Early on a spring day in 1912, a tradition began at the State Normal School that – despite its strenuous nature – would be a part of the institution's life for more than a half century.
On that morning, History Professor John W. Wayland led about 25 students on a hike to the top of Massanutten Mountain, about five miles west of Harrisonburg in Rockingham County.
Professor Wayland was known for his unusual teaching style, which included leading his classes in songs, teaching classes outside, giving ice cream to students and hiking to the monument to Confederate General Turner Ashby to discuss with his students how he died.
On the first hike in 1912, Wayland and his students boarded the Chesapeake and Western Railroad train to Keezletown and began their hike. They brought a picnic lunch, which they ate at the “ Kettle,” just underneath the peak. On their way back, the students were going so slowly that a group had to hurry ahead to hold the train.
Wayland kept a record of the event and sent President Samuel Duke a letter in 1943 describing that first hike:
“... about 30 of the Normal girls went to the 10 o'clock C-W train to Keezeltown. Thence we walked and climbed to the top of Peaked Mountain. After following the horseshoe ridge on the summit around to the southwest end, we descended into the ‘Kettle,' reaching the spring at about 1:30 p.m. At the spring we ate our lunch and rested awhile. Then we followed the course of the stream down through the rough ‘ Kettle,' our way being much obstructed by brush logs, rocks, thorns, and briers. A few of us ran ahead the last mile or so, and telephoned to the railway office in Harrisonburg, and thus succeeded in having the train held... for half an hour until the last of our company could reach the station.”
Professor Wayland and students take a break during one of the first hikes to Massanutten Peak
The tradition begun by Wayland was kept alive by Duke, who led the hike each year for 23 years. An athletic man, Duke loved golf, swimming and other activities as well as hiking.
Duke led the hike in the fall instead of spring, and sometimes as many as 200 girls would accompany him.
Upon reaching the summit, he would take out his pocket knife and cut a notch into his walking stick each year, eventually cutting a total of 23.
Virginia Heyl Crawley (‘37) spoke of her experience of seeing Duke making a notch in his walking stick: “It was a thrill to see him sit high on the Peak and cut a notch on the stick he carried yearly – a record of his climbs.”
Another student enjoyed the hike, but also complained of the intensity of the exercise: “ I'm telling you I couldn't walk for a week my legs were so sore.”
By mid-century, student interest in hiking to Massanutten Peak dissipated and the tradition passed into history along with other early traditions of the Normal School.