The Town of Blacksburg, VA was founded by William Black in 1798. The original town consisted of 16 blocks, which are currently bounded by Jackson Street, Wharton Street, Clay Street, and Draper Road. The 16 blocks are known as the Original 16 Squares, and the pattern they create can also be seen in the towns’ logo. They encompass the lower part of the downtown core along Main Street. William Black’s brother, John Black, originally owned the land the Virginia Tech is built upon.[i]
The Town of Blacksburg started out as a small agriculture town. Most of the Original 16 Squares consisted of houses and small shops. Most of the buildings in the squares were located corners of the squares and the spacing in-between the buildings were used for livestock and gardens. Later as the town grew, the need for more space facilitated the building of more structures in-between the four corners of a block, thus filling in the gaps and moving the livestock pastures outside of the 16 blocks. The increase of population also caused the reliance on the creeks for the towns water supply to grow beyond what it could handle. Blacksburg coordinated with Christiansburg and Virginia Tech to form a Water Authority to tap into the water from the New River in the 1950 to provide water for the growing population.
Early on, the town never had a major railroad line going through the it to connect it to the local areas. In 1904, a railway station was finally established in Blacksburg. This station connected Blacksburg to Cambria by rail instead of the winding narrow road between the two, the station was called the Huckleberry. Trains had to reverse out of the Huckleberry back to Cambria, which was a stop along the Virginia – Tennessee Rail Road[ii]. The addition of this line allowed, for the first time, passenger trains to reach Blacksburg. On September 15th, 1904 the first passenger train rolled into the station. On September 21st, 1904 the first group of cadets (Virginia Techs ROTC members) rode the train into Blacksburg. From 1912 to 1922, the railway station in Blacksburg was the primary connection to the surrounding regions. By the late 1950s the Huckleberry was no longer in use with increased usage of automobile usage from 1940 through 1950, and in the Summer of 1966 the station was closed.
In the 1800s the community believed that there should also be a boys’ school to compliment the Blacksburg Female Academy and thus founded the Olin & Preston Institute. During the Civil War, the institute was closed down and the building was vacated. The building was later renamed to Preston and Olin Institute after the Civil War ended[iii]. In 1872, to ease financial problems on the Preston & Olin Institute, a proposal was sent to the State General Assembly to obtain Virginias share of Federal Land Grant money to open a new college of agricultural and mechanical arts. The grant was obtained and the new college was named Virginia Agricultural & Mechanical College. Later in 1896 after considerable growth, the college was renamed to Virginia Agricultural & Mechanical College & Polytechnic Institute. The name changed once again in 1944 to be Virginia Polytechnic Institute, while the final name change came in 1970 to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Over the course of the years, the population of the college grew and new buildings needed to constructed. As more of the campus was filled up with the construction of new academic and support buildings, the college had to purchase more land from the state to grow and provide housing for the professors and their families as well as for students and support staff. During VPI President T. Marshall Hahn’s time at the university, 1962 through 1974, the first Rhodes Scholar ever for the university graduated in 1963, bringing quite a bit of attention to the university and the Town of Blacksburg. Also during his tenure, the requirement for men to participate in the Corps of Cadets was dropped, thus allowing a purely civilian student body to take root, as well as in 1973 women were allowed to participate in the corps, making the university among the first in the nation to do so.
Though relations between the University and the Town of Blacksburg have not always been smooth, for example between 2009 and 2010 Virginia Tech came under question for not opting into paying the meals tax by many in the local government[iv], Mayor Ron Rordam recently expressed how fortunate he feels for the relations between Blacksburg and Virginia Tech: “Virginia Tech has been very open in sharing their plans, and they are very open with us about working on ways to manage this anticipated growth. We are fortunate”[v]. The meals tax was later resolved and now accounts for a substantial part of the increase to the towns income for this coming year. With Virginia Tech being open with Blacksburg about their plans for development, the town is better equipped to build the necessary infrastructure to avoid growth without development.
Recently Blacksburg held its 36th Annual Steppin’ Out street festival. The event, organized by the Town of Blacksburg, is a community gathering of local residents and students and features vendors, live music, local artists, and non-profit organizations. I was surprised at the event this year since it seemed much more crowded than when I previously lived in Blacksburg. The festival really brings a smile to my face since there are many more people turning out for the numerous vendors from the local area and even vendors from around the nation!
Around the festival were many food stalls, of which I recommend avoiding if you are any bit hungry as I had to try almost everything I walked past. The burgers and franks near Souvlaki, which is a Greek restaurant, were the first food stalls I pass on my way in and immediately I knew I would be leaving the festival with a lighter wallet. After purchasing some food, I went to Henderson Lawn to sit down and enjoy the live music playing on the stage. Once I finished with my food, I continued to peruse the booths lining Main Street. The booths that caught my attention most were the woodworking and unique jewelry or decorations that were made from household objects like spoons. About half was down Main Street I crossed a booth selling flavored nuts like cinnamon sugar, Cajun spice, brown sugar, a spice like what you would find on flaming hot Cheetos, etc. The farmer’s market was located in the middle of the festival and contained many more food vendors and quite a few non-profit organizations.
I also went to the restored Black House, which is the house of William Black’s decedent, Alexander Black. I did not even recognize the building because the last time I saw the house, it was still being restored and still had the white side paneling on it. The museum located inside the house now is curated by the Blacksburg Museum and Cultural Foundation. Though the upper floor was closed, it will be interesting to see if I can go to the upper floors later this year to see the rest of the house. On my way out of the festival, I passed by a wonderful spice shop that was built into a trailer. The spice shop had many different everyday spices, occasional use, dry rub fixings, teas, many types of uncracked peppercorns, and many more spices that I have never used. Before walking out of the trailer, I had to get some of their loose leaf tea and spiced tea.
Later that night, I went back to the festival to head to NLCF, New Life Christian Fellowship, as that was the first religious organization that I joined when I started school at Virginia Tech. NLCF has a very near and dear place in my heart and seeing it again really helped me to feel more at home in Blacksburg than I have felt in any other place I’ve lived in the past 6 years. I have a tendency to move around every year or two, never really settling down in one place for too long because it just never feels right. Being able to see something that I first experienced in my early years at Virginia Tech, really helped to cement why I loved Blacksburg so much; a lot can change but some things never do.
Over the past decade, the downtown area of Blacksburg has gone through some major renovations, most notable is the streetscape. Many of the old businesses are still there, like the Rivermill, The Cellar, Hokie House, PK’s, Hokie Hair, Sharkies, Bolo’s Café, Cabo Fish Taco, and the list can go on. However, there are some buildings and businesses that are missing or have changed ownership that I know of. Moe’s restaurant used to be a movie store, while I do miss the movie store, I understand that the time of movie rentals from a physical location is coming to an end. Another business that is missing from the downtown landscape is Backstreets Pizza. Though Backstreets Pizza shutting down here in Blacksburg was more for lack of a management successor, I will truly miss it because it was where I had my first date with my current girlfriend all those years ago[vi]. The last example of a business that no longer exists in Blacksburg is the laundromat portion of Cook’s Cleaners, just at the end of Alumni Mall, which I used to frequent on the weekends just to get off of upper quad and campus so I could avoid my cadre from the corps.
The Blacksburg area, while it is growing at a reasonable rate, the town is still reliant on the population brought in from the university in order to make all of these businesses work. Blacksburg also has problems with transitioning a portion of the student population into permanent residents after graduation or attracting new non-academic industries for the graduating young professionals to work in. Attracting the new industries would lessen Blacksburg’s reliance on the university for income in the area.
By attracting more industries to the area, Blacksburg would diversify its source of income and help retain a permanent population. This could be achieved through research & development centers, office spaces for corporations as well as small businesses, and improved transportation options. The Town of Blacksburg’s close history with Virginia Tech has allowed it to plan for development before growth overtakes the towns own ability to keep up and provide adequate infrastructure.