Early Historic Blacksburg Life
It is hard for us to imagine life in the Blacksburg area during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. For six days a week most men worked from dawn until dark doing back-breaking work. Women worked even longer hours. People lived in houses with no electricity, no running water, and no sanitary facilities except for an outhouse. Water was collected in cisterns or brought in by hand from wells or local streams. Heating was by wood burning fireplaces or stoves. Before electricity was common, lighting was first by candles, then by oil lamps, then by kerosene lamps. Grass was cut by letting cows graze on the lawn. At first there was no means of communication except by personal visit or courier. Sunday was truly a day of rest as well as worship.
Most of the early settlers in the area were German-speaking farmers who moved to the region near Price’s Fork in the 1740′s. They were Lutherans who, in 1770, started the first Lutheran Church, St. Michael’s, which later had its name changed to St. Peter’s. Eventually some of the local parishioners from St. Peter’s helped to form the current Luther Memorial Church.
In the 1750′s and later English-speaking settlers moved into the area. Some were interested in the Methodist Church which was just getting established in the colonies and requested that a preacher be sent to them. This was not done until 1783, when a visiting preacher preached the first sermon. Until that time services were led by local people in their homes. When the town was laid out in 1798, a location was designated for a Methodist Meeting House.
Most of the English-speaking settlers were Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian. These groups kept strongly to their traditions and were very concerned about what we might consider minor theological differences. There was, however, a large degree of cooperation. Since church services often depended on traveling preachers, many people tended to go to whatever services were available.
Smithfield Plantation and later the churches were the center of the cultural and social life of Blacksburg until the early 1900′s. People worshiped in their churches and worked toward common church goals. Church services were long, often lasting several hours. By some accounts the sermons were tedious, but the parishioners respected their preachers and tried to listen. After the services people visited and caught up on the local news.
Most of the original church buildings were small frame or log buildings put up by the parishioners themselves. These buildings began to deteriorate after a few years and were replaced by larger, more elaborate structures, which, in turn were replaced by even larger structures. The one exception is the sanctuary of Christ Episcopal Church. That is the only original historic church building still being used for its original purpose, although the church building and campus have been expanded several times.
Blacksburg was a small farming village until about the middle of the nineteenth century. About that time The Olin and Preston Institute was founded, and more people moved to the town. Several new churches were established, partly to serve the needs of the students. This movement accelerated a few years after the Civil War when, in 1872, The Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (now VA Tech) replaced the successor of the Olin and Preston Institute.
Life in Blacksburg was primitive by our standards. In the middle of the nineteenth century the dirt streets were still unnamed. Everybody knew where everyone else lived, so street names were unnecessary.
We tend to think of distances in terms of travel time. For example, we think of Christiansburg as being about ten minutes from Blacksburg. In the nineteenth century the towns were several hours apart if travel was by wagon or by horse and buggy. This meant, for example, that it was very difficult for people from Blacksburg to attend religious services in Christiansburg.
Three of the historic church buildings survive. The second Presbyterian Church building, built in the 1840′s is now the Cabo Fish Taco building on Main Street. The Christ Episcopal Church sanctuary, built in 1875, is still in use by that church. The original Baptist Church, on the corner of Church and Roanoke Streets, built in 1903 was quickly sold to the Christian (Disciples of Christ) congregation who later sold the building to be the Odd fellows Hall. The Odd Fellows, in turn, later sold it to be the Jewish Community Center.
Click on Blacksburg's Church's names to find out more about them!