Oak and Elm Rows

It’s October 2003 at Davidson College. At any dorm location on campus, one can find plenty of jovial students laughing and chatting over the hum of the electric heating systems and the rush of water from the shower stalls just down the hall. Laptops are plugged in for students roaming the network and the sounds of stereo systems are an earshot away. This interesting vignette is much different from dorm life 167 years ago when the first Davidson students moved into Oak and Elm rows.

Oak and Elm rows were two of the original eight buildings erected on the Davidson College campus. The building of the campus began in 1836 with only 250,000 bricks and in 1837 the first students became the inhabitants of the rows.

Elm Row, a single story brick building with students in front

Elm Row [1893]

Dorm life for students then was anything but similar to the life we know as students today. Primitive and nearly an eyesore, Oak and Elm rows each housed 16 students. When the students came to campus, they were provided no furniture. A mattress and second-hand tables could be bought fairly inexpensively, but were likely to be ill-fitting or ragged. Light was possible if the young men knew enough to own a kerosene lamp, later replaced by nickel ones.

In the book Memories of Davidson College by Walter L. Lingle, memories of the valued fireplaces are recounted. He tells of his experience chopping his very own firewood and the pile he kept through the winter. Perhaps he wasn’t able to afford the luxury that some boys could; he later says you could buy it, “…for $1.50 a cord.”

If these ideas seem primitive, things only get worse. In addition to having fireplaces for heat and kerosene lamps for light, the boys had no plumbing for running water. Any water they desired had to pumped from a well and the idea of hot water was a distant one. Lingle’s memories of preparations for bathing are comical. He tells how they pumped their water into kettles and goes on to describe the method they used to heat it. Unfortunately for the young men, a makeshift bath included one boiling kettle of water and one cold one to make it the right temperature.

A fraternity room inside Elm Row with desks and chairs

Fraternity Rooms in Elm Row

Toilets did not exist on campus and wooden privies were the closest thing to a bathroom those students could get. Indeed, things have changed; at one point in the recent past it was estimated that Davidson students now use 100 gallons of water per student, per day.

Life such as this continued in a normal fashion until 1916 when the dorms were transformed into fraternity meeting rooms and the students began living in other buildings. Oak and Elm served yet another purpose in 1928 when they were converted to offices for student publications. Shortly after, Elm was shifted 100 feet south of its original position, revealing secrets about Davidson’s students from years past.

The inside of a fraternity room in Elm Row in 1923, featuring four men sitting in front of a fireplace

Fraternity Room in Elm Row [1923]

Nobody could believe it when upon moving Elm, a dozen assorted alcohol containers were discovered. Items from whiskey flasks to beer bottles were found, dating back as far as 1837 in one case. From this discovery, an interesting story emerged. Back in the time of the first students, it was a known fact that faculty members had ultimate reign over the dorms. They reserved the right to come barging in students’ rooms at any hour of the day or night, simply to check on the behavior of the students. Because of these “faculty raids”, the students supposedly had a secret plan for hiding their liquor bottles when necessary. Someone was designated to guard for faculty members and upon spotting one, all alcohol containers were promptly dumped beneath a loose floorboard. If there is any truth in this mischievous story, it’s no surprise that tons of bottles were discovered when Elm was moved nearly 123 years after the first students came to Davidson.

The front of Elm Row featuring signs for the Department of Music and Davidsonian Office

Elm Row with Music Department & Davidsonian Office

Oak and Elm served as Music Department offices and practice rooms until 1969 when the Art Department began using rooms Oak Row for classes. From 1993 until very recently, the old buildings were used only by music students. Today, while the renovation of new Chambers is underway, Oak and Elm are classrooms as well as offices for some faculty members.

Unique in their title as the only ante-bellum structures in Mecklenburg county that were originally used as dorms, Oak and Elm are reminders of the beginnings of Davidson College. Entirely renovated and modified, they are able to accommodate the people of Davidson today while still having some of the qualities of old structures. They have weathered years of students at Davidson College and because they have so been treasured, it is my guess that they will remain valuable parts of the campus for years to come.

Works Cited

“Disturbed Elm Row Site Reveals Alcoholic Past.” Newsclipping, c. 1960. Elm Row Davidsoniana File. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Lingle, Walter. Memories of Davidson College c. 1947. John Knox Press, Richmond, VA.

Photograph of Old Elm in 1930. Photograph Collection, number 9-0546c. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Photograph of Old Oak in 1893. Photograph Collection, number 9-0949a. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Author: Dana Innes ’07
Date: October 2003

Cite as: Innes, Dana. “Oak and Elm Rows” Davidson Encyclopedia
October 2003. https://digitalprojects.davidson.edu/omeka/s/college-archives-davidson-encyclopedia/page/oak-and-elm-rows

Prev Next