Romney Classical Institute was a 19th-century coeducational collegiate preparatory school in Romney, Virginia (present-day West Virginia), which was in operation between 1846 and some time after 1866. Prior to its establishment, Romney was served by Romney Academy. By 1831, the academy had outgrown its facilities, and the Romney Literary Society set about raising the necessary funds for the construction of a new educational building. The Virginia General Assembly permitted the society to raise funds through a lottery. By 1845 construction of the building had commenced and was completed in 1846. On December 12, 1846, the Virginia General Assembly formally established the Romney Classical Institute, and empowered the Romney Literary Society with its operation.
From 1846 to 1849, the institute was operated under the direction of Presbyterian Reverend William Henry Foote, who had been a teacher and principal at Romney Academy. In 1849, when the Romney Literary Society established a new operating code for the institute and a new system of bylaws, Foote took offense and in 1850 founded a rival school, which was known as the Potomac Seminary. Professor E. J. Meany succeeded Foote, followed by John Jeremiah Jacob who served as the school's principal from 1851 to 1853. Jacob later served as West Virginia's first Democratic governor. Reverend Joseph Nelson later served as the school's principal until the American Civil War, and shortly after hostilities ended.
The institute and the society experienced a hiatus during the course of the war. The school held sessions under Reverend Nelson, and subsequently William C. Clayton in 1866. Clayton later served in the West Virginia Senate. The Romney Literary Society was revived in 1869, and following the passage of a bill which established the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind in March 1870, the society offered the institute's building and grounds to the state of West Virginia for the new school. The institute's property was transferred to the state and the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind opened for its first term on September 29, 1870. Following the schools' subsequent expansions, the institute's former building became the center portion of the administration building of the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind, in which capacity it serves at the present day. In addition to Jacob and Clayton, Robert White, Attorney General of West Virginia, was also an alumnus of the institute.
Prior to the establishment of the Romney Classical Institute in 1846, Romney and its environs had been served by a school as early as 1752, and by Romney Academy, which had been incorporated by the Virginia General Assembly on January 11, 1814. By 1831, Romney Academy had outgrown its educational facilities in an old stone building just north of the Hampshire County Courthouse in Romney. Also at this time, several academies in present-day West Virginia were aspiring to collegiate status, as there were few colleges operating in the region prior to the American Civil War.
To remedy this issue and improve the educational opportunities for local children, the Romney Literary Society commenced an initiative to raise funds for the construction of a new school building. On January 6, 1832, the Virginia General Assembly authorized the society to raise $20,000 by way of a lottery for the funding of educational purposes. Following an intermission of ten years, the society made arrangements with James Gregory of Jersey City and Daniel McIntyre of Philadelphia to finance the lottery, "for raising a sum of money not exceeding twenty thousand dollars, for the purpose of erecting a suitable building for their accommodation, the purchase of library and Philosophical apparatus". The lottery was conducted over a ten-year period, and sums of $750, $1,000, and $1,500 were to be raised in semiannual installments.
The society was successful in raising the necessary funds by 1845. By April 4, 1845, bids were called for contractors to build the new school and library facility, and the bids were to be submitted to the society by May 24. On that date, the land was deeded for the new school. Construction commenced that year, and the building and its grounds cost approximately $8,000 to complete.
According to an 1845 bid advertisement, the building was originally planned as a brick building, 36 by 40 feet (11 by 12 m) and 22 feet (6.7 m) in height from the foundation. Plans also called for a tin roof to "be surmounted by a cupola." The bid advertisement also stated that the end of the building was to be the main façade, which was to be embellished with a "handsome portico the whole width of the house". This advertisement was signed by the committee for the school building's construction, which consisted of E. M. Armstrong, John B. Kercheval, and David Gibson.
On December 12, 1846, the Virginia General Assembly further empowered the Romney Literary Society: "To establish at or near the town of Romney a Seminary of Learning for the instruction of youth in various branches of science and literature; and the Society may appropriate to the same such portion of the property which it now has or may acquire, as it may deem expedient". Following the passage of this act, the Romney Classical Institute was formally established. That same year, the new two-story brick educational building was completed and the society's library and classes were relocated there. The completed building measured 54 by 40 feet (16 by 12 m), with an additional wing which served as the residence of the institute's principal. The society utilized the second story of the building, which was divided into two rooms: a hall for society meetings and a hall for its library. Only society members, Romney clergymen, and the institute's principal were given library privileges, and were each furnished with keys to visit the library at any time.
From its foundation, the Romney Classical Institute was a coeducational collegiate preparatory school. The institute first operated under the principalship of Presbyterian Reverend William Henry Foote, who had been a teacher and principal at Romney Academy. Foote served as the school's principal until 1849. Theology was one of the courses taught at the institute under Foote's leadership. In 1849, the Romney Literary Society established a new operating code for the institute and a new system of bylaws for the governance of the school, which empowered the society to appoint teachers, fix salaries, and provide conditions of payment. Foote took this new code as a criticism of his leadership, and he resigned. In 1850, he founded a rival institution known as the Potomac Seminary. Foote raised the necessary funds, and a brick building for the seminary was constructed approximately 902 feet (275 m) north of the institute building.
Professor E. J. Meany was selected by the society to head the institute following Foote's departure. Meany's assistant principals were John Jeremiah Jacob, Mrs. Meany, and Miss Kern. Jacob was West Virginia's first Democratic governor, who had attended both the institute and its predecessor, Romney Academy. Meany remained principal of the institute until at least 1851. Following his graduation from Dickinson College in 1849, Jacob became the institute's assistant principal under principal Meany. He became the school's principal in 1851 and served in that position until 1853, during which time he taught classes and practiced law.
While the school was operated under the leadership of the Romney Literary Society, the institute became associated with another literary organization known as the Phrena Kosmian Society. On November 15, 1850, the society debated the question, "Would the Southern States be justified in seceding from the Confederacy under present circumstances?" There are no existing records of the debate's conclusion.
In 1850, the Virginia House of Delegates amended the act of December 12, 1846, establishing the school, and empowered the Governor of Virginia to appoint the institute's Board of Visitors. According to an advertisement for a female teacher in the Baltimore Sun on November 9, 1853, William C. Clayton was serving as the institute's principal in 1853. Clayton stated in the advertisement that the institute was seeking an experienced female teacher to lead the school's Female Department. The candidate for the female teacher was to be qualified to teach French, English, and music. Later in 1853, Reverend Joseph Nelson became principal, and he continued to serve in this capacity until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. By 1859, John Kern, Jr., was the secretary of the school's Board of Visitors, and Nelson had accepted a position in Mississippi. In December 1859 the institute advertised the position of principal, and received applications until January 5, 1860. In the school's December 1859 advertisements in the Richmond Dispatch, the institute sought "a gentleman well qualified to teach the classics thoroughly, whose lady could teach French and music, would be preferred". At that time, the institute had 50 students. Nelson's replacement was expected to take charge by February 1860. There are no records to indicate that Nelson left his post prior to the American Civil War.
According to its May 1853 advertisement in the Virginia Argus and Hampshire Advertiser, the institute provided instruction to the following grades during its summer session: fifth grade for $5, fourth grade for $8, third grade for $10, second grade for $12, and first grade (its highest grade) for $15. Boarding, including laundry, meals, and lighting, was $45, and music lessons with use of the piano were $25. An additional fee of 25 cents was charged if a student was suspended. The fifth grade was taught by the institute's Primary Department, and lessons included spelling, reading and elementary arithmetic. The fourth grade was taught by the institute's Junior Department and included courses in writing and preparatory English grammar and geography. The third grade was instructed by the English Department and offered studies in geography and English; and the second grade was also taught by the English Department with courses in history and natural philosophy. The school's highest grade, first grade, was instructed by the Classical and Mathematical Department and offered studies in Greek, Latin, French, geometry, algebra, trigonometry, surveying, mensuration, navigation, astronomy, and bookkeeping.
By 1853, the Romney Literary Society received an endowment of $20,000, and possessed a permanent fund of $12,000, which yielded $720 per year. Half of this yield was utilized to support the institute, including for the purchase of textbooks. These figures remained the same in 1859.
The institute and the society both continued to grow in importance until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. After the war began, the institute's professors and older students joined the Confederate States Army and other Confederate partisan groups, and the institute and the society experienced a hiatus.
The Romney Literary Society's library suffered significant losses during the war, and by the war's end in 1865, only about 400 volumes of its once large 3,000-volume library could be located. Many of the society's members never returned from the war, and those who did were at first too weary and discouraged to revive the society or the Romney Classical Institute.
In August 1865 Nelson attempted to resurrect the institute following the war, and he submitted an advertisement to the Civilian & Telegraph newspaper in Cumberland, Maryland, in which he billed the institute as "A Male and Female Boarding and Day School". The institute opened on the first Monday in September in 1865 for its fall and winter session. According to Nelson in the advertisement, "parents desiring for their children a sound English, Classical and Mathematical Education would do well to patronize this School." Student education was divided into three levels: the Lowest Grade level for $10 for a five-month session, Intermediate level for $15, and the Highest level for $20. Latin and Greek each cost $5 additional per quarter. Boarding at the school cost $3 per week; however, laundry, fuel, and lighting were not included in this fee. Music lessons were also taught "at Professor's charges".
In 1866 William C. Clayton became the institute's principal and presided over the school for a few more terms. Like his predecessor John Jeremiah Jacob, Clayton had been a student at both the Romney Academy and at the institute, and he later served in the West Virginia Senate. A Mr. Dinwiddie was also a teacher at the school during this period following the war.
Despite the institute's effective disestablishment after 1866, a meeting was held on May 15, 1869, with nine original members of the Romney Literary Society: James L. Armstrong, David Entler, William Harper, John C. Heiskell, Andrew Wodrow Kercheval, Samuel R. Lupton, James Parsons, Alfred P. White, and Robert White. These nine men set about expanding the society's membership rolls and reviving its library. Over the next few years, 20 younger members were added to the society's rolls.
By 1869, the state of West Virginia was considering the establishment of a school for deaf and blind students, and the newly reorganized Romney Literary Society resolved to secure the institution for Romney as part of its Reconstruction development efforts. On March 3, 1870, the West Virginia Legislature passed an act providing for the establishment of the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind. The society passed a resolution on April 12, 1870, by which it agreed to deed, free of cost, the institute's building and grounds to the state for the planned West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind. On April 20, 1870, the society sent its members Robert White and Andrew Wodrow Kercheval to the then-state capital of Wheeling to offer "the grounds and buildings of the Romney Classical Institute... to the Board of Regents, free of debt, and in good repair" on the condition that the proposed institution be located at Romney. At the time of the society's offer, the institute's grounds consisted of 15 acres (61,000 m2). Offers for campus locations were also made by citizens of Clarksburg and Parkersburg.
The society's offer was the only one to include an existing building on its grounds. The Board of Regents accepted the society's offer, and a formal transfer of the Romney Classical Institute's former campus was made. The society discovered that, in order to make good on its promise, it had to raise more than $1,000, a close to impossible task during the Reconstruction Era in Romney. Following a resolution on July 11, 1870, to raise between $1,200 and $1,300, a subscription of $1,383.60 was raised after 118 individuals and firms donated the needed funds, and shortly thereafter the formal transfer of the property was completed. At that time, the institute's property was valued at about $20,000.
The West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind opened for its first term on September 29, 1870, in the former Romney Classical Institute building, which provided space for administration offices, classrooms and dormitories. Following the schools' subsequent expansions, the institute's former building became the center portion of the administration building of the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind, which it remains as of June 2015. Between 1871 and 1872, the schools added two wings to the old institute building, each measuring 70 by 30 feet (21.3 by 9.1 m). Following the transfer of the institute's grounds, the Romney Literary Society built a new building between 1869 and 1870, which became known as Literary Hall.
During the existence of the Romney Classical Institute, the school educated several prominent educators, lawyers, military officers, and politicians. In West Virginia and Its People (1913), historians Thomas Condit Miller and Hu Maxwell averred that the Romney Classical Institute "exerted a great influence upon the educational work of the South Branch Valley". As stated above, West Virginia's first Democratic governor, John Jeremiah Jacob, was educated at the institute, and later served as an assistant principal, and finally principal. West Virginia state senator William C. Clayton also attended this school, and later served as its principal following the American Civil War. Craig Woodrow McDonald, son of Angus William McDonald, attended the school in its early years of operation. Following his education here, he attended the Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia, then taught school in Culpeper County. During the American Civil War, McDonald served in the Confederate States Army as aide-de-camp to General Arnold Elzey and was killed in battle on May 29, 1862. Robert White attended the institute prior to serving as a law apprentice to his father John Baker White, Hampshire County Clerk of Court, and attending Lexington Law School. White later served as Attorney General of West Virginia.