“Blacksburg, Virginia, 1908-1914” offers a rare glimpse of what it was like to live in Solitude. The narrative is Chapter II in a larger work, We Remember, that Stevenson Whitcomb and Margaret Rolston Fletcher wrote for their children and their children’s children. Dr. Robert H. Fletcher, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Medical School (son of Steve, Jr.); his cousin Marcia Fletcher Clark (daughter of Richard); and her daughter, Lisa Snook Young have graciously permitted us to share these images and text from the narrative. The family retains copyright. Plans are underway in the University Archives to construct an Internet exhibition with more images of Solitude and the Fletcher family and a link to the full text of the Fletchers’ Blacksburg chapter.
In 1908, Professor Fletcher moved to Blacksburg with his wife Margaret and their two young sons, Robert and Richard. He came to Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute, as Virginia Tech was then named, as Professor of Experimental Agriculture and Director of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station. After a week at the frigid Blacksburg Inn and nine months in three long narrow rooms in the Library that were usually reserved for the accommodation of the trustees, “we were released on probation,” and the family moved into Solitude. Two more children, Steve and Peter, were born at Solitude.
Virginia Tech’s oldest structure, Solitude is the “homeplace” of the university. From humble origins as a log cabin built in 1801, Solitude grew into the colonial home of two Virginia governors and the home of Robert Preston who sold the property in 1872 to provide land for the new Virginia land grant college, Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College.
The narrative describes the setting of the lovely home:
“The yard was shaded by a number of locust trees, beneath which bluegrass grew luxuriantly, and by red maples and a giant pine, remnants of the virgin forest. The gravel walk to the house was bordered by a box hedge. There was a clump of cinnamon fern by the doorstep, and in the spring Poet’s Narcissus nodded gracefully in the breeze. Across the road was a pond on which the boys skated in winter. Back of the house was a bluegrass meadow through which meandered a little ‘branch.’ Beyond this was a wooded hill on top of which stood the President’s mansion.”
According to the account, the family lived well on Professor Fletcher’s salary: “Steve’s salary was $3,000 and house; this was equal in purchasing power to at least $9,000 today” [note: We Remember was written in 1951).
Margaret Fletcher started a kindergarten taught by Miss Rosa Parrott. Robert, Richard, and Steve enrolled. “The playroom in our house was her schoolroom and our yard was their playground.” Miss Rosa Parrott later married Dr. E. B. Fred, president of the University of Wisconsin.
The narrative recalls how Christmas was observed at Solitude:
“In one corner of the living room, by the fireplace, stood a glittering Christmas tree trimmed with strings of white popcorn, red cranberries, shining tinsel, and net bags of red and white candy. Beneath it were piled unopened presents that had come by mail. Three pairs of stockings hung from the mantel stuffed with candy, dates, figs, nuts, and small toys, with a red and white candy cane and horn sticking out of the top of each stocking. Beneath the stockings were piled sleds, skates, drums, and other things dear to the hearts of boys. It was obvious that some mysterious and open-handed stranger had visited the house during the night; Robert looked for the track of his sleigh on the roof, but the new-fallen snow had covered it.”
To learn more about Solitude and the Preston family, or to read Professor Fletcher’s 1913 book, Three Problems in Virginia Fruit Growing: Packing, Marketing, Nursery and Orchard Inspection, visit Special Collections on the first floor of Newman Library or visit the Solitude site at http://spec.lib.vt.edu/archives/solitude/index.html The history of Solitude was discussed in an earlier blog https://vtspecialcollections.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/solitude-history/
To visit Solitude, please contact the Appalachian Studies Program director, Dr. Anita Puckett, at firstname.lastname@example.org.