The Early Years: The Minor Administration: 1872-1879
Although no one had been named to teach agriculture and mechanics in the college, the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College was officially opened to students on October 1, 1872, in the former Preston and Olin Institute. The school, which eventually grew into the largest institution of higher education in the state, opened with no fanfare whatever.
President Minor's faculty consisted of James H. Lane, graduate of VMI, as professor of natural philosophy, chemistry, and military tactics; Charles Martin, graduate of Hampden-Sidney, as professor of English and ancient languages; and Gray Carroll, graduate of the University of Virginia, as professor of mathematics and modern language. Lack of agreement concerning the responsibility of the chairs of agriculture and mechanics delayed appointments to these chairs until the next meeting of the board in January. Minor, therefore, had no professors of agriculture and mechanics when the school opened.
With Minor and his faculty ready for students, none appeared until William A. Caldwell arrived. He was enrolled immediately as the first student at the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College.
Increases in enrollment were so slow that President Minor came to believe that a statement by Ruffner to the effect that the new college was a college of secondary level led to student interpretation that the new college was in reality only a technical high school. Students wanted nothing to do with such a school, Minor added. As a result, Minor and his faculty gained reluctant permission from Ruffner for developing the school along the lines of a liberal arts college.
When the board met on February 11, 1873, to appoint a farm manager and a professor of agriculture and mechanics, it appointed J. Seddon Harvie as farm manager but could not agree on the nature of agricultural education. Admitting that it would not know what to do with a professor of agriculture and mechanics if it had one, the board appointed a committee to define the duties of such a person and adjourned, to meet on February 11, 1873, to hear the committee's report.
The delay in appointing a professor of agriculture and mechanics was seized upon by Thomas Conrad, the disappointed applicant for the first presidency, and led him to write a scathing editorial attacking the board as a whole and as individuals, accusing them of ignorance, incompetence, partisanship, and sectionalism. The editorial, probably totally unfair, is mentioned here because it illustrates the nature of many of the attacks and charges with which the board and college had to contend for nearly two decades.
Ignoring the attack, the board met in Richmond, on February 11, 1873, to complete the appointment of a faculty for the college. After some deliberation the board appointed John W. C. Davis and M.G. Ellzy. Since the college catalogs of 1872-73 and 1873-74 do not agree on sphere of instruction for these men, it is not clear just what each man was to teach. With the completion of the faculty appointments, attention shifted from the Board of Visitors to the college itself.
Since the Preston and Olin Institute building was totally inadequate in every respect for the needs of the college, President Minor proposed that the state legislature appropriate the same amount of money to the new college that it was giving to other state supported colleges.
Ruffner added his powerful voice to Minor's plea and made the following statement: "I do not see how anyone can doubt the wisdom and the economy of giving it the means of erecting such buildings as its growth demands." It may be added that this belief is held by the school to this day.
The legislature responded affirmatively to the appeal and on March 27, 1874, made the first appropriation of $45,000 to the college to be used for a building.
In 1873, the board, at the urging of Ruffner, had purchased the Edward and John Black farm consisting of eighty acres connecting the five acres of the Preston and Olin site with the college farm. The board met in Blacksburg in June 1874, and drew plans for locating and erecting two academic buildings, 3 faculty homes and a home for the president. The physical growth of the college has continued from then to the present time.
Since Minor was president of the college for the first year, it is interesting to note other firsts during his administration. Given in random order, they include the following: the first state appropriation to the college; the first buildings erected on the campus; the first student enrolled; the first home for the president; the first farm purchased; the first commencement; the first celebration for the laying of a building cornerstone; the first student magazine published by the students, The Gray Jacket, and the first visit to the campus by the governor of the state.
Altogether Minor's first year ended amidst editorials of praise; however, unfortunately dissension and divisions of opinion were beginning to appear in the faculty at the same time the state was undergoing an almost traumatic economic and political change. As a result, the college was caught in a socio-political-economic storm that brought its early success and growth to an abrasive crawl and imposed on it one reorganization after another.