Volume 14, Number 1
Fall 1991

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

On Oct. 1, 1872, the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College

by Clara B. Cox*

But for a long walk from Sinking Creek in Craig County to Blacksburg on Oct. 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 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 would become Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Born on January 10, 1856, at Sinking Creek, Va., Add Caldwell was the second of George Charlton and Lorena Givens Caldwell's nine children. Generations of Caldwells had lived in Craig's valleys since the 1760s, when King George III of England granted land to their forebear, John Caldwell. The family's large, two-story frame house still sits on the mountainside above their valley farm. Add's early education can only be surmised because the county's school records were destroyed by fire.

Craig County historian Jane Johnston says he most likely attended one of several one- or two-room schools existing near the farm (public education was introduced in 1870). Or, she adds, he may have been taught by a visiting home instructor, a method of education popular among more prosperous county residents.

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 state newspapers or learned of the new school through word of mouth, Add and his older brother, 18-year-old Milton M. "Mic" Caldwell, walked over Gap and Brush mountains, perhaps as much as 28 miles, to Blacksburg. Virginia Tech historian D.L. Kinnear describes in The First 100 Years what happened that day:

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 [faculty members] 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 and was immediately given a state scholarship as the school's first student. An unverified report hints that Caldwell's appearance was motivated more by curiosity than by serious scholastic intentions.

While Add has been targeted as the first student to register, Mic also registered, probably the same day, although he never graduated. About 30 other students trickled in during the first month, prompting President Minor to write to Board of Visitors member Gen. Joseph R. Anderson, "[It is] plain that our beginning is to be smaller than had been expected."

Although total enrollment for the year eventually reached 132, President Minor was not altogether happy with the quality of scholarship. He noted that many 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."

Add probably lived in one of 24 lodging rooms in the Preston and Olin Building. Many students found rooms in town. Because the college had no dining facilities until 1873, students ate in town, many at Luster's Hotel.

Add's scholarship covered his $30 tuition, his $10 fees, and $5 per month room rent (unfurnished). "Table board" was $12 per month, and coal reportedly was "convenient and cheap." Uniforms cost an additional $17.25.

In his first-year studies, Add likely was 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 by Jenkins M. 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."

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 Confederate graves at Montgomery White Sulphur Springs, 12-15 miles away, returning to campus the same day. In 1875, parts of the corps' two companies united for the long march, while the rest rode to the ceremony, prompting a comment from a Gen. Preston that "it was damned poor militia that had to be hauled about in ambulances."

The first school year at V.A.M.C. ran from Oct. 1, 1872, to the last Wednesday in July, 1873. For the next decade, summer vacation was replaced with a Christmas break that lasted until late February. Minor, in an 1875 issue of the student publication, The Gray Jacket, justified the new school term, saying the winter vacation suited V.A.M.C. because "the study of farm operations is interrupted at a less important season of the year; besides students from other sections, 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 he was not listed as an outstanding student at graduation and those grades that survive do not indicate he was an exceptional student. He completed the three-year program in four years.

Add's 1875 report card lists his grades on a 1-10 scale, (we assume 10 is the high score) as follows:
Mathematics - 5           Chemistry - 7 
Natural History - 8       Composition and Rhetoric - 7.5
French - 8                Composition (written) - 10
Military Tactics - 9.5    Farm work - 10

William Addison Caldwell graduated on Aug. 9, 1876, with V.A.M.C.'s second graduating class. That morning, the graduating class elected Add secretary of its alumni association.

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 noted, many probably farmed during the off season, "most aptly filling their places as good citizens and grateful sons of Virginia."

Certainly by 1880 Add, Mic, and their brother Frank, who had also attended a few sessions at V.A.M.C., were all living with their parents in Sinking Creek and 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 and working in the general office of Norfolk and Western, where he was later described as "a well known and popular employee." He moved to Wilmington, N.C., around 1898, where he worked for several large wholesale firms on the wharf; the Virginia Tech Alumni Association reported in 1911 that Add had been a salesman for a molasses firm.

Sometime before 1910, Add's health declined, and his niece, Katherine Caldwell Mendez, now 90, says he underwent surgery for a brain tumor. He recuperated at the home of his mother (his father died in 1904), who was now living near Mic's family in Radford. Hearing that salt air would be beneficial, he secured a hotel clerk position at Wrightsville Beach, N.C.

On June 15, 1910, Add wrote his then-9-year-old niece, Katherine, 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 Add admitted that the hotel was "a fine place to spend the summer" but said he would rather be in Radford.

A few days later, Add fainted and fell, apparently injuring his head. He died in a Wilmington hospital 10 days later on June 29, 1910. His body was taken to Radford, where a funeral was held in his mother's home, and he 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; 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.

*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.

Clara B. Cox is public information officer for the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.

Virginia Tech Magazine, Volume 14, Number 1, Fall 1991