On September 2, 1884, the Staunton Male Academy opened its doors with 50 students. The local newspapers reported on this opening and congratulated Capt. Kable on his success. The boarding students at that time lived in the upstairs of the Kable residence and the Kable family lived in the downstairs. A dining room had been added to the east end of the residence to accommodate the family and the boarders. Classes were held in the new classroom building, which was described by the local newspaper as a large frame building containing an assembly room 30X46 feet, two large recitation rooms, a reception room, laboratory, and cloak rooms. The building had cost $3,000 to construct. This building, which was situated on the site of the future South Barracks, would be the classrooms of the Academy for the next 30 years.
The academy grew slowly over the next several years. In 1888, Kable adopted a military format and changed the school name to the Staunton Military Academy. Also in 1888, he built a wood frame cadet barracks between the family residence and the classroom building. Capt. Kable’s brother-in-law, W.W. Gibbs, the business manager in the early years, went on a tour of the southern United States during the summer of 1888 to publicize the school. In early September, he returned by train to Staunton with 42 new students.
With this influx of students, the Academy grew to 117 cadets and 11 instructors for the 1888-1889 school session. The kitchen and dining facilities had also been expanded in anticipation of this increase.
Kable had borrowed heavily against the two properties that he owned, the Alby property and the athletic field, to finance the improvements. Unfortunately, the country began to enter a depression shortly after this expansion and the enrollment at the Academy began to drop. The number of cadets enrolled fell to 80 in 1890, dropped further to 50 in 1892, fell further yet to 30 in 1896, and then bottomed out at 15 in 1900.
Kable, W. W. Gibbs, W. P. Tams, and John B. Hoge had incorporated the school, under the name of The Staunton Military Academy, Inc. on March 4, 1890. However, Kable had not transferred any of the assets used in the operation of the school to the ownership of the Staunton Military Academy, Inc. The land, buildings, and furnishings remained as the property of the Kables.
The reduction in the number of cadets brought about a corresponding reduction in income to the point that the school began to have financial difficulties and Kable was unable to meet his creditor obligations. Pressures brought on by these creditors forced Captain Kable to put the finances of the Academy into the hands of a Trustee the first part of September 1892. Then, on May 6, 1893, the creditors filed a lawsuit in the Augusta County Chancery Court (Kable’s Creditors vs. Kable) to force the sale of Kable’s assets. After the completion of the 1892-1893 school session on June 1, 1893, the court ordered his assets sold at public action.
The inventory of the furnishings, performed by the Sheriff on April 26, 1893, included 70 school desks and chairs, 40 single beds and mattresses, office equipment, laboratory equipment, pianos, and the dining hall tables and tableware. The Sheriff set a value of $429.00 on all these items.
The real estate inventory included the 4 acres that the school sat on, the Kable home, the cadet barracks, the classroom building, a sables (including a milk cow and calf), a smoke house, a tool shed, and the 10 acres that constituted the athletic field. The sheriff set a value of $12,000.00 on the property.
As the date for the public auction loomed, the Staunton Military Academy, Inc. approached the Commissioner responsible for selling the assets and made an offer of $499.12 for the furnishings. The Commissioner accepted this offer.
The auction for the real estate was held on the Augusta County Court House front steps at 12 noon on August 21, 1893. The Staunton Military Academy, Inc. was high bidder with a bid of $12,910.00. Of this bid, $404.92 was in cash and the rest was in three bonds each of $4,168.36 payable in yearly payments.
However, the proceeds of the sale were not enough to retire all of the debts that Kable had acquired over the years. Kable continued to pay off his debts over the next ten years. On November 16, 1903, the Commissioner reported to the Court that all debts had been satisfied. The Court closed the case against Kable in February of 1904. By then, the school was in the hands of Captain Kable’s oldest son, William Gibbs Kable.
William G. Kable had been schooled under his father’s tutelage first as a youth in Charlestown and then at SMA in Staunton. He graduated in 1890 as the honor man in his class and the Senior Captain of the Corps of Cadets. After graduation, W.G. Kable, then eighteen years of age, went to Cincinnati to begin a business career, but he had been there only one year when he decided to better equip himself for a business profession. Accordingly he left Cincinnati and went to Baltimore, where he entered the Business College of Bryant & Stratton. After graduation from this institution, he worked three years in the city, being associated with some of the most prominent business houses in the Metropolis of the South. From Baltimore he came back to Staunton to become a member of the faculty in the Staunton Military Academy. Here he taught during the 1893-95 sessions and then again left Staunton, this time settling in New York City. His success in this great empire city is attested to by mentioning some of the large firms with whom he worked: The Caledonia Fire Insurance Company, Mills & Gibb, the largest importers in the United States; R.T. Wilson & Company, bankers and brokers of Wall Street; and he was at the Waldorf-Astoria in the capacity of chief stenographer. He returned to SMA in 1898 as an instructor in Mathematics and Languages before becoming Commandant in 1900 and taking over the day-to-day operations of the school.
Additionally, another person important to the development of SMA came to work in the early 1900’s, Thomas H. Russell. In 1904 Russell came to Staunton as Headmaster of Staunton Military Academy. He was a native of South Carolina, having spent his early years in Anderson. From the schools of his native town, Russell went to the Citadel, at Charleston, where his scholarship soon distinguished him among his fellows. In 1902, he graduated from that institution at the head of one of the largest classes in the history of the Citadel. He also distinguished himself in the military life of the school by winning the appointment as Senior Captain of the Corps of Cadets. Upon leaving the Citadel, Russell accepted the position of Commandant at Horner Military Academy, Oxford, NC, before coming to Staunton. Thus, at the start of the 1904 session, the three men that would have the most influence in shaping the development of SMA were in place together at the Academy.
William G. Kable immediately began a program of expansion and recruitment. A Mess Hall, seating 400 was built in 1901. This building also contained cadet rooms on the second and third floors. In 1904, a five story barracks was also constructed. The Corps of Cadets grew quickly under William G. Kable’s guidance with enrollment reaching 270 cadets at the start of the 1904 session. Then, on November 25, 1904, disaster struck. At three o’clock in the morning, the town of Staunton was awakened by the continuous tolling of the town fire bell and the prolonged shrieks of a railway locomotive. The barracks of SMA were on fire.
In the morning light, the level of destruction was plain for all to see. The classroom building was gone, the four story barracks built in 1888 was gone, and the new five story barracks was gone. The Kable residence, Mess Hall, and cadet rooms above were saved, as were a few minor storage buildings. And, miraculously, not a cadet had been seriously harmed, and most of the possessions and furniture had been thrown out of windows and doors and moved to safety. The local newspaper reported that Capt. Kable, in his anxiety to arouse sleeping students, had rushed bare-footed to the rescue and his feet had been burned. Thomas Russell, who was living in one of the Barracks at the time, is also credited with sounding the alarm and helping to evacuate the buildings. To help keep the school in operation the townspeople of Staunton responded to the needs of the cadets and provided temporary housing. Additionally, the local YMCA was made available to the school for classrooms.