The Old Lewisburg Academy

Chapter I


(Published in the Greenbrier Independent, Thursday evening, July 20, 1882.)

These fragments-caught up and printed to save them from the ravages of time-are intended to embrace: (1) A general history of the academy; (2) a review of Dr. McElhenney's life; and (3) biographical sketches as far as possible, of the doctor's pupils at the academy.

... Everybody loves to talk and read about what their fathers and mothers did when they were girls and boys in a land of woods and Indians. Ten years ago many persons were living who attended the Lewisburg Academy in its early days and knew all about it. Then, when the knowledge was at flood-tide, some one ought to have written, and not left it to others when the current had almost passed into oblivion . . . Some recollections of the academy and its inmates do really exist and are tenderly nursed in the hearts of our older people, white and colored, but they will never benefit future generations one whit unless someone takes the trouble to commit them to writing.

The Building

The building has already forgotten its age. It can't even tell the year in which it was born. Neither can any of its literary sons or daughters answer for it. A college or academy should always have a cornerstone and date-it is important for reference. Both were ignored when this house was built. The Trustees' first fifty years of record is also lost. The book ought to have been either chained to a pillar or dedicated like that of the original trustees of the town- "to descend and continue in possession of the Trustees as long as wood grows or water runs." A comparison of known dates, however, fixes the birth of the academy somewhere between the years 1809 and 1811. But memory fails our old people in this case....

A private school taught by Dr. McElhenney in 1808 first suggested the idea of a school of high grade in Lewisburg. This school was opened about the middle of that year and continued for a session or two . some say the sessions were taught in the old Stone Lodge now occupied by the colored free school [The old Masonic Lodge building was on west side of Lafayette Street behind present location of the Federated Store], and others that they were kept in-a two-story log house that stood opposite the Dean property, on the south side of Main Street. It was known as the Bigelow house and was put to different uses. From 1824 to 1830 Dr. Joseph F. Caldwell had a printing office in it. His paper, the Virginia Palladium and Pacific Monitor [Why the name Pacific Monitor was applied to a newspaper in Lewisburg is a geographical mystery.] , was the first ever published in Lewisburg. Joseph Waggoner was the "Printer's devil," and Capt. James Cox was the "Carrier boy." The doctor likely taught in both houses. This school, though, wherever taught, was the germ of the academy that has helped to educate so many "legislators, great debaters, scientific men."

John Mathews, Thomas Creigh, Charles Arbuckle, and the other incorporators of the academy, were lovers of education and classic in their tastes. They looked at it in this way: If Athens, in her infancy, had to build up her "groves of Academe" and "schools of ancient sages," Lewisburg could do the same. To think was to act with such men as those. The idea was hardly matured before the school was a reality. Scholars were enrolled in town and country. Some parents entered three, some four, and some as many as five pupils, rather than let the enterprise fail of success. And some men in the community agreed to educate at their own expense the children who wanted to go but were unable to pay the tuition . . . The land was given by John McClenachan, and John Weir, father of Miss Mary Weir and brother-in-law of Mason and Thomas Mathews, laid the foundation and built the house. The bricks were burned near where the house stands . . . This is said to be the first brick house built in Lewisburg. Dr. McElhenney's private school was removed to the new building, and these, with the newly enlisted boys and girls, made up the classes of what was then called "Greenbrier College." A healthy educational pulse was beating, and this title was destined to be laid aside and forgotten. After a session or two the school gathered fresh strength. Students from all the surrounding counties, from Virginia, from Pennsylvania, and four or five French boys all the way from Louisiana, came flocking in and established its reputation. It became at once the pride of the whole western part of the state. Greenbrier was a land of woods, and, as the house stood in the edge of a beautiful grove of trees the Virginia Assembly incorporated it as the "Lewisburg Academy," in imitation of the grove of Academus near Athens, where Plato and his followers held their philosophical discourses. A copy of the act of incorporation is given below for the benefit of those who questioned the right of the trustees to transfer the academy to the Lewisburg Female Institute, a private corporation. It was passed January 29, 1812, and reads as follows:

"An Act establishing an Academy in the town of Lewisburg in the county of Greenbrier.

"Be It enacted by the General Assembly, That James Mars, Charles Arbuckle, James L. Clowney, James Withers, Thomas Creigh, John May, James McLaughlin, the Rev'd. John Micklehaney, John Welch, Christian Piercy, Henry Hunter, Thomas Beard, John Matthews, John Stuart and William Rennick of the county of Greenbrier, Allen Taylor of Botetourt, Samuel Blackburn and William Pogue of Bath, Hendley Chapman of Giles, Andrew Bums, and Isaac Estill of Monroe, David Ruffner of Kanawha, Jesse Bennett of Mason, and Elisha McComas of Cabell county, gentlemen, be, and they are hereby constituted a body politic and corporate, by the name of 'The Trustees of Lewisburg Academy in the county of Greenbrier,' and by that name shall have perpetual succession and a common seal, and may sue and be sued, plead and be impleaded in any court of the law or equity.... The said Trustees and their successors, or any seven of them, by the name aforesaid, shall be capable in law to purchase, receive and hold, to them and their successors forever ' any lands tenements, rents, goods and chattels of what kind soever, which may be purchased by, or devised or given to them for the use of the said Academy; and to lease, rent, sell or otherwise dispose of the same, in such manner as to them shall seem most conducive to the advantages of the said Academy. The said Trustees and their successors or any seven of them, shall have power, from time to time to make and establish such bye-laws, rules and regulations, not contrary to the laws and constitution of this State, or of the United States, as they may judge necessary for the government of the said Academy, and to appoint a President, Secretary, Tutors, Librarian and Treasurer. * * * In case of the death, resignation or other legal disability of any one or more of the said Trustees, the vacancy or vacancies thereby occasioned may be supplied by the remaining Trustees, or any seven of them."

This act shows that the academy was the creature of the assembly and the trustees merely the servants of the academy. It is debatable, then, whether the withdrawal of the assembly's influence after the foundation of West Virginia invested the trustees with absolute control of the property. At some time or other during the seventy-two years of its history almost every businessman of the town has been a trustee of the academy, and Dr. McElhenney was president of the board from 1812 to 1860.

Early Appearances

. . . The building fronted east, and stood in the edge of a walnut grove. Specimens of the oaks that grew on both hills are still to be seen in the yards of Judge Holt and Mark L. Spotts. Where the colored graveyard is, Caesar Messenbourg, an old colored minister, preached many a day under the shade of oak trees two and a half feet in diameter. The whole savannah was a "common," and houses were scarce. A little south stood the Stone church, then only fourteen years old; a little east was the Smithee house, the first courthouse the county ever had [Now the location of Union 76 Service Station, Washington and Church streets.]; just in front, where Huffnagle lives, was a little one-story log cabin in which one or two of Dr. McElhenney's pupils were born; and a few yards north, on the Harris property, a little one-story brick cabin nestled in the woods. The academy had no portico then, and the upper rooms were reached by stairs from the outside. A bell! . that was a luxury unthought of. The playground . how envious the boys of today ought to be who haven't room to play baseball without treading somebody's garden to pieces. It extended from the Potomac to the Ohio River! Many years later a post and rail fence enclosed part of the premises . . .

The Richmond and Ohio road [James River and Kanawha Turnpike] , winding through the forest, was like any untraveled country road of the present time. The "Welch Road" ran up by the Baptist church, passed about twenty steps south of the academy, up through the woods and connected with the present turnpike at the top of the hill [James River and Kanawha Turnpike] . . . Traces of this "Welch road" are still to be seen through the hillside field now owned by Major Harris. A good many years later than 1810, the Reverend Mr. Robinson walked through Lewisburg, carried a chain measuring the new turnpike, and set the mileposts from Richmond to the Ohio River.

William E. Withrow, under date of July 8, 1882, writes me his recollections as follows: "I entered the Academy at Lewisburg in the fall of 1816, sixty-six years ago at the age of seven years. I there met for the first time Rev. John McElhenney in the character of a teacher and Principal. The house occupied by this school was a two-story brick building, perhaps 40 x 60 feet, with four old-fashioned chimneys, two at each end. It was divided at first on the ground floor into three rooms, consisting of a study and recitation room for general purposes, and across a moderately wide hall two recitation rooms, which were sometimes used by the older students as study rooms, and occasionally for a few months as dormitories for foreign students. But the necessities of the school made it convenient to put these two rooms into one, and the teachers gave us holiday on Friday afternoon if we would tear down the partition and carry out the debris, and this we did with the goodwill of Academicians. So in after years, down to my going to College in 1828, there were two rooms only below, one on the north and one on the south side of the hall. During my attendance the upper room was in no respect finished, except a floor had been laid over the entire area of the building, and it was occasionally used for public exhibitions . such as plays, speaking and reading essays. It was also in part occupied by privileged students, who claimed at least that they wanted quiet to pursue their studies. By removing here and there a brick in the window jambs they could readily climb into the garret, and as some of these studious young gentlemen were good athletes the young hot bloods occasionally got into sports among themselves, both noisy and merrymaking, and Mr. McElhenney often came slipping along up stairs, where a first-class jollification was taking place and found the crowd there in many undignified and unscholarly attitudes . . . The Professor often got right among them before lisping a syllable, and perhaps repeated some jocular remark just made by one of them, to his great discomfiture. They were then all ordered downstairs, but by the next day the permit was renewed under solemn admonitions and a good lot of good promises . . .

Climbing the trees, swinging the girls in grapevine swings, pitching quoits, playing "bandy," etc., were the innocent amusements that employed the boys who afterward, many of them, became illustrious men. In 1810, the founders of the academy cleaned the woods of undergrowth, and their children since then have romped and played in the shade of the trees, and "passed to hoary age and died." The trees themselves, what few were left standing, have crumbled into dust. The greatest civil war of the world has occurred, and their grand and great-grandsons . heroes who died in the conflict . have slept sixteen years in the cemetery, "beautiful for situation," overlooking the academy.

The Lewisburg Academy, in its early days was certainly the "mother of arts and eloquence, and native to famous wits." Today we can only partly estimate the degree of its success . . . But few of its early pupils are living, and they doubtless often run back over its seventy-two years of history with tearful eye and aching heart.


The teachers from 1812 to 1882 also deserve a moment's consideration. It is but natural to want to know whom they were, when they taught, and what became of them. In one or two instances the dates given below may vary a session or two, as, without the written records it is almost impossible to have them perfectly accurate.

From 1812 to 1824, the Reverend John McElhenney, D.D., was principal of the academy. (Comment is withheld here, as a future chapter is reserved for a review of his life and labors.) He taught alone for many years, but chose seven assistants before his time expired. The Reverend Alexander Curry, one of his pupils, assisted the doctor a year or two, and then married Miss Lettie Porter, of Lewisburg, and settled in the Northwest, near the lakes. Launcelot G. Bell succeeded him in the primary department. Mr. Bell came to Lewisburg in the interest of the Messrs. James, merchants of Richmond, Virginia. His store was in the south end of the old Eagle Hotel (the "Long Ordinary ") [On what is now Court Street, about the site of Lewisburg Theatre]. He was a man of education and culture, but was a total failure as a merchant. After teaching a while in the academy and in the county, and a year or two in Montgomery County, Virginia, he emigrated to the far West, entered the ministry of the Presbyterian church, and died recently upwards of eighty years of age. The Reverend Francis Dutton of New England, the Reverend John Spotts, a Baptist minister of Lewisburg, William Dalton, an old-field schoolteacher, William Graham, and a Mr. Herron, also assisted Dr. McElhenney a year or two in the classic and primary departments.

1825 to 1829  - the Reverend Francis Dutton, a Presbyterian preacher, who studied theology under Dr. McElhenney, came next as principal. The Reverend John Spotts continued to teach the English branches while Mr. Dutton taught the classics. Mr. Spotts was pastor of the Big Levels Baptist Church for five years. He was born in Augusta County, Virginia, in 1784, and died in Lewisburg in 1838. He built and lived in the house now occupied by William H. Johnson. A handsome monument marks his resting place in the Lewisburg graveyard. . Mr. Dutton died in Point Pleasant, West Virginia.

1830 - Nicholas B. Seabrook of Richmond, Virginia, taught this session in the academy, and then removed his school to the little brick cabin that stood on the Major Harris property. Scholars were scarce, and he had no occasion for an assistant in the academy. His first wife was Miss Mary Blaine, daughter of the Reverend James Blaine, and the second a Miss Gordon, of Richmond. He owned and lived in the Dr. William P. Rucker property [653 East Washington] . Returning to Virginia he amassed a fortune by teaching school, and afterward made his home in Lambertville, New Jersey. He died very suddenly just after the war while on a visit to Richmond, Virginia.

1831 - Dr. Richard H. Henry, of Staunton, taught this year without an assistant. The doctor could muster only about twenty scholars . the educational interest had somewhat abated. For several years he lived in the two-story log house opposite Mrs. Sally A. Patton's [Comer of Washington and Jefferson streets] and afterwards returned to Virginia and died.

1832 to 1833  - The Reverend John Steele, of Monroe County, was principal. He was a graduate of Oliver University, studied theology, and settled as a Presbyterian preacher at Grand View, Illinois. His brother assisted him in the lower branches. Both had been educated by Dr. McElhenney.

1834 to 1837 - Jacob N. Cordozo had charge of the school. Mr. Cordozo was a northern man. His son, Joseph, and daughter, Cornelia, assisted with the school. At this time the girls and boys were assigned to separate departments. Mr. Cordozo lived in the frame house above the spring [Evidently the Lewis Spring at rear of courthouse in what is now the General Andrew Lewis Mernorial Park] , where his daughter Cornelia was married to James McElhenney, of Lewisburg. Mr. Cordozo went south with his family, and died in New Orleans.

1838 to 1839 - Ephraim Tripp, the next principal, was a northern man. He became unpopular and only taught two sessions. His assistants were Misses Elizabeth and Sallie Ives, of Massachusetts. Mr. Tripp returned to one of the northern states, and was lost sight of by his friends in Greenbrier.

1840 to 1842 - Thomas Brown, principal for this period, was an Englishman. He came to Lewisburg from the north, was well qualified as a teacher, and became very popular. Lyman Feltch, of New Jersey, Miss Louisa Maddin, of Petersburg, afterward Mrs. John Withrow, of Lewisburg, and a Miss Mary Bell, were his assistants. The ladies had charge of the female department. Mr. Brown married a daughter of Judge Edward Johnston, of Botetourt County, and afterwards taught a school in New London, Virginia. Under this principal the school was more prosperous than at any time since Dr. McElhenney had given up the academy. Mr. Brown bought a farm in southwest Virginia and is thought to be still living.

1843 to 1845 - The Reverend Albert Pierson in charge - a graduate of Princeton College and a Presbyterian preacher. He also studied medicine. His sister, Miss Sarah Pierson, taught the girls. Mr. Pierson lived on the Colquitt place and walked to the academy every day. He went back to New Jersey and died just before the war.

1846 to 1848 - The Reverend Joseph Brown, a Presbyterian preacher of Rockbridge County, Virginia, came next. Mr. Brown married Miss Ann Mathews, a daughter of John Mathews of Lewisburg, and lived in the Spangler house near the fairgrounds [The Spangler house was on the west side of Lee Street, and the old fairgrounds opposite, on what is now the West Virginia School of Osteopathy property]. His assistant was the Reverend James Remley, a Baptist preacher. A difference of opinion on religious topics severed Mr. Remley's connection with the school. Mr. Brown became unpopular as a teacher, and, having gone south, died in Florida . . .

1849 to 1851 - The Honorable R. T. W. Duke, principal, with Miss Duke, his sister, and John Cary, of Lewisburg, a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, . to assist him in the primary branches. Mr. Duke lived in the Daingerfield house, now owned by Jonathan Mays [421 East Washington]. He is now a practicing lawyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, and for years has been a prominent man in Virginia politics. He has filled several terms in the Virginia Legislature and has been several times a member of Congress from that state.

1852 to 1860 - This long interval was filled by the Reverend Philander M. Custer of Virginia, a Presbyterian preacher and a graduate of Washington College [Now Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia] and Princeton Seminary. Mr. Custer taught the school three times longer than any of his predecessors except Dr. McElhenney. He educated nearly all of the young men and women now living in Lewisburg. His first assistant was a Miss Rives, from the north, who married William Martin, of White Sulphur Springs. Miss Mary Wyatt, of Lynchburg, Virginia, succeeded Miss Rives in the female department, which also embraced the smaller boys. (It was under "Miss Mary" that I thumbed out three "blue-back" spelling books trying to learn the name and shape and power of the a,b,c's that now trickle off my pen point.) She became the wife of J. Clowney Spotts, of Lewisburg, and now lives with her husband at Tazewell C.H., Virginia. She had charge of the female department six or seven years. After 1860 Mr. Custer went to North Carolina, and taught for several years in one of the universities of that state.

1861 to 1864 - December 16, 1861, Miss Sue E. McElhenney, of Lewisburg, taught a female school for a few months. The war of the Confederacy was being waged and no further schools were attempted until its close in 1864. The building, during the whole war, was used by both armies as a hospital and a barracks, and greatly damaged.

1865 to 1866 - June 24, 1865, the Reverend John Calvin Barr, of Lewisburg, was elected principal. Mr. Barr was a native of West Pennsylvania, and graduated at the Alleghany College as also under Dr. Plumer at the Theological Seminary of Alleghaney City. Mr. Barr had been assistant pastor of the Lewisburg Presbyterian Church for several years. He was faithful to his trust both as preacher and teacher - faithful in the days of deadly conflict that tried men's souls. Walter C. Preston, of Greenbrier, a graduate of the University of Virginia, assisted him with a very large school for young men and boys. March 24, 1866, ill health forced Mr. Barr to resign and Mr. Preston was chosen to fill the unexpired term. Mr. Barr is now pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Charleston, West Virginia.

In 1866 - Walter C. Preston was reelected principal. He required no assistant. Times were hard, money was scarce and scholars were hard to obtain. Mr. Preston married a daughter of Gen. A. W. G. Davis of Greenbrier, and is now a resident of Culpeper County, Virginia.

1867 - Capt. Alexander F. Mathews of Lewisburg, took charge of the school. Captain Mathews was graduated at the University of Virginia, and took the law course under John B. Minor. He is a practicing lawyer of Lewisburg today and has gathered up a snug little fortune since the war.

1868 - A time that tried men's pockets - no school that year.

1869 - H. N. B. Wood, of Albemarle County, Virginia, was made ruler over a few young men and boys. The free school system had sapped the vitality of the pay schools.

1870 - William L. Austin of Harrison County, West Virginia, succeeded Mr. Wood. Numerically the school was at a low ebb. Mr. Austin afterward graduated at the Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, and is now pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Dunkirk, in that state.

1871 to 1872 - A school was taught combining the pay and free school systems, with the Reverend P. M. Custer as principal, and Misses Olive Peterman and Mary Russell, of Virginia, and Miss Lizzie Stone, of Lewisburg, in charge of the primary departments. Mr. Custer's home at present is in Georgia.

1873 to 1874 - John J. Morris, of Virginia, principal, assisted by Misses Fannie McGlammery and Mary Pharr, of Virginia.

1875 to 1876 - July 23, 1875, the trustees of the academy made a transfer to a joint stock company, known as the Lewisburg Female Institute, of "all the real estate and other property of this corporation situated, lying or being in the County of Greenbrier."

A splendid three-story brick building was then added to the south end of the academy, to be used as a residence and boardinghouse for the principal. The houses stand a few yards apart, and are connected by an enclosed passageway, which no doubt often proves a veritable "Bridge of Sighs," to the institute boarders who fail to study well. The yard has been terraced and otherwise beautified. Mrs. Caroline H. Tipping, of Staunton, was made principal of the institute for these two years. She was assisted in the primary and musical departments by Misses Euphemia and Josie Moore, Mary Eldridge and Flora Guy - all of Virginia. Mrs. Tipping is living in Virginia. Miss Guy became the wife of William A. Truslow, of Lewisburg.

1877 to 1881 - The Reverend Daniel B. Ewing, D.D., a Presbyterian minister of Virginia, was next chosen as principal of the institute. Dr. Ewing was graduated at Hampden-Sydney College, and was an efficient educator. His assistants were his daughters, Lucy and Corrie, who were graduates of the Augusta Female Institute. He has just removed with his family to take charge of the Winchester (Kentucky) High School.

1882 - The Reverend M. L. Lacy, D.D., of Lewisburg, has just been elected principal of the institute. Dr. Lacy is a graduate of Hampden-Sydney College, and has just resigned the pastorate of the Lewisburg Presbyterian Church, which congregation he has faithfully served for the past ten years. The doctor will have three assistants in the school. Miss Isabel Patrick, of Fauquier County, Virginia, a graduate of the Augusta Female Institute, has already been secured and arrangements with another graduate of the same school are about completed. Both of these ladies are highly recommended by Miss Baldwin. His daughter, Josie, who has just graduated under Dr. Ewing at the Lewisburg Female Institute, will also assist in teaching. The arrangement and course of study heretofore pursued will be adopted this year, and Miss Josie, having taken the course, will be an advantage to the scholars who have begun and wish to complete the institute curriculum. The present prospects of the school are very flattering. Dr. Lacy is well acquainted with the duties of his present undertaking several years of his life have been devoted to teaching.

Lewisburg, West Virginia, July 17, 1882. M.W.Z.

Copyright 1999, Greenbrier Historical Society, Inc.