Not much is known about the early first ladies of Virginia Tech, but we can learn more about Cora Bolton McBryde through recent gifts to Special Collections from Janet Watson Barnhill. These gifts include Cora’s silver Tiffany stirring spoon, which, Mrs. Barnhill notes, is “engraved and worn from stirring puddings;” a tin Kreamer Turk’s head or turban pan (similar to a bundt pan) that was used by Cora Bolton McBryde; and the McBrydes’ gold-embossed fiftieth anniversary (1913) cookie plate. These items complement an earlier gift of Cora Bolton McBryde’s cookbook, the subject of a previous blog. The fragile cookbook has returned from Etherington Conservation Services for restoration and now may be viewed in Special Collections.
Born August 4, 1839, Cora Bolton was the first of ten children of Dr. James Bolton and Anna Maria (Harrison). Dr. James Bolton began his practice of medicine and surgery in Richmond, Virginia, but temporarily abandoned it to attend the Episcopal Theological Seminary near Alexandria where he was ordained. He took charge of a church in Richmond, but a year later he resumed his practice of medicine. In 1855 he opened Bellevue, a private hospital in Richmond, and maintained it until 1866. During the Civil War, it was used primarily for medical purposes.
Janet Watson Barnhill wrote in an email of September 24, 2013, that Dr. James Bolton “was one of the doctors for R. E. Lee and worked tirelessly in Richmond during the Civil War. I gather the family took care of many injured patients at home, so I believe she [Cora Bolton] was well suited for the job of being the First Lady of VPI. I think women are much overlooked in history!”
Cora Bolton married John McLaren McBryde on November 18, 1863. They had eight children. When McBryde became president of Virginia Tech, then Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (V.A.M.C.), in 1891, the family moved into the original President’s Home, which was built in 1876 and is now part of Henderson Hall.
The college lacked adequate facilities for an infirmary for the student body. An outbreak of contagious diseases during the 1898-1899 session forced the college to allow many of the sick to remain in their rooms because there was no space for them in the infirmary. McBryde urged the Board of Visitors to approve funding for a “well planned and thoroughly equipped infirmary.” He also suggested in the president’s report of June 20, 1899 that a “new house for the president could be built for a few thousand dollars and his present house, with a few changes, would make an adequate infirmary.”
The new president’s home was built on a hill overlooking a marshy area, which would be converted into the Duck Pond in 1934, and Solitude, the homeplace of Virginia Tech. The tree-covered hill was known as “the grove.” The McBrydes moved into the newly built Presidents House (Building 274) in April 1902.
To learn more about the history of The Grove, the food that was eaten there, and the people who lived and worked there, see The Grove: Recipes and History of Virginia Tech’s Presidential Residence by Clara Cox. The book includes recipes from seven First Ladies of Virginia Tech: Eleanor Hutcheson (1945-47), Liz Otey Newman (1947-62), Peggy Hahn (1962-74), Peggy Lavery (1975-87), Adele McComas White (1988-94), Dot Torgersen (1994-2000), and Janet Steger (2000-14).
Janet Watson Barnhill’s grandfather, Dr. John Wilbur (Quiz) Watson (1888-1962), was professor of Inorganic Chemistry (1913-56) and head of the Chemistry Department at Virginia Tech (1936-1942 and 1956-59). A student at Virginia Tech from 1905-1907, he transferred to the University of Virginia where he earned his doctorate. He returned to Virginia Tech in 1913, and in 1916, he married Anna Cora Davidson (1893-1928), whose father, Robert James Davidson, was professor of Analytic Chemistry and Agricultural Chemistry and was first Dean of the Scientific Department (1904-1913) and then Dean of Applied Science (1913-16). Davidson Hall is named in his honor. Born in Armagh, Ireland, Davidson, like President McBryde, was at South Carolina College before coming to V.A.M.C. He married Anna Maria McBryde, daughter of President and Cora Bolton McBryde, on May 2, 1892. Janet Watson Barnhill’s father, John Wilbur Watson, Jr., was born in 1917 and graduated from Virginia Tech.
As Janet Watson Barnhill wrote in an email, “I wish there were more information about women in our historical accounts! We can be certain they didn’t sit idly by while drama whirled around them!”