It was a sunny Saturday, June 20, 1863. The term was almost over; students and teachers were about to disperse. With the papers full of news of Civil War hostilities, alumni and family members gone South to fight, there was an overtone of uncertainty about the future. But for at least a day’s respite, twenty Williston students — ten young men and ten young ladies — went on a plant collecting expedition — “botanizing,” as they called it — to Southwick, about ten miles from Easthampton. How much of this was serious scientific pursuit and how much an excuse for a picnic, we will never know. Even at still-coeducational Williston Seminary (the Ladies’ Department would be closed in 1864), opportunities for mixed social activity were few.
The organizer and chaperone was William Austin Richards, Williston 1855, Amherst ’61, who upon his graduation had returned to Williston as a teacher of Latin and Greek. Richards planned to teach for a few years to gain a little experience and cash, before studying for the ministry. None of his Williston responsibilities included anything scientific; natural history must have been merely an avocation. And although a document refers to the “botany class,” there was no formal course in the Williston catalogue. Nonetheless, at least some of the students took the scientific side of the day very seriously.
One of these was Mary Lydia Nelson — “Mollie” — a senior from West Suffield, CT. Mollie went home and meticulously pressed the day’s collection of plants. Almost unbelievably, 154 years later, her specimens remain in nearly pristine condition. Mollie did everything right. There are 57 folders, each a sheet of paper 23 x 18 inches (11.5 x 18″ folded.) Mollie chose a very high quality heavyweight rag paper with almost no acid content, so there has been practically no chemical reaction between plants and paper. She secured each plant to the paper with nearly invisible white cotton thread. Almost every specimen was carefully labeled with phylum, genus, and species.
Mollie retained her plant collection as a cherished keepsake. It stayed in her family and against all odds, was always well stored, away from extremes of temperature and humidity. In 1983 Mrs. J. R. Nelson, widow of one of Mollie’s descendants, presented the collection to Williston Northampton. Continue reading →
Henry Elijah Alvord (1844-1904) had the privilege of reinventing himself several times during his lifetime. A native of Greenfield, Mass., he graduated Norwich University in the spring of 1862, aged 18, with a degree in Civil Engineering and a military education. He immediately enlisted as a private in the 7th Rhode Island Squadron, rapidly rising to the rank of First Sergeant, and by November 1862, was commissioned Lieutenant in the 2nd Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry. By the end of the Civil War in 1865, he had achieved the rank of Major, and was assigned a joint appointment as Superintendent of Freedmen’s Affairs in Northeastern Virginia and Superintendent of Schools in the Carolinas.
In 1868 he became Inspector General of the Indian Territory District (now Oklahoma), serving until 1869 when, by order of President Andrew Johnson, he was appointed Professor of Military Science and Tactics at Massachusetts Agricultural College (now UMass) in Amherst. In 1871 he resigned from the Army and joined the U.S. Department of the Interior as a civilian Commissioner of Indian Affairs, eventually serving as Special Commissioner to the Sioux of Dacotah and Wyoming.
Then, for reasons unknown, he set his hand to other things. In 1873 he was elected Professor of Drawing and Commercial Business at Williston Seminary, where he would remain until 1881. (As shall be seen in the document below, he acquired other responsibilities.) Most of his students were enrolled in the scientific, as opposed to the classical, department (for a look at the different curricula, see the last third of the article “Entrance Exam.”) “Commercial Business” primarily entailed bookkeeping and business math. Students of drawing largely focused on mechanical drawing and drafting, but Alvord insisted that his program begin with an intensive study of freehand drawing.
In the spring of 1880 Principal Joseph W. Fairbanks, then completing his second year at the helm, asked Alvord, and probably all the faculty, to present status reports. Whether this had been regular practice in the past is uncertain; few such statements from earlier years have come to light. Fairbanks’ self-destructive predecessor, James Whiton, hadn’t lasted long enough to poll his faculty, nor would it have been in his character. And by his own account Marshall Henshaw, who preceded Whiton and had hired Alvord, quarreled with him. So it is likely that Alvord was pleased to have been asked, possibly for the first time. In any case, he responded with a detailed letter whose scope extended beyond the confines of Alvord’s assigned duties. The document provides wonderful insight not only into faculty workloads and responsibilities at the time, but also addresses wear and tear on the buildings, student behavior, and much more. (The first page of Alvord’s manuscript is reproduced here, followed by a transcription of the entire document.)
Department of Drawing, Williston Seminary Easthampton, Mass, April 17, 1880
To the Principal. In compliance with your request, I respectfully present the following statement of the duties performed by me in connection with the Seminary, during the current year, with remarks thereon.
My duties have been similar to those of previous years — three classes in Drawing of 2, 3, and 4 hours a week, respectively, extending through the year; one class in Book-keeping in the Fall Term, in history in the Winter Term and in Surveying (assisting Prof. Sawyer) in the Spring Term, five forenoons in the week; supervision of Gymnastic exercises four afternoons and Inspection of Dormitories on Saturday mornings.
The time thus passed by me with classes or on specific duty at the Seminary has averaged twenty-four (24) hours per week, during the year; in Drawing, 9 hours; in Recitations 5 hours; at Gymnasium 9 hours, on Inspection, 1 hour.
The Drawing: During the year there have been 35 different pupils in Instrumental Drawing, members of the Senior and Middle Scientific Classes, and 31 pupils in Free-hand Drawing, from the Middle and Junior Middle Scientific Classes.
When called to the Seminary, now about seven years ago, I was informed that the special object was to establish and develop the Dept. of Drawing, and particularly to teach the practical branches of Drawing, then just beginning to receive attention in the schools of this country. The work has been gradually introduced as a requirement in the Scientific Course of Study and only within the past year has the original plan been realized. As now in operation, the course of instruction is this:
The student begins with elementary work in Free-hand Drawing at the opening of the Junior Middle year and during that year devotes two hours per week in drawing outlines and practice upon the fundamental principles of Perspective, in the last Term. In the Fall Term of Middle year, the instruction is given three hours a week, in outline drawing from models and solid objects, with applied perspective. With the second term of Middle Year begins Drawing with Instruments (the class having then had one term’s instruction in Plane Geometry) and during the Winter and Spring Terms, Geometrical Constructions and Elementary projections are taught 3 hrs. a week.Continue reading →
1879. Williston Seminary, transitioning not altogether painlessly into the post-Samuel Williston era, had a new Principal, Joseph Whitcomb Fairbanks. Fairbanks was finishing up his first year, having replaced the unfortunate James Morris Whiton, who had failed to finish his second. Innovation was not Fairbanks’ strong suit, His greatest talent lay in getting along, a skill that had escaped his predecessor. (Yes, class, we’re setting you up for a future story!)
But in that first year, he had an idea: printing the Williston entrance examination in the Annual Catalogue. It had not been done before. For a variety of good reasons, including the possibility of scaring away potential candidates, it would not be repeated. But 138 years later, it opens a window on what the entering Junior (i.e., 9th grade) or Junior Middler (10th grade) was expected to know.
Note that this is a “specimen” exam. The actual test would have had different questions. But try them! Would you have been admitted to Williston in 1879? (Please click images to enlarge.)
One confesses that many of these questions seem written to be annoying, demanding multiple conversions of equivalent measures or, in the geography section, asking for a deal of trivial knowledge. To travel from Vienna to London by water requires cruising down the Danube some 1,000 miles in the wrong direction, east to the Black Sea. And so on. But how did you do? (You weren’t expecting an answer key, were you?) Continue reading →
A recent social media discussion among members of the Class of 1968 recalled Horace Thorner, English master from 1943 to 1970, a scholar whose breadth of interests and talents was truly extraordinary. Thorner was a poet of frequent insight and technical virtuosity. Some of his work has already appeared on this blog. (See “The Round World Squared.”)
For the school’s 125th anniversary in 1966, Thorner was asked to write a celebratory “Ode to Williston.” Commemorative poetry is tricky; it is hard to avoid either hyperbole or mawkishness. Thorner was reasonably — though not entirely — successful. But his chapter on founder Samuel Williston is especially perceptive; Thorner, writing for an audience that perhaps expected the old hagiographic legend, captures the essential conflicts in the man better than others have managed using many more words (see “The Button Speech” ).
II. The Founder
Who was this man? There is no simple rule
To separate the warm flesh and the blood
From such another statue, pale and cool,
As since the time of ancient Athens stood
In lifeless grandeur in the public square,
Defying time and tempest, lightning, flood,
But never living, never quite the bare,
The unadorned, the simple human truth,
Standing in unabashed completeness there.
Indeed, he was ambitious as a youth,
A start for marble statues, but God's will
To spoil his eyes left him uncouth,
Compared to what he wanted for his goal,
To preach, just as his father had, to strive
With old New England devils for the soul.
He had his children, none of whom would live,
And felt God's wrath, but trusted and was brave,
Adopted others Emily would love —
A stern man but a just one and no slave
To outward polish in his speech or act,
Never forgetting that his father gave
A life of service to the church, a fact
That well accounts for all the generous years
He took such care his parish never lacked.
We see the flesh through marble, know his fears
To board a ship on Sunday well may show
A man whose God laughed little, lived on tears.
He may have driven bargains hard. We know
The history of most great fortunes proves
The man who rises, steps on some below,
And afterwards he finds that it behooves
That he appease his conscience by his tithes.
Some great philanthropists had cloven hooves.
But whether conscience prospers or it writhes,
The good it does lives after it, and so
They well deserve their shining laurel wreathes.
Williston wrote his conscience long ago
Into the charter of his school. The words
Still shine upon the fading page and glow
With all the brightness of crusader's swords.
"Knowledge without goodness" — so they read —
"Is powerless to do good." The phrase affords
An insight to the sturdy heart and head
Of Williston, for they were words he chose,
Although, indeed, they had been elsewhere said.
On this foundation, then, the school arose
Between the winding river and the hill
That speak God's strength in action and repose.
Horace E. Thorner
Naples, Italy, February 1966
All eight sections of Horace Thorner’s “Ode to Williston” are too long to publish here. Readers who would like copies of the entire poem may email firstname.lastname@example.org.