Abner Austin, Fireman

Henry Perry’s description of the Williston Seminary fire of March, 1857, was presented in an earlier post His schoolmate, Abner Ellsworth Austin, class of 1859, wrote a very different account of the event.

Abner Austin’s letter. Click to enlarge.

The Archives hold 10 letters to and from Abner Austin (1839-1918), the gift of Margaret Gardner Skinner and Warren F. Gardner.  Beyond providing wonderful detail about school life, the documents are a testament to Abner’s irrepressible nature.  Even as he is reporting the fire’s impact — the phrase “learning nothing but uglyness” seems heartbreaking — Abner is contemplating his next bit of fun.

Austin entered Williston in the fall of 1856, in the equivalent of the modern 10th grade.  As his letter suggests, he remained for only one year, then returned to his native Meriden, Connecticut.  He went to work as a butcher, then in 1871 opened a livery stable.  He became one of Meriden’s leading businessmen.

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The Great Seminary Fire

The first Seminary building, Detail of an 1845 engraving by G. H. Throop.

Williston Seminary’s first building was the so-called “White Seminary” or “Old Sem.,” erected in 1841.  Of neoclassical design, it was built of wood — indeed, it was Samuel Williston’s penultimate wooden structure before his decision to build entirely in brick.  (His 1843 mansion, today’s Williston Homestead, was the other.)  In 1857 the White Seminary burned to the ground.  Two student letters describing the fire survive in the Archives.  That of Henry Perry ’58 is reproduced below; another very different account, by Abner Austin ’59, will appear later this summer.  The letters are remarkable not only as documents of school life but as reflections of the authors’ personalities.

Henry T. Perry (1838-1930), class of 1858, of Ashfield, Mass., went on to Williams College and Auburn Seminary.  He entered the Christian missions and spent most of the years 1866-1913 in Turkey, where he was witness to the Armenian massacres.  His biography, Against the Gates of Hell, by Gordon and Diana Severance, was published by The University Press of America in 2003.

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