What's in the backpack, Addison?
October 24, 2022
It’s been a long walk. Add, as his friends call him, yearns to take off his backpack and relax. Like most, he wants to enjoy all Blacksburg offers to new students, but this is a journey that started in 1872.
Add climbs the stairs to the Upper Quad and remains there, forever frozen in time. “Walking Toward the Light,” a bronze sculpture by artist Lawrence Bechtel ’85, depicts William Addison Caldwell, the first student to enroll in the new Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, now Virginia Tech.
Caldwell, 16, arrived in Blacksburg with his brother, Milton, after walking a legendary 26 miles from Sinking Creek in Craig County, Virginia. Bechtel’s sculpture captures Caldwell in full stride, all curly haired and hat bedecked, holding a walking stick in one hand and a Bible in the other and wearing the equivalent of today’s backpack — a haversack.
What’s in the haversack? Clothes, food, playing cards, trinkets from home, a pet snake, a lock of hair from a loved one? With over 150 years between today’s backpack and Caldwell’s carryall, it held a few essentials. Or so Bechtel said, who, besides being a sculptor, was once an English instructor at Virginia Tech and the university’s first recycling coordinator. He is also an author and purveyor of creative nonfiction for his sculptures.
Commissioned by the Class of 1956 to create this homage to Hokie history, Bechtel needed to construct a believable likeness of Caldwell, immortalizing his journey to Virginia Tech. The sculptor’s research efforts included interviewing Caldwell’s descendants, spending hours in Virginia Tech Special Collections, and understanding the history, customs, and landscape of Southwest Virginia in 1872.
“I spoke with Robert Caldwell in Radford,” Bechtel said. “He was quite open and forthcoming and told me family folklore about Add’s size and how old he was, so I could get a picture of him in my mind.”
From this data, Bechtel created a character sketch of Caldwell, bought replicas of historical clothing, hired a model similar in stature to the first student, and even had Caldwell’s great-nephew pose to make sure the sculpture had a family likeness.
Then Bechtel created a travel narrative for the two Caldwell sons. He imagined they traveled half the 26 miles in a wagon with their father. They would have carried food and supplies in the wagon, and then camped overnight in Caldwell Fields. When the terrain became more navigable by foot, their father sent them on their way to finish the journey.
By traveling with the wagon for the first half of their trip, it would have allowed the sons to pack lightly for the remaining miles and either buy provisions once they arrived in Blacksburg or the family would have brought necessities once the brothers began their formal education.
But in sculpting the haversack and its heft, rather than packing it with arbitrary items, Bechtel created a narrative involving what Caldwell’s mother might have packed for her son for the second half of the journey.
What’s in the backpack?
Celebrating the 150-year anniversary of that fateful trek, Bechtel recently unpacked the mythical haversack. Its contents are more pragmatic than fantasy.
For the first day of school, Caldwell carried a clean shirt and pair of pants, a change of socks, pencils, and a sandwich. And perhaps if he grew tired of carrying the Bible with his hands, he would have put that in his haversack, as well.
“And when their father bid them goodbye,” Bechtel said, “all they needed was enough to get to Blacksburg. So that simplifies the gear Add’s wearing. And I thought they probably knew of a spring or two, so I didn’t have him carry a canteen. Their father promises to come down to Blacksburg a little later with more gear and leaves them with these parting words, ‘Right now boys, you need to get down there. This is the day you need to get in there and get yourself signed up while there’s still room.’”
But Virginia Tech will always have room for the Bechtel’s bronze tribute to Caldwell and his haversack, as he puts one foot forward in his continual legacy as the university’s first student.
By Leslie King