University marks 125th birthdayBy Clara B. Cox
Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 24 - March 20, 1997
Virginia Tech has reached a new milestone-its 125th birthday. On March 19, 1872, Virginia Governor Gilbert C. Walker signed the bill creating the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, which, nearly 100 years later, became Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. The road leading to the signing had not been smooth.
The Civil War delayed Virginia's participation in the Morrill Land-Grant Act, signed by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862. The act provided that the states be apportioned 30,000 acres of public land per congressional member. Each state was to sell its acreage and use the income to establish at least one college that would primarily teach agricultural and mechanical arts but would also provide instruction in scientific and classical studies and in military tactics.
Although a "Unionist" legislature accepted the land-grant provisions for Virginia on Feb. 5, 1864, Virginia's re-admittance to the Union in January 1870 spurred the "reconstructed" legislature to accept the land-grant provisions the following month. Virginia sold its allotted 300,000 acres for $285,000.
But the rush by the state's colleges, universities, and other schools for the money was well under way by then. Twenty-four contenders vied for the funds in a heated competition that The Richmond Dispatch dubbed the "War of the Colleges."
With such established colleges and universities as William and Mary, the University of Virginia, and Virginia Military Institute pressing claims for the land-grant funds, it seems surprising that a small, financially struggling Methodist boys' school in Blacksburg known as the Preston and Olin Institute entered the fray-or even had a chance at success.
But two representatives of the school, its former President Peter Henry Whisner and trustee Harvey Black, directed the school's petition to Senator John E. Penn of Patrick County, who had a law practice in Montgomery County. The two men promised that the Preston and Olin Institute would be reorganized into an agricultural and mechanical college and that the citizens of Montgomery County would donate $20,000 to the new school, all in exchange for the land-grant funds.
Penn successfully pressed the petition in the Senate, but the session ended before the House of Delegates acted on it. During the next session in the fall of 1871, newly elected Delegate Gabriel C. Wharton of Montgomery County joined forces with Penn.
Finally, on March 13 and 14, 1872, both houses agreed to a bill giving one-third of the land-grant money to Hampton Industrial Institute for blacks and two-thirds to the Preston and Olin Institute for whites.
The act establishing the new land-grant institution in Blacksburg required the Preston and Olin Institute to change its name to the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College. The new college, which was to endure three name changes during its first century-Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute in 1896, Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1944, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 1970-opened on Oct. 1, 1872. Black became the first rector of its Board of Visitors.