Mount Tom — the “great hill” that dominates Easthampton’s eastern skyline — has drawn Williston students since the school’s founding. Abner Pardon Davol, class of 1872, was no exception. Davol, a native of Fall River, Mass., entered Williston Seminary in September, 1869, enrolled in the Scientific curriculum. He graduated in 1872.
Student academic work from the mid-19th century is relatively rare. But somehow Abner’s essay, “Going to Mt. Tom,” survives in the Williston Northampton Archives. The manuscript, on both sides of a single folded 8 x 10 inch sheet, is undated. The writing is not terribly sophisticated, and there is a certain naiveté to some of the content. My guess is that this was submitted to a weekly English composition class during Abner’s first or second year at Williston.
Here is Abner’s paper. Readers may click on each image to enlarge it.
It was, and of course, remains, a distance of just under two miles from the Old Campus on Main Street to the foot of the mountain. For Abner and friends to have walked the distance and achieved the summit in 80 minutes is quite an accomplishment.
What were they thinking? Apparently Abner and his companions decided to descend via the steepest part of the escarpment, just beneath the basalt cliffs, a field strewn with broken shale. And after sunset. Contemporary maps confirm that there was a perfectly good road, but perhaps the kids were taking the most direct route from the summit to it.
“Factory village” was the residential area east of Nashawannuck Pond and the factories alongside it. Town-gown relations were imperfect at this time, but Davol’s concern seems overstated. It was probably added for dramatic effect, since it is likely that he expected to read his essay to his English class.
After Williston, Abner Davol returned to Fall River, where he became a banker and City Councillor. He died in 1940, aged 87.
In the fall of 1876, a new Principal, James M. Whiton, arrived at Williston Seminary. One of his first acts was to hire an assistant, Dr. Robert Porter Keep (1844-1904), at 32 a rising star among classical scholars. The two of them announced their intention to modernize Williston’s innovative dual-track Classical and Scientific curricula. This attracted the attention of Keep’s friend, the critic, author, and editor Horace E. Scudder (1838-1902). Scudder was preparing a study of New England private schools, and must have visited Williston at about this time. In his article, “A Group of New England Classical Schools,” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (Volume 55, June to November, 1877, p. 562-570 and 704-716), he asserted that with some curricular tweaking, particularly in the Seminary’s unique Scientific Division, Williston could join the pantheon on what Scudder considered education’s Olympus: Andover, Exeter, Saint Paul’s, and Boston Latin.
Scudder advocated adding the study of English to the curriculum. It is hard to believe today, but Williston students of the time took only one literature class, plus weekly or monthly meetings in English fundamentals. Appreciation of literature was largely absent from the Scientific curriculum. The Classical scholars got plenty of it — but solely in the Greek and Latin classics.
Keep was clearly intrigued, and appears to have written to Scudder asking him to elaborate. One challenge would have been to create a framework that accommodated the different needs and backgrounds of Williston’s Classical and Scientific students. Scudder, in his long-delayed response of April, 1878, addressed this and more in the following letter. It is a remarkable document, presenting a surprisingly modern approach to the study of reading and writing.
[Note: In transcribing the manuscript, I have retained Scudder’s punctuation and included crossed-out text. Editorial additions are in [bracketed italics]. Where a word was unclear, I have placed it in [brackets?] with a question mark. – R.T.]
My dear Dr. Keep,
I have two pleasant letters from you unanswered, but I have been taking a little journey, and that has broken up my regular life. I had not forgotten my intention of writing to you on the matter of teaching English, but the more I have considered it the more difficult I find it to make any practical suggestions. It is a harder question I think at Easthampton than elsewhere because of the two classes of students. English literature as part of a liberal training would be taken differently when the students was ending his special studies and when he was beginning them. The boys who go to college not only will have opportunity later, but the very character of their early grammatical study in Latin & Greek would modify the study of English. The boy who ends his studies at Easthampton – and I suppose the great Scientific schools by no means stand to your scientific side, as the colleges do to the classical side – ought to make of English literature a substitute, in a degree, of classical literature, and to obtain from his training some of the liberalizing influences which follow from a classical course, though his age and previous studies do not give him any advantage for this over the classical student. His only advantage I conceive is that he can and ought to give more time to the study and to its cognate study of modern history.
Still, with this complication, I think there might be a method which would be better than a mere desultory study with reference to college examinations, or than the somewhat haphazard method which prevails largely in our academies and high schools.
First of all I would lay down the principle that literature itself should be studied and not books about literature, and in that I am sure you will agree with me as the course sketched by you indicates. Now there are three sides which literature presents, the philosophic, the historic, the aesthetic, and I conceive that each should be carried on, but that greatest weight should be given first and last to the philosophic, that the historic should be of more [regard?] midway, and that the aesthetic should be deferred as much as possible until the close of the course.
The philosophic side I conceive to begin with the analysis of sentences and with philosophic grammar; the historic to begin with the history of words and with the political and social connexions of literature; the aesthetic to begin with a discrimination of forms of literature and end with conceptions of its art, in harmony with other forms of creative work.Continue reading →
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 →