An Academy is Born

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Cooper Bourdon '11

R-MA's original Virginia private school building before the Great Fire of 1927

In the beginning, it was a simple hill one-half of a mile away from the Shenandoah River, sitting at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This hill witnessed the construction of a town called Front Royal, a Civil War battle, and the growth of a society that would develop a desire for a “male school of high grade.” This is the story of that hill.

The year was 1892. Ellis Island had just opened its doors to the immigrants of the world, the Pledge of Allegiance was about to be introduced to the public school system, Edison General Electric Co. and the Thomson-Houston Co merged together to form General Electric, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was just 10 years old. The Wright brothers had not flown yet and the Model-T would not see Henry Ford’s assembly line for another 16 years. On September 6th of this year, Randolph-Macon Academy (R-MA) opened its doors for its first day of classes.

The cost of R-MA’s beautiful building was an estimated $75,000. The New York Times claimed the building to be “…among the most perfectly equipped in the United States.” An editorial from the New York World said, “There is no such institution in the great state of New York, and it is much needed.” There was great excitement surrounding the new academy, but it begs the question of who, what, when, where, and why was this academy established?


The first R-MA faculty and staff (1892)

The Baltimore Conference of the United Methodist Church desired a college preparatory school for boys within its bounds and under the patronage of the Methodist Church. Professors of Randolph-Macon College (R-MC) in Ashland, Virginia, also under the patronage of the Methodist Church, were troubled by how ill-prepared their students were for college academics. As a result, R-MC wanted the same thing as the Baltimore Conference: To start a second college preparatory academy to help prepare young men for the rigors of college academics “under the auspices of the [Methodist] Church.” (There was already such a school set to open in Liberty, Virginia, in 1890). 

The Commonwealth of Virginia had a population of one and one-half million Americans, with one-third of them claiming to be Methodist. The desires of both the Baltimore Conference and Randolph-Macon College coincided, and the state of Virginia was the perfect place to fulfill them.

A large majority of this fulfillment can be accredited to R-MC’s president, Dr. William Waugh Smith. Without action an idea remains nothing more than an idea, and Dr. Smith embodied what it meant to be proactive. On March 14, 1889, Dr. Smith began a correspondence with the Baltimore Conference: 

“To the members of the Baltimore Conference: Dear Brethren: The Virginia Conference, at its last session, adopted a resolution and appointed a Committee to take measures to establish a great Methodist Academy, and to invite the cooperation of your conference in the enterprise. As Chairman of that Committee, I ask of your body to set apart a suitable time when the enterprise may be presented to the Conference.”

The Baltimore Conference was receptive to Dr. Smith’s letter, especially after the report they received from their own Board of Education. The board revealed an increase in R-MC’s attendance from 109 to 194, that one-third of the student body were ministerial students, and 19 of said ministerial students were from the Baltimore Conference. After further correspondence, the Baltimore Conference agreed to help erect a “Methodist Academy” within its bounds. The question, which still remained, was where?


The first  R-MA students (1892-93)

The answer to that question was left to an appointed Board called the “Building Committee of the Baltimore Conference Academy.” This Board, comprised of Dr. Smith and five members of the R-MC Board of Trustees, was entrusted to “select a site, secure contributions and take measures to erect the Academy.” They received two proposals regarding which locations to use for the new academy. The first proposal came from Middletown, Virginia, and the second was from Front Royal, Virginia.  

The Middletown proposal, signed by C.W. Peery, G.W. Larrick, and David Harris, offered, “15 acres, including a lawn before a grove of 8 acres in the center of said site locates with 1/3 mile of the railroad station; 160 lots estimated at $200 each; and cash donations of $4,000.” 

A very generous offer to say the least. The Front Royal proposal was signed by H. H. Downing, President of the Front Royal and Riverton Improvement Co., and it read:

“If the conference selects this point for the Academy and expends on the same not less than $20,000 nor over $100,000 the Front Royal and Riverton Improvement Co. will give five acres of eligible ground to be selected by an equal Committee from the Conference and Improvement Co., and in addition will contribute in cash toward the erection of said building one fourth as much as is expended on it by said Conference. This offer is conditioned upon the acceptance of this proposition on or before the 15th of October 1890 and if accepted upon the farther condition that work be commenced within twelve months from this date and prosecuted to completion with reasonable diligence.”

Front Royal became the chosen location of the new Methodist Academy. Logistically, it was the perfect location for a college preparatory school, or any business for that matter. The intersection of the Shenandoah Railroad and the Richmond & Danville Railroad was located in Front Royal. They each connected with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroads at the Shenandoah Junction giving travelers access to cities in every direction. Washington D.C., Baltimore, Harrisonburg, Roanoke, and Salem are just a few examples.


The 1892-93 baseball team

Front Royal did not just suit the Methodist Academy logistically, but also culturally. Both Front Royal and neighboring Riverton had: 

“Long been known as the home of an eminently moral and religious population, possessed of much culture and refinement… Both these towns, under the local option law of the State of Virginia, have voted against the licensing of the sale of liquor, and therefore have not a single saloon or bar-room within their limits.” 

It was the perfect marriage between the Baltimore Conference, Randolph-Macon College, and the town of Front Royal. In the fall of 1890, the idea of a Methodist Academy within the bounds of the Baltimore Conference under the patronage of Randolph-Macon College came into full fruition. However, there was still a lot of work to be done before opening day. The plot of land had to be chosen, suitable faculty/staff had to be selected, and the building had to be constructed and financed.

The construction of the building was executed with minimal conflict and was ready for classes by September of 1892 as agreed upon. The building was one of the finest of its time. It was equipped with 370 Edison incandescent light bulbs, hot and cold running water, and a steam heating system. The dorm rooms were “large, airy rooms” supplied with washstands, a bureau, two single bedsteads, pillows, and chairs. Each room had its own window as well, so students could access the natural light and fresh air if they wished to have it.

Finding teachers did not prove too difficult a task either. B.W. Bond was named principal of the new academy beginning April 1, 1892. His responsibilities included supervision of the school, reporting to the President and Chief of the Board, and creating quarterly financial reports to said President and Chief. Among the first faculty members to be hired were Bolivar C. Nettles, Charles L. Melton, Miss Gertrude Blackwell, and Hall Canter. Dr. M.L. Garrison was the school’s physician and Mrs. L. Green was its matron. 

It cost a substantial amount of money to construct a building and pay its faculty/staff. Dr. Smith played a pivotal role in financing the endeavors of the academy in Front Royal. His incredible efforts raised $460,000 in cash, bonds, and land; Randolph-Macon Academy at Front Royal received $90,000 of the sum.

The first day of class was September 6, 1892, just two days before the Pledge of Allegiance was first recited in the American public school system. After the first week of class, only 42 students were enrolled in the academy, not exactly the number R-MC Board members and the Baltimore Conference had hoped for. This warranted a recruiting trip for Dr. Bond in order to increase enrollment at the brand-new academy. By the end of R-MA’s first semester, there were 59 students enrolled on top of the hill.


The first ever R-MA corps of cadets (1917)