The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Story of Lora Ellen Fuller's College Days in the Mid-1890's

By Rebecca Butcher © 1988

Issue: November, 1988

Lora Ellen Fuller, taken in the 1890's.Lora Ellen Fuller, taken in the 1890's.Lora Ellen Fuller would be described today as a woman ahead of her times. In the mid-1890's it was most unusual for a girl of sixteen years to pack her leather trunks, don her traveling attire, bid her family good-bye, and board the train at a nearby depot with two years of college education as her destination.

Lora, her parents, and younger brother, Ernest, lived in a colonial house on a prosperous farm in the little community of Soapstone, Virginia, just a few miles from the village of Axton. Her father was a local merchant engaging several families to tend the rolling fields of his farm at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was in these surroundings that Lora developed her values of living, was trained by her mother in the proper behavior of a young lady, and received the educational foundation from the local schools for her college years.

As the train chugged into Danville, Virginia, station one can imagine that Lora remained calm, prim, and very poised as she peered through the smoke stained windows for the buggy and driver from Roanoke Female Institute (now Averett College). This dignity would have been in keeping with her up bringing. However, beneath the surface of this delicate Dresden-doll lay a spunky, lively, fun loving girl as revealed sixty-five years later to her granddaughter as she reminiscenced on lazy hot summer afternoons as they sat together on her front porch enjoying their needlework.

In some ways, college days for Lora were not so unlike those of today as they involved roommates, classes, teachers, dining hall food, boyfriends and shopping for the latest fashions. The difference came in the structured and strict regulations and ever present chaperones.

It was not long before Lora's warmth, friendly smile, and genuine interest in people had won her a life long friend in the person of Maggie. This friendship helped to fill the gap Lora had missed by not having a sister, but brought on other problems of having to learn to share a tiny dormitory room with another girl when she had always had her own spacious room at home. Whatever problems might have arisen, Lora and Maggie resolved them thus binding their friendship a Cadet Sam Thompson, taken in the 1890's.Cadet Sam Thompson, taken in the 1890's.little closer. Other friendships were made and Lora's memory book was filled with loving and affectionate messages, such as "To Lora, a sweet and true friend"; "In the garden of friendship, your flower is the loveliest." These messages always elicited a soft smile and a twinkle in her eyes as she and her granddaughter read and reread them as they visited together bridging the span of three generations.

Lora's academic program had been carefully planned by her mother and included only the courses which were appropriate for the proper training of a young lady, such as French, music, and literature. These classes did not present a problem for Lora as her keen mind and natural curiosity in many facets of life allowed her to enjoy them. Even so, they did not fulfill her profound desire to be an artist and to take advantage of the art courses offered at Roanoke Female Institute.

As a child, she had dabbled in paints much to the dismay of her mother who considered such messy activities unladylike and harmful to her daughter's hands and fingernails. Now, Lora, who was always meticulous in her appearance, could not understand why her painting would be considered inappropriate. During her first year at college she obediently adhered to her mother's wishes, taking the curriculum of her mother's choice. The second year was different. She could not satisfy her unquenchable thirst to study art and to put on canvas the beauty her sensitive blue eyes captured from the world around her. And, paint she did, all year long but not with the knowledge or approval of her mother. She referred to the art as "slipping to take art." For you see beneath the delicate porcelain facade was a strong willed, intelligent woman who could easily mesh into today's twentieth century society.

During that second winter at Roanoke Female Institute, Lora spent hours and hours with easel, brushes, and pots of paint, brushing on canvas a snarled, wind blown tree beside an icy stream, a bouquet of fragile roses, a vase of bold happy faced pansies, a pewter tray of Virginia winesap apples and several pastoral scenes of quiet meadows and gentle hills. In all she painted enough pictures that winter to leave a legacy of her talent to each of her eight children. These precious and priceless heirlooms are proudly displayed in their homes today.

As Lora recalled her art courses, there was always a ring of pride in her voice and an air of uncertainty in her manner for it seemed that a half a century later she still had doubts as to whether she had been forgiven by both God and her mother for disobeying her mother.

Lora's college life centered around the rigid schedule of classes and studying but she found many ways to add sparkle and excitement to the well chaperoned daily routine. The rules and regulations were very strict and no female student went anywhere without the shadow of a spinster maiden trailing along behind keeping the young students in line with a discreet cough or nod of approval.

On Sunday all students had to dress in their best outfits and "march" to church with a teacher leading the line and another one at the rear. They were supposed to walk very slowly and solemnly to and from church reflecting in their deportment reverence for the Sabbath. They were not allowed to speak to the handsome young cadets from Danville Military Institute who lined the streets as the young ladies from RFI demurely walked past. Lora remarked to her granddaughter some sixty-five years later that "some of the girls would slip notes to the cadets as they strolled by." When queried to whether she was one of those who exchanged notes she would smile and evade answering the question. It is fairly accurate to assume that she was guilty of passing many notes as she and a tall and stalwart cadet Sam Thompson were married two years later.

No gentleman caller whether family or friend could be received by a RFI student without written permission from her parents. This rule was never waivered but Lora had little difficulty in convincing her parents to allow Cadet Thompson to call on their daughter on Sunday afternoon. Lora said that throughout the visit (she never referred to the call as a date) the chaperone sat in earshot of the couple and visits were limited to two hours.

As long as Lora lived she enjoyed beautiful clothes and loved to shop, buying her last dress two weeks before her death at age 85. Shopping as a college student had a different twist than it was like during her later years. In contrast to today's student who dashes downtown or to the nearest mall whenever she wishes, Lora and her classmates could only shop on certain days during hours determined by the college officials. The girls going shopping would walk two abreast down the street with the ever-present chaperones watching their every move.

Department stores in rural Virginia towns were in their infancy and the best dressed ladies relied on their talents as a dressmaker. Lora recounted one incident of going to her favorite dressmaker's shop one afternoon for several hours of fittings. Her chaperone left her with implicit instructions to stay at the shop until she returned to walk with her back to the campus. After her session with the dressmaker, Lora waited and waited but it became apparent that the chaperone had forgotten her. Her natural instinct for punctuality and her impatience of wasting time in the tiny shop only a few blocks from her dormitory did not set well with the young energetic Lora. As she phrased it "I struck up the street alone and returned to my room." The college officials viewed her actions with distaste but could not find enough reasons to punish her so they had to drop the issue.

In the 1950's when Lora's granddaughter was in college the devious fad of rolling coca cola bottles down the dorm hall at 2:00 a.m. was raging college campuses, around the country. As she and Lora discussed this harmless but annoying craze, Lora recalled a similar event at RFI in the 1890's. It seemed that her friend Maggie and several other girls (Lora vowed that she was not one of them) collected tin cans from the trash barrels at the back of the college vegetable garden and carefully smuggled them up to their rooms, hiding them under their beds. That night on synchronize cue, the involved girls opened their doors, rolled their cans down the hall, jumped back in bed and were "sound asleep" when housemothers fruitlessly searched for the culprits. No real damage was rendered and Lora said that it provided excited conversation for some time to come.

The two years slipped by with academic dreams fulfilled, friendships bonded, and the kaleidoscope of Lora's future focusing into place. In the spring of 1896 she reached her educational destination as she graduated from Roanoke Female Institute.

This time as she boarded the train for the return trip home to Soapstone her mind and heart ran wild with excitement and anticipation for she was heading home to make plans for a fall wedding to her handsome VMI cadet.