Dining at Davidson
“For Breakfast and supper we have coffee biscuit, egg break batter cakes light bread butter syrup hash & stake. For Dinner cornbread, biscuits, rice, mush, cabbage, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, beef, stake, & cyrup. Mrs. Scofield does not appear at dinner but at breakfast & supper she sits at a side table and fills the cups with coffee which are passed around by her daughters. One of the young men say grace at every meal.”
Thus wrote Clifton Hunter, Class of 1878, to his mother in a letter dated October 11, 1874. [Beaty Footnote 138] Such satisfaction with food provisions at Davidson was foreign to Alexander Bogle, Class of 1843, who wrote in 1839 of his meals at Steward’s Hall that “we do not have very good food we have plenty of old tuffer melasses!”
Food, however, is hardly the whole story of dining at Davidson. Rather, where students took their meals reflects the college’s emphasis on self-help during its days as a manual labor school, its close ties to the town of Davidson, its contribution to the United States’ participation in World War II, and the progression of the fraternity system.
Early Years at Steward’s Hall
Built 1836-7, Steward’s Hall was the first non-residential building built on Davidson’s original quadrangle and served as the first student “commons.” The college, however, did not entirely assume responsibility for students’ dining – it provided a location but did not supply the food.
Rather, during its days as a manual labor school, the college expected its students to furnish much of the food themselves from their work on the college farm, located about where E.H. Little Library currently stands.
Built 1836-7, Steward’s Hall was built on Davidson’s original quadrangle and served as the first student commons. “A tin horn sounded for the different meals (for a season). A blessing was asked, and when ‘Amen’ was said not a biscuit was left on the plates, hands were reaching towards the plates even before the ‘Amen’ sounded. I saw one boy stick his fork in the hand of one opposite him for getting the last piece of pie, for which he was thrashed as soon as the dining was over. One boy stuck a saucerful of rancid butter on the wall. The steward asked ‘who did that?’ S.W. Morrison said, ‘It is of age. Ask it, it can speak for itself.'” [Wood]
Foundations of Davidson’s Boarding House Tradition
By 1845, college officials began to relinquish the obligation to provide students with daily meals, stating in the college catalogue that “All students shall board at the Steward’s Hall, or at such houses as the Trustees may approve.” With this allowance, the trustees laid the foundation for the Davidson boarding house tradition that extended into the 1940s.
Former librarian Mary Beatty attributes three important aspects of Davidson town history and the boarding house tradition:
– Providing a respectable source of income for families educating sons at Davidson
– The building of large houses which would remain part of Davidson life
– The building of ties between the town and campus.
By the 1870s, the college took little responsibility for providing meals to its students. Trustees rented the Steward’s Hall to managers who ran it as a private enterprise and the faculty licensed operation of boarding houses in private homes.
High Price of Dining
Food was a major external expense for Davidson students. Alexander Bannerman, Class of 1857, wrote to his father in 1854 that he paid seven dollars per month in board for his meals at Steward’s Hall, but by 1860 this price jumped to nine dollars.
By this time, the college increasingly encouraged a more community-geared approach to boarding, and students largely boarded at town homes by 1860. Town residents Andrews, Helper, Hunter, Maxwell, and Sparrow advertised in the North Carolina Presbyterian on September 15, 1860: “Owing to the scarcity of provisions, the greatly advanced prices for the same, we the undersigned are unable to furnish board at former rates…” [Beaty 82] James Greenlee, Class of 1863, recalled student reaction to this announcement in a letter to his father in October 1860: ” They thought they could make the students pay whatever they wished, but when the boys returned they would not stand it, about twenty five of them clubbed together, hired a house & cook & are boarding themselves. They call their house the continental hotel.”
By the late nineteenth century, food continued to be a major expense for students, as they paid $10 per month at the minimum for meals at a time when tuition ran at only $60. Fearing that this expense would turn away promising students, Dr. Shearer subsidized a boarding house, which he operated with his wife in the 1890s, where students could eat for only $4 per month. Called the “Student’s Home,” Shearer’s boarding house was housed in the Rockwell house on Main Street, which stood between the Copeland house and the current Visual Arts Center site.
Davidson’s Boarding House Tradition
Thus began a long boarding house tradition at Davidson College. From 1860 until the end of World War II, Davidson College did not provide meals to its students. Steward’s Hall, the only campus building designed for dining, was privately run, and the college tore that building down in 1909. Students ate at the homes of town residents who opened their doors to provide meals for students.
According to the 1907 Davidson College Bulletin, this system was not without design as a public eating facility had never been, and hopefully never would be, favored by Davidson authorities. Whereas a public facility had little interest in attractive fare or service, at the boarding houses “the lady of the family presides at the table, the number or boarder at one place rarely exceeds 20, rowdyism and discourtesy are unknown, and the atmosphere of these boarding places is distinctly that of a home.”
The Davidsonian issue dated August 23, 1915 lists fourteen boarding houses in the town, each costing students between $9.50 to $16 per month.
By this time, many of these boarding houses, particularly those operated by Mrs. Brady and Mrs. Paisley, were strongly associated with campus fraternities. Construction of the first fraternity court, Jackson Court (then called Fraternity Court), in 1928 actually strengthened fraternity association with boarding houses as the new houses were meeting halls only that did not offer dining or dormitory facilities, allowing boarding houses to be extensions of these existing student organizations.
During World War II, the college housed cadets in barracks – where the Visual Arts Center now stands – and provided their meals in the closing years of the war in the Gallery.
Many town boarding houses failed to reopen after World War II, forcing the college to provide a facility to feed its students. The kitchen facility in Chambers Gallery allowed for this service.
The 1946 college catalog states: “Beginning with the Spring Semester, 1946, it became necessary for the college to open a dining room for the greatly increased enrollment of student who could not be accommodated in town boarding houses.” President Cunningham stated in an August 1947 letter that the administration had decided to require the freshmen to eat in the dining room for at least the first semester. For these purposes, Earl Spence, who directed the dining facility at Davidson during the war for the air cadets, returned to Davidson in February 1946 as director of the dining hall.
Dining in Chambers Gallery would continue until the administration chose to gut the existing Alumni Gymnasium, on the site of E.H. Little Library, and transform the structure into the first campus student union. The Ovens College Union, completed in 1952, included a cafeteria in the basement where students could eat. Freshmen were required to eat in the cafeteria furing their first semester. However, the facility proved largely inadequate – not due to food quality but, rather, due to long lines. In 1963, a large dining wing was added, easing some of the congestion.
Dining After World War II
Old Chambers burned in 1921, and construction of its replacement began shortly thereafter. Included in the new Chambers building was a full-service kitchen located behind the Gallery (before the current renovation) that was to be used for special occasions and receptions.
With construction of Patterson Court in 1958, the administration thought it had solved the dining problem at Davidson. The new fraternity houses allowed the organizations to hire housemothers who served as dieticians and meal planners, allowing the college administration to remove itself from the responsibility of providing meals to a large majority of students.
However, fraternity membership began to decline in the 1960s and early 1970s, making it difficult for fraternities to financially afford their dining facilities. In addition, the cafeteria in Ovens offered higher quality food at a lower price, and the addition of a dining wing in 1963 made the cafeteria a more appealing place to eat.
The college demolished the Ovens College Union in 1972 in order to build E.H. Little Library, and two unused Patterson Court houses that stood next to the current Vail Commons were converted into dining facilities. Construction of Vail Commons in 1981 represented the most significant and comprehensive commitment in the college’s history to a public dining facility.
Beaty, Mary. A History of Davidson College. Davidson, NC: Briarpatch P. 1988
Bannerman, A. W. Letter to family. 14 April 1854. DC0109s. A.W. Bannerman Letter. Davidson College Archives, Davidson College, NC <https://davidsonarchivesandspecialcollections.org/archives/digital-collections/alexander-w-bannerman-letter>
Bogle, Alexander M. Letter to family. 1839. DC0110s. Alexander M. Bogle Letter. Davidson College Archives, Davidson College, NC <https://davidsonarchivesandspecialcollections.org/archives/digital-collections/alexander-m-bogle-letter>
Greenlee, James Logan. Letter to family. 3 October 1860. DC0115s. James Logan Greenlee Letters. Davidson College Archives, Davidson College, NC <https://davidsonarchivesandspecialcollections.org/archives/digital-collections/james-l-greenlee-letters>
Davidson College Catalogue. Davidson College. 1845
Davidson College Catalogue. Davidson College. 1946
Davidson College Bulletin. Davidson College. 1907
Grotjohn, Mark. “Steward’s Hall.” Guide to Campus Buildings
Wheeler, David. “Dining at Davidson Display.” 2003-5
Wood, Daniel B. Charlotte Daily Observer. February 8, 1903.
Davidson, Chalmers G. “Davidson Dining: The Way It Was.” Davidson Update. August 1981. Buildings at Davidson College – Vail Commons Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.
Author: David Wheeler and Tammy Ivins
Date: July 2007
Cite as: Wheeler, David and Tammy Ivins. “Dining at Davidson” Davidson Encyclopedia July 2007. https://digitalprojects.davidson.edu/omeka/s/encyclopedia/page/dining-at-davidson