Founded At Mt. Tabor Nearly A Century Ago-Enrollment Near 400 Today
From the 1938 centennial edition of The Times-Register
All the drama and romance of higher education in the South has been packed into the life story of Roanoke College, the beginnings of which reach themselves back into the pioneer days of Southwest Virginia.
Roanoke College did not spring from some great endowment fund left in the interest of higher education by some philanthropic soul, and it was not a milestone in the slow process of state-supported higher education in Virginia. This college, now one of the most select of the smaller independent institutions of learning in the South, sprang up as a result of a dream in the mind of a country preacher, David F. Bittle.
It is nearly a century ago that David Bittle, pastor of Mt. Tabor Lutheran Church in Augusta County, decided that there was need for a school for young men in his section. Pastor Bittle was a man of action as well as a dreamer, so in 1842 he put his idea to the test, with the aid of another young preacher, C. C. Baughman, who had resigned a pastorate at Jefferson, Md., due to an affliction of the throat.
With about a dozen pupils entered on its roll the school began under the name of “Virginia Institute”. The first building was a one-storied structure, soon to be followed by a second, a two-storied affair with four rooms. Land and building materials were contributed by parishioners of The Rev. Bittle and some little monies were furnished by more distant friends of the enterprise.
Walked Three Miles To Church
In this simple fashion the dream of David Bittle became fact, however humble the beginning. On Sunday the boys walked three miles to Mt. Tabor Church to attend services. 2To secure their mail at the Middlebrook post office a tramp of similar distance was necessitated. Life was simple for them, but it was wholesomely pleasant. The homes of the parishioners were thrown open to them, and the friendly interest of the people of the County was an inspiration both to the students and to the heads of the school.
Time passed and the school grew, spurred on by the virile personality of Pastor Bittle and the thorough scholarship of The Reverend Baughman. The work of the institute caught the attention of the Lutheran Synod of Virginia. In May 1843 the Synod took action to establish, with the cooperation of the Synod of West Virginia (now a part of the Lutheran Synod of Virginia), a classical school. The group looked with pleasure on the promising work already being done at Virginia Institute, and the school received subsequently the support of the Church. At first considerable discussion revolved around the matter of location, two sites being considered-one at Churchville the other at Mt. Tabor. The latter was finally decided upon, probably due to the decided advantage the buildings and school offered.
Transferred To Church
Details of the transfer of the school from independent to church hands are lacking, but the annual report of the school was made to the Synod in 1844 and showed considerable progress in curriculum offerings and an increase in the number of students to the total of seventeen.
In 1844, The Reverend Bittle severed his connection with the school in order to accept a new parish at Middletown, Maryland. The work of directing the struggling institution was carried on by the Reverend Baughman. To strengthen the school and to dignify its work it was deemed wise to apply for an act of incorporation by the Legislature of Virginia. This was done and on January 30, 1845, the Virginia Collegiate Institute was incorporated. The action resulted in stronger support and the stimulation of interest by leading citizens throughout the Valley and the Synod of Virginia.
Though the infant institution continued to grow, it soon became evident a better location would be to the advantage of its program of growth and improvement. Among the situations recommended was Salem, Virginia, described as “beautiful for situation.”
Moved To Salem
Finally, the decision was made, and in 1847 the school was moved to the little town that nestled by the water of the Roanoke and the mountains of Southwest Virginia. A Newton wagon, the dry land schooner of that day, transported the principal and his belongings and those of the school to the new home. The entry into Salem was anything but pretentious.
However, kindly relations were established quickly and fine friendships, the kind that have been the fertile soil on which the college has grown, soon sprang up. Four acres of land were purchased from W. C. Williams, and the contract was let for the first building. The contractor, Benjamin Deyerle, laid the brick of the front of the building with his own hands, perhaps somehow knowing that he was building the physical foundations of a great college. Since some time would elapse before the new building would be completed, first classes were held in an old, dismantled Baptist Church, then standing within the present limits of East Hill Cemetery. That continued through the first summer term in Salem. The winter term and subsequent ones were conducted in the Presbyterian Academy at the other end of town.
The published catalogue for 1848-49 reported forty names on the roll for the school. The mess club system prevailed making the matter of board a most inexpensive one for the students. Instruction was given by The Reverend Baughman, the principal, and his assistant, John E> Herbst.
In the autumn of 1848, the new building was occupied. It presented a pleasing picture to those who had known the school from the beginning; built of substantial brick, it rose three stories above the basement. This building now stands, being the middle section of the present Administration Building. In 1849 another interesting development was the planting of trees on the campus, the beginning of what today is the grand old grove on the front campus.
Form Literary Societies
1850 saw two literary societies-for so many years a vital part of the work from the institution-formed. The Ciceronian and the Demosthenian societies immediately gathered unto themselves a tremendous interest and stimulated a fine rivalry in the speech arts.
A marked increase in students, especially from other states, became evident in 1851, and it was in this year that the west wing of the present Administration Building was erected. With the increase in students and the improvement of the general circumstances of the school also came other problems. One of them was the proposal to incorporate it as a college.
Those who favored such a move felt that it was only a feeder for colleges as maintained, while others felt that a change would not be to any advantage. From some of the members of the Board of Trustees came strong opposition.
But finally, the decision was made, and a bill was introduced in the Legislature of Virginia by John McCauley, then representing Roanoke County, and on March 14, 1853, the act was passed and Roanoke College came into existence as a chartered institution.
That same spring The Reverend Baughman, who had rendered such faithful service both as teacher and as principal of the Institute, resigned to become the head of The Hagerstown Female Institute.
The first meeting of the Board of Trustees of the College was held on June 3,1853. Their main task was to elect a president to head the new development in the life of the school. Their thoughts turned to the determined and yet well-balanced personality of David D. Bittle, and he became their choice.
The first faculty was as follows:
The Reverend David F. Bittle, president and professor of Intellectual and Moral Science; S. C. Wells, professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy and Henry G. VonHoxar, professor of Ancient and Modern Languages and Literature.
September 1, 1853, found 38 students enrolled; during the 1937-38 session 397 carefully selected students were on the books of the registrar.
During the Civil War the growth of the young college was halted. The clay of the campus felt the hard tread of soldiers. Food was scarce, and educational starvation was not the only fear that gripped the stout heart of the college president. He bought and he begged food to feed his boys, and he argued military authorities into letting him keep the doors of the school open despite war that shook Virginia’s hills. Roanoke was the only Virginia college to remain open throughout the period of the War, Military drill was, however, a part of the daily route of older students.
For twenty-five years Dr. Bittle labored for the college. Through his energetic leadership, its scope was broadened, and the foundations of future progress laid securely. In 1878, Dr. Bittle died suddenly while in the midst of his duties. The Bittle Memorial Library is his monument-such a library had been one of his fondest dreams.
The main part of the present library building was dedicated during the presidency of Dr. Julius D. Dreher, who began his work as director of the fortunes of the college in 1878. He, too, served for twenty-five years. He died October 9, 1937, in Clearwater, Fla., and maintained at the age of ninety-one and lively interest in the progress of the college.
During the presidency of Dr. Dreher, the South was still suffering from the ravages of the Civil War. Money was scarce. Financial collapse shadowed the struggling institution. But the new president was not dismayed. He traveled throughout the country, enlarging the territory from which the college drew its students and telling its story to people of means who became its generous friends. In a period of great crisis, Dr. Dreher was a leader of practical vision.
The next great leader of the college was Dr. John Alfred Morehead, and under his direction the college plant was modernized and enlarged. The curriculum was also expanded to meet the needs of a changing age, and additions were made to the teaching staff. Roanoke College was now fighting its way to the front among institutions of higher learning in Virginia.
New conditions were surrounding the college. Big Lick was no longer a village, but in its stead a “magic city” had come to be. The growth of Roanoke City and its emergence as one of the principal metropolitan centers of Virginia presented new challenges to the administration of the school. Dr. Morehead was a builder, and he was greatly responsible for placing the college in a position to meet the challenge of the new city which had grown up at its door.
In 1919 Dr. Morehead, heeding the call to a broader field of service, resigned from the presidency. He had accepted vast responsibilities as director of agencies of relief to Lutheran peoples in the war-stricken area of Europe. His services to world Lutheranism and world religion during the dark days of the World War brought him the acclaim of kings. Later he became president of the World Lutheran Congress and served in many other international religious capacities. Finally, worn out from his arduous labors, he came back to Salem, the town of his college, and there he died June 1, 1936.
The present leader of the college, Dr. Charles J. Smith, came to his post in 1929. A graduate in the Class of 1901, the new president brought to the campus an energetic leadership and a practical grasp of the opportunities and challenges that confronted the college. Under his direction new buildings have been erected, the endowment and scholarship funds have been greatly increased, and the curriculum has been expanded and diversified to meet the needs of specialization, especially in the scientific fields. The most modern equipment has been provided in the laboratories, the gymnasium, and the theater.
Dr. C. J. Smith
Since Dr. Smith became president, the present athletic field has been established, with its quarter mile track, playing field, and well-appointed tennis courts. The new gymnasium, one of the most complete in the South, was erected in 1930, the Laboratory Theater was established several years ago, the Bittle Memorial Library has been completely refinished and modernized, and the interior of West Hall has been renovated and the building given over entirely to the Physics and Engineering Department. Within the last few years, the west campus has been relandscaped, and a new Memorial Gateway from High Street built, the gift of the Class of 1933.
Today Roanoke has one of the most beautiful campuses in Virginia, its equipment ranks with that of universities, its faculty is admittedly outstanding among smaller colleges of the South, its student body is carefully selected and well distributed in scope. A far cry indeed from the day John McCauley introduced his bill for the chartering of the institution eighty-four years ago.
The drama of a near century still goes on. The college that began as a dream within the mind of a country preacher is still advancing to meet new educational opportunities and to spread wider the great circle of its influence.
-Prepared by Lisa King