Early History

No story of Athens would be complete without including an early history of what is now Concord University.  Originally, the college was known as a Branch of the State Normal School, and the community was Concord Church ---- or more commonly referred to as just Concord. Original Concord State Normal School Seal

Even before the town and school existed, there were schools in the area now known as West Virginia ---- which was then the western part of Virginia.  The first frontiersmen into the area were generally intelligent and literate, and when what was refered to as "the Indian menace" was removed and comfortable homes were established, they felt the need for formal learning.  This need for formal learning became greater and more urgent when many of the settlers who followed were said to be deficient in intelligence and literacy.

The greatest influences retarding the free school movement in what is now West Virginia were:  the sparseness of population in large areas (about 90% of the state);  poor roads, and inadequate means of transportation and of communication;  a media that devoted little time for the support of education;  an unwillingness to support a system of education;  and there were those who believed that educating the masses could do more harm than good.

During the pre-Civil War period there were free schools in successful operation in counties located in what are now the northern and eastern panhandles of West Virginia and in the area extending from Kanawha County to the Ohio River.  There were Academies, both sectarian and secular, and most of them were in highly populated areas.  But, the educational needs of the vast sparsely populated of what is now West Virginia were met by subscription schools.

Subscription schools were “kept” by masters (teachers) who for certain considerations agreed with families to educate their children.  The education received was of an elementary nature, and classes met in just about whatever space was available.  Many of the masters were itinerant and moved from place to place seeking to “get up” a subscription school.  When one place proved to be unsatisfactory and their contract ended, they moved to a more favorable place. As a consequence of a selective process, the best communities were served with the best teachers, and large areas were served by the worst teachers or had no schools at all.  When not itinerant, the masters were local farmers and preachers who needed to supplement their incomes.  Some of the masters were well educated and otherwise equipped for keeping school, while the teaching ability and reputation of others depended more on their ability to “keep order” than upon their ability to inspire pupils.  Since the earliest endeavors to provide a system of public free schools in West Virginia, there was an awareness of the need for trained teachers.

During the first half of the 19th century, the normal school movement was introduced into this country.  These were institutions that trained secondary-school graduates to become teachers.  In 1839, the first state normal school was opened in Lexington, Massachusetts, and three others were opened within the next two years.  About this time in what is now West Virginia, then Virginia, there were several private normal schools.

Impact of the Civil War

The Civil War brought almost a complete suspension of educational activities in present West Virginia, and it was during this period, on June 20, 1863, that West Virginia became the 35th state of the Union.  At this time, the leaders of this new state created the greatest barrier to the establishment of public free schools on a statewide basis by their proscriptive legislation against school teachers and school trustees of pro-southern sympathies.  By so doing, thousands of individuals were eliminated (barred) from making their contributions to the cause of education.  However, the new state leaders did include in their program plans for providing needed school teachers.

The need for trained teachers, being a subject of discussion among the legislatures of the new state, resulted in their requesting the new Governor, on February 3, 1865, to appoint a commission to report “a definite plan for the location, internal arrangements and the support of one or more [normals].  Also, they were interested in a public free school system throughout the entire state.

The 1866 House of Delegates considered a bill to establish “a State Normal” at an undesignated place to be determined by a commission, but this bill was brushed aside by a substitute measure authorizing the establishment of four state normals:  one at West Liberty, Ohio County;  one at Fairmont, Marion County;  one at Martinsburg, Berkeley County; and the fourth at Charleston, Kanawha County.  Following efforts to substitute first Point Pleasant, Mason County, and then Union, Monroe County, for Charleston, the bills were laid on the table and left there.  Therefore, the failure of the 1866 Legislature to establish even one State normal school was an invitation to interested persons to make ready for the coming session.

It should be noted here that both Wheeling and Charleston were eliminated as sites for the proposed normals because they each desired to be the capital of the new state.  Also, Montgomery and Bethany were eliminated because of their being a possible site for an Agricultural College, which later became the West Virginia University.

The chief emphasis influencing the location of the proposed normal schools was placed upon educational tradition and material advantages in the form of facilities available for use.  These reasons were largely responsible for the act of February 27, 1867 establishing the “West Virginia State Normal School” at Marshall College.  Even before this act was passed, a legislative decision was made to establish Branch Normals at West Liberty and Fairmont.  During the time it took to establish Branch Normals at Fairmont, on August 15, 1867, and West Liberty, on March 1, 1870, there was a change of leadership of West Virginia.

In 1870, the new state leadership was dominated by the ex-Confederates with the Union Democrats.  They also appreciated the need for trained teachers, and they added another criterion for the location of proposed normal schools.  Their first concern was to provide teacher training institutions for those parts of the State that had been neglected.

Courthouse Controvery

About this time, in the fall of 1870, the courthouse controversy in Mercer County, which had been going on for about five years, was settled in favor of Princeton.  The courthouse dispute in Mercer County was not unique, because a similar dispute took place in Jefferson County between Charles Town and Shepherdstown.  The people who espoused the cause of Princeton in the controversy gave their support to a petition from residents of Concord Church asking that a branch of the State Normal School be located there.  William L. Bridges, Mercer County delegate to the Legislature, presented to that body the petition, and on February 28, 1872, the Legislature passed “An Act to locate a Branch State Normal School at Concord, in the county of Mercer.”

During 1872, two other state normals were established:  one at Glenville, Gilmer County, under the act of February 19, 1872, and another at Shepherdstown, Jefferson County, under the act of February 28, 1872.  Now the door was closed to the creation of similar institutions through a provision of the state constitution of 1872, which forbade the Legislature to make appropriations to normals or branch normals not then active or chartered.

A condition imposed by the Act establishing a normal school at Concord (Church) was that the building being erected at Concord Church for “a courthouse and jail”, and the land on which the same is situated, together with not less than five acres of land adjacent thereto, shall for the purpose of the said school be conveyed free of charge to the State.  (Note:  The former Bank of Athens occupied this site before its demolition.)  The situation became complicated through the death of the donor of the courthouse site, Colonel William Henderson French, and thus making it impossible to convey a title to the property as the State would accept.  At this time, the hopes and expectations of those interested in having a normal school in their midst seemed doomed.

Procuring Land and Meeting State Requirements

On December 2, 1873, friends of the measure gained passage of an Act authorizing the procurement of title to any other tract of required size in Concord Church and the erection of a suitable building thereon without cost to the State.  On May 29, 1874, William H. Martin, an ex-Confederate soldier and a farmer, with his wife, Martha Ann, conveyed to the State of West Virginia six acres of land upon which to erect the Normal School building. (The Athens School now occupies this tract.)  It is said that when Mr. Martin asked how much he wanted for the land, he replied, “Just enough calico to make Martha Ann a dress.”  He was typical of the many area citizens at that time who were interested in progress, and his interest led him to make a gift of land for the first campus.

With one condition imposed by the Act for establishing a normal school satisfied, attention was focused upon the other requiring a suitable building be available ---- at no cost to the State.  This placed a tremendous burden upon the handful of families who then inhabited the small village of Concord Church.  Realizing the advantages and benefits of such a school to not only Concord but to the whole of southern West Virginia, about $1,700 was raised by subscription.  A contract was let to W. A. Cooper, and on February 22, 1874, the cornerstone was laid for the new building with full Masonic honors by the Concord Lodge established only a few years before in 1871.  When completed, much more could be said about the small wooden structure concerning what it did not have rather than what it did have.  But, the spirit that prevailed from the time of an idea for such a school to its soon becoming a reality may explain why this meager compliance with the Act was accepted by the State.

On April 21, 1875, Captain John A. Douglass and Honorable William M. Reynolds appeared before the Board of Regents of the normal schools and presented the Deed made by Mr. & Mrs. W. H. Martin to the State of West Virginia.  The Board accepted it in compliance with the Act of the Legislature.

Establishing Concord Normal School

The Regents ordered that Concord Normal School should begin May 10, 1875, continue twenty weeks, and then take an intermission until after the first Monday in March 1876.  The Concord Normal School Executive Committee met and elected its officers on May 8, 1875 and formally opened the school on May 10, 1875 with Captain James Harvey French serving as the new school’s first Principal.

Although the First CSNS Building opened as mandated on May 10, 1875 it was not completely finished and furnished and the surrounding grounds were not cleared and fenced until 1876.  It was used for classes until Commencement on July 2, 1886 and afterward was used for several years as a barn.

The Legislature of 1885, satisfied with the progress made by the Normal School, appropriated $5,000 for the erection of a more substantial building to replace the small frame structure.  Construction of the two-story brick Second CSNS Building began in July, 1886 and was sufficiently complete in early January, 1887 in time for classes to begin on January 10, 1887.  The Legislature of 1887 appropriated an additional $3,000 to complete the building and furnish it.  It was enlarged in 1888 by an addition which cost $3,500.  The Second CSNS Building was used until February, 1899.

The Legislature of 1897 appropriated $20,000 for renovation to transform the Second CSNS Building into an improved facility.  All but one wing of the existing building was demolished, and to this was added another wing and additional rooms resulting in the Third CSNS Building, a handsome two-story red-brick structure described as well-arranged and with many advantages.

From modest beginnings created twenty-five years earlier at no cost to the State by a handful of families dedicated to the cause of education had arisen an impressive educational facility and institution of which the State, Normal School, and community could be proud.

Fire of 1910

Disaster struck, however, when in the early morning hours of November 22, 1910 fire destroyed the Normal School’s only building.  (The Bluefield Daily Leader newspaper account is here.) With the building in ruins, the citizens of Athens were faced with the real prospect that the Normal School would temporarily close and that political forces would take advantage of the situation and relocate the Normal School to an available facility in another community.  The response by the townspeople was immediate and two-fold:  First, churches, storerooms and lodge halls were immediately made available so that the Normal School could continue classes without interruption, and the ground floor of the Odd Fellows Hall was used for the office of the Principal of the Normal School.  This arrangement proved to be satisfactory despite the unfortunate later occurrence of a second fire, this time originating in the Odd Fellows Hall in the early morning hours of January 14, 1912, in which the Principal’s office and all of the school’s records were again destroyed by fire.  Second, a committee headed by Athens physician Dr. David H. Thornton was formed to rebuild the Normal School in Athens.  Working with local legislators and Senate President Dr. Henry D. Hatfield, the efforts of Dr. Thornton and the committee were soon rewarded.  In an Act passed by the Legislature on February 17, 1911 and signed by the Governor on February 20, 1911, an appropriation was approved for the purpose of rebuilding the main building of the Branch Normal School at Concord (now Athens). 

A New Site

Specific language in the Act made the funding for the new building contingent upon a requirement that “the citizens of Athens shall cause to be conveyed to the state in fee by the holders of the legal title thereof, by proper deed with general warranty of title and without expense to the state, a tract of twenty-six and four-tenths of acres of land adjoining said town of Athens known as the ‘Vermillion tract’, a blueprint with description being on file in the office of the state board of control, which board is hereby authorized to receive and accept the deed for said land.” 

It has been written in some accounts that some townspeople purchased the 26.4-acre tract of land from the Vermillion family and then donated it to the State in compliance with the Act.  However, records indicate that this was not the case.  While it is true that prior to the legislative session, Dr. D. H. Thornton sought and was granted a six-month option on January 16, 1911 to purchase the tract of land for $100 per acre, the option was not exercised by Dr. Thornton.  Instead, by proper Deed dated March 1, 1911 (Deed Book 78, page 50), Stephen T. and Rhoda A. Vermillion, owners and holders of legal title to the 26.4-acre ‘Vermillion tract’ conveyed ownership and title directly to the State of West Virginia, at no cost to the State. (PDF copy of the Vermillion deed is here.)

With the laying of the cornerstone with full Masonic honors on August 5, 1911 and the completion of the first new building “Old Main” on the new campus in Spring of 1912, a modern era on the new campus began, bringing to a close the initial 40-year chapter in the history of the Concord College.

Corner Stone Laid

Large Crowd Present and a Big Day for Athens
Rain Dampened Enthusiasm

The laying of the corner stone of the new school building at Athens was a big thing for the beautiful town of Athens, the seat of learning for this part of the State.

The exercises took place last Saturday afternoon. The corner stone laying was under the auspices of Concord Lodge No. 48, A. F. & A. M., and members from a number of lodges were present to take part in the proceedings. Hon. Wyndam H. Stokes was in charge, and the manner in which he performed the ceremonies and directed the work of the laying of the corner stone proved to all that he was no novice.

The exercises came off at 2 o’clock. Promptly at 1 o’clock the members of the fraternity met at the Hall, and in a very short time the line of March was found. Eighty-six members of the “Mystic Tie” were in the procession, and a fine line it made. The procession was marched to the grounds, where the corner stone was laid with the usual ceremonies.

Source: Transcribed from the Mercer Republican, Friday, January 19, 1912.

In retrospect, among the major factors that determined the location of a normal school at Concord Church were (1) the concern that the leaders of the Legislature at that time had neglected areas of West Virginia and (2) the spirit and interest of the residents of Concord that led them to request a normal school be located in their community.  It goes without saying that had they not had the support of those in Princeton, as well as throughout southern West Virginia and elsewhere, all of their efforts would have been in vain.

The so-called neglected area represented about one-fourth of the total area of the new state West Virginia, and it represented one-fifth of its counties.  It was a wilderness area ---- seeking to develop.  Educational needs were partially being met by subscription schools ---- offering elementary education.  There were no high schools ---- for secondary education, and, of course, there were no colleges ---- for higher education.  There was a need for formal education ---- for a system of free public schools ---- and for trained teachers.  It was from this area that students later came to become teachers ---- and then to go home or elsewhere ----- to teach.

Spirit and Commitment of the People

The spirit of the people living in Concord Church (later renamed Athens in 1896) that played an important part in the location of the normal school here prevailed well into the 20th century.  It best can be described by giving some of their accomplishments and contributions for the benefit of the town and the students of the new normal school.

Recognition begins, perhaps, for William H. Martin, who, as has already been mentioned, along with his wife, Martha Ann, conveyed to the State of West Virginia the land upon which to erect the first Normal School building.  He was the grandson of John Martin, Sr., one of the earliest settlers in the Athens area who in 1829 settled on Laurel Creek in the area of the Athens Dam.  Throughout the years, many have been recognized for their contributions to the cause of what is now Concord College.  For William H. Martin, it came after his death on January 20, 1909, when classes were dismissed at Concord, and the entire student body marched in a funeral procession to show the respect that the community and the school had for the donor of the land that made the normal school possible.  He is buried in the Martin family cemetery on the point of a hill overlooking Laurel Creek.  It is at the end of the road, extending from Route 20 at the Athens Fire Station and passing through the Athens Cemetery.

Since no State funds were appropriated for either the land or for the construction of the first Normal School building, historians have also recognized five families --- the Fanning, French, Holroyd, Martin, and Vermillion families --- as principally responsible for meeting the challenge of raising the necessary funds through subscription and getting the school established.

Since there were no dormitories until 1891, many residents opened their homes to provide living accommodations for the students, and for the same purpose, hotels were built.  The Mountain House was the center of activity for the community, and next to it on the former site of Bradley’s Drug Store was “Loafers Joy”, a favorite place for students at that time.  In 1883, the Alumni Association was organized, and it was then called the Concord Normal School Reunion.  It held its first banquet in 1906 at the Massie Hotel, later to become Roy Beckett’s property and now the location of CVS.  Doctors and dentists located here to provide medical and dental services.  Hack services were established as early as 1889 (see photo), and in 1904, an attempt was made to build a “trolley line” from Athens to Princeton.  Still later, bus and taxi services were available to meet transportation needs.

In 1905, the Bank of Athens was established to provide financial services.  In 1906, the Town of Athens was incorporated to meet the growing needs of the community, of which the students were a part. 

In 1910, when fire destroyed the Normal School’s only building, residents made storerooms, church rooms and lodge rooms immediately available for classes to meet.  Athens physician Dr. David H. Thornton headed a committee to seek to rebuild the Normal School in Athens.

In 1911, when a new site was needed for the school at no cost to the State, the Vermillion family gave 26.4 acres for a new campus and to this additional acreage has been added, resulting in the present campus of about 116 acres, all of which was once part of the Vermillion family farm upon which Dr. James R. Vermillion settled in 1845.

Also about 1912, a Dry Goods and Notions Store was opened by John Matt Cook in the present Sweet Shop building.  In the house next to the Sweet Shop, Miss Ada Pauley operated a very successful boarding house for students and faculty.  In 1922, she started to build a hotel-style, off-campus dormitory for men, but after running into financial difficulty, she sold the unfinished building to other parties, who in 1925 sold it to the Board of Control.  The building was completed in the summer of 1926 and opened as Sam Holroyd Hall, the second dormitory for men.

About 1933, “Doc” Ferrell began operating the Sweet Shop, and it was the favorite meeting place for students until the student union was established on campus.  In 1947, Woodrow Thomas, an alumnus, built and operated the Athens Theater.  Before this, students went to Princeton to see the movies at the Royal Theater.  In the 1960’s, Garland Elmore built his Campus Lodge for Concord students as an attractive alternative to dormitory accommodations.  In 1975, with no doctors practicing in town, the people of Athens and its surrounding area raised the necessary funds to establish the Athens Medical Center to serve the medical needs of the residents in the community and the students of Concord College.  And of course the doors of the local churches have always been open to meet the spiritual needs of the students.

To these and to countless others whose efforts, contributions, sacrifices, participation and support have been vital to the life of Concord College, acknowledgment and appreciation was expressed in a greeting given by Professor Charles K. Baxter, Senior Faculty Member, at a convocation held to celebrate the 100th birthday of Concord College. It was also a time of turmoil, caused by a proposed merger of Concord College with Bluefield State College.             








Exhibit 1.  Early Principals of Concord State Normal School, 1875 – 1913

1875 – 1891  James Harvey French, B.A.
1891 – 1897  John David Sweeney, B.S., M.S.
1897 – 1900  George Michael Ford, A.B.
1900 – 1901  Elmer Forrest Goodwin, A.B., A.M.
1901 – 1906  Arthur S. Thorn, A.B.
1906 – 1907  Francis Isabelle Davenport, B.S.
1907 – 1913  Charles L. Bemis, B.S., M.Pd.

Professor James F. Holroyd, who served on the CSNS faculty under each of these principals, wrote the following in June, 1910:

“Captain James Harvey French, first principal of Concord Normal, was educated at Georgetown College, D. C., and was also a graduate of Virginia University.  He was a gallant captain in the Confederate army, but after the battle of Manassas was compelled to leave the army on account of failing health.  He was a man of splendid physique, scholarly attainments, tender, and sympathetic.  Those students, who came under his care and instruction, love and revere his memory.  For seventeen years he was Principal and a handsome monument to his memory stands upon the campus.

Mr. John D. Sweeney, who for six years had been first assistant, succeeded Capt. French in 1891.  He is a graduate of West Virginia University.  Under his management the school increased rapidly in numbers and efficiency.  He traveled extensively and had large gains over former enrollments.  Prof. Sweeney was succeeded in 1897 by Prof. George M. Ford, also a graduate of West Virginia University.  Prof. Ford having splendid executive ability and a very laudable ambition for a successful administration of affairs immediately set to work to excel.  The work and routine of the school were organized on a new basis, the Literary societies were combined; that is, the girls and boys attended and conducted the same societies which had formerly been separate as to sex.  These societies have since been a very great addition to the life of the school.  After three years of strenuous and successful work Mr. Ford resigned and was succeeded by Mr. Goodwin who remained only one year, faithfully executing all the duties devolving on him in that short time.

Arthur S. Thorn succeeded Mr. Goodwin.  Mr. Thorn is a graduate of Emory and Henry College, Virginia.  For five years he was in control accomplishing much good.  The “Model School” was organized under his administration, and being very successful, became an essential feature of the Normal School.  Miss Isabel Davenport of New York was appointed Principal to succeed Mr. Thorn.  She is a fine instructor, an excellent disciplinarian, and did much to perfect the “Model School” system.  She remained one year.

Mr. C. L. Bemis of Ionia, Michigan, is the present incumbent.  He is a man of experience in the best methods of school work, having been in charge of City Schools for sixteen years.  He has installed a good laboratory in the department of chemistry, and has that department in fine working order, indeed, he has given a new impetus to all departments, and being seconded by a Faculty equal to any in the State, and the largest enrollment in the history of the school, there are no fears of his ultimate success.”

The above history was written by Mr. J. F. Holroyd in June, 1910.  The old building was burned on the morning of November 22, 1910.

Source:  Concord State Normal School Catalogue, 1912 – 1913, pp. 9 – 10.

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