The Rebuilding Years

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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Cooper Bourdon '11

The Great Fire of 1927 at R-MA's boarding school

The smoke enveloped the corridors making sight impossible and breathing torture. Boys of all ages frantically groped their way down staircases and hallways in a desperate search for escape. Those on the third floor were forced to fashion ropes out of their bed sheets and blankets and grapple down the side of the building. Others were compelled to jump out of windows as their classmates held out bed sheets to provide a safe landing. It was chaos, and had it not been for the timely arrival of the fire department, there may have been a fatality.

By the Lord’s good grace, all students, faculty, and staff were accounted for. Several students suffered injuries, but only one required hospitalization. The less severe injuries were treated at the Afton Hotel where boys received nourishment and the means to send postcards to their families in order to let them know they were safe.

The early morning air was filled with the smell of charred rubble as citizens of Front Royal gathered around the smoldering ruins of Randolph-Macon Academy (R-MA). The once-stately building that stood tall and proud on this hill was no more. The people did not dwell on this tragedy, however; they instead went to work on a proper response. 

A meeting was held in town at 11 AM, less than eight hours after the fire was discovered. The first order of business was to decide where to put the displaced students of R-MA. A committee was created to help find housing for the boys, and the people of Front Royal did not hesitate to help. After they tallied the number of volunteers, the committee realized they received 100 more than needed to house the R-MA cadets.

The 1926-27 school year began with 176 boarders and 23 local students; only 35 remained after the fire with an additional six new students for the second semester.  These numbers did not temper the enthusiasm to rebuild in Front Royal. The executive committee of R-MA wrote to the Randolph-Macon College (R-MC) board of trustees:

“But considering the property values remaining, the financial assistance offered at Front Royal, and the valuable work being done in bringing a fine body of young men under the Christian influences found at our Academies and Colleges, during their early years from many sections of the country beyond our own territory, we consider the determination to rebuild at Front Royal eminently wise.”

The ruins of R-MA's original boarding school building

The cost of R-MA’s new building was estimated by Messrs. John P. Pettyjohn & Co. to be $254,000. Front Royal stepped up, yet again, as local businessmen signed a $25,000 bond to go towards the building’s reconstruction. The new building was completed by October of 1927 and ready for R-MA’s 36th school session.

It was a striking colonial style structure with an elegant dome that could be seen throughout the entire town. It was located in the same spot as the original building in order to retain the swimming pool, which is still there to this day. Enrollment after the fire rebounded steadily, with 140 students enrolling in the fall of 1929, but adversity struck yet again.

October 24, 1929, also known as “Black Tuesday,” sent the United States economy into one of the greatest depressions ever seen. The magnitude of this event was so far reaching that it enveloped the entire nation, R-MA included. By the end of the 1931-32 school year enrollment was down to 119 students. 

Meetings ensued regarding the status of the two Randolph-Macon Academies, one at Bedford and the other in Front Royal. Committees were formed to visit each school and report back to the R-MC board of trustees on the status of the schools, both physically and financially. Their first action did not work out well. Heavy borrowing and loans were approved to keep both schools running. This came at the cost of the faculty’s salaries, much like the early years.

The board eventually decided the best way to move forward would be to merge the two academies. At 3pm on January 26, 1933, it was decided that the Academy at Bedford would close and merge with the Academy in Front Royal by September of 1933. Great changes were about to be made.

Colonel John Campbell Boggs of the Bedford Academy replaced the Front Royal Principal, Charles Melton, who became a teacher at The Academy. The military feature was at risk of being abolished as well. Many people believed the military component was, “out of harmony with the ideals of the church,” and the proposed removal went through. However, a survey conducted by principal-elect Boggs showed that many patrons preferred the military feature. The decision was reversed and the military component was reinstated.RMA main building boarding school

Colonel Boggs’ leadership would be tested in his third year as principal when the American Viscose Corporation, later known as AVtex, approached Front Royal about building a rayon plant in in R-MA’s backyard. Naturally, there were those strongly against the plant’s construction and those strongly in favor of it. Those who were left in the middle simply waited for an outcome. 

Those opposing construction feared the ramifications of the plant’s presence in their community: pollution, repulsive odors, smoke, and the 6,000 employees the plant was estimated to hire. Mr. Hatcher, a member of the R-MC board of trustees, made some inquiries on behalf of the Academy. He wrote Colonel Boggs expressing that American Viscose assured him that the concerns of the community are unwarranted. They expressed that, “In very humid weather there might be slight odor, but you have a body of woods between you and the plant…”

Construction of the AVtex plant began and was in production of rayon material by August of 1940. Alumni and staff alike who were at The Academy between the years 1940 and 1989 can speak of the stench produced by the plant that permeated the school for decades. After battling government regulations, the plant was forced to close in November of 1989.

AVtex factory adjacent to RMA military school

Enrollment was low at the beginning of Colonel Boggs’ time as Principal, but that would change as the 1940’s approached. The 1933-34 school year opened with just 99 students, but by the next school year that number increased to 134. The Academy’s largest spike in enrollment came between the years 1935 and 1936 when numbers went from 155 students to 214. The Academy saw its highest enrollment yet during the 1940-41 school year of 227 students. The Yellow Jackets were back on track, but then another global conflict arose.

World War II consumed the world as the Allies began to fight Hitler and his Third Reich. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, America joined the war and it had a significant effect on the Academy. Maintaining and recruiting a faculty and staff proved difficult due to the draft. They were challenging years, but the Academy faced it with grit, honor, and patriotism. In all, 850 R-MA alumni served in World War II and 32 of those brave souls made the “supreme sacrifice.”

Post World War II brought many bright spots for The Academy. Students were excelling in their studies and going on to great universities. A student-published newspaper known as The Sabre was winning awards right and left. The Sabre and R-MA’s yearbook The Randomac received #1 rankings by the Southern Interscholastic Press Association. The Sabre also placed first in a competition held by the Columbia University Scholastic Press Association.

During this time of great success, another change was on the horizon. On November 28, 1952, R-MA legally separated from R-MC and birthed its first ever board of trustees. A new era was about to begin for Randolph-Macon Academy.