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Looking back: Glimpses of the life of Virginia Tech's first student

by Clara B. Cox

The author expresses appreciation to John Straw, Catherine Wingfield-Yeatts, and Glenn McMullen of the University Libraries Special Collections Department; Jane Johnston, a Craig County historian; D.L. Kinnear, a Virginia Tech historian; and several relatives of William Addison Caldwell for contributions of information and for suggestions of sources, without which this article would not have been possible.


But for a long walk from Sinking Creek in Craig County to Blacksburg on October 1, 1872, William Addison Caldwell may never have attained his singular position in the history of Virginia Tech.

His trek over mountains and through valleys on that particular autumn day, however, ended in the Preston and Olin Building, where 16-year-old "Add" became the first student to register at the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (V.A.M.C.), the commonwealth's new land-grant institution that eventually became Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Born on January 10, 1856--probably in his parents' home--at Sinking Creek in Craig County, Va., Add Caldwell was the second of George Charlton and Lorena Givens Caldwell's nine children. Generation after generation of Caldwells had lived in Craig's valleys since the 1760's, when King George III of England granted land to their forebear, John Caldwell. The land, rolling hills bordered by mountains, was once part of Botetourt County, but that section of Botetourt and sections of Roanoke, Giles, and Monroe counties, were joined in 1851 to create the new county of Craig.

Add's father--like his grandfather, Archibald Caldwell--was a farmer who owned many acres of land. George's large, two-story frame house, where his children probably were born, still sits above the base of a mountain, providing a panoramic view of the valley farmland that he owned.

Growing up on a farm, Add surely had chores assigned to him, and his father, a veteran of the Civil War who had owned a slave around 1860, would also have encouraged or made arrangements for his schooling. According to an article written by J.C. Martin for the New Castle Record and reprinted in the book Bits and Pieces of Craig County Schools, "The Confederate [soldier] who had been deprived by the war of such educational advantages as his time afforded was very anxious that his children . . . might have a better opportunity than he had." The method of educating young Add and his school-age siblings, however, can only be surmised since the county's school records were destroyed by fire. But Craig County historian Jane Johnston says he most likely attended a one- or two-room school since several existed near the family farm. Or, she adds, he may have been taught by an instructor hired to come into the home, another method of education popular in the county among more prosperous residents. His last year or two as a Craig County student may have been spent in a public school since that system of education was introduced in 1870.

What prompted Add Caldwell to investigate the agricultural and mechanical school in Blacksburg may never be known. Whether he saw one of many advertisements the school's president, Charles L.C. Minor, placed in newspapers throughout the state or learned of the new school through word of mouth, Add and his older brother, 18-year-old Milton M. "Mic" Caldwell, left their home in Sinking Creek community and walked as much as 28 miles to Blacksburg. Johnston says the boys would have known about foot trails across the mountains, which could have shortened their walk considerably. Mic's daughter, Katherine Caldwell Mendez, now 90 years old, remembers her father telling her that he walked to the school with his brother.

Virginia Tech historian D.L. Kinnear, in his book The First 100 Years, describes what happened that day in the Preston and Olin Building:

On October 1, 1872, the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College officially opened its two doors to students. The faculty gathered early; President Minor unlocked the front door, and he, Lane, Martin, Carroll, and Shepherd filed into the building and somewhat nervously, it can be imagined, awaited the arrival of the first student. The wait was much longer than had been anticipated, but finally William A. Caldwell from Craig County "drifted" in. There is a completely unverified tradition that Caldwell's appearance at the College was motivated more by curiosity than by any intention to enroll as a student. Certainly he had not been nominated for a state scholarship by his county superintendent of schools, as it sometimes has been asserted. Whatever his real motive may have been, immediately he was given a state scholarship by the faculty and enrolled as the first student in Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College.

While Add has been targeted as the first student to register, Mic also registered, probably the same day. Other students trickled in, prompting President Minor to write during that first month to Gen. Joseph R. Anderson, a member of the school's Board of Visitors: "We have now thirty students matriculated, and there are, I think a dozen more, of the vicinity, holding back in hope of some abatement of accommodation in the way of delay such as they have been used to received [sic] from the Preston and Olin Institute. We are in correspondence with a good many others, but [it is] plain that our beginning is to be smaller than had been expected by most of those who were best informed in the matter."

Calling the students "plain lads for the most part," President Minor noted in the letter that he was "embarrassed by the fact that the wants of the students who have come to us have forced us to vary materially from the strictly technical training enjoined by the organization Committee's report." Later, in his report on the college to the state, he said that many of the students came with "the scantiest preparation," which made it necessary for V.A.M.C. to "include much of the work properly belonging to the high schools, or even the grammar schools, thus leaving it impossible to do all that is to be desired in the special technical courses."

By mid-November, newspapers reported that 60 students had registered and "the tide of entrance is steadily flowing on to as full numbers as can be comfortably accommodated." Total enrollment during the first year of operation eventually reached 132.

Since Add was the first to register, he probably was among the students who lived in the Preston and Olin Building, described in an 1872 report to the Commissioner of Agriculture as "a substantial three-story brick edifice, 100 feet by 40, containing three recitation rooms, a chapel, and twenty-four lodging rooms." Those students who could not get lodging on campus found rooms in town. Since the college had no facilities for providing meals, all students ate in town, many at Luster's Hotel. In 1873, a new building specifically built to serve meals was completed, and students then had the option--until 1881--to eat on campus or in town.

Each year that Add was enrolled, at least one of his brothers was enrolled as well. Mic, who never graduated, was on the rolls in 1872 and 1873 and again during 1876 and 1877. Another brother, Frank B. Caldwell, about two years younger than Add, enrolled during Add's third year and attended three consecutive terms but, like Mic, did not graduate.

Add's scholarship, reportedly given him by a faculty and administration ecstatic over finally getting a student, covered his tuition of $30, his college fees of $10, and, if he roomed in the Preston and Olin Building, his $5 per month room rent (unfurnished). "Table board" could be had for $12 per month, and coal reportedly was "convenient and cheap." Students were required to deposit $5 with the treasurer as a contingent fee to cover damages to property. Uniforms cost an additional $17.25.

Like all students enrolled in first year studies, Add would have been exposed to commercial arithmetic, bookkeeping, algebra, English grammar, geography with map drawing, descriptive astronomy, penmanship, free-hand drawing, lectures on physiology and hygiene, lectures on habits and manners, lectures on the value of agricultural and mechanical arts to society, French or German, farm or shop practice, and military tactics.

According to the 1964 VPI Historical Data Book, compiled and edited by Jenkins Mikell Robertson, the entire college was under military discipline from the beginning. Students were "required to meet formations, march to classes, pass room inspections, have military passes when off campus, and conform to other types of military behavior." The students were assigned to one of two companies, A or B, and each wore a standard uniform--a cap, jacket, and pants of cadet gray, trimmed with black. Add, a member of Company B, attained the rank of second sergeant by the middle of his final year in college.

Each Memorial Day, the corps marched to Montgomery White Sulphur Springs, 12-15 miles away, to honor the Confederate soldiers buried there, returning to campus the same day. In 1875, parts of the two companies formed one company for the long march, while the remaining students rode to the ceremony, prompting a comment from a Gen. Preston that "it was 'd_____ poor militia that had to be hauled about in ambulances."

Students also participated in a literary society that they organized during the college's inaugural year. The one society was succeeded by two societies that became, in 1873, the Lee Literary Society and the Maury Literary Society. These societies, which focused on public speaking, debate, and creative writing, started the first student publication, The Gray Jacket, in 1875.

Add, a member of the Maury Literary Society, served on a joint committee representing both societies. The committee, according to an 1876 issue of The Gray Jacket, concurred with the societies of Washington and Graham-Lee in having an Inter-collegiate Association of Virginia convention at Lynchburg.

The first school year at V.A.M.C. ran from October 1, 1872, to the last Wednesday in July, 1873. During the second year and for nine years following, summer vacation was replaced with a vacation that began around Christmas and lasted until late February. President Minor, in an 1875 issue of The Gray Jacket, justified the new school term, saying the winter vacation was "best suited for an institution of this character" because "the study of farm operations is interrupted at a less important season of the year, besides students from other sections of the country, while escaping the severity of winter in the mountains, will remain at College during the most pleasant and healthful part of the year."

Add's performance in his classes is only partially known. His obituary says he graduated "at the head of his class," but it is likely that the reporter confused his status as the college's first student, especially since

  • Those grades that survive do not indicate that, with the exception of certain courses, he was an exceptional student;
  • He took an extra year to complete the three-year program; and
  • He was not included in the list of outstanding students published in The Gray Jacket at the time of his graduation.

Add's 1875 report card, mailed to his father in Craig County and donated to Virginia Tech in 1992 by Frank Caldwell, lists his grades as follows:

Intermediate Year Mathematics - 5
Chemistry - 7
The university archives includes a copy of the 1875 chemistry exam that Add would have taken.
Natural History - 8
Composition and Rhetoric - 7.5
French - 8
Composition (written) - 10
Military Tactics - 9.5
Farm work - 10

Senior Year
Book-Keeping - 5

William Addison Caldwell graduated from V.A.M.C. with the college's second graduating class in the 1876 commencement exercises, which began on August 6 with a sermon by the Rev. Oscar F. Flippo of Baltimore. Two days later, he listened to the fourth annual address before the literary societies, delivered by Maj. John W. Daniel of Lynchburg. Virginia's Governor Kemper, who was in attendance was "loudly called for" and "responded in a brief but able and eloquent speech." At 5 p.m. the same day, the corps was reviewed by the governor and the college's Board of Visitors. On August 9, President Minor presented the diplomas--students at that time received graduate certificates rather than degrees--and Gen. J.H. Williams of Winchester delivered the annual address to faculty and students.

The morning of August 9, the graduating class held an alumni meeting in the Lee Society hall. Following remarks by President Minor and a J. Lawrence Radford "of Montgomery," the alumni association elected officers for the ensuing year, including Add as secretary.

Following graduation, Add may have returned to Craig County to teach school. In 1877, an editor of The Gray Jacket complained that "so few of our 'Old Boys' are farmers" and that "so many of them became teachers." But, the editor continued, "We must remember that these gentlemen are, as far as we are informed, teaching public schools in their immediate neighborhoods, and that the session of these schools, in most cases, holds only through a part of the fall, winter, and spring months, leaving cropping months entirely out. Now from what we can learn of the matter our 'Old Boys' are farming in summer and teaching in winter; thus they are most aptly filling their places as good citizens and grateful sons of Virginia." Certainly by 1880 Add, Mic, and Frank were living with their parents in Sinking Creek, and all three were teaching school. At that time, Craig County employed 26 teachers for its 26 public schools.

How long or where Add taught cannot be ascertained, but by 1887 he was living in Roanoke, possibly with his youngest brother, E. Gambill "Gam" Caldwell, and working in the general office of Norfolk and Western and attending First Presbyterian Church. Since Gam and Frank, who had attended V.A.M.C. with Add, both worked at one time for Norfolk and Western, the possibility exists that the three worked there together.

Before Add moved to Wilmington, N.C., around 1898--he moved his church membership there in March of 1902--he became interested in the real estate business in Roanoke, but whether he derived an income from the sale of property is not known. His work at the railroad office later prompted a description of him as "a well known and popular employee."

In Wilmington, Add worked for several large wholesale firms on the wharf: the Stove Company, Mr. W.B. Cooper, Messrs. Blair & Haly, and the C.C. Covington Company, traveling part of the time out of Wilmington. Perhaps one of these companies sold molasses since the Virginia Tech Alumni Association reported in 1911 that Add had been a salesman for a molasses firm.

After Add left the homeplace in Craig County, his brother Mic moved to Radford and later persuaded his parents to sell the family farm in Sinking Creek and move to Radford as well. Two sisters, Grace and Nell--like their brother Add, the two never married--moved with their parents to a house across the street from Mic. During summer vacations, Add visited his relatives in Radford.

Sometime before 1910, Add's health declined, and Mrs. Mendez says he underwent surgery for a brain tumor. He recuperated from the operation at his mother's home--his father had died around 1904. According to Mrs. Mendez, the doctor told Add that salt air would be good for him, so he secured a position as a clerk at the Tangmoore (or Tarrymoore) Hotel at Wrightsville Beach near Wilmington in the spring of 1910. The job, which he probably started around the first of June, was to last until September 1.

On June 15, 1910, Add wrote his niece, who had developed a fond attachment for this uncle who would play games with her and help her with such chores as capping strawberries. In the letter, which included several pictures of the beach, Add admitted that the hotel was "a fine place to spend the summer" but said he would rather be in Radford.

"I have not been here long enough to tell whether the salt air is going to benefit me or not," he continued. "I am feeling about the same, no worse, no better."

He closed the letter by asking Mrs. Mendez, who was then nine years old, to "[r]emember me to your grandmother [his mother] and with much love to all of you and especially to yourself, I am fondly yours, Add."

A few days after he wrote the letter, Add fainted, sustaining a severe fall that apparently resulted in a head injury. Taken to the hospital in Wilmington, he died ten days later on June 29, 1910. His body was taken to Radford, and his funeral was held in his mother's home. His old paster from First Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Dr. W.C. Campbell, conducted the service with assistance from three other pastors. On July 1, Add was buried in the Caldwell family cemetery in Radford.

Today, the memory of William Addison Caldwell lives on--in the undying affection of his niece, who donated the letter he wrote her to Virginia Tech; through a nephew and namesake in Radford, who presented the university with his uncle's bible in 1989; and in his singular role in the slow and sometimes tumultuous birthing process of the school that was to become Virginia Tech.


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