Through three great fires Longwood rises from the ashes

Published 6:00 am Thursday, March 26, 2020

By Dr. James W. Jordan

Longwood University Board of Visitors, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology

It was in 1839 that the citizens of Farmville raised $30,000 to finance a “seminary building.” That was the beginning of Longwood University.

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Farmville was a bustling place in 1839 — the stagecoach stopped eight times a month at the Eagle Hotel on Main Street, and bateaux docked daily at the tobacco warehouses. There were four churches and eight taverns in town and a railroad would soon be built from Petersburg through Farmville to Danville.

Included in the history of the college and town are three great fires — 1923, 1949 and 2001.

The Great Fires

The first great fire occurred in 1923.  The president then was Dr. Joseph Leonard Jarman who wrote this account:

“About 5 a.m. on Nov. 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 100 students. The origin of the fire is unknown. It made rapid headway, but every student escaped unhurt and very little was lost in the way of clothing, etc.

The Farmville Fire Company did wonderful work. The students were invited to private homes for breakfast, telegraph and telephone operators worked untiringly to get messages out, ladies prepared dinner in a local church, hotels were put at students’ disposal and the railroad put on extra coaches. The conduct of the students was worthy of the highest praise. By evening, students were on their way home.”

A legend of the 1923 fire grew up over the years, although Dr. Jarman reported “no students were injured.” One servant of the college, Aunt Lou, did in fact die. Her title was “Head of The Home,” and one of her duties was to greet guests and students at the door of the Rotunda. Aunt Lou, according to the legend, died at her station. Today when the Rotunda door “sticks,” students credit Aunt Lou’s spirit with playfully holding the door closed.

The second great fire was 26 years later during the 1948-1949 school year — the year when the campus was caught up in a debate about the school’s name. The Board of Visitors voted to rename the school “Longwood College” effective March 6, 1949, — 110 years to the day since the school’s founding. It would have made for a nice birthday celebration, but at 2 a.m. on Sunday, March 6, fire broke out in the East Wing destroying the auditorium, classrooms, dorm rooms and possessions of East Wing students. The Farmville Red Cross cared for immediate student needs and town citizens raised $5,000 to replace clothing and books.

The most recent of the great fires began on April 24, 2001, at 9:14 p.m. and raged for two days. It was under control after 37 hours, thanks to the efforts of 181 firefighters responding to 11 alarms and using 3.2 million gallons of water.

The fire of 2001 also has a legend, which I recorded in my field journal: 

“I am an archaeologist, and when I first walked up High Street in August 1978, I marveled at the beautiful homes across from the campus. Mrs. Lucy Lancaster who also ran a gift shop owned a quaint Victorian across from Jarman. One of Mrs. Lancaster’s favorite tales concerned the Confederate Monument just down the street. If you saw the Confederate soldier’s shadow on the wall of the Rotunda across the street, all was well in town. Apparently the Confederate statue was still on duty the night of April 24, 2001. Longwood student Phillip Taylor took a photograph of the Rotunda in flames around 2 a.m. The photograph clearly shows the Confederate soldier outlined in the flames.”

Although it wasn’t one of the great fires, the fire of July 21, 1945, also created a legend. Dr. Edith Stevens, head of the Department of Science, was teaching a laboratory class to her summer school students when a chemical explosion occurred. The clothing of two students burst into flames, and when Professor Stevens smothered the fire she was badly burned. Taken to Southside Community Hospital, Dr. Stevens remained in intensive care until she died on Oct. 31, 1945 — Halloween!  Dr. Stevens’ students dedicated a monument in her honor near the fountain where she saved their lives. According to legend, if ivy is allowed to grow over this monument, Dr. Stevens’ ghost will appear as a ball of flame.

Digging History

In all the fires, almost everything above ground was destroyed, but many items were preserved below ground. Longwood archaeology students found broken plates from the dining hall, brass bangles and pearls from jewelry, minie balls from Civil War bullets, thimbles, porcelain dolls and inkwells.

Longwood students of archaeology played an important role in collecting these artifacts. Rising from the ashes, these bits and pieces of history bring people of the past to life — the goal of archaeological fieldwork.

This article has been re-printed from Farmville the Magazine.