John D. Bridgers M.D.
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Shaggy Dog Chapter 2 Part 10 - From tobacco barns to hallowed halls


Most every account of the founding of what would become East Carolina University features a different leading man, but the cast of characters remains more-or-less the same.

There's little doubt that Gov. Thomas Jarvis probably started the ripples which grew into the tide, but this was a decade-long process rather than an event.

However, when there came a definite movement to have a teacher-training institute in the east, he was not all that immediately an adamant champion.

He had initially promised his fellow-directors of The Normal and Industrial School that he would back no movement that competed with the school in Greensboro.

The Normal School was the only school in the state primarily focused on teacher training, and its backers wanted no competition in mission and for revenue from the state.

The Piedmont had taken giant steps toward "The Industrial Age" after the Civil War, unmatched by much change in the agrarian life style of the folk of The Coastal Plain and the mountainous regions of North Carolina.

This spin-off further enhanced the political tension, which had always existed between east and west.

Whatever influence Tom Jarvis had exerted from the Governor's Mansion had been picked up and amplified by his protégé, Charles B. Aycock, when he became governor at the turn of the century and stumped the state for educational causes.

Then there was Senator James B. Fleming of Pitt County who presented a bill to the General Assembly proposing a "normal school" for eastern North Carolina to be located in Greenville.

This was heartily opposed by the supporters of The Normal School in Greensboro.

All of this came about because the land had been plowed by Jarvis and Aycock when they were governors, but as is so often the case, this noble motive for education was over-shadowed by baser sectional political differences.

Then, those in the Piedmont claimed there was need but for a single teacher-training institute, with little attention to the fact that most of the graduates of The Normal School took positions in the schools in the central part of the state and largely left unserved the more needful schools in the east and far west.

An early viand from this "pot-boiling" were augmented when the high schools in the west in Cullowee and Boone had some "normal school" training added to their curriculum.

These schools were apparently acceptable to the Greensboro backers because their high school nature was emphasized in contradistinction to a college function, and there could be little argument that those who lived in mountain coves were made remote by the limited transportation of that day.

These things, along with his desire to serve his home region, led Gov. Jarvis to see the light that he need not shun teacher training in the east to make good his loyalty to the Board of The Normal School.

About the same time that Sen. Fleming introduced his bill, representatives for other eastern Carolina communities brought out proposals for such a school in their localities.

Aiding Sen. Fleming in stirring the hustlings in Pitt County were Prof. William A. Ragsdale -- County Superintendent of Schools -- and David J. Whichard -- editor and publisher of The Daily Reflector.

Ragsdale gave professional focus to the movement and Whichard prodded his readers to interest and action.

Whatever account of this struggle one addresses, most will agree that five men -- Jarvis, Aycock, Fleming, Ragsdale and Whichard -- were the main protagonists who brought The Eastern Carolina Teachers Training School to fruition and to Greenville.

Three of these personae are of immediate interest to the Whichard family.

David J. Whichard and William A. Ragsdale were brothers-in-law and Senator Fleming and Whichard shared a common colonial ancestor in David Fleming.

From our more particular standpoint it is noteworthy that the fight for a teacher training school was the latest in an unending series of movements our grandfather pursued for improving his community.

To today's citizens these are perhaps mostly forgotten save for the collections of his writings form The Reflector collated by Jimmy Jenkins, a Greenville tobacconist, and by Dr. Meredith Posey, Professor of English at East Carolina University.

Whichard had been instrumental in seeing that Greenville become a junction of The Norfolk and Southern and Atlantic Coastline Railways, moving Pitt County from its primitive dependence in river traffic and dirt roads for trade and communications.

Tobacco had, in the early days of colonialization been a prime if small economic out reach for the first colonies in Virginia and the Carolinas;  and, in fact, in the very early days had served as a medium of exchange -- along with whiskey -- before coinage and paper money became available as the currency of the land.

Then, with slavery, cotton became the money crop, a practice which reached its zenith just before The Civil War, and was at a poor forefront of trade during The Reconstruction.

When flue-curing rather than sun-curing grew from a serendipitous fire in a wooden drying shed, tobacco surged to the economic forefront again.

This then required a system of marketing by which the farmer could get mass quantities of the cured leaf to the manufacturer and establish a pricing structure.

Thus, was born the tobacco sales warehouse and a system of auction selling whereby the grower offered his tobacco crop to the competitive bidding of the processors and from whence pricing emerged.

David Whichard was also at the forefront of this development, pushing for the establishment of a Tobacco Board of Trade for Greenville.

All this was budding just before World War I when the idea of a teacher training school was also on the front burner.

In the early processing of the tobacco leaf, after the farmer had "cured" it in his barn, lay what was called "re-drying" when it was drastically dried mechanically in a factory and then remoistened to a slight degree before being stored in large wooden hogsheads for shipping and ageing prior to being fabricated into cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco and snuff.

Actually a part of this process involved stripping the blades of the leaves from a central vein which was termed the stem, and the stems were set aside for grinding into the powder called snuff.

Re-drying plants were and are in the towns where tobacco is sold.

The final processing into specific products takes place mainly in the small cities of Durham, Winston-Salem and Richmond, Virginia of the Piedmont.

In my younger years Greenville's main claim to fame was as "The World's Largest Bright-leaf Tobacco Market," though this title was challenged always by neighboring Wilson, and at times by Kinston and Rocky Mount.

The truth is most of the agrarian centers of eastern North Carolina had at least one auction underway each workday during "tobacco season" which occupied the autumn months, the "time of plenty" when the farmers of the area were paid off and the merchants were paid back for the credit thy had extended through the rest of the year.

For Greenville, however, its world changed again when a college campus came to grace East Fifth Street.

And this all serves as a reminder that the dog is becoming too shaggy again and that we should turn back to the establishment of a site to train teachers.

What presented itself at this turn of the screw was a lesson in negotiation, this being a penchant and talent which oils the machinery of free discussion, facilitates and tampers robust debate, and helps make democracy a feasible system for living together.

It's worth reviewing for its civic content, and besides, there are other good stories which warrant telling.


When the whole business of a teacher training institute reached its stickiest was when Gov. Jarvis really played his major role.

Senator Fleming enjoined David Whichard, and another whose name now escapes me, to bring Thomas Jarvis to Raleigh one day when the General Assembly was in session.

The trip entailed several train changes and required five hours to complete.

Though to my knowledge my grandfather was a teetotaler and ardent "dry," most men of parts in those days imbibed at least socially -- certainly those who were political denizens of the capital were friends of "John Barleycorn."

My uncle, "Big Dave" Whichard, a teen-age "fly on the wall" at The Reflector office at that time, told me this tale;  and though like myself and most southerners he loved to tell well a story, I always found him truthful as best he remembered things.

Further, tenure as a former "page-boy" in the General Assembly had made him wise beyond his years in the ways of Raleigh.

However, his innuendos are not all included in other accounts of this venture.

On the long rain ride the amenities offered by his companions kept Gov. Jarvis well refreshed with "spirits," both during the trip and at the hotel where they kept him sequestered from his political cronies many of whom favored not having another normal school in the state, and particularly not in the east.

When he finally was recognized to speak in the legislation hall he was "softened" for the occasion, and he swayed the assembled notables that eschewing further teacher training would be a mistake and that the east was the most needful region.

After making what has been described as an impassioned and moving plea, the Assembly re-convened in active session, and Jarvis was hustled back to the train for the trip home.

While the party was enroute the Assemblymen passed a resolution favoring the establishment of a teacher-training institute some where east of Raleigh.

A telegram was sent to Greenville with the good news.

When the ex-governor and my grandfather reached home, a multitude had gathered at the depot and Gov. Jarvis was hailed as "the savior of the day."


Following this Ex-Gov. Jarvis met with Gov. Robert Brodnax Glenn who had followed Charles B. Aycock as chief executive and who had been a freshman representative from Forsyth County during the Jarvis administration.

Because Jarvis had come to realize that the term "normal school" was toxic to this endeavor, that the eastern communities -- in each pressing its own cause -- were working at cross purposes, and that all needed to get together on a school for the east at that juncture rather than worry about a precise location.

On this later point, agreement was reached with the acknowledgement that the specific towns would "duke it out" later as to who should get the plum.

The Chief Executive and the Ex-governor came to an agreement that the proposed institution should be called "The Eastern Carolina Teachers Training School;" and Senator Fleming expunged "normal school" from his bill and had it simply state that the school would be somewhere east of Raleigh.

When re-presented to the General Assembly this bill was passed.

Then came the business of deciding exactly where "The Training School" should be seated.

The several interested communities -- and most all were:  Elizabeth City, Washington, Wilson, New Bern and perhaps others, as well as Greenville -- submitted proposals.

The enabling legislation had specified that the modest appropriation of $25,000.00 would be provided by the state while additional funds would be expected from the winning community.

The steering committee from Greenville, dying to get ahead of the pack, proposed that Pitt County raise a bond for $100,000.0, but as is usual when it comes to public levy, some spoke out that this was too much.

David Whichard made his usual editorial plea:

"What it will cost to get the Eastern Training School in Pitt County will only have to be paid once, while the benefits the county will reap from it will go on through years without number."

Debate was robust but the vote was overwhelming in favor, though some who cast negatively said their votes weren't tallied.

The full truth is still not known, though at the school's fiftieth anniversary celebration Haywood Dail, a young merchant and entrepreneur at the time of the plebiscite told an intriguing tale.

He claimed that he had been one of the poll-keepers for the vote and that he had chewed up and swallowed all the negative votes he could identify. 

Dr. Mary Jo Jackson Bratton, an official historian for the first half-century of the school -- East Carolina University, The Formative Years 1907 - 1952 -- denies that Dail's caper would have caused much difference in the outcome.

It has certainly embroidered on local mythology, and is too good a tale to dismiss out of hand.

Dail came to build a stately home across Fifth Street from the center of the original campus.

However, he lost the property during the Great Depression, and the lovely home has come to be the Chancellor's residence, first for East Carolina Teachers College and now for East Carolina University.

A governing board for the school was appointed forthwith with Ex-governor Jarvis as co-chairman along with James Y. Joyner, the State Superintendent of Education who switched his total loyalty from The Normal School once the new Training School became a political reality.

From what I've learned this quality has been characteristic of the political leadership of "The Old North State" -- i.e., little room for "sour grapes" once the higher will of the people has been determined through the ballot.

Among the first official acts of The Board was to form a building committee, which then purchased for $9,490.00 approximately fifty acres of land on East Fifth Street known as Harrington Hill. 

In short order, Gov. Jarvis was turning the first spade full of dirt and almost seamlessly, he slipped into a watchdog role as the campus and its faculty took shape.

Gov. Jarvis saw to it that Dr. Robert Herring Wright was installed as the school's first chief executive.

Dr. Wright, from a prominent family in Sampson County in the southeastern part of the state had studiously prepared himself to be a professional educator.

He paid his dues in his early years as a teacher in one-room schools, undertook preparatory work at the Oak Ridge Military Academy, graduated from the University of North Carolina with a major in education, and took post-graduate training in this field at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

He was over-modestly described in Trustee minutes as a "suitable man for president," and, as a man of intellect, dignity and character he did much to establish "The Training School" as the firm base from which, in due time, a full-fledged university would one day emerge.

It was this stable start, largely due to Jarvis and Wright which made east Carolina Teachers College seem a timeliness and unshakable par of the landscape of my hometown when I became aware of it in nigh a score of years later.

So from the turmoil of moving "The Training School" from an idea to reality, the main Pitt County players in the drama -- Jarvis, Fleming, Ragsdale and Whichard -- followed separate pursuits.

Jarvis, as has been illustrated, spent the evening of his life in implementing the campus as well as in his law practice.

Tragically, Senator Fleming, who certainly was most responsible for nurturing the idea through the state legislature, was killed in an early automobile accident out in the county before the school came to fruition.

Professor Ragsdale became the first chairman of the Department of School Administration in the new school.

His children became practically adopted children of my grandmother and his grandchildren were more like our first cousins than third cousins.

My father -- who came to know Prof. Ragsdale as a teacher when he briefly attended "The Training School" in its very early years, and later through family connections -- once told me that Prof. Ragsdale knew more about more things than any other person he ever knew.

David J. Whichard, having written something about the school practically every edition of The Daily Reflector during these years of gestation, went back to other issues, which he characteristically embraced if he thought they would benefit his community and its people.

And this brings us back -- circuitously though it may be -- to concern with family.

One gets the feeling --- reading through the annals of those days -- that so much interest was expended on the business of "The Training School" -- that the folk of Greenville and it environs may have failed to notice the gathering of war.

If that were so it soon would change.

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