Preston and Olin Institute in Blacksburg received the land-grant, due to its willingness to revamp itself and acceptance to change its name to The Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, O’Hara said.
According to “The War of the Colleges and the Birth of the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College” by O’Hara, there were 132 students that enrolled the first year, which some attended for free while others paid less than $200.
The school had three departments: literary, scientific and technical. The college consisted of five acres of land that was then a 245-acre experimental farm.
Laura Purcell, communications manager for the university libraries, said that before the Morrill Act was passed, education was far from what it is today. Not only in the sense of who could or could not afford it, but also the focus of studies.
“Agricultural education and mechanic arts was just not something that was taught in the higher education,” Purcell said. “It was more of this is what your family did, so you might be an apprentice to someone and learn that way."
Purcell also said that the Morrill Act was one among many legislations passed to encourage agricultural understandings.
“When (Lincoln) signed the Morrill Act, he also, a few days before, had created the department of agriculture and also signed the Homestead Act,” she said. “If you went west and were able to work your plot of land for a certain amount of years, the government essentially gave it to you for free, so that really opened up westward expansion of our country."
The Morrill Act was also critical to sustaining a self-governing society, according to Margaret Merrill, librarian of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Merrill said that it was a foresighted act to have recognized the importance of educating all citizens.
“Getting people to think is what the Morrill Act gave the U.S.,” Merrill said.
“Up to that time, only wealthy people could get an education,” she said. “The land-grant system’s whole purpose was to provide education to ordinary people.”
Not only did the act allow more people to study at higher levels, but the land-grant system also established universities that maintained respectable reputations, according to Ewing.
Every state has at least one land-grant school, which most of are now the leading university in their state. Even if schools were not formed out of the land-grant system, they were dramatically changed during that period and given a specific purpose.
Tech Senior Vice President and Provost Mark McNamee said he has been involved in one level or another for about a year with the planning of events to celebrate the anniversary. He said it has been a national conversation for plans to take place.
McNamee attended the event Wednesday and gave brief remarks about the importance of Virginia Tech being the distinguished land-grant school of the state. They recognized that having universities to do research would have positive and valuable benefits for society, he said.
“You’re providing an education for people that would not normally have had it and doing good work in service to improving the country, and I think that spirit is very pervasive,” McNamee said. “The universities who have that distinction take it very seriously.”
McNamee, like O’Hara, said the timing of the act was unusual, however that is one aspect that makes it so remarkable.
“Right in the middle of the Civil War, the country had the wisdom to conceive of something so bold, for every state to have a public research university that would open its doors to the public and do meaningful research and provide people with both the liberal education and practical education,” he said. “It’s a great concept, and no other country has ever done anything like this.”
The 150-year anniversary happened to coincide with the same year a national traveling exhibit of President Lincoln will be hosted at Virginia Tech.
The Morrill Act exhibit will be moved around campus throughout the summer and fall semester until it accompanies the second exhibit in the library, according to Purcell.