Recently the Archives acquired a photo album kept by Jean M. Bigelow, who attended Northampton School for Girls in 1925-26. Since Northampton School had just opened a year earlier, in 1924, the contents of the album represent some of the earliest images we have.
We don’t know much about Jean Bigelow — in fact, her identification in the photograph above is based on an ambiguous caption on another copy of this photo given us by Elva Minuse, class of 1927 (that’s Elva in the second row, second from right), and comparison with uncaptioned family photos elsewhere in Jean’s album. Beyond her academic transcript, she left no paper trail in our alumnae records. According to Social Security records, she was born in 1907 and died, aged 78, in 1986. She attended Vassar College, class of 1930, and lived in Worcester, Mass.
And that’s about all we know. But the photos capture Northampton School for Girls at its very beginning, so this is a significant addition to the Archives.
In the fall of 1931 the Reverend Dr. Harlan G. Mendenhall, Williston Seminary class of 1870 (Classical), visited the campus. Aged 80, Mendenhall was considered the “grand old man” of American Presbyterianism, having served in parishes all over the U.S., risen to the highest levels of the New York Presbytery, and was, in 1931, still not retired. Dr. Mendenhall brought with him a variety of documents from his student days, including a copy of the 1869 Salmagundi, Williston’s first senior yearbook, which he had co-edited, and a scrapbook of his student writings as a member of Adelphi, the school’s literary and debating society. He also sat down with The Willistonian for an extended interview, reproduced at length in the issue of October 21. Conversation focused on how the school had changed in more than five decades – and took a surprising turn.
“Williston in my day was a great deal different than your Williston of today. North Hall was but a few years old and was all partitioned off into three sections by thick fire walls. There were no bathrooms nor any central heating system, and in the winter we all had to buy our own coal for our stoves. We had no school dining room either and had to eat either at fraternity eating places or at the old “Hash Factory” which stood at the corner of Union and High Streets. It was possible to eat for two dollars a week then.”
“Students were then a great deal older than the fellows at Williston are now. There was one fellow named Redington who had already graduated from Yale and had come to Williston to study English. As the boys were older, they were more independent and often used to have revolutions and uprisings of all sorts.”
[Lyman William Redington of Waddington, N.Y. graduated Williston’s Classical Department in 1866. He completed a year at Yale, left because of eye problems, but returned to Williston and enrolled in the Scientific, a.k.a. English Department, graduating in 1869. He and Harlan Mendenhall were the founding co-editors of the yearbook Salmagundi in 1869. He became a newspaper editor in Rutland, Vt., ran unsuccessfully for Governor, took up law, and ultimately became Asst. Corporate Counsel for the City of New York, and a Tammany Hall member of the State Assembly.]
“There was a fellow in school then who had received a check for one hundred dollars from home, and instead of depositing it in the bank, he took it across to Putnam’s Book Store and established a checking account.”
“There came a time when Ballance, that was the boy, [William Henry Ballance, class of 1870] said that he had ten more dollars coming, and Old Put claimed that he had drawn his entire account. Then Ballance started an association of most of the boys in school swearing not to trade with Put until the ten dollars should be paid. They formed a big parade and marched down in front of Put’s store and read the constitution and by-laws of the association to him. Some of the boys carried big banners inscribed ‘No More Trade for Old Put’ and ‘False Weights Against True Ballance.’ The parade then marched over to the gym steps and had its picture taken.” Continue reading →
For twenty-one years, beginning in 1975, Williston Northampton culture was partially defined by the Winter Session, later called Intersession, program. It was modeled on the January Term programs then popular in many colleges. The “statement of purpose” in the prospectus for the first year read,
“During most of the academic year, the Williston Northampton School is primarily concerned with the very important task of giving its students the best in college preparatory academics. This should and must be our primary task, but often this leaves little or no time for experimentation with new programs and different approaches to learning. Thus, during the school year 1974-75, Williston Northampton has lengthened its overall school year and set aside 25 days in January during which the whole school community will concentrate on programs which tend to be extra-curricular during the bulk of the school year.”
“The emphasis during the Winter Session is on learning by doing. The student will not just read about the Navajo Indians but he will actually go and live among them. He will not just speak French in class but will speak it with and among Frenchmen in Cannes. He will perform in a play; or sing in a chorus; or build a table; or learn to type; or serve senior citizens in the community; or work each day with mental patients; or observe criminal court proceedings; or … the list goes on and on. Student and teacher will be active and involved. The student will not be graded but will be expected to evaluate his own accomplishments at the end of the session, which evaluation together with a verbal evaluation of his work by the teacher will be placed in his permanent file.”
One observes, alas, the use of gender-specific pronouns to describe a program at a school then in its fourth year of full coeducation. But let us overlook that, for the moment; it is symptomatic of a cultural issue endemic to the school for more than a decade after the merger with Northampton School. This has been discussed elsewhere. (See the last part of “Northampton School for Girls – and After.”) Better we should consider the ambitious nature of this fledgling program which, remarkably, achieved most of its goals and established a high standard in that very first year.
Over the next few years the program would grow and evolve. The range of some of the offerings is hinted at in excerpts from the annual catalog, reproduced at the bottom of this article. Students were encouraged to try new things, new approaches to learning — and by the second decade, students were teaching some of the courses. Faculty frequently taught their avocations, rather than their academic specialties: some of the offerings over the years included fine cooking with Alan Shaler (English), carpentry and toymaking from Bob Bagley (Math), wood carving with Ann Vanderburg (Math), home renovation with Stephen Seybolt (English) and Bob Couch (Math and Photography), music and architectural appreciation from Elizabeth Esler (Librarian), “Developing a Comic Character” with Stan Samuelson (Math), investment from Robert Blanchette (French), figure skating with Harriet Tatro (Science).Continue reading →
[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.
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 →