Celebrating 100 Years…
“We have a wonderful school at Ferrum and it will be worth more to you to graduate at Ferrum than it would be to inherit a fortune of thousands.”
–Undated letter from Dr. Benjamin Beckham to a prospective student, circa 1925-30.
“Where the Need Seemed the Greatest”
The celebration of Ferrum College’s 100th anniversary naturally piques interest in the school’s history and successes. The Ferrum story repeatedly shows how just a few visionary individuals—backed by dedicated faculty, students, staff, and supporters—can dramatically change thousands of lives for the better. Through a century of challenges, Ferrum has followed its mission of providing a high-quality, affordable education to those who dream of better lives for themselves and for all.
The seeds that would lead to Ferrum College were sown in the early 1900s. At that time, United Methodist leaders serving the southern Virginia Blue Ridge—including the tireless Methodist circuit rider (and Franklin County native) Rev. George T. Kesler—witnessed the hunger for religious and educational services in the region and lobbied for solutions. In 1909 the Virginia Conference Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the UMC wrote Dr. Benjamin Beckham (the presiding elder of the Danville District of the Virginia Conference) to report the VCWHMS had $1,200 for starting “a school for mountain boys and girls, in a remote place, yet accessible, where the need seemed the greatest.”
Many young people in the Blue Ridge had no practical access to public education, and even where rural schools did exist, attendance was often poor. A student might be faced with a daily walk of several miles in the mountains. Planting, harvesting, and other farm tasks often kept youngsters away from school. Some parents thought an extensive education was unnecessary to find a job in the region’s furniture factories and textile mills. In 1929—16 years after Ferrum’s founding—an estimated 17,000 school-age children were still not attending school in the five-county area around Ferrum.
At the 1911 Virginia Methodist Annual Conference the commitment to build a mountain school was formalized. Rev. Kesler, who rode thousands of miles on horseback in his preaching circuit, and fellow members on the committee to select the site for the school chose the village of Ferrum because the railroad had a depot there. The VCWHMS began directing half of its dues into the building fund, and the following year Dr. Beckham offered to assist in raising $25,000.
By the end of 1913, Ferrum Training School’s Board of Trustees was in place, and 80 acres of George Goode’s tomato farm had been purchased at a price of $3,700. Construction began on the Principal’s House (now Stratton House), the White Cottage (now Spilman-Daniel House), and the first phase of John Wesley Hall. Hired as FTS’s principal, Dr. Beckham moved onto campus in June 1914. School was set to begin in September.
Opportunities for Mind and Soul
Ferrum’s founders based their efforts on the same broad goals as many other church-related mission schools in the Blue Ridge and Appalachia:
- To serve the educationally underserved—both boys and girls.
- To be affordable.
- To offer faith-based instruction and opportunities.
FTS was planned as a residential school where most students would live on campus. Classes began as scheduled in 1914 with approximately 90 students (37 were boarders) and six teachers for the upper grades. In the opening years, tuition, room, and board totaled $100 for two semesters. Such a cost seems paltry compared to today’s college expenses, but it presented a real challenge to the mountain poor in 1914. Many FTS students truly could afford to pay nothing for education. As an example of Ferrum’s early financial challenges, in 1917 student payments covered less than 20 percent of FTS’s annual budget of $14,000. Part of that shortfall was offset by requiring students to help with the physical work of running the school; the rest was covered by generous donors, Methodists and non-Methodists alike.
The 1914 student body included grades one through 12 because the nearby public elementary school had burned. In 1915 the first, second, and third graders returned to the public school, and FTS dropped the fourth grade for the 1917–18 year. By 1925 FTS served only grades seven and up.
One of Ferrum’s initial stated purposes was “the training of young people for country life.” Students received a standard high school instruction in math, science, English, and history. Boys also took agricultural science, and girls studied domestic science (later referred to as “Home Economics.”) Most students had an eye toward careers in business, the ministry, church mission work, or teaching. The school’s first graduate—Berta Thompson, Class of 1917—went on to teach in the Virginia public schools for years.
Christianity was certainly a key part of the curriculum, but Ferrum Training School did not push the views of any particular Christian denomination. Students took daily Bible study, and “the Bible [was] taught in some way in every trade.”
The value of Ferrum Training School to the region and the ability of Dr. Beckham to sell the Ferrum vision could be seen in FTS’s steady growth. Between 1913 and 1925, donors stepped up to fund the four major brick buildings that would serve as the campus core for the next 30 years: John Wesley Hall, the Administration Building (now Beckham Hall), Centenary Hall (now Roberts Hall), and Schoolfield Memorial Chapel (now Schoolfield Hall).
By 1926 FTS owned 400 acres of land, and about 230 students were being taught by a faculty of 14 teachers. Two hundred of those students lived on campus, and nearly half of the students could not afford to pay a single dollar for education. Ferrum added its first junior college-level courses for the fall term of 1926, and without any recruiting, 18 students enrolled for the junior college program. Three years later the junior college program had to be dropped because the Ferrum library could not meet Virginia’s college standards.
As Ferrum Training School evolved through the Beckham era, it held to its core mission: an affordable education for underserved young people. Still, opinions on what exactly a Ferrum education should be inspired ongoing discussion. For example, some board members questioned the value of teaching students to be farmers. None, however, doubted the overall benefits of attending FTS.
A Challenged Nation, A Challenged School
The Beckham era came to an end in the midst of the Great Depression. Feeling that the Board of Trustees was not fully supporting him, Dr. Beckham submitted his resignation in 1934. John A. Carter, a former Franklin County schoolteacher, served as president for less than a year before Dr. James A. Chapman took the reins in 1935.
Dr. Chapman saw that the need for a private high school in the region was in decline, and he quickly reintroduced the junior college program at FTS. Post-secondary classes restarted in 1935, and the Commonwealth of Virginia accredited Ferrum’s post-secondary program in the early 1940s. (“Ferrum Training School–Ferrum Junior College” became the school’s legal name in 1940. The “Ferrum Training School” portion of the name was dropped in 1948, though students could earn a high school degree at Ferrum until 1954.) Campus growth under Dr. Chapman included construction of the Ida Richeson Infirmary (with operating room) and the Lee Britt Memorial Library (now Britt Hall). Importantly, Dr. Chapman worked to improve Ferrum’s finances.
Still, challenges mounted. Life throughout the United States changed abruptly in December 1941 with the nation’s entry into World War II. Due to the draft and volunteer enlistments, many young men and women who might have been attending school found themselves in the military, and those not in the armed forces could readily find jobs as the war jumpstarted the economy. Enrollment at Ferrum Training School–Junior College dropped 40 percent from 1940 to 1945, and the school looked for its future within a society in flux.
Upon Dr. Chapman’s resignation in 1943, Rev. Luther J. Derby ’20, a Ferrum alumnus, was selected as the fourth president. He in turn was followed by another alumnus, Dr. Nathaniel H. Davis ’24, in 1948. Ferrum’s troubles led some in The United Methodist Church to wonder if the school was still needed. One idea put forth, but not adopted, was to turn FJC into a rural life vocational school focused on modern agriculture and ministry/community service. By the time Dr. Davis resigned in 1952, Ferrum had improved its academic quality, modernized its farm, and brought its enrollment up somewhat to 190.
Nonetheless, when Rev. Stanley R. Emrich assumed the presidency of Ferrum Junior College in 1953, he ran headlong into the same problems the school had faced for over a decade: a shortage of students and money. Rev. Emrich’s wife recalled that the grass was a foot high and the buildings were in disrepair when she first arrived on campus. By 1954 FJC had less than 100 students and poor financial credit. History, however, was about to repeat itself.
A New Vision for a New Generation
Dr. C. Ralph Arthur, a visionary on the scale of Dr. Beckham, became FJC’s seventh president in 1954. Dr. Arthur inspired lenders and donors alike to embrace the Ferrum mission and help transform the school physically and academically. Amid a healthy national economy and a steadily growing population of college-age men and women, FJC set about reinventing itself, all the while keeping focus on its mission to serve students in need.
Dr. Arthur set Ferrum on a remarkable course of campus modernization and expansion, and construction crews were a constant presence for most of his 16-year tenure. New buildings included Riddick Hall, Franklin Hall, Susannah Wesley Hall, Swartz Gymnasium, Chapman Hall, Garber Hall, Bassett Hall, Stanley Library, and Vaughn Chapel—all designed in a mid-20th century, institutionally modern style. The creation of Adams Lake gave the campus a new central focus—and for a decade or so a place for students to ice skate in winter.
In speaking of Ferrum, Dr. Arthur pointed out the importance of schools that had both Christian purpose and freedom from government. The creation of the Virginia community college system in the mid-1960s posed some competition for Ferrum, but as a church-related residential school, FJC obviously filled a niche in the educational market at the time. Ferrum’s affordable two-year associate’s degree model appealed to many Baby Boomers. By 1964 FJC had 793 full-time students, and enrollment would reach 1,000 by 1969. Regrettably, Dr. Arthur passed away while still serving as President in 1970, but Ferrum continued to grow in the 1970s.
Selected as Dr. Arthur’s successor, Dr. Joseph Hart took office in 1971, the same year “Ferrum College” became the school’s official name. Under Dr. Hart’s watch FC underwent exciting developments in both academics and community service. A wave of new young faculty came to Ferrum, the environmental science program was created, and the Museum of Mountain Lore (later the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum) opened. Most importantly, FC implemented the 2+2 academic structure, offering both associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees, and in 1976 Ferrum’s first four-year diploma was awarded to graduating senior Martha Arnold.
Enrollment continued to grow well into the 1970s. Even so, writing in his 1977 A History of Ferrum College, Professor Emeritus Frank Hurt noted a coming decline in college enrollment nationwide based on the country’s changing demographics. He was not alone in recognizing the challenges ahead, and Dr. Hart and his staff wisely focused attention on reducing the debt load incurred in the campus building boom of the 1960’s. Dr. Hart retired to his home near Ferrum in 1986.
Dr. Jerry Boone became the college’s ninth president in 1987. During his tenure Ferrum’s endowment rose from $6.3 million to $41 million, and in 1992 FC received its largest ever single gift, $12 million. Along with the additional financial aid generated by a healthy endowment, many students also benefited from the implementation of the Bonner Scholar program in 1990. The Ferrum campus continued to evolve throughout Dr. Boone’s 15-year term. The campus bookstore moved into its own building, and an Agroecology wing was added to Garber Hall. The opening of the Grousbeck Music Center expanded both practice and performance space, and the new Blue Ridge Institute & Museum Building doubled the BRI’s exhibit and programming facilities. The construction of the Ferrum Fitness Center (now the Ferrum YMCA) created much-needed exercise and recreational facilities for students, faculty, and staff.
Those who attended Ferrum in the Boone era might well also recall other lifestyle improvements to the college experience. For several years college computers were provided in every student residence room. Subway began selling sandwiches in Franklin Hall. The first Snow Ball Dance was held, and FC completed its move to Division III in the NCAA for all of its athletic programs.
With Dr. Boone’s retirement in 2002, the entire Ferrum community soon fell under the spell of Dr. Jennifer Braaten. Much has been written about Dr. Braaten in this magazine and publications across the nation, and 12 years after her arrival her energy and optimism are still in full sway on a campus strengthened physically, academically, and demographically. Standing in the center of campus amid tall trees and classic buildings, we feel Ferrum’s deep roots and long history of success; at the same time, our future—indeed, the future of an entire planet—passes all around us, books in hand, cell phones glowing, eagerly preparing at Ferrum College to meet the challenges ahead.