The newly opened exhibit at the Montgomery Museum of Art & History explores the long history of schools in Montgomery County. A collection of objects and photographs illustrates the many challenges in providing education to children prior to 1940. Of special interest, is the School Census map on display. This map enumerates the number of children served by the county’s schools in 1940, where the children lived, and shows the locations of the schools and school districts. Photographs of many of the 59 schools in service in 1940 have been added to the map.
Early in the county’s history, children were educated at home with the first schools being established by local churches during the 1820s. By the 1850s, academies for both young women and young men were established at Christiansburg and Blacksburg. It was not until 1870, that Montgomery County organized its first public school. The legislation that created the state’s first public school system in 1870 also codified the requirement for separate schools for white and black students.
Few schools serving either race in Montgomery County could have been considered well funded during the nineteenth or early twentieth century. Local residents often provided supplemental funding for special programs, playgrounds, and new buildings or additions. In the case of the rural African American schools at Wake Forest, Pine Woods (or Piney Woods), Shawsville, and Elliston, the funding for new buildings came not only from local residents, but from the Julius Rosenwald fund. This fund was established by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald (president of Sears, Roebuck, & Co.) in 1917 to help provide appropriate school buildings for African American children. The fund, encouraged by Booker T. Washington and supported by specialists at Tuskegee Institute, helped local communities across the South build the best possible schools. It is estimated that one-third of the African American children in the region were served by Rosenwald Schools by 1928. For more information about Montgomery County’s Rosenwald Schools, visit Fisk University’s Rosenwald Database.
The minutes of the October 5, 1929 Montgomery County School Board meeting illustrate how basic schools in Montgomery County were during the early twentieth century. A request to add water coolers to the county’s schools was denied; instead members stated that “a bucket and dipper will be furnished.” Indoor plumbing was rare in the county’s schools. Students often traveled several miles on foot or on horseback to the nearest schoolhouse. They carried pails packed with food because few schools had lunchrooms or cafeterias prior to the 1950s.
Gradually, one-room schools were replaced during the early 1900s with two, three, or four room schools. As roads and automobiles improved during the 1920-1950 period, the pace and scale of this school consolidation increased. During the 1950s and 1960s, many of these small rural schools closed.
The earliest libraries in Montgomery County were created by church Sunday Schools, clubs or societies, or even private individuals. In Christiansburg, for example, girls attending the Christiansburg Presbyterian Church Sunday School class taught by Miss Emaline Miller (later Emaline Craig) in 1833 were able to check out books from the “lybrary.” This library may have belonged to the Miller family since the circulation record was kept by Miss Miller in a small handmade booklet.
The Christiansburg Circulating Library Company was incorporated on March 16, 1850 by a number of well-known Christiansburg professional men including Eli Phlegar, David G. Douthat, and Rev. Nicholas Chevalier. No further details of this library are known, but it may have been a for-profit subscription or membership-based institution. The next library we have records for was at the Virginia Agricultural & Mechanical College, which had a 500 book library when it was founded in 1872.
There was a public library in place in Christiansburg by 1907 when the Christiansburg Library was noted in the annual Report of the State Librarian as being a “citizen’s library” station serviced by the Virginia State Library’s Traveling Library Department. The same report notes that Shawsville was served by one of sixty-seven library stations. The Shawsville station had 39 borrowers for the year with a circulation of 173. The library in Christiansburg was still in operation in 1916 when a notice in the News Messenger noted a library “story hour” event. In 1919, the Christiansburg Free Library’s limited hours were announced in the News Messenger; it was open only on Wednesdays from 2:30-3:30 pm. From its description as a “free” library it is clear that this was a public institution without membership or subscription fees. Long-serving Montgomery County School Superintendant Evans King once recalled that in 1928, the Christiansburg library held 500 books.
The existing county library began in 1941 as part of the Radford Area Library system. Established with Works Progress Administration (WPA) funds, branches were located at Radford and at Christiansburg. The Christiansburg library was initially housed in the mezzanine level of the Piedmont Department Store at 34-36 East Main Street. The space was donated by the store’s manager, Isaac Mensh. It opened in 1944 with Miss Juanita Robertson as the librarian.
The county ceased contributing funds to the program in 1943 ending WPA funds as well. A citizen campaign restored funds, however, and the library grew to 40,000 books. The Christiansburg Library moved to the Phlegar Building on South Franklin Street in 1946, to the Marshall House in 1953, then to a former church on Radford Road in 1977. The first Blacksburg branch library was established on Main Street in 1969. It later moved to Draper Road. The City of Radford left the library system in 1970 and Floyd County joined in 1975 to create the regional system still in place today.
Branch libraries throughout the county often began as deposit places located in homes, crossroads stores, etc. that were stocked monthly from a bookmobile. The bookmobile was crucial to the growth of the library system. The first bookmobile, created during the 1930s, was a retrofitted automobile with lift-up panels covering shelves that were accessed from outdoors. This unit was invaluable during the gasoline rationing of the World War II period. In 1949, the Bookmobile added a trailer; the first in the state. The trailer was elaborately designed with shelves, desk, coat closet, cupboard, heat, lights and venetian blinds. It carried 1,200 books. In 1961, this was replaced with a van and in 1978 a Gerstenslager model bookmobile with 2,500 books. The bookmobile service ended in 2008.
The long history of the library illustrates both the importance placed on reading in Montgomery County and the efforts community members have made to ensure that books were available to all. Looking at the long history of local libraries highlights how fortunate we are to have access to the significant offerings available at the modern Montgomery-Floyd Regional Library system.
Kanode, Roy, Christiansburg, Virginia
Report of the State Librarian, 1907-1908 and Acts of Incorporation, 1850; copies in Montgomery Museum files
Miscellaneous documents, June Sayers, Montgomery-Floyd Regional Library
During the Colonial era, Montgomery County was considered to be the western edge of settlement. Yet, it is not the location we generally mean when we think of “The West.”
This mythos was created in large part by the Wild West Shows that toured the country during the late-nineteenth century. The shows presented the culture of the Plains Indian as the only American Indian and the cowboy as a hero.
William F. Cody founded “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” in 1883. The show featured “frontier characters” performing riding and shooting exhibitions, rodeo activities, theatrical reenactments, and more. Cody’s show joined with a similar show founded by Gordon Lillie (aka “Pawnee Bill”) in 1908 to become “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Far East” show. Arriving in Roanoke in October 1911, the Roanoke Times wrote that the pair had: ” . . . united their forces for the purpose of giving the people of America an anthropological exhibit of the globe.” The show performed again in 1913 and was described as the “original ‘movies’.”
The Wild West shows, along with circuses, minstrel shows, musical performances and more toured the country and stopped in Montgomery County regularly. To learn more about how Montgomery County residents got their kicks, view the newly opened exhibit “Entertain Me!: Montgomery County Traveling Shows” at the Montgomery Museum of Art and History.
The newest exhibit at the Montgomery Museum, “Spirit of Progress: Montgomery County in the 1920s,” looks at both the advances and the inequalities that were part of life during this time. Women, newly able to vote, also experienced expanded opportunity for economic freedom. Women now worked at industrial jobs at the Blue Ridge Overall factory and found new acceptance in business and professional positions.
The clothing on display in the exhibit tells the story of the changing role of women during this time. A pink drop-waistline silk dress is typical of the boyish look fashionable during the 1920s. The loose fitting dress hung straight, not revealing the wearer’s curves. The ability to abandon the constraining corsets required by the form-fitting, heavy dresses of the nineteenth century was empowering. Freedom of movement, both physically and socially, was the hallmark of the 1920s for women.
The female sewing operators working at the Blue Ridge Overall factory embraced this new freedom as they donned men’s denim overalls and festive caps to march in the 1926 Lee Highway Opening parade. These women felt free to celebrate their place in the economic picture of the county and to abandon dresses for men’s pants in public. However, they earned only earned about half as much money as men working similar unskilled factory jobs at the time.
Juanita Robertson was a working woman whose wardrobe continues our story. Miss Robertson graduated from Christiansburg High School in 1916 and by 1920 she was employed as a telephone clerk. While we do not know if she ever considered marriage, Miss Robertson was clearly interested in forwarding her career. In 1930, she was employed as a stenographer at “the college,” probably Virginia Tech. She continued working as a stenographer at least through 1940. In 1944, she took the role of librarian for the newly opened public library in Christiansburg. In 1945, she began working for the Town of Christiansburg. She soon gained the position of assistant town treasurer; a role she would hold for the next nineteen years. Upon her retirement in 1966, she was honored with a banquet and those who knew her remembered her years of “efficient and faithful service.”
Certainly among the county’s earliest “career women,” Juanita Robertson was also concerned that her wardrobe be fashionable. Two dresses and a beaded purse owned by Miss Robertson are currently on exhibit. By the 1930s, women’s clothing became softer and more graceful. The natural waistline and curves were again celebrated as seen in both of Miss Robertson’s dresses, which date to the late 1920s or early 1930s.
The clothing now on exhibit is beautiful. When we understand how these garments tell the story of women across Montgomery County who were joining the workforce and finding new opportunities, the beauty of the garments has an even deeper meaning.