A Brief History of the Blacksburg Area

R.D. Michael
December 7, 1953

Since the white man likes history written in terms of his own exploits, a brief record of events in what is now the Blacksburg community might begin:

"The first white man to climb the steep Indian trail from the valley of the Roanoke river to the plateau that slopes westward to the New river was William Blank. He passed this way about 1645, a captive of the Indians."

The recorded history of the region is so sketchy that only exhaustive research would determine, if indeed it could at all, who was the first "paleface" to visit this area. But it is recorded, in their own words, that the explorers Thomas Batte and Robert Fallam on September 13, 1671, rode out upon a wide plateau of "curious rising hills and brave meadows with grass about a man's height." They, too, had crossed the divide between the waters flowing eastward and those flowing westward to the New River and the Ohio.

The next exploration of record was that of Dr. Thomas Walker in 1748, an expedition that left on the banks of Strouble's creek, one of several that traverse the plateau, a group of settlers who hunted and farmed in and about "Draper's Meadows." But they were not the first settlers here, for family histories establish that several Germans had settled near the New river shortly before, notably Adam Harmon, Michael Price, and Philip Barger. There was also, not many years ago, an old tombstone near Glen Lynn carrying the legend, "Mary Porter was killed by the Indians Nov. 28, 1742.

The Indians were content to let these earlier settlers alone -- for awhile. They frequently pilfered property of one kind or another, 'tis true, but for the most part peace reigned on the plateau. The atmosphere changed with the French and Indian War, however, and just three weeks after General Braddock's defeat at the Forks of the Ohio in 1755, the Indians killed or captured all but one of the Draper's Meadows settlement.

With the building of stockade forts throughout the area, offering sanctuary from the marauders, some settlers of the area stayed on; others left to return as the raids became less frequent following the end of the war.

One of the latter was John Black, who returned in 1772 to this "Jamestown of the West," where many migrants paused for awhile and then moved on to newer frontiers, bringing his brother William with him. They each had claim to 700 acres of land lying at the headwaters of Stroubles creek.

In 1773 William Preston of Augusta county acquired a large grant of land which presumably took in the unclaimed western portions of the Blacksburg plateau and many acres of land to the southwest. With his wife Susanna he established "Smithfield," save Draper's Meadows the most historical place in the area. Their home was begun before the Revolutionary War but was not completed until several years thereafter, since colonel Preston was busy with frontier fighting. Of many illustrious descendants of William and Susanna were two governors of Virginia, both born at Smithfield.

A little later, with the gradual spread of the interloping white men, Fincastle county was divided in 1776 into the counties of Montgomery, Kentucky, and Washington.

As the years passed, where two main Indian trails once joined to lead westward became a thriving place dense enough in population to suggest to founding fathers that a town be properly laid out and established. Christiansburg had already been founded, in 1790.

So of their land, William Black and his wife Jane signed a deed to seven trustees on August 4, 1798, for 34 3/4 acres and 20 poles of land. An act of the Assembly of January 13 of that same year had authorized the privileges of an unincorporated town. That the land was actually laid out in 1793, as some records indicate, is substantiated by William Black's petition to the State, dated November 1797, which reads in part:

"...Your petitioner having a piece of ground, in a healthy climate, a furtile 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 & streets, & disposed of a number of the sd lotts, the purchaser of which, hath built & are now building several houses thereon."

Each block of the original 16, bounded by Water street on the southwest, Jackson on the northwest, Wharton on the northeast, and Clay on the southeast, consisted of four lots each eight by nine poles. (These are present street names; some have been changed since the founding.) Except for deeds to these lots, little of the activity of those early trustees is recorded.

Although the town grew steadily, acquiring stores, inns, tanneries, and various trades, it was nearly 80 years before town incorporation was established by Charter from the State. The first official record of local government in Blacksburg, found in the first known minute book of Council, states that a group of men met April 15, 1871, to organize a Town government under a Charter of only three short sections granted by the Legislature of Virginia, approved March 22, 1871. "By-laws of the Corporation," the first extant code of local law, were issued June 14, 1875. New Charters have been obtained from time to time since then: in 1896, 1912, 1942, and 1950.

Very few of the homes or other buildings placed in those early days on lots of the "old town" still stand. Of those that have stood a hundred years or more, the oldest by the records is the present Colonial Inn, built in 1802 by Peck. The Odd Fellows Hall at the corner of Main and Lee streets was once the Presbyterian Church, built in 1847. Across from it on Main Street is a residence built by John Spickard, and at 206 Main street a residence that was once servant quarters, both built before 1850. On Penn street at 103, and at the corner of Wharton and Roanoke streets are residences built between 1830 and 1835.

These early settlers lived close to God. The family bible and worship in homes meant s much to them as the new land from which they prospered. But sectarianism was already flourishing. Lutheranism cam first with the Germans. Three miles west of the present Blacksburg a monument marks "St. Peter's Evangelical Lutheran Church 1750-1885...the first church west of the Alleganies and the third Lutheran Church in Virginia." The Lutherans first established a church in town in 1883.

Methodism was also strong in the area by the latter part of the 18th Century. When the town was laid out, lot 40 was assigned to the Methodists, who promptly built a log church, which was also used by the Presbyterians until about 1830. The Methodists built a new church on the same site, a brick one, in 1840, with a gallery for slaves.

The Presbyterians built their first church in 1833 and a brick one in 1847. They "were rejoicing considerably and naturally over their successful effort, " so wrote Prof. T. N. Conrad, "when Col. Bob Preston, in his characteristic style, declared that the Methodists should build 'a church wider than the Presbyterian church and higher than the Presbyterian church,' which was done (but not until 1906). The Baptist church, a brick building which stood where now the present church stands, was built next. It went to ruins during the war."

Occasional services in homes were held by Episcopalians beginning in 1856; then regular services in a college class room began in 1873. They erected their first, and present, church building in 1875.

The St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1857, with a building later on in the same location as the present one on Penn street. The First Baptist Church was founded by Negro worshippers in 1874 and also maintains its original location on Clay street.

The Christian Church was founded in 1903, occupying the building vacated by the Baptists. Catholics of the community began holding services in homes some years before 1924, the date of their first building which still stands on Wilson Street. Their new edifice on Progress street was erected in 1948. A Wesleyan Methodist Church was founded here in 1939. They built in 1941 on Center street. The Church of God purchased its Blacksburg home form the Baptists in 1951.

Professor Conrad's "Early Blacksburg History" was recorded, incidentally, in the Blacksburg News of 1881, Vol. 1, No. 1. Whether there were issues other than that July 29 one, no one seems to know. There was a Blacksburg Post published in 1896, a Home News in 1916, and a Blacksburg Bugle in 1938 -- all short-lived.

From Conrad's account we learn that following the establishment of a town, "soon two or three dwellings, one log meeting house, one store, one blacksmith shop, one tannery and one tavern constituted Blacksburg."

"The log church or meeting house stood where the Presbyterian parsonage now stands, in which the pioneer preacher thundered the law in the ears of his primitive hearers." Of the houses Conrad wrote, "They were all made of logs, generally of one story, without a floor and rarely a nail used in their construction."

"Traveling was done altogether on horseback. As late as 1833 no light vehicle could be seen in or around Blacksburg. Trips to Richmond on horseback, a distance of two hundred and forty miles or more, were then common occurrence." School was taught in one of the homes and the neighborhood had a physician, Dr. John Floyd, who later became Governor of Virginia. "An epoch in building was marked by the erection of a brick house..." Conrad relates. "Soon travel or trade required a large tavern, and Mr. Rutledge built the hotel now occupied by Mrs. Mateer, and, to the wonder of the passer-by, painted it red."

"...The village had become quite a town and the inhabitants quite thrifty. The County Court had appointed Col. Rob. T. Preston, Chas. Black and Younger Hardwick to open a road to Overholtz' tannery, now Newport, and Alex Black was surveyor...There was then another road westward, called Bean Station road, or Crabb Orchard road...The road fever then began...The Salem and Pepper's Ferry road was opened...

"The Citizens felt the necessity of a female school and at once undertook the enterprise." By 1881 the Female Seminary building was the public school. It's four-room are part of the present old building used as part of the grade school.

"The first bank" (Conrad used few dates) "occupied the corner room of Amiss' hotel, now Mr. Bodell's house," he wrote. Other records show that The Farmers Bank of Virginia acquired this building, on the corner of Main and Roanoke streets where the present National Bank stands, in 1856. But in 1881 Professor Conrad noted that "The late war cut short its career and made a muddle of no ordinary consistency." The National Bank of Blacksburg was founded in 1833 and the Farmers & Merchants Bank in 1920.

"The great enterprise of Blacksburg," Conrad's history continues, "and its pet project was Olin and Preston Institute. The citizens combined with the Methodist Church to put this Institution in effective condition." It was established in 1854, its one building standing on the hill about where the V.P.I. mall now enters Main street. It thrived for about eight years but was closed during the war, reopening in 1868 as the Preston and Olin Institute. Four years later, following successful efforts of local citizens led by Dr. Harvy Black, the building, some of the institute's faculty, and $20,000 were turned over to the State for the establishment of a land-grant college known as Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and alter as Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Professor Conrad was the last president of Preston and Olin Institute and remained on the faculty of the new one, becoming its president in 1886.

The business interests; of the town at the time were, perhaps, better organized than in recent years. A photograph of August 1877 called "Blacksburg Business Directory" carries the trade signs of the following: two each of drygoods stores, hotels or inns, jewelers, painters, tailors, and carriage makers; and one each of general merchandise, cabinet maker, attorney, dentist, photographer, milliner, tanner, carpenter, contractor, blacksmith, bank, drugstore, hardware, boot and shoe, and "Conway safety stirrup for gentlemen's and ladies' saddles."

From another of the few documents about an earlier Blacksburg, we read in the Blacksburg Post of 1896 that three hacks made daily trips to meet trains at Christiansburg and that some laxity in law enforcement had been remedied by a change in local government. The Post praises the town for having eight good stores on Main street, a good barber shop, and oysters in season. It mentions a new bank location and the availability of Drs. Kent Black and William Henderson.

Two other news accounts of a generation later give interesting commentary. In 1920 a "Law and Order League" was organized, mainly, it appears, to combat the illicit traffic in alcohol. And in 1921 an effort to organize a Parent-Teachers Association died with the decision that the "town is already overstocked with organizations."

Not only can Blacksburg claim a first settlement and first church east of the Alleghanies, it can also claim the first independent telegraph service in Virginia and one of the first incandescent lighting systems in the country.

In 1874, when telegraph service followed the railroads only, a group of students built a connecting line from Blacksburg to Christiansburg, which served the community until a branch-line railroad connected the two towns in 1904. The railroad was the Virginia Anthracite Coal and Railway Company, later acquired by the Norfolk and Western.

In 1891 the college installed an electric light plant for its own use and the service was shortly thereafter extended to the adjoining town. The Montgomery Intelligence Company started a telephone system in the town in 1898. And a motion picture theater was opened in 1909, remaining in almost continuous operation ever since, with changes in location, and joined by a second theater in 1930.

In 1904 the highway to Christiansburg was macademized, and in 1929-30 and again in 1934 it was extensively improved. The college began work on an airport in 1929, which was put into operation in 1931 and more than doubled in size in 1940. Cultural advancement is evidenced by the formation of a community concert association, with college leadership, in 1936. In that year, too, an Armory building for the town was proudly dedicated.

Until very recent years, the community's only industry had been the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, the history of which is adequately recorded elsewhere. Blacksburg's growth has been gradual, as has that of the college, except of the World War II spurt injected by the development a few miles distant of the vast Hercules powder plant and the return of war veterans to college. It has, of course, enjoyed the usual advancements customary to a small but flourishing community, some of them directly the result of association with the college.

Much of community life has, admittedly, received herein inadequate treatment; but as stated earlier, much that has happened during the 200 years that the white man has lived on the Blacksburg plateau has not been recorded, or if recorded, is either lost or inaccessible. Only the highlights from available material have been here assembled. Perhaps some day an able historian will find the leisure years in which to correct and fulfill the records.

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Last updated November 7, 1997