© 2019 Doddridge County Heritage Guild

West Union Academy - Our First High School 

 

The earliest schoolhouses in Doddridge County were most likely crude, one-room cabins made of hewn logs with a pot-bellied stove for heat and rough-cut benches for seats. The Hickory Ridge School located at the Doddridge County Park is a good example of this type of school. By the mid-1800s, residents of Doddridge County were trying to improve the quality of secondary education in West Union. This attempt led to the very short-lived business venture of the West Union Academy.

 

One of the earliest references to a schoolhouse in Doddridge County is in a Virginia Land Grant dated November 30, 1838, in which David D. Davis was granted 100 acres on School House Run. There had to have been a school there prior to this date for it to be called School House Run. This property was located near Buckeye Run in the Grant District of Doddridge County. David D. Davis was born in Salem, Harrison County, West Virginia, on January 11, 1803. His parents, Stephen C. Davis and Nancy Fitz Randolph, had moved from New Jersey to Salem in 1795.

 

Subscription School Formed

Another early school in Doddridge County was the West Union Academy. The West Union  Academy was a subscription school, which means that the patrons of the community were responsible for hiring, paying and boarding a teacher. Those who met to form the West Union Academy were of the Seventh Day Baptist faith. They originally wanted the school to be a denominational school, so only Seventh Day Baptists would be allowed to purchase shares.The following entry appears in A History of the Seventh Day Baptists in West Virginia…. by Corliss Fitz Randolph:  

 

“The first formal meeting of the Seventh Day Baptists of which we have any record, for the purpose of considering the educational interests of this association, was held at New Salem, Virginia, December 4, 1850. Previous to this time, Dr. Ethelbert Bond, John S. Davis, and Samuel Preston F. Randolph, all brothers-in-law, and all living at West Union, the county seat of Doddridge County, some thirteen miles west of New Salem, had purchased, jointly, at a cost of three hundred dollars ($300.00), a house and lot in West Union for school purposes and Rev. Azor Estee, at that time labouring as a missionary among the churches in Virginia, had secured the services of Stephen Thomas West Potter of Scott, New York, as a teacher.”

 

Located on Church Street

The lot they purchased was then owned by Henry M. Miller, who already taught in a private schoolhouse located on the property. The lot was designated as Lot #4 near Wood Street on the original plat of the town of West Union, drawn by Ethelbert Bond in 1845. (I will be publishing a picture of that plat in a future article.) Comparing that plat with current maps, we know that Lot #4 was located on the west side of Church Street, across from Emmanuel Methodist Church. Corliss Fitz Randolph goes on to say:

 

On February 16, following, the committee previously appointed made further report. The committee on a charter was urged to proceed with its work with all practicable speed. John S. Davis, Rev. Azor Estee, Lodowick H. Davis, and Jeptha F. Randolph were appointed a committee ‘to use further effort in raising funds to carry forward the enterprise.’ Three days later, February 19, William F. Randolph, of the committee on charter, forwarded to Richmond, the capital of the state of Virginia, a copy of the draft of charter which had been presented to the council and adopted by that body January 13, 1851.”

 

The Virginia General Assembly granted the Incorporation of the West Union Academy on April 16, 1852. The resolution reads:

 

“Enacted by the General Assembly, That for the purpose of establishing a seminary of learning in the town of West Union in the County of Doddridge, it shall be lawful to open books for receiving subscriptions to the amount of twenty thousand dollars, in shares of fifteen dollars each; the said books to be opened at West Union, under the direction of William F. Randolph, Ethelbert Bond, John S. Davis, Ezekiel Bee, Joseph Jeffrey, Abel P. Bond, and Eliona Davis, or any four of them, and at such other places and at the direction of such other persons as the said commissioners or any four of them may appoint.”

 

On August 12, 1853 enough shares had been purchased to officially open the West Union Academy. However, classes were already being taught there by 1851, well before the charter was granted.

 

The school building itself was a two-story framed structure, approximately 36’ x 26’, with a cupola. The total cost of the buildings and grounds was $827.13. This included the original house and lot at $300.00; the cost to erect the new building, $462.13; and an additional lot purchased from Nathan Davis for $65.00.

 

Academy Thrives, Then Folds

The operation of the West Union Academy was a short-lived venture, as described in another excerpt from Corliss Fitz Randolph’s book:

 

“In the following autumn (1851), Rev. Azor Estee opened school in the new building. This was probably the most prosperous year of the life of the institution. It was not only well patronised by the people of the town, regardless of denominational affiliation, but students came from a large number of Seventh Day Baptist families located at New Milton, Greenbrier, New Salem, and various other localities within the bounds of the Seventh Day Baptist churches of Virginia. Many of these students boarded themselves, and Rev. Azor Estee conducted a club of twenty-six members, besides his own family, at a cost of seventy-two cents a week for each member. Apparently, a term was taught the following summer (1852), by Ezra F. Randolph, a brother of Miss Esther F. Randolph, who had taught in the summer of 1851. During the year 1852-53, the school seems to have been taught by two brothers, Benoni Israel [Jeffrey] and Robert Alexander Jeffrey, sons of Joseph Jeffrey, one of the trustees of the academy.

 

Apparently in the late summer or autumn of 1853, there was no school conducted in the building until the first of the following June, when the property was rented to one H. T. Hays, who continued to hold possession until June 6, 1855, paying a rent of forty dollars ($40.00) a year. Hays was not a Seventh Day Baptist, and probably conducted a subscription (select) school for the benefit of the children of the village. The building then appear to have stood idle until the 8th day of August, 1856, when the entire property was sold and passed into the possession of Isaiah Bee, who taught two terms of school in the academy, when it ceased to be used for school purposes.

 

The fundamental weakness of the West Union Academy was the fact that while it was undertaken as a denominational school for which there was a crying need, it was also undertaken as a financial enterprise which was expected to pay handsome dividends to the stockholders. When these financial hopes were not fulfilled and the real character of the situation dawned upon the promoters of the enterprise, they became disappointed and discouraged. Those who could have supported it as a philanthropic institution refused to do so, and those who would have done so, were unable.”

 

Civil War Hospital

For me, one of the most exciting discoveries from this book was the fact that the Union Army used the vacant Academy building as a Regimental Hospital during the Civil War. I previously had no idea where the hospital had been located, though I had found many references to it. The hospital’s most active year was in 1862, when several soldiers died there of typhoid fever and pneumonia.

 

After the West Union Academy closed its doors as an institution of learning, it was eventually converted to use as a private residence. Many of the Academy’s former students went on to attend universities in other states. One such family was the William Fitz Randolph family. Five of his children, Preston, Esther, Judson, Jethro and Silas, all graduated from Alfred University in New York. Many of their descendents went on to become renowned educators in Doddridge, Ritchie and Harrison counties. This is only part of the heritage of the Doddridge County High School that we know today, which had as its predecessor the West Union High School, and before that, the West Union Academy.  Who knew?

(NOTE: This article, written by Heritage Guild member Jennifer Wilt, originally appeared in The Doddridge Independent as part of her weekly column “Our Heritage: The REAL History of Doddridge County.”)

Academy as it appeared in 1860

Academy in 1907 after it was converted into a house.