Category Archives: Student Life

“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 Jester (1967)

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

1967: Williston Academy’s Literary Society had, for many years, published an oh-so-serious magazine called The Scribe.  Imagine, then, the excitement when the Society announced that they would depart from venerable tradition and attempt a humor magazine.  The first, and only issue of The Jester appeared in the winter of 1967.  Almost immediately, certain elements in the administrative hierarchy objected to the cover on grounds of taste, until it was pointed out that the navel in question, which belonged to our champion diver, was on display in the pool every afternoon.

51 years later, this seems relatively innocuous.  Tasteless, yes, but hardly provocative.  But our plan to republish substantial excerpts here was somewhat modified when we realized that by 2018 standards, the magazine was so replete with trademark violations, potential libel suits, and what are now called “trigger warnings,” that we had to be very selective.  Plus: some of it was too insider-obscure to resonate today, or just wasn’t very funny.

The persons responsible, plus a couple of ringers.  As with all these images, you may click to enlarge.

But much of it was funny, or clever, and still is.  Perhaps against our better judgment, here are excerpts, beginning with a parody of that prep-school classic, The Catcher in the Rye.

Poetry.  After all, The Jester was published by a Literary Society. Continue reading

The Rules, 1846

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist
Principal Luther Wright, who believed in law, order, and quiet.

Williston Seminary’s first Principal, Luther Wright (served 1841-1849), was reputedly a great believer in the order of things.  Early on, he had printed placards, posted in every student room, which quickly became known as the “23 commandments.”  This set of regulations was considered so comprehensive, of such educational and moral impact, that they remained on the walls, contents unaltered, five Principals and four decades later.  Professor Henry Alford, who had strong opinions about most things, had cause to comment in the 1880s.

In his History of Williston Seminary (1917) Principal Joseph Henry Sawyer (taught from 1866; Principal, 1896-1919) commented that “they are rules which all schools must have,” but even Sawyer, a master of tact, marveled at the level of what adolescent boys must have considered petty detail.   One of Wright’s placards survives to this day:Here are the two sides, in more readable detail.  (Click on images to enlarge.)One can imagine the students’ attitude toward the prohibition of gathering in groups on Saturday night, or might wonder whether most sixteen-year-olds could sit without tipping their chairs.It should be no surprise, then, that by 1846 Mr. Wright’s “young gentlemen” had produced a wickedly funny parody of the school catalogue.  (This, incidentally, gives us a “no later than” date for the Regulations placard.)  Not only did the parody capture and inflate the moralizing and rather effusive marketingese of its model, but the typography and layout were such that the fake could easily have been mistaken for the real thing.Wright’s 23 commandments had expanded to 25.  Together, they suggest aspects of day-to-day Williston that he probably preferred had gone unrecorded.For further exploration of administrative attempts to regulate student lives, please see “Thou shalt not . . .” (Because, boys and girls, it’s good for you, and you’ll thank us later.)

Botanizing

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist
Rosaceae, Cerasus virginiana (Prunus virginiana), Wild cherry (Please click all images to enlarge)

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.

Mollie Nelson’s note commemorating the day. Mollie’s name is at bottom right.

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.

Ranunculaceae, Coptis trifolia, Three-leaf goldthread
Mollie Nelson’s cover labels for the wild cherry specimen at the top of the page.

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.

Trilliaceae, Trillium erythrocarpum (T. undulatum), Painted trillium or Painted wakerobin

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