The Beginning:

The story of how Kappa Alpha Order began revolves around James Ward Wood’s life experiences and influences. Wood planted the seed that Ammen cultivated into our Order.

While Wood was born and raised in what is now West Virginia, his family aligned with the sentiments of Virginia, as Hardy County was actually only fifteen miles or so from the newly created state line. In 1861, the fifteen year-old Wood joined a local unit of the 12th Virginia Cavalry. Since he was familiar with the area, he was assigned to patrol the border land and to scout for the westward advance of the Federal Army. Ammen related that Wood’s “service was limited, but useful.” He believed that the military experience “made [Wood] confident.” Near the end of the war, while at home on leave, Wood decided to ride and visit with a local girl. He prudently stuck his cavalry pistol into his boot as he was aware of dangers on mountain roads during wartime. As he mounted his horse, the pistol discharged, severely wounding him. Tragic as this event was, it was actually a blessing in disguise for Kappa Alpha Order. The wound was so severe that it ended Wood’s military service.

As he recuperated during the spring and summer of 1865, Wood spent his time at the Lost River General Store. This country store, which still stands today, was a community center, as well as a county office. A man named Van Arsdale, whom Ammen described as a “worthless unionist” was an incumbent in an important local office. Both Wood and his father were ineligible to serve in this office because of their southern alliance. Apparently, Van Arsdale was “too dissolute to do more than draw a salary,” however, he was a great storyteller. He was a mason (Freemasonry is the world’s oldest fraternal organization that has existed for a thousand years). He was also a member of half dozen other secret societies and fascinated young Wood with his “stories of the lodge room.” Ammen was convinced that every proceeding of these secret societies were “unfolded” to Wood “without scruple, so that the summer’s recitals were equivalent to a course of lectures on the esoteric.” Wood was captivated and searched for more information about Masonic work. He had to look no further than his own father’s library and found materials which likely fueled the fire of fraternalism within him.

On August 2, 1865, Wood arrived in Lexington. Once enrolled in school, he discovered that two fraternities, Phi Kappa Psi and Beta Theta Pi, had reopened their chapters at Washington College. In November, Alpha Tau Omega started their second chapter there. Ammen relates that Wood, drawing from his recent summer education, may have attempted to “petition” Phi Kappa Psi, as is the custom in Freemasonry. This may have caused him to be “criticized and even rejected by the aloof fraternity.” Whatever occurred, Wood decided to form his own group. Since he was unfamiliar with fraternities at the college level, Wood had nothing to draw from as a model. It is fortunate that he was given the ritual of a small fraternity, Epsilon Alpha, founded at University of Virginia in 1855 which had perished during the recent war. It is unknown when Wood received these “papers,” however, it is well-established that on December 21, 1865, our four founders met and formally bound their friendship by a “mutual pledge of faith and loyalty.”

Wood chose the name for the new group and called it Phi Kappa Chi. The name had no meaning and it is likely that Wood chose it to rival the popular Phi Kappa Psi which had rejected his interest. Though Will Scott assisted, the ritual of Phi Kappa Chi was primarily drafted by Wood. The ceremony that he penned was brief, but contained a great theme which endures even today. Wood organized the group and Will Scott was chosen as the Number I; Walsh, Number II; and Wood, Number III. Christmas delayed the group somewhat, but they became known in the spring of 1866. The other societies at Washington College resented the appearance of a new secret society on campus. Phi Kappa Psi was especially perturbed at Wood’s choice of a name for the group. They told him so and it was only at the request of an alumnus of that fraternity, a professor, that Wood agreed to select a different name. The new organization became known as K.A. by April of 1866. Private letters written by early members of Alpha Chapter indicate that Wood likely borrowed the letters K.A. (which had no initial meaning) to immediately attract attention. The popular old society, Kuklos Adelphon, founded at the University of North Carolina in 1812, had all but perished during the recent war, but was well known in the south. The new organization initiated seven additional members by the end of the 1866 spring term.


The 1866-67 school year brought promise to Washington College and K.A. Largely because of Lee’s presidency at the school, the enrollment more than doubled to nearly 400 students. K.A. initiated seven more members into their group that fall. On October 17, 1866, twenty-two year-old Samuel Zenas Ammen of Fincastle, Va., was initiated. Ammen was a serious student, immaculate in appearance and precise in manner. He was very confident and Will Scott, who bestowed nicknames, dubbed him “Lord.” Ammen’s initiation into this early group, while now known as K.A., was conducted with a revised version of the Phi Kappa Chi ritual penned by Wood. In a letter written by Ammen to one of the early Alpha members, Jo Lane Stern, described the experience as, “mere verbal pyrotechnics in florid sophomoric style.” It is clear that while Ammen was moved by certain parts of the ceremony, he felt that it was too brief and uninspiring. Unlike Wood, Ammen did have significant fraternal experience. Ammen had become a Master Mason in Fincastle, Va., in 1865. As a member of that highly esteemed order, he was well versed in organized ritual which had been refined over hundreds of years. Ammen would later say that this first ritual had “nothing to touch the imagination of initiates nor stir their fancy.” However Ammen was inspired by the possibilities of this young fraternity and its members whom he greatly respected. He urged the society to enhance its initiation ceremonies.

In Wood’s room at Sunnyside, an estate on the edge of town, Ammen and Wood discussed possibilities for a new ritual, and it was agreed that Ammen should continue the work.  Accordingly, Ammen, along with Wood and Will Scott, was appointed to a committee to review the ritual. In order to gather material, Ammen observed the chapter’s activities and listened to their ideals and beliefs. He was particularly impressed by an essay presented to the chapter by Wood, in November of 1866, wherein the plight of the ancient Knights Templar was detailed as a model of inspiration for the group’s purpose. Ammen, Scott, and Wood conferred on several occasions, many times late until the night. Wood presented Ammen with the “papers” that he received from the old fraternity. The old ritual was essentially discarded; however, Ammen preserved a few of its impressive parts and began construction of a new ritual.

Nearly two decades later, Will Scott would write to Ammen, “the Ritual was all so altered, changed and improved upon, mainly by you, that we can say it underwent a complete regeneration, or new birth.” Ammen later related that Wood was completely deferential to his advanced experience with the esoteric. Indeed, Wood’s departure from school was only a few weeks away. Wood’s own correspondence with the Order over the remainder of his life indicate that he confidently left the fraternity he began under the stewardship of Ammen.

Before his death, Wood credited Ammen with transforming K.A. into the Order of national prominence that it remains today. Ammen’s development of the ritual, constitution, by-laws, grip, symbols and regalia and his lifelong commitment ultimately earned him the title of Practical Founder of Kappa Alpha Order.

Ammen later revealed, “The present ritual, in fact, was not made, it grew.” It grew from a seed planted by Wood. The new ritual transformed the K.A. Council into Kappa Alpha Order, an order of christian knights (first inspired by Wood’s November 1866 essay to Alpha Chapter, and set to work by Ammen) pledged to the highest ideals of character and personal achievement. Ammen and his Alpha Chapter brothers sought to preserve the virtues of chivalry, respect for others, honor, duty, integrity and reverence for God and woman.

Despite the milestone of establishing a solid identity and presence at Washington College, the young Order was not without the startup problems typical with most new organizations. Indeed, the brothers of Old Alpha stood at a crossroads. The chapter had very recently expelled five members who had violated their obligations and were not strong enough to endure growing pains. Will Scott, the chapter’s first Number I, was preparing to leave Lexington to attend seminary. Truly, the chapter brothers had to decide whether they should keep up the effort.

One moonlit night in May 1867, Ammen and a recent initiate, Jo Lane Stern, with whom he had become fast friends, were taking one of many walks they enjoyed together throughout their lives. This particular walk, they were discussing the future of their young fraternity. They paused along the way, and sat on the steps of White’s General Store, on the corner of Lexington’s Main and Nelson Streets. There, they seriously contemplated the viability of Kappa Alpha and whether or not they should continue the chapter. They asked, “Shall we let the lodge die?” Ammen well-remembered that conversation and recalled, “The outcome was a decision to keep up the fight, and from that time on our prospects improved.” Clearly, Ammen and Stern spearheaded that effort. For that reason, Stern is appropriately given a status on a par with our founders.

Early Growth:

With the fortitude to forge ahead, the chapter began the 1867-1868 school year with Ammen as the new Number I. They began looking beyond Washington College to establish KA’s second  chapter; their first prospect was naturally the school’s neighbor, VMI An invitation for membership was extended to John Eliphalet Hollingsworth, a VMI cadet, and by Spring 1868, three more  cadets were initiated. Subsequently, Beta chapter was formed March 8, 1868.

Transfers from Washington College established chapters at the University of Georgia (Gamma) in 1868 and at Wofford College (Delta) in Spartanburg, S.C., in 1869. Epsilon was also established in 1869 at Emory University in Atlanta by members of Gamma. One account of early expansion efforts tells of Stern’s recollection that Lee permitted him to miss class and travel to Ashland, Va. in 1869 to found Zeta at Randolph-Macon College. Although Lee was known for only permitting absences because of illness, it is believed that he approved Stern’s journey to Randolph-Macon and then again to Richmond College in 1870.

Stern stated that he arrived in Richmond amid little enthusiasm for fraternities, but that he brought with him a letter of introduction from Lee to J.L.M. Curry, an influential law professor, that explained his mission. Allegedly, Curry called a faculty meeting and announced, “If General Lee will let a man come away to establish a chapter, I vote for it. If he thinks a fraternity is a good thing, I think so too” hence, Eta was born. Theta (prime) was also established in 1870 at Atlanta’s Oglethorpe University by members of Gamma and Epsilon chapters. By the close of 1870, five years after KA’s founding, the Order’s ranks had grown to eight chapters.