From: Garnett, William Edward, "A Social Study of the Blacksburg Community," 3-13. Blacksburg, Va.: Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station, 1935. F234 B5 G3 1935.

A Social Study Of The Blacksburg Community

by William Edward Garnett, Rural Sociologist

Community Backsgrounds

Present Setting

The Blacksburg community is located in the northwestern part of Montgomery County, Virginia, 230 miles west of Richmond. It is approximately 20 miles long and 8 miles long. The town of Blacksburg, near the summit of the western slope of the Alleghany divide, at an elevation of 2,150 feet, is near the center. From the standpoint of climate, and location with reference to transportation and marketing outlets, the community has a fairly favorable location. The scenery is unusually beautiful and inspiring. The area is bordered or crossed by several mountain ranges with an average elevation of 2,400 feet. Roanoke valley, which extends from Blacksburg ten miles north to the county line, varies in width from one-half to two miles. It drains east to the Atlantic. The Blacksburg valley extending southwest to New River is from four to six miles wide. The drainage of this section reaches the sea though the New, the Ohio, and the Mississippi rivers. A number of small valleys and coves branch back from these two main valleys. One long, narrow valley on the western border of the area drains north into the James River. Something like a fourth of the surface of the area is taken up by steep mountins which are not in farms. The rolling hill topography, typical of limestone regions, is found in the larger valleys.

Natural resources.--The soils of the better-lying land derived from the limestone formation are of good fertility. Land on the mountain slopes tends to be thin and rough. The same is true of the land derived from sandstone and shale of which there are considerable areas on the mountain slopes and ridges. The 1930 census reported 44,190 acres in farms.

In addition to the farm land, other natural resources of the area include coal, sandstone, and limestone suitable for building purposes and for use in road building, as well as for the porduciton of quick and hydrated lime. Buhrstone, which is used for millstones, is also found. The several types of stone are not extensively quarried. It is estimated that the area has more than 200,000,000 (1) tons of coal, a large amount of which is mined annually. Much of the coal is more than 2,000 feet below the surface.

Although most of the mountain slopes and about one-fifth of the farm land are covered with woods, there is little remaining timber of commercial size. The area normally has an abundance of water for all purposes. The water supply for the town of Blacksburg and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute comes from three large springs.

Climate.--The average annual precipitation at Blacksburg from 1893 through 1934 was 41.54 inches. The rainfall is normally well distributed during the growing season, although in some years it falls short of good crop requirements. The mean temperature for January over a 29-year period was 32.9 degrees, and for August, 62.9 degrees. The average length of growing season for the period was 160 days, with April 29 as the average date of the last killing frost in the spring, and October 7 as the average date of the first killing frost in the fall.

Power.--Electric power is furnished the town of Blacksburg by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute power plant. The several mining centers are served by the Appalachian Electric Power Company. Its line crosses the community three miles south of Blacksburg. Few of the other rural neighborhoods have electric lines. By prevailing commercial standards the rates for electricity are fairly reasonable; by TVA standards they are high.(2)

Transportation facilities.--The community is fairly well provided with transportation facilities (Figure 1). A branch railroad connects Blacksburg with the main line of the Norfolk and Western at Christiabnsburg, 8 miles distant. The line of the Virginian railway also crosses the community. The community has a regular bus service. State highway 112, one of the standard routes to West Virginia and points west, and state highway 8, which follows the old pioneer trail down Roanoke valley, cross at Blacksburg. The Lee Highway is only a short distance from the community. Some of the less important roads are still bad in winter. Until quite recent times most of the roads of the whole community were poor. Before the general improvement of roads and the advent of automobiles many neighborhoods were quite isolated.

Early Influences

The Blacksburg community has a history of more than ordinary importance to stimulate community pride and challenge future accomplishments. Before the coming of the white man this section was an important point on the Indian trails from the Ohio, and Mississippi, and the southwest, to the Shenandoah valley (Figure 2). The first permanent English settlement beyond the Alleghenies was located here in or about 1744.(3) As the southwestern terminus of the pioneer road along the route of the old Indian trail, which the court at Orange House ordered to be cleared in 1745, the settlements at Draper's Meadow and at the bend of the New River were important pioneer outposts. Across the New River ford near the mouth of Tom's Creek, and a a little later over the nearby ferries of Pepper (Figure 3) and of Ingles passed much of the stream of pioneers who settled southwest Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Over this route, too, passed the output of the lead mines located near Fort Chiswell some distance beyond, which, together with the powder made at Joseph McDonald's on Tom's Creek, was important to the Revolutionary armies.

The Indian massacre at Draper's Meadow in 1755 and the story of the capture of Mrs. Ingles and her escape and safe return home after two years of captivity among the Indians in Ohio did much to make the community known. The same is true of the activities of Col. William Preston, the leading local citizen of his time, friend of Washington, pioneer military leader, surveyor, high sheriff, member of the court, and agent of the government for this whole frontier section, as well as progenitor of one of the most noted family lines of the old South. The Yellow Sulphur Springs on the eastern edge of the community was in pre-Civil War days, and until recent years, a noted summer resort which drew patronage from as far away as South Carolina. As shown in the population section, an unusually large proportion of the present population traces back to early settlers.

Since 1872 this community has been the seat of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, an institution whose work ramifies into every corner of the state and of the nation. The thousands of homes represented in its student body have an interest in this community. Furthermore, through the summer institutes and other events at the college the community annually entertains several thousand visitors.

With the inspiration of such an historic background, with its opportunities and responsibilities as the seat of a great public institution, and with its own needs for well-balanced community life, a high degree of community pride and loyalty or community spirit might reasonably be expected. This spirit prevails to a fair degree. That it is not as well developed as would seem desirable is indicated by various conditions set forth in this bulletin.

Neighborhood Groupings

In addition to the town of Blacksburg the community, or the Blacksburg high school and trade area, includes 24 fairly distinct rural neighborhoods each with from 10 to 75 families. The town also has several distinct area groupings. The number of homes, churches, stores, and other institutions in a given neighborhood, as shown in Figure 1, indicates something of its relative strength. thus 9 of the rural neighborhoods have a school, one or more stores, and one or more churches; 6 have a church and a school; 2 a school and a store; 2 a church and a store; 3 a school only; 2 a church only; and 1 no institutions. Furthermore, 5 railway stations and 6 have regular meeting of several types of community organizations.

Agriculture is the primary interest in 11 of the rural neighborhoods while mining is the chief occupation in 6. Most of the mountain coves in the early days had only a few families. As their descendants increased they built cabins and cleared up a patch of ground higher up the creek or on the poorer and rougher land of the mountain sides where they were frequently joined by family connections or others unable to get a foothold in more favorable locations. Thus there have developed several neighborhoods which approach slum conditions. The holdings are too small or too poor and rough for the farming to give much support. So the men are dependent on outside work at odd jobs, especially since the timber has been exhausted. The institutions of such neighborhoods are usually sub-standard but the people have poor facilities for getting to better centers.

With a few exceptions the rural neighborhood groupings are of long standing. The improvement of transportation facilities and changes in trade practices have had some tendency to weaken neighborhood consciousness in the less well-developed units. This tendency is also promoted by the policy of school consolidation with bus transportation of children, and especially by the concentration of all high school work for the district at Blacksburg. The high school, however, rarely brings its patrons together in any kind of community-wide events which would tend to develop community-wide consciousness and thus weaken local loyalties. Furthermore, the policy of the agricultural department of the high school, whereby evening school meetings are held in the local neighborhood centers rather than at the central high school, tends to keep such centers alive. The local clubs of the extension service have the same effect. The churches are also an influence against the abandonment of local centers. Thus there are several influences tending to perpetuate local neighborhood units as well as forces working in the opposite direction. The quality of local neighborhood leadership has much to do with the continued life and strength of the local neighborhood units. For instance, superior local leadership makes one neighborhood, only two miles from Blacksburg, one of the lives of the whole district. Under average conditions town influences would tend to undermine local group life in an area so close to town.

Community Development

It was the consensus of opinion of the local leaders who had given serious thought to the matter that community pride and loyalty and a general sense of responsibility for community well-being are essential to the best community life and community development. It was also felt that in a village-centered community such as the one under consideration where business, high school, medical and other services for the whole area are concentrated in the village, that the interests of the whole area are bound up together. It was thought, therefore, that more community-wide thinking, loyalties, and activities than prevail at present are desirable. As a means of strengthening this phase of community life more frequently community events and ceremonials designed to arouse community pride, loyalties, and "we"-feeling were suggested, also more meetings of leaders from the whole area for informal discussion, and more public consideration of community needs.

The Population Foundation

The make-up and characteristics of its population determine in a large measure the utilization of the resources of a community, the strength of its institutions and the whole tone of its life. The importance of a community's population base, therefore, can not be too strongly emphasized.

Numbers and Growth

From Table 1, which gives the population growth of the town and the rural part of the community for the past 50 years, it will be seen that the population growth of the Blacksburg Community has in recent years been more rapid than that of either the county or the state as a whole.

Table 1. Population Growth of Blacksburg and Town and District Compared with County and State, 1880-1930
Year Total Town Town and District Montgomery County Virginia
Number Increase Percent Number Increase Percent Number Increase Percent Increase Percent Increase Percent
1930 6,844 12.2 1,406 28.4 5,438 8.7 5.4 4.9
1920 6,100 22.3 1,095 25.1 5,005 21.7 7.7 12.0
1910 4,989 14.1 875 13.9 4,114 14.1 9.0 11.2
1900 4,373 16.0 768   3,605   10.7 12.0
1890 3,769 18.9         6.3 9.5
1880 4,649 30.4 688   3,961   32.9 23.5
Table note: Increase is over previous census period.

This growth indicates comparatively favorable opportunities in this community. In the 1920-1930 decade the population growth of the town was about three times that of the rural area. Since around a fourth of the town's population of 1930 was outside of the corporate limits, the town's increase was in fact about five times as much as that of the district (Corporate limits were extended January 1, 1935). The population of the rural district is 1,833 more than it was 30 years ago. It is questionable, however, whether the resources for sustaining such an increase have grown in the same proportion. The district population is 49 per square mile of farm land but much of this land is too rough for cultivation. Of the 5,438 people in the district in 1930, 3,989 or 73.3 percent were classed as nonfarm. The aerate number of births per year for the town and district combined for 1931-1933 was 150 as compared to 56 deaths. Hence the yearly births exceeded deaths by 94. The 1930 census reported 570 children under 5 years of age per 1,000 white women 15 to 45 years of age, as compared to 472 for the state as a whole, or an excess for this area of 98 above the state average.

Table2. Population of Blacksburg Town and District by Age Groups, 1930.
Age Groups Total District Town
White Negro White Negro White Negro
under 6 833 51 701 40 182 11
7-19 1,732 134 1,376 107 356 27
15-19 671 56 533 45 138 11
20-24 563 41 447 33 116 8
20-64 3,226 219 2,563 174 663 45
65 and up 358 26 284 21 74 5
Table note: The census gives the population of the town and the district, but age
groupings only for the county as a whole. The figures in the table were derived by applying
the percentage the town and district population is of the whole county population to each age group.
They are, therefore, only approximately correct.

Age Groupings

The several age groupings, such as those of the pre-school period, school children, adolescent youth, the middle aged, and the elderly, have widely varying interests and needs which community institutions and organizations must take into account. How well the special needs of a given group can be met is somewhat dependent on the size of the group in a given neighborhood. The approximate number in each such group for the area as a whole is given in Table 2. Those mostly dependent on parental support, constitute practically half of the total.

Ancestral Backgrounds

A high percentage of the present population of the Blacksburg Community traces back to the original settlers who came into the area between 1744 and 1800. In this connection Table 3 is of interest. The original settlers were mostly Germans and Scotch-Irish. After the close of the Revolutionary War some of the liberated Hessian soldiers of Burgoyne's Army, who had been interned in Albemarle County, joined the ranks of their fellow countrymen in the German New River settlements who had previously come to this country for religious reasons. Services are said to have been conducted in the German language in Old St. Peter's Lutheran Church as late as 1840, and in the German language used, in part at least, in the homes.

The German element has long since merged into the general population although certain physical and psychical traits reminiscent of their ancestral background are frequently apparent in present family strains. The same is true of the descendants of the Scotch-Irish settlers. The tendency of families of German ancestry to affiliate with the Lutheran Church has been something of a special group-forming influence.

Approximately 15 percent of the pre-Civil War families owned slaves. The 1870 census reported 678 Negroes in the community as compared to the 455 reported in 1930. The Negroes constitute 6.7 percent of the population. The 1930 census also reported 23 foreign born in the area. Several of the Negro families have a pronounce infusion of Indian blood. Approximately one-fourth of the families of the town were brought here by the college. The list includes natives of more than 25 states. Blacksburg, therefore, has an unusually cosmopolitan population for a small town. A large percentage of the town's population, however, is derived from the surrounding countryside.

Table 3. Some Family Names Appearing on Early Land Books, Wills, Marriage or Baptismal Records
with the Number of Families of the Same Name Now on the Land Books of the Town or District.
Partial List of Family Names Appearing Prior To 1800 Number of Families of Same Name now in --- Partial List of Family Names Appearing Prior to 1800 Number of Families of Same Name now in ---
Town District Town District
Argabrite 4   Kessinger   4
Black 3 2 Linkous 3 34
Barger   1 McDonald 1  
Bingham 1   McCoy 2 18
Broce 3 9 Miller 1  
Croy 1   Preston 1  
Draper   2 Price 12 99
Dobyns   3 Rutledge 3 1
Evans   4 Robinson 2 7
Gardner 3 1 Sheppard   36
Gray 7   Surface   8
Hale 1 5 Stanger 1 6
Henderson 3 8 Schaeffer (Shafer) 3 1
Harmon   1 Schufflebarger   1
Helms 2 3 Thomas   3
Harless   7 Wall 2 9
Heavener   3 Lybrook 3 1
Keister 6 12      

Sources: Heavner, U. S. A., "German New River Settlements," published privately. Summers, L.P., History of Southwest Virginia, J. L. Printing Co., Richmond, Virginia. Montgomery County Real Estate Tax Books.

Table notes: In addition to the names on the land books there are a number of families of these names who own no real estate. There are also many representatives of some of these families in other parts of Montgomery county and in adjoining counties. These blood lines are also represented in many other families through marriage.

Records of various kinds indicate that these familiees for the most part have been continuous residents of the community although in many cases the spelling of the names, especially those of German descent have been changed, viz., Heavener has Hefner, Heffner, Heffener, Hafner, Haffner, Haffener, Hevner, Hevener, Hevenner, Hivenner; Price has been Pruss, Prieisch, Prenz; Smith has been Schmidt; and Shepperd has been Shepper.

Some additional names appearing prior to 1800 not represented now, or whose present numbers were not counted are: Patton, Cull, Leppard, Loy, Sharp. Ingles, Thompson, King, McGee, Lyons, Gifford, Charlton, Goodrick, Perterman, Crawford, Little, Wade, Wilson, Bell, Hall, Beaver, Haymaker, Byrns, Lawson, Hammet, Shells, Pepper, Wickson, Hobe, Martin, Hossler, Lohr, Messler, Muller, Sailor, Behringer, Tralinger, Ruffer, Schele, Flick, Att, Tabor, McClure, and Smith.


  1. Humbert, R. L., Holden, R. J., and others. Industrial Survey of Montgomery COunty and City of Radford, Virginia. Engineering Extension Division, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Blacksburg, Virginia. April, 1929. Page 16.

  2. Cook, M. L. "What Electricity Should Cost." New Republic. May 1, 1935.

  3. The date of settlement is given in most histories of the area as 1748. However, since most of these histories were written, an old road order applying to this section and dated 1745 has been discovered. This order refers by name to a number of families already settled in the area.

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