Category Archives: Williston Seminary

William Brooks Cabot Writes Home

By Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

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.

Detail of Cabot’s first letter, Sunday, August 30, 1874, on school stationery (Click all images to enlarge)

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 [1874]

Dear Mother

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).

William continues,

The German Student Lamp, a kerosene-fueled desk lamp that produced a soft, non-flickering light. (Photo: eBay)

I have so far spent about ten dollars besides tuition, for R.R. Fare, books, &c.  I use a kerosene lamp to study by & think it better for my eyes than gas.  I have a lamp with a burner like the German Student lamp & it gives a very good light.

I guess we will both take the optional course, as then we will not be examined & I expect plenty of study even then.  The class is larger than usual this year – I mean the Junior – & I think the greater number take the Scientific course.  I don’t expect to use my rifle more than three or four times this term and perhaps not at all.  I have to get permission from one of the Profs. before I can take it out even to shoot at a mark.

Yesterday six of us went over to Mount Tom, which is only about two miles.  We walked over & came back in the cars.  Most of the boys were rather lame this morning but I didn’t feel it at all.  Tell Mollie I wish she would give W. E. Waite’s pistol to him.  It is in one of the drawers of my bureau.  I forgot it the morning I came away.

It seems astounding in 2019 that Williston would permit students to own firearms at all, or that William would be indignant over needing permission even for target practice, but in the mid-19th century, it was probably taken for granted.

I have been to church twice today.  We are all obliged to go to the same church, unless the parents expressly desire that they should attend some other.  Although it is against the rules some of the boys are out as late as they please, almost every night.  I do not know yet whether I can take Latin instead of Zoology or not but I hope I can.

With much love to all,


Captain Henry E. Alvord. No photograph of the egregious Captain Hill has been reliably identified.

William’s second letter, written on a Sunday three weeks later, introduces Captains David Hill and Henry Alvord.  Regular readers of this blog may have already met Captain Alvord; he was clearly, at best, stiff-necked over rules.  David Hill taught Physiology and Physical Education.  He had been wounded in the Civil War.  Everything written about him suggests that, frustrated by having missed the final two years of opportunity to inflict suffering upon rebels, he was a martinet who projected his resentment on his students.  Within days of his arrival at Williston he had instituted military drill, including marching and bayonet exercise, as the daily warm-up activity prior to gymnastic practice.   (Present day athletes might consider this the next time they complain about calisthenics.)

Why Captain Hill could not, nearly a month into the fall term, find “time” to accommodate an earnest and talented student’s application to take his course remains an open question.  But documents indicate that he and Alvord largely occupied themselves in meddling with administrative matters, particularly when they could undermine colleagues who did not share their views.

Williston Sem. Sept. 20

Dear Mother

I was glad to receive yours of the 18th, also Mary’s of the 16th.  Capt. Hill did not get time to examine us in Physiology until yesterday.  He gave me three written questions which I had to answer upon paper, & when I finished these he asked me a few questions verbally & then said that he would look over my paper when he had time.  So I do not know whether I have passed or not as yet.

“Prex” – Principal Marshall Henshaw (served 1863-1876). Hill and Alvord would engineer his removal in favor of the wildly unsuccessful Principal James Morris Whiton.

I do not suppose that my report for the month will be very good, as I have had a good deal of extra studying to do, especially on my Physiology.  One of the Profs. – Capt. Alvord – has come here to room; so we will have to observe study hours rather more strictly than we have been in the habit of doing.

Yesterday Prex. gave notice that we must be in our rooms at 7 P.M. instead of 7:30 as before.  This is because the days are getting short, & they are afraid to have us out after dark.  The students use tobacco as much as they please, & even some of the little boys in the English Class strut around with cigarettes in their mouths.  Almost all the students who have been here any length of time, smoke.  The Faculty never say a word about it.

I have just sent two weeks washing (12 pieces) by the man who takes the other boys clothes.  His wife can do up shirts better than any I ever saw.

There seem to be more parties, etc. going on at B. than usual.  I wish I could be there to attend one or two.  We have been having a good time evenings after getting our lessons, but Capt. Alvord’s coming ends that, as it is considered just as bad to be out of your own room as out of the house after study hours.  One of the boys rooming here is from Illinois & is one of the best fellows I ever saw.  His name is Keator.  I believe he said he was about 18 years old.  Is a first rate scholar & neither smokes, drinks nor swears; which is rather remarkable for this place.  Yesterday I took a long walk out west of the village & might have shot three or four partridges if I had taken my gun.

It costs a great deal to get along, as there are so many little things to get, but I have enough money to meet my expenses for about two weeks longer.  How does Ranger get along?  There are hardly any dogs here.  Tell Mary to write when she has time.  With much love to all.  W.

William Cabot did not return to Williston for his senior year.  He enrolled in the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, but left before finishing there as well, eventually completing a Civil Engineering degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1881.  He went on to a long career in mining and engineering out West and ultimately in Brooklyn, but he is primarily remembered as an important amateur explorer and anthropologist who worked primarily with Native Americans in Labrador and Northern Quebec.  There is a good biographical article at this link, including  a photograph — no images of William in his student days have come to hand.

Edwin Lynde returned to Scranton to build blast furnaces and had a long career in the steel industry.  The fastidious Frederick William Keator eventually became an Bishop in the Episcopal Church and a college president.  By the Spring of 1885 both he and Lynde had moved to other boarding houses, very possibly to escape the pernicious influence of Captain Alvord.


“Sammy, my Sammy . . .”

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist
Williston’s Song of Songs

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.

Link: Listen to the 2012 Caterwaulers singing “Sammy!”

The music for “Sammy” — a broadside printed for Williston Academy’s centennial in 1941.

Link: A more rough-and-ready performance from Mem West, National Kazoo Day, 2019.

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,

Pitt Johnson to Howard Boardman, 1939

“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.”

Headmaster Sawyer

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

Founders’ Day

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist
The cover to a Founder’s Day invitation, 1895

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.

The Founders’ Day program, 1895.

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.

At the gravesite, probably 1970. Headmaster Phillips Stevens and Chaplain Roger A. Barnett.
May, 1966. Teacher Peter Rowe lays a wreath on Emily Williston’s grave. Other identifiable faculty include, from left, Frank Putnam, Yves Couderc (center, behind Mr. Rowe), Daniel Carpenter, A. L. Hepworth, Wilmot Babcock (partially obscured), and Alan Shaler (on the right margin).

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.

Joesph Sawyer, ca. 1909.

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

The Confessions of Harlan Mendenhall

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist
The Rev. Dr. Harlan G. Mendenhall

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.

North and Middle Halls in the 1930s. When Mendenhall was a student, North Hall was new. (Click all images to enlarge.)

“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 W. Redington, class of 1866 and again, 1869. We have found no evidence of anyone else ever completing both the Classical and Scientific curricula, with a year of college separating them.

[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