Surely “cater to your customers” must be the most fundamental principle of marketing. When Williston Seminary’s campus newspaper, The Willistonian, made its first appearance in March of 1881 (making it, 118 years later, the oldest continuously published secondary school paper in the United States), its student editors sought to finance their enterprise by selling advertising. With a couple hundred teenage boys occupying the campus, local merchants sought to appeal to their wallets. Logically then, we can open a window into an 1880s adolescent’s mind by examining how, away from home and parental supervision, he wanted to spend his (or his father’s) money — or how local merchants wanted him to spend it.
Early issues of The Willistonian came in an advertising wrapper. The “front page” was actually inside. Because the paper was also sold by local merchants, a portion of the advertising was aimed at the general public. And industries like Glendale Elastic Fabrics — one of the late Samuel Williston’s enterprises — may have purchased space out of a sense of obligation to Samuel’s widow Emily, if not to the school.
The advertisements below are selected from the first three years of The Willistonian, 1881-1884.
“Opposite Williston Seminary” meant Shop Row, on Main Street. C. S. Rust appealed to young men’s fashion sensibilities.
Recently, through the generosity of Mr. Eric Brothers, the Archives acquired two letters written by William Brooks Cabot, class of 1876, to his mother in Brattleboro, Vermont. In August, 1874, Cabot had just arrived at Williston Seminary, and was enrolled in the Middle Class — the equivalent of the modern 11th grade — in Williston’s Scientific curriculum. The following transcriptions retain William’s occasionally idiosynchratic punctuation and free-form sentence and paragraph structure. He was, after all, just 16 years old and, in fairness, somewhat ahead of his peers (then and now) in matters of spelling.
It was a Sunday. William had just moved out of a dormitory and into a boarding house where he had already arranged for his meals — the school had no dining hall of its own at this time.
Easthampton, Aug. 30th 
I am sorry father was not at home to decide what course I should take with regard to my studies. I shall take Geometry, Drawing, Zoology, & German, though if possible I shall take Latin instead of Zoology.
We have changed our rooms & are now boarding where we take our meals. I only pay $5 $6.00 per week in all, which is about twenty five cents more than I paid – or rather, was to pay at the Sem. It’s much more convenient for meals & we have carpets & towels, & do not have to do our own chamber work, as we did at the Sem. We paid our tuition yesterday. My bill was $26.00.
We have to attend chapel at a little before nine in the morning. We do all our studying in our rooms, which I like very much. At 7:30 P.M. the chapel bell rings, and we must go to our rooms immediately. Once in a while a Prof. will happen around after dark, to see if we are all in our rooms, but we have not been honored by a visit as yet.
We are living at a Mrs. Embury’s, where there are five of us. One is from Moline, Ill. & another from Scranton, Pa.
William’s housemates can be identified as Frederick William Keator, class of 1876 Classical, from Moline, and Edwin Hunter Lynde ’76 Scientific, from Scranton. For a newly-enrolled kid who had, to this point, grown up in southern Vermont, these may well have seemed like exotic places. As he would no doubt later discover, while the majority of students hailed from the Northeast, in 1874 Williston enrolled students from as far away as Louisiana, Alabama, and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). Continue reading →
It is sung, with varying degrees of solemnity and competence, at solemn events like graduations and hockey games. If “Hail to Williston Northampton” is our recently adopted Alma Mater, then surely the much more venerable “Sammy” qualifies as our Alma Aviam. (That’s “Beloved Grandmother.” Don’t you regret not having taken Latin? But I digress.) At least one former Head of School thought the song and its associated traditions puerile and tried, without success, to suppress it. “Sammy” remains the Song that Would Not Go Away.
Venerable Williston Lore tells us that “Sammy,” our “stand-up song,” was written by Paul “Pitt” Johnson, class of 1905. This appears to be accurate, although it seems that the memory briefly slipped Johnson’s mind after he graduated. But in 1939, Alumni Secretary Howard Boardman asked for Johnson’s recollection. Pitt wrote back,
“Although there might have been in my mind a slight doubt of the authorship, nevertheless, it was instantly removed after singing the first two measures. I instantly recognized it as my work, which was one of the many songs I wrote during my years at the old school.” [The full letter is reproduced at right; please click on the image to enlarge it.]
Johnson continued, “It so clearly comes to mind now how Dr. Sawyer [Headmaster Joseph H. Sawyer], upon hearing the song on the campus, called me to his office and suggested that theretofore the name Samuel had never lost its dignity and couldn’t I rewrite the song using Samuel instead of Sammy. I remember how three or four of us tried it out but it sounded a bit brummy and didn’t cut the mustard so the song continued to refer to the founder of Williston as Sammy and I cannot recall a single instance of where Samuel Williston haunted me from the tomb because of it.”
It is perhaps ironic that Johnson knew “Sammy” as his own when he heard the first two measures, since that is the one portion of the tune that he most certainly did not write. Fans of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas will recognize the phrase as having been lifted, note for note, from the Bridesmaids’ Chorus in Trial by Jury, at the words “Wear the flowers ’til they fade.” The show was wildly popular at the time Johnson “borrowed” the tune – and the cribbing was probably unconscious. As for the lyrics that so bothered Joseph Sawyer, it is likely that having written “Sammy, my Sammy, my heart yearns for thee,” Johnson needed a rhyme, and settled on “and your old elm tree.” Nothing we know of Samuel Williston suggests that he ever took an interest in trees, elm or otherwise. Yet, as has been detailed elsewhere, from this bit of doggerel entire school traditions have risen. (See “The Brand,” particularly toward the end of the article.) Continue reading →
According to most evidence, Williston Seminary began to celebrate Founders’ Day shortly after Samuel Williston’s death in 1874. The original tradition was to commemorate the Founder on or close to his birthday, June 17. Typically it was one element of Senior Week, which culminated with graduation exercises. It was a major event. The oldest surviving program, from 1895, presents a full afternoon of wreath-laying and speeches.
Some form of the event survived into the 1970s. By mid-century, it had been moved to a date earlier in the spring. The school assembled at the Williston gravesite in the Main Street Cemetery, where either the Headmaster or Dean A. L. Hepworth would talk about the Willistons, and typically many of the other former heads and faculty interred nearby.
In 2016, during Williston Northampton’s 175th Anniversary celebration, Founders’ Day was revived, now as a February event celebrating the tradition of giving that was so much a part of who Samuel and Emily Williston were. It has become a major element in the School’s annual Advancement effort. On February 20, 2019, our goal was to inspire 1,178 donors — for Williston’s 178th year. Achieving that participation target triggered an additional $75,000 challenge grant, while several classes and the Williston Parents created incentives of their own. By the end of the day we had vastly exceeded expectations, as nearly 1,400 alumni, parents, faculty, students, and friends realized almost $400,000.
For Headmaster Joseph Henry Sawyer, who joined the faculty in 1866 and led the school from 1884-1886 and 1895-1919, Founders’ Day was especially meaningful. After all, he had known Emily and Samuel Williston personally, as well as most of the other major figures from the school’s early years. In 1911 his friend Herbert M. Plimpton, class of 1878, published several of Sawyer’s Founders’ Day addresses.
June 17, 1909, fell on the same day as Commencement, so much of the traditional Founders’ Day speechifying was curtailed. But Sawyer, in his graduation remarks to the senior class, included a few words —actually, more than a few — about Samuel Williston. While the religious element Sawyer evokes is de-emphasized in 21st-century Williston Northampton, much of what Sawyer had to say seems especially relevant for students and alumni today. The text, from Plimpton’s compilation, is reproduced below. (Please click the images to enlarge them.)x