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The Founding of Virginia Tech

The War of the Colleges and the Birth of the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College

By Stephen O'Hara

Every fall nearly 30,000 students descend upon Blacksburg to begin classes at Virginia Tech. In October 1872, when the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College first opened its doors, no one knew how many, if any, students would attend.

The new college in Blacksburg was a project long in the making. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which laid the groundwork for a series of agricultural and mechanical schools throughout the nation. However, it took a decade for Virginia to reap the benefits of the Morrill Act.

Virginia legislators had to wait until the end of the Civil War before Virginia became eligible for the Morrill Act. More than two dozen Virginia schools sought the commonwealth’s land-grant status and funding. Washington College (now Washington and Lee University), Richmond College (now the University of Richmond), the College of William and Mary, Hampden-Sydney, Emory and Henry, Randolph-Macon and Roanoke College were among those schools that sought land-grant status. The front-runners in what the Richmond Dispatch called the "War of the Colleges” were the University of Virginia and the Virginia Military Institute.

Some believed Morrill distinction should go to an institution which would incorporate the agricultural and mechanical components the law stipulated. Leaders of the fledgling, financially-strapped Preston and Olin Institute in Blacksburg offered to change its curriculum, and its name, to gain land-grant status. In the eyes of the Virginia legislature, the Blacksburg school became an appealing choice. Finally, on March 13, 1872, the Senate – and, the next day, the House of Delegates – approved the bill. Preston and Olin was now the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, and received two-thirds of the land-grant funding, with the other third going to the Hampton Normal Institute.

Leaders of the new school planned to open on October 1, 1872, which gave them only seven months to choose a president, hire faculty, and establish a curriculum for incoming students. Charles Landon Carter Minor, a native of Hanover County and UVA graduate, was selected as the college’s first president, and six professors joined the faculty.

William Addison Caldwell was the first of 132 students to enroll that year. Caldwell walked about 30 miles from his home in Craig County to get to Blacksburg. The college was comprised of five acres of land for the main campus and as well as a 245-acre experimental farm. A number of students attended the school for free, but others paid less than $200 per year, including $40 for tuition and fees and $17.25 for a uniform. The school consisted of three departments: literary, including English, ancient languages, and French or German classes; scientific, encompassing mathematics, natural philosophy, and chemistry; and technical, which covered the agricultural and mechanical arts.

From these humble beginnings 140 years ago, Virginia Tech grew to become one of the most respected research universities in the United States.

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The war of the colleges

The fight to become Virginia’s land-grant college went on for more than three years.

Legislator William T. Sutherlin argued for a “purely agricultural and mechanical” school, which would become “a nucleus around which the accretions of time would gather a really great institution.” The financially strapped Preston and Olin Institute in Blacksburg vowed to make agricultural and mechanical education the school’s first priority.

The Blacksburg school finally won the majority vote. A combination that paired Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia came in a distant second. 

After approval from the House, Gov. Gilbert Walker signed the measure into law on March 19, 1872, creating the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College.

Land-grant to Cooperative Extension

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In 1914, the Smith-Lever Act established the Cooperative Extension system, which broadened the mission of land-grant institutions.

The act marked the beginning of a partnership among federal government, state government, and higher education working cooperatively to find solutions for social and economic problems. The Smith-Lever Act changed the view of the university as a training ground for the elite by expanding its mission to the public domain.