Category Archives: Student Letters

“My Dear Parents . . .” 19th Century Students Write Home

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

[Note: This post is an expansion of an article published in the Williston Bulletin in 2000.  A few of the quoted documents have appeared elsewhere in this blog.]

Anyone pursuing the history of Williston Seminary’s first four decades might assume that the task involves the study of dry, formal documents, the records of austere men shaping the serious minds of New England’s youth under the benevolent gaze of a saintly founder.  Fortunately, we have an antidote.  At a time when telephones and email were not even a dream, students wrote long, lively, personal letters, dozens of which are preserved in the Williston Northampton Archives.  Most we have in manuscript; a few are copies or transcriptions of documents in private hands.

While much was happening in the 19th century world, most students’ letters barely acknowledge events away from school and home.  Their concerns were necessarily more local: classes, friends, money.  These letters let them speak with their own voices, and provide a fascinating window into their daily lives.

The campus in 1845, showing Principal Wright’s house, the First Church, English (Middle) Hall, and the White Seminary. (Click images to enlarge.)

Their writing was hardly that of finished scholars.  Samuel Williston once admonished that “Bad orthography, bad penmanship, or bad grammar— bad habits in any of the rudiments— if they be not corrected in the preparatory school, will probably be carried through College and not unlikely extend themselves to other studies and pursuits.”  Perhaps to prove his point, we have mostly left the writers’ syntax alone, making only minimal corrections.  Indeed, as student Abner Austin wrote his family in 1856, in a sentence spectacularly devoid of any punctuation whatsoever,  “Mr. Williston is not the teacher he has nothing to do with it no more than you have he is the founder of it therefore it is called the Williston Seminary.”

By mid-century many New England towns were connected by rail, but in 1854 the line had not yet reached Easthampton.  That April, Charles Carpenter wrote his father,

I arrived safely at No. H. on Tuesday morning.  On the way, met (in the cars) with a young fellow, like myself, Williston-bound.  Had to wait in No. H. all day — crowds of students came up in the train — and several stages and teams were in readiness to convey them over.  Ten of us got into a three seated wagon.  It was most terrific going — mud and melted snow formed a horrible coalition — Could hardly get out of a walk, a single step.  We suffered the greatest trouble, however, in fear that other students would get ahead of us and engage the rooms; but after two hours we arrived — “put” for the “Sem.”  The Chief Boss of the Institution, Mr. Marsh, is absent, on account of dangerous family sickness — and everything went hurly-burly. Continue reading

“The faculty don’t furnish towels . . .”

by Rick Teller '70. Williston Northampton Archivist

The waning days of summer: faculty are preparing for meetings and fall classes while students are finishing their shopping and summer reading — or in a few instances, starting it.  School opens in less than two weeks, with all the joy, angst, and tradition associated with the event.  Once upon a time the tradition included a tea for new students, hosted by the Headmaster’s spouse and a phalanx of faculty wives.  In 1966, a well-scrubbed and tightly necktied “newboy” myself (yes, it was one word then), I was present at this event.  A woman of extraordinary warmth and empathy, Mrs. Stevens really did help to take the edge off of the noisy and sometimes impersonal first week of school.  On the other hand, many of her guests had never tasted tea, and when offered cream or lemon, took both.  Having lived in England the previous year, I knew better, but after 49 years I’ve never learned to like the stuff.

new boys tea 1966
Mrs. Phillips Stevens at the New Boys’ Tea, September 1966 (Dorothy Potter Associates)

These days we have student arrival and orientation organized and personalized down to the last detail.  It was not always so.  There is certainly no suggestion of the gentility evoked by Mrs. Stevens’ tea-party in the following letter, by Charles Carroll Carpenter, class of 1856, to his father.  Carpenter, of Bernardston, Mass., was a new student in the spring of 1854.  (Original spelling and punctuation have been retained.)

Williston Seminary, No. 39
Easthampton, Ms. April 20 1854 . P.M.

Dear Father,
The bell has rung for evening study hours, and I will improve the signal by penning a few hasty lines homeward.To speak of events, historically, I arrived safely at No. H. on Tuesday morning.  On the way, met (in the cars) with a young fellow, like myself, Williston-bound; Leavitt, of Charlemont,1 son of Roger H. Leavitt, Esq.  Had to wait in No. H. all day—crowds of students came up in the train—and several stages and teams were in readiness to convey them over.2  Ten of us got into a three seated wagon, with my distinguished townsman, Mr. Moore, for a driver.  It was most terrific going—mud and melted snow formed a horrible coalition—Could hardly get out of a walk, a single step.  We suffered the greatest trouble, however, in fear that other students would get ahead of us and engage the rooms; but after two hours we arrived—“put” for the “Sem.”  The Chief Boss of the Institution, Mr. Marsh,3 is absent, on account of dangerous family sickness— and everything went hurly-burly.  I engaged however of the pro tem. janitor, a room, for safety—and then went to President Hubbard’s.4  That official is very pleasant and courteous; and when I informed him that I had written to Mr. Warner,5 he called me by name, and said he had engaged me a room, and gave me other useful information.  Then returned and found Pres. H. had bespoken me an excellent room, in the Brick Seminary—I obtained the keys to it, and at once, with young Leavitt, moved in “bag and baggage.” Continue reading

F. A. Cannon

By Rick Teller '70, Archivist

Sometimes a document raises as many questions as it answers.  The letter below was found in a file that otherwise contained Samuel Williston’s business receipts from several years surrounding 1870.  We are not even sure of the writer’s name.  My best guess is F. A. Cannon, but it could also be Gannon.  As can be seen in the facsimiles at the bottom of the page, the C or G in the author’s signature is drawn differently than any other capital C or G in the document.  If any reader is expert at handwriting analysis, please feel free to jump in.

Principal Marshall Henshaw (served 1863-1876)
Principal Marshall Henshaw (served 1863-1876)

One surmises that the writer might be a former slave.  He is a railroad worker in Georgia; he has had some education, until the “Legislature countermanded the order.”  In the post-Reconstruction period, many Southern States, including Georgia, actively sought to end the federally mandated programs benefiting African Americans that were imposed following the Civil War.  But we don’t know for sure.  A small number of African Americans enrolled at Williston Seminary as early as the 1870s (see The Center of All Days).  We do not have Principal Marshall Henshaw’s response to the letter.  The fact that it was saved with some of Samuel Williston’s financial records suggests that Henshaw might have referred the request to Williston, who sometimes assisted needy students out of his own pocket. Continue reading

Bad Behavior

The document below recently came to light.  What prompted Silas Holman to write Principal William Gallagher (served 1886-1896) and confess his misdemeanors of forty-two years earlier is unknown — except that as every alumnus knows, the statute of limitations rarely extends beyond graduation.  We will leave it to others’ historical perspectives to determine whether, at the most fundamental level, things have changed much.

Principal William Gallagher

Los Angeles Cal.
Feb. 18th 1891

Mr. Wm. Gallagher
          Dear Sir: Yours of the 11th is received.  Well do I remember the happy school days at East Hampton, when we irreverently nick named Mr. Wright the Principal “Boss Wright.”  Post Master Ferry once caught me as I was climbing up the inside of the tower of the old Town House to ring the bell, or rather to attach a chord to the tongue.  I remember getting a string through the ventilator of a fellow student’s room, attaching it to his door key, opening the door and putting eggs in his boots while he was asleep.  I was not a bad boy but loved fun.  Please call to see me when you come to Los Angeles.  Truly yours, Silas Holman.

Silas Holman was a member of the Williston Seminary class of 1849, enrolled in the English (i.e. Scientific) curriculum.  After Williston he returned to farming in his home town of Bolton, Mass., and also served as an Internal Revenue assessor and Deputy Sherriff.  In 1879 he emigrated to California, where he became a fruit grower.  He died around 1904.

Utterly off-topic: Holman’s papers at Williston also include an 1847 receipt for one term’s tuition.  Any comment one might make would merely restate the obvious.“Bad Behavior” will undoubtedly be an ongoing series on this blog.  What’s the worst thing you ever did?  Keeping in mind that we really can’t revoke your diploma, consider confessing to rteller@williston.com.

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