The seeds that would lead to Ferrum College were sown in the early 1900s. In 1909, the Virginia Conference Woman’s Home Missionary Society (VCWHMS) of the United Methodist Church wrote Dr. Benjamin Beckham to report the VCWHMS had $1,200 for starting “a school for mountain boys and girls, in a remote place, yet accessible, where the need seemed the greatest.” Many young people in the Blue Ridge had no practical access to public education, and even where rural schools did exist, attendance was often poor. In 1929 – 16 years after Ferrum’s founding – an estimated 17,000 school-age children were still not attending school in the five-county area around Ferrum.
By the end of 1913, Ferrum Training School’s Board of Trustees was in place, and 80 acres of George Goode’s tomato farm had been purchased. Construction began on the Principal’s House (now Stratton House), the White Cottage (now Spilman-Daniel House), and the first phase of John Wesley Hall. Hired as Ferrum Training School’s principal, Dr. Beckham moved onto campus in June 1914. School was set to begin in September.
One of Ferrum’s initial stated purposes was “the training of young people for country life.” Students received a standard high school instruction in math, science, English, and history. Boys also took agricultural science, and girls studied domestic science (later referred to as “Home Economics”). Most students had an eye toward careers in business, the ministry, church mission work, or teaching. The school’s first graduate – Berta Thompson, Class of 1917 – went on to teach in Virginia public schools for years.
Christianity was certainly a key part of the curriculum, but Ferrum Training School did not push the views of any particular Christian denomination. Students took daily Bible study, and “the Bible [was] taught in some way in every trade.”
Ferrum added its first junior college-level courses for the fall term of 1926, and without any recruiting, 18 students enrolled for the junior college program.
John A. Carter, a former Franklin County school teacher, served as president for less than a year before Dr. James A. Chapman took the reins in 1935. Ferrum Training School – Ferrum Junior College became the school’s legal name in 1940. The Ferrum Training School portion of the name was dropped in 1948, though students could earn a high school degree at Ferrum until 1954.
Upon Dr. Chapman’s resignation in 1943, Rev. Luther J. Derby ’20, a Ferrum alumnus, was selected as the fourth president. He, in turn, was followed by another alumnus, Dr. Nathaniel H. Davis ’24, in 1948. Rev. Stanley R. Emrich assumed the presidency of Ferrum Junior College in 1953.
Dr. C. Ralph Arthur, a visionary on the scale of Dr. Beckham, became Ferrum Junior College’s seventh president in 1954. Dr. Arthur inspired lenders and donors alike to embrace the Ferrum mission and help transform the school physically and academically. Amid a healthy national economy and a steadily growing population of college-age men and women, Ferrum Junior College set about reinventing itself, all the while keeping focus on its mission to serve students in need.
Dr. Arthur set Ferrum on a remarkable course of campus modernization and expansion, and construction crews were a constant presence for most of his 16-year tenure. New buildings included Riddick Hall, Franklin Hall, Susannah Wesley Hall, Swartz Gymnasium, Chapman Hall, Garber Hall, Bassett Hall, Stanley Library, and Vaughn Chapel—all designed in a mid-20th century, institutionally modern style.
Selected as Dr. Arthur’s successor, Dr. Joseph Hart took office in 1971, the same year Ferrum College became the school’s official name. Under Dr. Hart’s watch, the College underwent exciting developments in both academics and community service. A wave of new young faculty came to Ferrum, the environmental science program was created, and the Museum of Mountain Lore (later the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum) opened. Most importantly, Ferrum College implemented the 2+2 academic structure, offering both associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees, and in 1976, Ferrum’s first four-year diploma was awarded to graduating senior Martha Arnold.
Dr. Jerry Boone became the college’s ninth president in 1987. The Ferrum campus continued to evolve throughout Dr. Boone’s 15-year term.
With Dr. Boone’s retirement in 2002, Dr. Jennifer Braaten began her 14-year tenure as Ferrum College president. Her energy and optimism helped strengthen the College physically, academically, and demographically. She oversaw many capital projects on campus, including multiple new dormitories, the Hank Norton Athletic Center, and the extension of Franklin Hall.
Dr. David L. Johns came to Ferrum College as president in 2018, after spending nearly 30 years working in private higher education. During his tenure, Ferrum College has introduced its first graduate programs, launched a nursing program, and received full accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).