The Early Years

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Cooper Bourdon '11

The early years of Randolph-Macon Academy (R-MA) were indeed difficult and characterized by struggle. The Academy debt was up and revenue was low due to many unfortunate circumstances. A typhoid fever struck the campus in 1913 and cost the school $12,000 to combat ($298,531.84 in today’s money), ministerial students and sons of ministers received significant discounts on their tuition, and a lack of retention among its students and faculty caused the debt to build over the years.The front gate of the Virginia boarding school, R-MA, in 1934.

A significant issue was the frequent turnover of faculty and staff, considering the Academy could not pay its teachers their full salaries. Only 75% of faculty salaries were guaranteed, and after several consecutive years of this minimal payment, the teachers began to accept the fact that 75% was all they were ever going to receive. The amount of ministerial students along with the number of minister’s sons who attended the Academy made it impossible to pay the teachers their full 100% salary, due to the discounts these students were given. 

This depleted salary cap caused most teachers to leave after only one year, which impacted the retention rate among students. However, the turnover of teachers was not the only factor that diminished the retention rate. The inadequate heater in the dormitory made certain rooms unlivable during the winter time. Comfortability in the dormitory was a frequent complaint among cadets and the utilities of the building received a large amount of scrutiny as well. 

Despite the early struggles of the Academy, things became significantly better as the 1920’s approached. The Academy replaced their steam heater and were able to pay their teachers the full salary they deserved. This helped retention and enrollment a great deal.

The 1918-19 school year was the first academic session at which R-MA had a waiting list due to maximum capacity. In fact, enrollment was so great that part of the local hotel was rented out by the Academy in case of overflow. Furthermore, the Academy’s greatest milestone came to them just four years later, in 1922: R-MA finally paid off all its debt from the construction of its building in 1892. 

1914-15 Virginia boarding school students at R-MA
1914-15 student body

Charles Melton, the Academy’s principal at the time, told the Board of Trustees, “I desire to call your attention at this time to the liquidation of the longstanding debt on the institution, the last $3,000 having been paid off in April 1922.” The original debt stood at $28,000, but grew to $40,000 over the years. The typhoid epidemic of 1913 added $12,000 to this debt giving the school an overall $52,000 to pay off (that translates to $1,293,637.96 today). 

Principal Melton gave high praise to former R-MA Principal and Randolph-Macon College (R-MC) President/Chancellor Dr. William Waugh Smith for beginning the liquidation process in 1900. Dr. Smith’s “heroic efforts” decreased the $40,000 debt to $17,500, not including the typhoid expenses, by 1915. After 1915, R-MA’s Field Agent and member of its Executive Committee, Dr. Homer Henkel Sherman was pivotal in the final liquidation of the remaining debt. His efforts, along with support from the Baltimore Conference of the Methodist Church, liberated R-MA from its indebtedness and brought on five happy and fruitful years.

As a result of this climb in success, R-MA reached its banner year in 1925. The Academy built a new indoor swimming pool along with a gym, which later became an academic building known as Rives Hall. There was also an approval for $4,500 to be used for improvements to the physical plant. Enrollment increased by 31 percent and things could not be better for the Academy. Then came January 10, 1927.

It was a cold and quiet morning in Front Royal. The sun had not yet risen over the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River when fire sirens consumed the air around 4:00 a.m. Randolph-Macon Academy was on fire! Men and women throughout the town raced toward the raging inferno and did whatever they could to help. Somehow, perhaps through the good Lord’s protection, there were no deaths during the incident, just a couple of injuries as boys jumped from the third story windows onto bed sheets being held by their fellow classmates and residents of Front Royal.

The cause of the fire is unknown to this day. It began in the cellar of the building and spread rapidly. The phone lines were down so several boys ran to the house of the school doctor, Dr. Hansborrow, to tell him of the fire and to call the fire department. The fire truck finally arrived, but the hill was too icy for it to reach the burning building. The only thing left to do was to catch final glimpses of the stately building as it burned to the ground. 

The 1927 fire that burned R-MA's boarding school to the ground
The Great Fire of 1927