Economic Impact

Mathematics professor Henry Osborne painted this picture of the College's anticipated front range of buildings in 1856 as a fund-raising project. It is the earliest rendering of the College campus.

Mathematics professor Henry Osborne painted this picture of the College's anticipated front range of buildings in 1856 as a fund-raising project. It is the earliest rendering of the College campus.

A historic look at Roanoke College's contribution to the Roanoke Valley economy.

This article was featured in the Roanoke Magazine, Issue 2, 2013. The full issue can be seen here.


Modern colleges like to tout their monetary contribution to the local economy. Currently, Roanoke College boasts its impact on the Roanoke Valley at a little over $100 million.   

Interestingly, the 19th century was no different, and, perhaps, even more dramatic. In its first 20 years in Salem, the College built three brick buildings, with a fourth completed in 1878. With our move to Salem, local builders benefited greatly, erecting four brick structures in the first 30 years, as well as two on-campus frame buildings and several nearby faculty houses. Salem women added to their household incomes by providing rooms and board, as well as laundry and sewing services. Area farmers and tradesmen supplied candles or oil for lighting, wood or coal for heating, food and other supplies. A mid-1880s publication estimated the College's contribution to the Valley's well-being at $40,000 to $50,000 - not a small sum then.   

But "impact" goes far beyond additional money in governmental coffers and citizens' pockets.  There is also an abstract impact that is more difficult to assess. Certainly, merely having what was then the Virginia Collegiate Institute and, ultimately, the College, in one's town was a source of pride and status, especially considering that a college education - even a year or two - was reserved for the very, very few. It said something positive about Salem and helped attract new residents and investors.   

In a town whose population approximated 600 in 1860, 1,600 in 1876, and reached 3,200 by 1890, faculty were respected leaders of the community. Co-founder and Institute principal Christopher Baughman helped organize the town's Lutheran church in 1852. He, and later, the Rev. David Bittle, the College's first president, pastored the church in addition to their numerous College duties. Other faculty members preached to various Lutheran congregations, sometimes doing duty at more than one church on any given Sunday.

In 1884, after two years of feverish building in the newly established City of Roanoke, Salem established a Citizens' Executive Committee to promote the advantages of their community, targeting northern investors. Articulating their mission and focus at the first meeting was Roanoke's third president, Julius Daniel Dreher, class of 1871. Dreher had developed many northern contacts, having spent much time there, knowing then that generous donors for the College were more readily found in the North than in the South. The Committee - whose executive secretary was John Crabtree '1872, Roanoke's assistant professor of ancient languages (later superintendent of the Lutheran Children's Home) - produced a 68-page booklet, touting the beauty and advantages of Salem. Roanoke College figured prominently among those advantages.

The cultural enrichment brought by the College is immeasurable. Even the student body represented a host of states and countries. While most were Virginians and North Carolinians, the deep South  and, occasionally, such faraway places as Florida, Michigan, Connecticut, Louisiana and California, sent its sons to Salem. On an international level, Roanoke educated students from the Choctaw and Oneida nations, Mexico, Japan, Korea, China and other countries. These students broadened the world view of the College and the community as they learned English, attended churches and socials, gave speeches about their countries and their people, and wrote articles for "The Collegian." Conversely, as alumni, they acted as cultural ambassadors for the College and the country when they returned home.

Townsfolk were invited to many College events, often held in Salem's Town Hall. Debates, oratorical contests, plays, musicales and even the 3- or 4-day-long Commencement activities were open to guests. Prominent among attendees were Salem's young women, many of whom found their spouses among these well-educated young men. Consuls and ministers, governmental dignitaries and prominent speakers - religious and secular - graced the parlors of the College and of Salem.  

Roanoke's influence was felt through those alumni who became leaders in education, medicine, law, finance, agriculture and religion. Eleven graduates between 1855 and 1903 became college presidents. Three were the first Lutheran missionaries to Japan. One was co-founder of the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Another developed the cigarette rolling machine. And what would Virginia be without Colonial Williamsburg, dream child of an alumnus who, in the 1930s, convinced John D. Rockefeller to fund its development?  

All in all, it's incredibly impressive for a small southern college in the 19th century.

-Linda Angle Miller, College Archivist