On December 1, 1841, Williston Seminary opened its doors to its first group of students. For the dedication address, Samuel Williston invited the Rev. Mark Hopkins (1802-1887), President of Williams College, Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy, and one of the nation’s leading thinkers on education and educational reform. Hopkins was known as a gifted teacher, who favored Socratic engagement over lectures. One of his Williams protégés, President James A. Garfield, commented that an ideal college comprised “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.”
True to the oratorical tradition of the time, Hopkins spoke for well over an hour. His subject was the condition of education in the United States, of the need for a variety of reforms, and how Williston Seminary, of which he was a founding Trustee, might address them. It is a fascinating and valuable document. (Readers who wish copies of the full text may email the archivist.)
One passage, on pages 7 and 8 of the printed speech, concerns the importance of an educated citizenry, arguing that anything less constitutes a danger to democracy itself. It is reproduced below. Notwithstanding the optimism of the last excerpted sentence, Hopkins’ words continue to resonate, 176 years after he spoke them.
Anyone familiar with Easthampton in the ’40s through the ’60s is likely to recall a taciturn gentleman with an easel and paintbox, often engaged in capturing a town landmark or rural scene. Albert Kiesling (1885-1968) was born in Clinton, Mass., and moved to Easthampton to work in the textile mills. He was a protégé and friend of the American expressionist painter Oscar F. Adler (1868-1932), another Clinton native. In fact, Kiesling and Adler often painted the same scenes together.
In the summer of 2016, Easthampton CityArts+, in association with Albert Kiesling’s family, mounted an exhibition and sale of a large group of his paintings, at the Mill Arts Project (MAP) Gallery at Eastworks in Easthampton. The following video, from Easthampton Media, is an excellent introduction to Kiesling’s work. (Alumni from certain eras may recognize some of the people interviewed.)
There are five known Kiesling paintings of Williston scenes. One had been on campus since 1945. Following the CityArts+ exhibit, Williston Northampton was able to obtain the other four, through a combination of alumni generosity and purchases. They are:
The Old Gymnasium
The Old Williston Seminary Gym, with its distinctive tower, was built in 1864, the first free-standing athletic building in any American secondary school. It stood on High Street, at the rear of the original Williston campus. Rendered largely obsolete by the construction of the Recreation Center (now the Reed Campus Center) in 1930, it was razed following the school’s consolidation onto the present campus in 1951. Kiesling painted the scene in 1952. Williston Northampton was able to acquire the painting through the generosity of Patricia Zavorski Coon ’61. This painting currently hangs in the office of the Director of Athletics.
The Button Mill
The painting of the original Williston Button Mill, Easthampton’s first factory building, was commissioned in 1945 by Charles Johnson, class of 1875, Treasurer of Easthampton Savings Bank, and presented to the school by the Class of 1905, one of whose members, Guy Richard Carpenter, was instrumental in tracking down and preserving many of the documents and memorabilia that now comprise the Williston Northampton Archives. The building, which still stands on Union Street, was erected in 1846-47. One of the workers’ tenement houses beyond the mill also remains, now home to the Easthampton Diner. Kiesling added a couple of historical touches to the background: the spire of the Payson (now Easthampton Congregational) Church and, in front of it, Williston’s original (1841) White Seminary building. This painting hangs in the front parlor of the Head of School’s Residence.
The Old Campus
This undated painting now hangs in the Advancement Conference Room in the Williston Homestead. Purchased in 2016 via the Archives Fund, it shows the pre-1951 campus from the intersection of Main and Union Streets, from the vantage point of the Congregational Church’s front lawn. The buildings, from right, are South, Middle, and North Halls. All these structures were torn down after the move to the New Campus in 1951, but a portion of the distinctive iron fence remains in place. Also visible are the Maher Fountain, which remains today, and the First Congregational Church, which succumbed to fire in 1929.
In the mid-19th century, Hill’s Mansion House was Easthampton’s grand hotel. Even then, it housed Williston students able to pay the premium rates. The huge wooden building stood at the top of the hill on the corner of Main and Northampton Streets. In the early 20th century, when the hotel business had fallen off, the school bought the building and renamed it Payson Hall. It was used as a dormitory, dining commons, and for many years, the home of the Williston Junior School. From the early 1950s on the structure, in increasingly fragile condition, hosted inexpensive apartments. It burned in the early 1970s. Kiesling’s 1963 painting, part of the 2016 purchase, is now in the office of the Director of Alumni Engagement.
The Williston Birthplace
Here the subject is the Payson Williston parsonage, also known as “The Birthplace,” on Park Street, opposite the Homestead. Dated 1968, thus one of Kiesling’s last paintings, this seems less successful than the others – something in the perspective is not quite right. The artist has set the building well back from the road and included a nonexistent mountain. Also part of the 2016 purchase, this painting presently hangs in the Williston Birthplace, now a faculty residence.
Finally, if you watched thevideo, you’ll recall that Kiesling was also an enthusiastic creator of snow sculpture, often of epic proportions. On Saturday, February 10, as part of the 5th Annual Easthampton Winterfest, the Nashawannuck Pond Steering Committee will host the First Annual Albert Kiesling Snow Art Competition. Please click the link for details!
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 →