis Preston, respectively. The three estate houses still exist today, although somewhat altered. "Smithfield" was restored from a dilapidated condition by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities in the 1960s, was designated a State Historic Landmark in 1969, and is now open to the public from March to November or by appointment. "Whitethorn" was completed in 1857 and acquired by Stockton Heth in 1892; members of the Heth family still occupy the house at 200 Monticello Lane in the new Hethwood residential subdivision. "Solitude" house was built in 1859 and still stands near the University Duck Pond. This house, 250 acres of land, and several farm building on the estate were purchased from Robert T. Preston at $85 per acre by the first Board of Visitors (of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College) in October, 1872, and became part of the college property. "Solitude" is now the oldest structure still standing on the Virginia Tech Campus and has been used for a variety of activities down through the years. About the same time "Smithfield" plantation was begun, two brothers, John and William Black, came to the area, each with a claim to 700 acres of land lying at the headwaters of Strouble’s Creek, slightly to the northeast of Preston's estate. As the number of settler’s grew in the community, William Black decided that it would be advisable to lay out and establish a town; and this he did by dedicating about 39 acres of his land for that purpose in 1793. Four years later Black petitioned the Virginia legislature to authorize the establishment of Blacksburg as an un-incorporated town. His petition read, in part: "...your petitioner having in piece of ground, in healthy climate, furtile [sic] neighborhood, with excellent springs thereon, agreeably & well situated for a small town, did at the request of a number of his friends & neighbors, lay off thirty-eight acres three quarters of an acre & twenty five poles of the same into lotts [sic] & streets, & disposed of a number of the sd [sic] lotts [sic], the purchaser of which, hath built & are now building several houses thereon."

The General Assembly approved Black’s petition on Jan. 13, 1798, and on Aug. 4, 1798, he signed over a deed to seven trustees for the town, one of whom was James Patton Preston. The trustees then sold lots to 26 people, some of whose surnames are still familiar in the area (e.g., Price, Barger, Argabrite, Croy, Rutledge, Stanger, Peterman). Only two of the original street names are still in existence--Main and Roanoke. The original town was laid off into 16 blocks, bound by what are now Draper Rd. (then Water St.) on the southwest, Jackson on the northwest, Wharton on the northeast, and Clay on the southeast. Each block originally contained four lots. Lot owners were required to build a house not less than 70 feet square, "fit to reside in with a brick or stone chimney."0 IF this were not accomplished from 2-5 years, the title to the land ceased. The earliest dwellings were log construction for the most part. The town also soon could claim a meeting house, general merchandise store, blacksmith, tannery, and tavern. William Black, the town's founder, moved to Albemarle County two years later. Harvey Black, a descendant of William's brother, John, would later become first rector of the V.A.M.C. Board of Visitors.

The town of Blacksburg grew slowly, but steadily over the next three-quarters of a century. Although there were crudely constructed log churches early in the town's history, the Presbyterians built a church of brick on Main St. in 1847. This building, the oldest structure still standing on Main St., is now the "117 South Main" bar, grill and night club; the original deacons and elders must be tossing in their graves! Not to be outdone, the Methodists, led by Col. Robert Preston, declared that "the Methodists should build a church wider than the Presbyterian Church and higher than the Presbyterian Church"; this bit of one-upmanship was accomplished when the Methodist's new church was completed on Church St. It was torn down in 1905 to make room for the even larger Whisner Memorial Methodist Church building which still stands today as an annex to the present, newer church. The oldest church building in continuous use in Blacksburg is the Christ Episcopal Church, built in 1875.

Blacksburg's Methodist leaders were responsible in the 1850s for establishing what would become the forerunner to the state's first land grant college, when a "seminary of learning" was opened "for the instruction of [male] youth in the various branches of science and literature, and the useful arts, and the learned and foreign languages." This school, named the Olin and Preston Institute (after Rev. Stephen Olin, a distinguished Methodist educator, and William Ballard Preston, owner of "Smithfield"), opened in 1855. This building (destroyed by fire in 1913) was located on a hillside, facing southeast down Main St. at a point through which Main St. is now four-laned between College Ave. and the Mall entrance to the University. The school soon went heavily into debt and was sold in 1859 to settle a claim against it. The new owner, John N. Lyle, agreed to let the school's trustees continue operations, but the Civil War forced the school to close. Following the war, Lyle's executor -- Lyle had died in the interim -- sold the school to a new board of trustees which reopened it with collegiate standing under the name, Preston and Olin Institute. While debates raged between various factions in the state legislature as to where Virginia would establish its proposed land - grant college for agriculture and the mechanic arts, the Preston and Olin trustees also decided to enter the competition for the Morrill Land Grant funds. State Senator John E. Penn suggested in the debates that the Montgomery County citizens might be able to contribute $20,000 if the funds went to the school in Blacksburg, and with this inducement, the Senate decided to accept the offer. The House of Delegates followed suit the following day, March 14, 1872. Montgomery County citizens went to the polls in May and voted to issue the necessary bonds to appropriate the promised money. Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, now Virginia Tech, opened its doors for the first time in the old Preston and Olin building on Oct. 1, 1872. It was would later become the state's largest institution of higher learning and have a profound influence on the growth and demographic makeup of Blacksburg and the surrounding area. Following the opening of the state's land grant college, the town began to grow more rapidly. Blacksburg was incorporated by the General Assembly in 1871, the year before V.A.M.C. was established. A Blacksburg business directory in 1877 listed two each dry goods stores, hotels or inns, jewelers, painters, tailors, and carriage makers; and one each general merchandise store, cabinet maker, attorney, dentist, photographer, milliner, tanner, carpenter, contractor, blacksmith, bank, drugstore, hardware store, boot and shoe shop, and stirrup shop. The short-lived BLACKSBURG POST in 1896 said that the town had eight good stores on Main St., a barber shop, two doctors, and "oysters in season." The town got its first telegraph service in 1874 ( over a line built by some college students from Blacksburg to Chrisitiansburg ); first electric light service in 1891 (started by the college power plant in 1890 and later extended in to town) ; its first telephone (in President John M. McByrde’s office ) in 1898; its first rail service (via the Virginia Anthracite Coal & Railway Co. ) and first hard surfaced road ( a macadamized road to Christiansburg ) in 1904; and its first movie house in 1909 (the original Lyric Theatre.) Both the college and the town received water supplies from local springs and wells until 1957, when the Blacksburg-Christiansburg-VPI Water Authority inaugurated its system of bringing water from the New River.

Blacksburg's population in 1924 was 1,110; in 1940, it was 2,133; in 1950, 3,352, in 1960 about 7,000; and in 1973 jumped from about 12,00 to approximately 24,000 when the town annexed the Virginia Tech campus and upped its area from about to more than 18 square miles. The current population estimate is about 32,000 with 40,000 seen by 1980.

Blacksburg's weather has always been a topic of conversation, and this winter's weather has been among the worst since records began in 1893. While January, 1977, will go down in the record books as having the coldest mean temperature of any month on record so far, the lowest temperature ever recorded for Blacksburg was a minus-27 degrees on Dec. 30, 1917. The winter of 1917-18 recorded 59 inches of snow, too, but the winter of 1959-60 was the all-time worst in that category with a total snowfall of 79.57 inches.


J. M. Robertson's article from the winter 1977 Context

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Last updated January 26, 1998