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The First Freshmen

Editor’s note: This story, from NC State magazine, explores the lives of the first students who entered the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in 1889. NC State magazine is a benefit of membership in the N.C. State Alumni Association. For information on how to join, visit www.alumni.ncsu.edu.

They had to be at least 14 years old. They had to provide evidence of good moral character and physical development. They had to show competence in reading and writing English, as well as a familiarity with simple arithmetic, geography and North Carolina history.

Such were the requirements that the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (A&M) set forth in 1889 for students to be accepted. Fifty-one young men from North Carolina showed up that October for the first weeks of class. During that first academic year, the class grew to 72, who each paid $20 in annual tuition, $8 a month for board, 75 cents a month for laundry services and $12.50 a year for books, stationery, fuel, lights and medical care.

Some members of the first class were the sons of merchants and farmers. Others were sons of Confederate soldiers. A few were first-generation Americans, born to immigrants from Germany and Scotland. Some, like Samuel Johnston Hinsdale, the 14-year old son of a Raleigh lawyer, were young teenagers whose matriculation would give them an education and an exodus out of adolescence. Others were already young men, like 23-year-old Clarence Bender Foy, who arrived after working on his father’s farm in Jones County.

Members of NC State’s first freshman class stand on the steps of Holladay Hall.

In an iconic photo believed to be the first image of that first class of students, 40 of them and an instructor stand on the steps of what is now Holladay Hall. Their faces stare seriously at the camera. All are dressed like they’re on their way to an important business deal, some swallowed by suits too large for their teenage frames. A few sport heavy mustaches; others’ smooth babyfaces reflect their owners’ green youth. A number of the young men pose with the formal manner of a military officer, with a hand resting on their chests or their classmates’ shoulders, perhaps signaling a feeling of brotherhood that had already begun forming.

Of that first class, 19 called Wake County home. Others came from as far west as Buncombe County and as far east as Onslow County. Stephen Anthony LaCoste, a 17-year-old from Lynchburg, S.C., was the only student from outside North Carolina. Despite their varying origins, what united them was their willingness to gamble on the still-evolving commodity of land-grant education, set into motion by the 1862 passage of the Morrill Act. They took a chance on a campus composed of 66 acres, one building, one outhouse, a well and an old mule.

A popular saying often uttered by antagonists of the college was, “I wouldn’t be an agricultural man for he isn’t worth a damn,” writes David A. Lockmiller in his History of The North Carolina State College of Agriculture and Engineering of the University of North Carolina 1889–1939 . That echoed other sentiments thrown at A&M, like “Cow College.” That was, in large part, due to courses that were set up for students to study an agriculture or mechanics track, which they started pursuing their sophomore year. The school year was divided into fall, winter and spring terms. Agriculture students studied horticulture, arboriculture, botany, history, English and bookkeeping, and had to perform manual labor that served as a practical application of their discipline. By 1893, the curriculum grew to include more complex classes, like general geology and paleontology, road-making and horticultural construction, and commercial floriculture. The mechanics curriculum included math, chemistry, history, English and bookkeeping, but came to include the study of steam machinery, surveying and the study of bridges and roofs.

Walter Jerome Mathews, a member of the first freshman class.

“We would go to class at 9:00 a.m. and would usually get out about 2:00 or 3:00 p.m.,” said Walter Jerome Mathews in a 1966 Alumni Association archived interview. Afterward, “if we would get any farm work to do then we would get a job and earn some money.” Mathews said the men could make 25 to 50 cents an hour. Or they could make seven cents an hour working odd jobs around the campus, like ringing a bell every hour to keep track of time. They could spend time in the first library, which held 1,500 volumes donated by the faculty and friends of the college. Or they could join the Pullen or Leazar literary societies on campus and attend weekly meetings with the Young Men’s Christian Association.

When time came for A&M’s first class to graduate in 1893, it was a three-day affair. It signaled the end of college life for 19 of the young men who had been a part of that first 72, most of whom didn’t finish college. On the first day, June 9, several seniors delivered orations at the college chapel. Henry Emil Bonitz, who went on to be one of the first native North Carolinians licensed to practice architecture in the state, delivered a speech called “Cranks and Fools,” in which he aligned cranks with science and indicted fools for being useless. Mathews told his classmates they should aspire to be noble men and to carry out the work of God.

Mathews, at his 1893 graduation.

Three days later, on June 12, Rev. Henry W. Battle delivered a baccalaureate address. Finally, on June 14, the graduation ceremony took place. More seniors were chosen to read their essays based on their academic standing. Robert Wilson Allen had started college four years earlier as a 20-year-old studying mechanics. At his commencement, he stood as senior class president, reading his essay “Science and Character.” Charles Duffy Francks, the top student studying mechanics, read his essay “The Rising Motive Power.” President Alexander Holladay read the honor roll. The seniors then received their degrees as their names were announced with their thesis topics. [See list of topics, p. 24.] Commencement ended that night off campus in downtown’s Metropolitan Hall with Henry Watterson, a Kentucky journalist who founded The Courier Journal of Louisville, delivering an address on America’s greatness and the morality of its people.

After these men left A&M, they pursued diverse career paths. Some became bankers and headed to law school. Others worked as engineers and machinists. Some became esteemed researchers in varying fields of study. Some returned to farms and had large families. And one became a shoe salesman.

Charles Burgess Williams was the man of firsts in the first class. Born in Camden County, he came to A&M at the age of 17 to study agriculture and chemistry. He was captain of the college’s first football team and graduated first in the Class of 1893, with an average of 89.3. The college later hired him as its first chemistry instructor and the first head of the Department of Agronomy. In 1917, he became the first dean of agriculture, a position he held for seven years. In 1953, six years after his death from a heart attack, Williams Hall was dedicated in his honor. “NC State was his life, really,” says Margie Lucas ’82 ms , Williams’ granddaughter and the third in a five-generation Wolfpack family. “That was passed on to us by osmosis. NC State was very important to the whole family.”

Williams’ legacy transcended his alma mater’s campus. His contributions in the field of agriculture solidified his place as a leading scientist in the South during the early 20th century. He researched soils, fertilizers and how European conservation efforts could be used in specialization in types of farming in the U.S. Known as “Mr. Soybean,” Williams was a leading crusader for the soybean, recognizing that it could mean money for American farmers. He encouraged manufacturers to use soybeans to produce paints and varnishes. “Following an announcement by the United States Department of Agriculture that more American land was in soybeans this year than ever before, agriculturalists here recount how Professor C.B. Williams, head of the agronomy department at State College, probably had done more to bring about the popularity of the legume than any other person,” The News & Observer once reported.

Another member of the first class who was celebrated for his research was Samuel Erson Asbury. He was one of the later students to enroll in that first class, coming to A&M in January 1890 from Burke County, N.C., looking like an angel-faced cherub. He excelled in agriculture and chemistry and was instrumental in leading the Leazar Society, which was predicated on the notion that engineers and scientists needed to be well-rounded through reading, debate and oration.

Five surviving members of the first freshman class reunited in 1939. From left: Samuel Marvin Young, Walter Jerome Mathews, Frank Fuller Floyd, Louis Thompson Yarbrough and Charles Burgess Williams.

Asbury left North Carolina to take a job as a chemist at Texas A&M University in 1902 and flourished as a Renaissance man in College Station, Texas, until he retired in 1945. “Doc” Asbury became one of Texas A&M’s most celebrated professors, studying fertilizers and rose cultures. But he also loved poetry, music and Texas’ state history, even going so far as to compose a musical based on the Texas Revolution of 1836. When Asbury died in 1962 at the age of 89, he willed a collection of books on roses and one on Texas history to Texas A&M, along with a musical library containing five grand pianos and 700 classical records.

Most of the inaugural class made their careers in North Carolina. Frank Theophilus Meacham spent time at the Biltmore Dairy in Asheville, N.C., working for the Vanderbilt family. William McNeill Lytch was principal owner and operator of the Laurinburg Machine Company, which repaired machinery, after an early career on the Florida railroads. Others, like Asbury, left the state. Edward Moore Gibbon became a city engineer in Jacksonville, Fla., and an engineer in Memphis, Tenn., where he died in 1952. Frank Fuller Floyd left for Knoxville, Tenn., where he worked for the Knoxville Sentinel for 11 years before breaking into the coal industry with Jellico Coal Mining Company in 1905. He eventually began his own company, Floyd & Montgomery Coal Company.

Some of the Class of 1893 never left Raleigh. Samuel Marvin Young owned and ran the S.M. Young Hardware Store on Martin Street for a number of years. He was the last surving graduate of the Class of 1893, dying in 1968. Louis Thompson Yarbrough, who had come to the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts as a boy of 16, worked as a state engineer in the North Carolina swamplands and the Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company before finally taking a job for the U.S. Postal Service, where he worked for 37 years. On campus, Yarbrough Drive shares his name as does Mary E. Yarbrough Courtyard, named for his daughter, who was one of the first female graduates from NC State and the first woman to receive a graduate degree from the university.

“We were some of the co-builders of this College movement,” Yarbrough wrote of himself and his classmates in a 1943 message in State College News . “We received much and gave much. The giving, to say the least, was our presence, for without students the movement could not have been started on the basic principles that resulted in its present success.”

Charles Wesley McIlwean was one of those with whom the movement began. He left his family’s farm in New Bern, N.C., to attend A&M. He didn’t graduate, but returned to that farm and expanded it to about 1,200 acres and even built a cotton gin. In 1906, he scraped his leg on a buggy he used for transportation and died of blood poisoning. But his grandson, Earl McIlwean ’58, continued his grandfather’s movement by coming to NC State. Earl, 77, often looks at that picture of his grandfather and his first classmates and wonders what they thought at the outset of the college.

“I’ve looked at this picture a lot of times, and I’ve always had that same question,” says Earl McIlwean, a retired city worker in Rocky Mount, N.C. “I wouldn’t say it’s fear or hope. My interpretation of that picture is that they all look kind of serious, like they’re ready to go into some unknown adventure.

“It’s kind of like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m ready to get started.’”

Editor’s note: The author used many sources in this story including letters, newspaper clippings, obituaries, alumni records and past articles from the alumni magazine. The North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts’ course catalogs from the 1890s also proved an invaluable source. Two books also provided necessary history and context. They were David A. Lockmiller’s History of North Carolina State College of Agriculture and Engineering of the University of North Carolina 1889–1939 and Alice E. Reagan’s North Carolina State University: A Narrative History.

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