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University's true age questioned

By Clara B. Cox

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 27 - April 11, 1996

Virginia Tech will celebrate the 124th anniversary of its founding on April 19-or should that be the 145th anniversary or possibly the 127th?

The university measures its history from the founding in 1872 of one of the state's two land-grant schools, Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (VAMC), which, after three name changes, ultimately became Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. But maybe its official founding date should go back another 21 years to the establishment of the Olin and Preston Institute or another three years to the establishment of the Preston and Olin Institute, which could be considered the same school as its predecessor.

The Virginia Acts of Assembly, which records the legislative act establishing the new land-grant institution, implies a continuation of the Preston and Olin Institute but under a different name. Two-thirds of the land-grant monies received by Virginia, the act states, were to go "to the Preston and Olin Institute, in the county of Montgomery" provided "the name of said institute shall be changed to the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College."

Col. Harry Temple, a 1934 Virginia Tech alumnus, noticed the wording several years ago while conducting research on the history of the Corps of Cadets and recognized the possible implications. He wrote then-president William E. Lavery, who "was advised to stick withthe 1872 date," Temple said. But, he added, "Virginia Tech is cheating itself out of 21 years." Or, maybe, only three years.

Those 21 years would add two more names to the four the university already claims and even more color to an already colorful history.

Rather than the General Assembly, the university would trace its beginnings to a group of Methodist leaders in the area, who established a "seminary of learning" in 1851 for local boys and named it for Stephen Olin, a Methodist educator, and Col. William Ballard Preston, a well-known Montgomery County businessman, lawyer, and politician. The new Olin and Preston Institute, set up "for the instruction of youth in the various branches of science and literature, and useful arts, and the learned and foreign languages," received a charter from the state in 1854 and constructed a building the following year.

The school anticipated receiving monetary assistance from the Methodist Conference, but the aid never materialized, and Olin and Preston Institute ran into serious financial difficulties. Unable to pay its bills, the school was sold by court order to John Lyle, owner and operator of White Sulphur Springs, a nearby summer resort, to settle a debt owed him by the school. Lyle allowed the trustees to continue operating the school, but during the Civil War, it was forced to close.

After the war, the Blacksburg Methodists wanted to reopen the school. By then, Lyle had died. After working through a series of complex legal entanglements-which at one point included claims of ownership by both the northern and southern branches of the Methodist Conference-the trustees bought the property-five acres and one building-from Lyle's son, John Lyle Jr.

In 1869 in response to a petition, the local circuit judge issued a charter for the establishment of a "seminary of learning," this time to be "called and known by the name of Preston and Olin Institute." With the exception of one carry-over, the judge appointed a new board of trustees. Like Olin and Preston Institute, Preston and Olin Institute faced financial difficulties.

Fortunately for Virginia Tech, those difficulties led two of the trustees-Harvey Black and Peter Whisner-to initiate a request for the land-grant funds or at least a portion of the funds for Preston and Olin Institute.

The rest, as they say, is history.