The Farmville Coal & Iron Company

Published 4:57 pm Thursday, December 3, 2015

Second in a series

Dr. Ray A. Gaskins

Professor Emeritus, HSC

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The creation of the Farmville Coal & Iron Company together with the simultaneous creation of The Farmville Herald to sing its praise created a local economic boom. Real estate companies that did not exist before, such as Morris & Company, Burt & Venable, and Berkeley & Scott, were created overnight so that their clients could “realize handsome profits in a short while” or “advance 100% in the next 60 days.” Those who got in early and got out early did realize handsome profits, but there were ultimately more losers than winners, especially among the Company stockholders.

In 1890 The Herald painted a very rosy picture of the prospects for the Farmville Coal & Iron Company. For example, in the second issue it stated “That’s no dead centre of trade where a man can put in ten dollars and pull out eighty dollars in almost no time. That’s the new way of doing things in Farmville.” It went on to state: “The real estate agents, behind their spirited bays, and in their sparkling new surreys, will soon be carrying their precious cargoes of human freight to the land of lots, coalfields, iron hills, mill sites, pleasure and work fields, which touch Farmville on its every side.” 

Nevertheless, its editor, Col. Robert Blair Berkeley (1841-1918; HSC 1861, CSA), lawyer and physician, was highly regarded. For example, The Suffolk Herald wrote: “The Farmville Herald, a bright seven-column weekly, has made its appearance and a spicy journal it is. The initial number has the marks of experienced journalism as well as fine typographical get-up. Colonel R.B. Berkeley is a versatile and a brilliant man, and will make The Herald sparkle with interesting matter.” (The Herald was designed as a four-page publication, equally divided between “reading material” and advertisements, and the first few issues were almost exactly 50/50.)

Col. Richard Anderson Booker (1817-1904; CSA), in the third issue of The Herald wrote: “Farmville—Rip Van Winkle like—has been asleep for, lo! these many years, but she has at last awakened and gotten on a big boom, consequently she can afford to support two newspapers. Success to them both.” The other newspaper was the Farmville Journal.

According to Bradshaw (1994), “The Herald acquired the Journal, and publication of the latter paper ceased.” No other information—not even the date of the acquisition—can be found; however, we have discovered sufficient circumstantial evidence to support the following theory. The Great Farmville Fire of 1898 heavily damaged the Journal, giving The Herald the opportunity to buy it cheap. Being more interested in eliminating competition than in merging, they chose not to reopen it.

Not everyone was happy about the boom. Rev. Dr. Moses D. Hoge (1818-1899; HSC 1839) wrote a long letter to The Herald (January 7, 1891) complaining that the “high-minded, right-hearted, friendly, Christian people” of Prince Edward would be corrupted by the “stir and progress” of “material prosperity.” What is really interesting is that Rev. Hoge, born at Hampden-Sydney, was writing from Richmond and had not been back for a visit for several years. He was basing his remarks totally on what he was reading in the newspaper. This is pretty good evidence that Col. Berkeley was doing a first-class job of selling a “prosperous” Farmville to the outside world.

The second issue of The Herald reported that the newspaper had found a home for its printing press in Farmville. “There was a called meeting of the Town Council on last Monday morning, at which it was agreed to lease the basement of the Opera House to the Herald Company for one year with the privilege of five.” With the seventh issue, dated Wednesday, January 7, 1891, the paper began publishing “on Wednesday and Saturday of each week.” The first six issues of The Herald were each published on Friday. This helps explain why, when it again reverted to once a week, it was published on Saturday.

 It would be nice if we knew exactly when the Farmville Coal & Iron Company sold The Herald to James Littleton Hart (1863-1921). It seems to have been accepted by Bradshaw (1994), and hence by everyone else, that: “The Herald was purchased by J.L. Hart in 1893.” But Hart’s association with The Herald goes all the way back to 1890. For example, the second issue reported: “Mr. J.L. Hart spent several days of last week in Philadelphia selecting The Herald outfit.” All we can be certain of is that by Jan. 7, 1893, it had declared itself “An Independent Newspaper,” its proprietors were J.L. Hart and W.P. Venable (1868-1924), its editor was J.L. Hart, and its subscription price had been cut in half, probably because it had reverted to a weekly. Venable sold his interest to W.B. Cowan (1851-1899) in February 1894, and by January 1897, Hart was sole proprietor. Hart, Venable and Cowan are all buried at Westview Cemetery.

By January 1891, a majority of Farmville Coal & Iron Company officers were Farmvillians. John R. Martin (1855-1916) gave up his job as N&W freight and passenger agent to become company secretary, replacing D.S. Hudgins, and Col. John P. Fitzgerald (1837-1898; HSC 1857, CSA) was named the company attorney. In addition, when E.C. Smith (Raleigh) was elevated to company president, Dr. J.D. Eggleston, Sr. (Hampden-Sydney) replaced him on the Board, giving locals five of the 11 seats. (Martin left the company in August and returned to his old position at N&W. Who replaced him as secretary is unknown.)

What was it, really, that attracted the men who created the Farmville Coal & Iron Company to Farmville, other than the obvious influence of Gov. McKinney? In 1890 Farmville did not have an electric plant, or a water works, or a sewerage system. The roads were terrible and there was no garbage collection. Five things

attracted the venture capitalists to Farmville: its railroads, its rivers, its people, its educational resources, and its natural resources.

What attracted the Company to Farmville also attracted others, as reported in the third issue of The Herald. “A syndicate of Southern gentlemen have bought the Hurd homestead with 120 acres attached. This is very desirable property adjoining that of the Farmville Coal & Iron Company, and will doubtless be much sought after by those who desire the undisturbed quiet and unruffled dignity of suburban life.”

A contributing factor in the early demise of the Farmville Coal & Iron Company was the Panic of 1893. There were only two banks in Farmville in 1893—Planters Bank and Commercial Savings Bank. When Commercial Saving Bank became the first bank in Virginia to fail (August 1st), Planters Bank, which would remain the ONLY bank in Farmville for the rest of the 1890s, became ultra conservative. (For example, you could not withdraw more than $50 at a time.)

Robert M. Dickinson (1840-1898; HSC 1860, CSA), President of the failed bank was also Treasurer of the Farmville Coal & Iron Company. This was not good for the Company. It was not good for Gov. McKinney, either, because in 1890 he said, “he would rather have his money in Bob Dickinson’s keeping than in an iron safe.” If the Governor had any money in the Commercial Savings Bank in 1893, he only got back 24 cents on the dollar. It is hard not to think that Dickinson’s death five years later, at the relatively young age of 58, might have had something to do with the bank failure.

We will continue our story of The Farmville Coal & Iron Company and the birth of The Farmville Herald in part 3.

NB: So little has been written about Dr. Joseph Dupuy Eggleston, Sr., that we dare not pass up the opportunity to say a few words here. He was the son of Richard Beverly and Elvira Eggleston, born October 28th, 1831, at “Cedar Grove,” near Jennings Ordinary. He graduated from Jefferson Medical College of Philadelphia in 1851. In 1854 he moved to “Marble Hill” in Prince Edward. In 1870 he moved to “The Oaks,” near Prince Edward Court House (now Worsham) because of better school facilities for his children. He spent the rest of his life there, a neighbor of the great physician, Dr. John Peter Mettauer (1787-1875). In 1858 he married Anne Carrington Booker (1836-1898), daughter of John Booker of Charlotte County. By 1861 he had such a large number of patients and his office was so centrally located that he was allowed to stay at home and look after the people of Prince Edward, including the students at Prince Edward Academy and Hampden-Sydney College, during the war. Nevertheless, he did accompany the Army of Northern Virginia to Appomattox during Lee’s Retreat.

Joseph and Anne had several children, the most famous of which was Dr. Joseph Dupuy Eggleston, Jr. (1867-1953; HSC 1886), State Superintendent of Public Instruction (1906-13) and president of both VPI (1913-19) and HSC (1919-1939). Joseph and Anne are buried at College Presbyterian Church Cemetery at Hampden-Sydney.

This woodcut of The Herald’s new printing press was featured on the front page of the Wednesday, January 7, 1891, issue (Vol. 1 No. 7). Since Farmville did not yet have an electric plant, this unit was initially steam powered. Once broken in, it could produce “1500 Heralds an hour.”

This woodcut of The Herald’s new printing press was featured on the front page of the Wednesday, January 7, 1891, issue (Vol. 1 No. 7). Since Farmville did not yet have an electric plant, this unit was initially steam powered. Once broken in, it could produce “1500 Heralds an hour.”