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Once Upon A Time in the Rotunda

The Presence of the Past

Dr. James William Jordan
Professor of Anthropology, Founder of the Longwood Archaeology Field School

In the Beginning

Farmville was a bustling place in the autumn of 1839 - the stage coach from Washington, D.C., to Halifax, North Carolina, stopped eight times a month at the Eagle Hotel on Main Street, bateaux docked daily at the tobacco warehouses on the Appomattox River, there were four churches and eight taverns within the town limits, and the town council had just petitioned the state legislature to allow a railroad to be built from Petersburg to Farmville to Danville. In 1839, the citizens raised more than $30,000 to finance the construction of a "seminary building" and the cornerstone was laid - so proud were they that the subscribers had a brass plaque bolted to the cornerstone with the inscription, "Farmville Female Academy, built by joint stock company A. D. 1839." This building - the first structure of Longwood College - was dedicated at a public ceremony on May 26, 1842, and was described by the academy principal John B. Tinsley in 1852 as "spacious and comfortable and for beauty of situation surpassed by few in the country."

That original building stood and served until its destruction by fire on April 24 and 25, 2001 - we knew it as the hallway which connected the Rotunda to West Ruffner Hall.

In 1897, under the northeast corner of this building, workmen accidentally uncovered the cornerstone and plaque. It was discovered that the plaque hid a square hole in the cornerstone and within that hole was found a copy of the New Testament (which faded away after being exposed to the air), a newspaper which was not legible, three silver coins, and a Masonic emblem. The cornerstone plaque, now mounted in the president's office, remains as our solitary physical link to the birth of our College in 1839.

The students in the earliest days were as proud of their campus as we are today. Here is a letter describing "the College Building," 19 years after its dedication:

December 25, 1861

My Dear Cousin:

Your letter was received in due time and I take the liberty of answering some of your inquiries through the columns of the Laureola. In regard to the location of the college - It is in an elevated part of the town, entirely apart from scenes of excitement. The College Building is large, Dining Room, Parlors, Chapel, and Recitation rooms spacious and complete in all their appointments; the rooms for boarders, of which you would know more particularly, are neat and comfortable, nicely, even prettily furnished, provided with fires, lights, and almost everything conducive to the health and happiness of their occupants.


But, as seems to be the case with both people and institutions, misfortune mixes with fortune.

Only two decades into its life, the Farmville Female Academy was threatened by the Civil War. For years the students had enjoyed regular outings to High Bridge, the world's tallest and longest railroad bridge located just five miles from the campus. On the morning of April 6, 1865, however, the spot was the scene of a deadly affair.

From the direction of High Bridge the students could hear the firing of artillery and musketry, and soon news arrived that General Robert E. Lee's army was in full retreat. All classes were suspended that day.

The next morning, a great battle could be heard raging at Sailors Creek. Nearly a third of Lee's army was forced to surrender. The rest retreated in the only direction that was possible, westward through Farmville following the cold and muddy banks of the Appomattox River.

All that evening and night, disorganized elements of the Confederate Army traveled through Farmville. Letters surviving from the time indicate that many of the 80 young women at the College stood at the second and third floor windows of the main building, waving to the Confederate troops as they passed by on High Street.

In the middle of the night, the 1st Virginia Cavalry rode up High Street, firing behind them at the first units of the pursuing Federal forces. Lead Minie balls fell around the front of the College building. Some of these bullets have been recovered by archeology students in recent years from beneath tree roots on the Rotunda lawn.

Early the next morning, two regiments of Federal troops camped to the rear of the College, where the Graham Building is now located. Bottles of various sorts and metal items eroding out of the ground from time to time attest to the location of the encampment.

From those Federal soldiers, at about midnight on April 9, 1865, the College students and professors learned of General Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. The Union Army officer who read the Order of Surrender said, "Now you are without an army, and without a country, and what is more, without a school."

The Depression

Classes were begun again in the fall of 1865, but only 35 of the 80 previous year's girls could return to the Farmville Female College, as it was now named. For the next 10 years, a post-war depression gripped the South and especially Virginia. John C. Page of Farmville wrote in 1875:

"The prospect was never more gloomy, than at present, in this portion of Virginia - in fact, not one farmer in fifty is paying expenses. Tobacco is lower than was ever known before. Consequently, this portion of Virginia is in a sad financial condition."

The stockholders of the Farmville Female College decided to sell the College property, pay off all debts, and distribute the proceeds, if any remained, to the creditors. At nearly the last minute, on April 7, 1884, the property of the College was deeded to the State of Virginia, and at the first meeting of the Board of Trustees two days later, Dr. William Henry Ruffner was elected college president and principal.

The school was to be called the State Female Normal School and thus became the first state institution of higher education for women in Virginia. Dr. Ruffner later wrote:

"On the opening date, October 30, 1884, all that we had was a principal, an appropriation, a rough scheme, and an old academy building. Not a teacher, not a book, nor a piece of furniture or apparatus, and more things to be done than any human mind could foresee ... the building had to be repaired and added to."

An onlooker surveys the rubble of the Longwood College Dining Hall destroyed in the fire of 1923

The Fires

Under Dr. Ruffner's guidance and leadership, and then that of Dr. John Atkinson Cunningham, the "Normal" blossomed into a period of robust growth and vigor. Buildings, students, and teachers increased in number decade after decade. Dr. Joseph Leonard Jarman became president in 1902, and then in almost the exact middle of his 44-year tenure, in the winter of 1923, disaster struck. Dr. Jarman reported to the Board of Trustees:

About 5 a.m. on November 17, a fire broke out in the South Wing immediately behind the Rotunda which totally destroyed the dining room, kitchen, pantries, storerooms, cold storage, bakery, and the servants dining room, besides dormitory accommodations for a hundred students. The origin of the fire is unknown. It made rapid headway, but on account of the excellent behavior of the students and the system with which the matter was managed, every student escaped unhurt and very little was lost in the way of clothing, etc.

The Farmville Fire Company did wonderful work; companies from Lynchburg and Crewe were telegraphed for but the fire was under control before they arrived ... The people of the town did everything in their power to assist; the students were invited to private homes for breakfast; telegraph and telephone operators were untiring in their efforts to get messages through for them; the ladies prepared dinner for them in one of the churches; the hotels of the town were put at their disposal; the railroad put on extra coaches, and through all the excitement, the conduct of the students was worthy of the highest praise. By evening, they were all on their way home.

The students returned to campus the week after Thanksgiving and made up the missed two weeks of classes by remaining in Farmville during the Christmas holidays - only on Christmas Day were classes cancelled.

Just 26 years later, in 1949, fire again brought destruction and near tragedy to Longwood. During the winter and spring of 1949 the campus was caught up in a great debate concerning the name of the school, which had been since 1924 The State Teachers College at Farmville. Three weeks before Longwood College was reborn under our present name, a terrible fire broke out about 2 a.m. Sunday, March 6. The fire was called the "East Wing Fire" and destroyed a building identical to our Grainger Hall, which stood in what is now the Sunken Garden and visually balanced the five buildings facing High Street.

The East Wing fire destroyed the school auditorium on the first floor and the clothes and all the possessions of the 46 students who lived in rooms above it. The Farmville Red Cross cared for the immediate needs of the students, and town citizens raised $5,000 in contributions by March 7 to assist them in replacing their clothing and books.

In a most fascinating series of ways, our patron saint at Longwood, Joan of Arc, has been involved in all our fires. Joan herself was executed by being burned at the stake on May 30, 1431, having been captured by the English army after she had led the French army to victory.

In those days when a person was to be burned at the stake, normally a last mercy would be shown by allowing the executioner to pile a large quantity of green wood around the feet of the condemned. The smoke from the burning of this green wood would normally cause quick suffocation so that death would occur before the flames touched the skin. In the case of our Joan of Arc, however, only dry wood was used. As the flames climbed higher and higher, Joan could be heard commending her soul to God and calling on her angels and archangels to be with her at this last moment. Then, according to an eyewitness, "at last came the word Jesus seven or eight times repeated, followed by a moment's pause by a last loud cry, then silence save for the crackling of the flames."

According to the legends and the oral traditions which grew up shortly after Joan's execution, an unusual thing now happened. The executioner ordered that the embers be pulled away from the body when the flames had died down so that everyone in the crowd could see that Jeanne d'Arc, the Maid of Orleans, the sorceress, was dead. When this was done, it was discovered that her heart had not been burned, much to the shock of the executioner. He ordered that a great quantity of oil and sulfur be poured onto the fire and that all the embers, and even a new load of dry wood, be placed around the heart once more. That fire burned all the rest of that day and throughout the night. The next morning in the darkness before dawn, the ashes and whatever remained of Joan of Arc were gathered up secretly in a blanket and thrown into a river so that no relic of her life would remain.

Both of our Joan of Arc statues on campus have been a part of our fires. The Joan of Arc statue in the Rotunda, which was presented by the senior class of 1914, is a reproduction of the famous one chiseled in 1870 by the French sculptor, Henri-Michel-Antoine Chapu of Paris. He called it "Joan of Arc Listening to the Voices." Today, the original stands in the Museum of Luxembourg in Paris. We in Farmville refer to this famous statue more informally as "Joanie on the Stony." On the night of the South Wing fire in 1923, students moved this Joan out of the Rotunda and across High Street to protect her from the flames.

In the 1949 East Wing Fire, our other Joan statue played a role. The equestrian Joan statue in the Colonnades was given in 1927 by the internationally renowned sculptress, Anna Hyatt Huntington. The original of this Joan statue had been completed for Riverside Church in New York City just the year before, and the sculptress, upon hearing of the admiration of the students at the State Teachers College at Farmville for this work, determined to present them with the first reproduction. Since its unveiling in Farmville by Mrs. Huntington on April 27, 1927, it has been affectionately called "Joanie on the Pony." This Joan statue originally sat nearer to French Building in the Colonnades than it does now, and you can still see the original location by a mark there on the walkway left from the marble base. On the night of the East Wing Fire in 1949, Joanie on the Pony, unable to be moved from her base, was so close to the fire that she glowed red from the heat of the blaze.

After all is said, how inadequate are our words alone to express the magical bond we all feel to our Rotunda, our Joan of Arc, our Alma Mater, and our College. That bond comes alive in our minds in the remembrances of the special features of our Rotunda - the way the stairs creaked and gave ever so slightly under your footsteps, the thought every time you opened the Rotunda door of the millions upon millions of footsteps, like your own, that wore the threshold stone of strongest slate into the shape of a cradle.

Few of us could realize the first time we stepped upon that threshold stone that we were being taken captive - having once entered that mystical Rotunda, the spirit and heart can never leave. We cannot leave the Rotunda, and it will never leave us, because we are all its children.

Dr. James William Jordan, Professor of Anthropology and Founder of the Longwood Archaeology Field School
Dr. James William Jordan, Professor of Anthropology
and Founder of the Longwood Archaeology Field School,
pictured here with the Longwood College Bell.

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