Mount Tom — the “great hill” that dominates Easthampton’s eastern skyline — has drawn Williston students since the school’s founding. Abner Pardon Davol, class of 1872, was no exception. Davol, a native of Fall River, Mass., entered Williston Seminary in September, 1869, enrolled in the Scientific curriculum. He graduated in 1872.
Student academic work from the mid-19th century is relatively rare. But somehow Abner’s essay, “Going to Mt. Tom,” survives in the Williston Northampton Archives. The manuscript, on both sides of a single folded 8 x 10 inch sheet, is undated. The writing is not terribly sophisticated, and there is a certain naiveté to some of the content. My guess is that this was submitted to a weekly English composition class during Abner’s first or second year at Williston.
Here is Abner’s paper. Readers may click on each image to enlarge it.
It was, and of course, remains, a distance of just under two miles from the Old Campus on Main Street to the foot of the mountain. For Abner and friends to have walked the distance and achieved the summit in 80 minutes is quite an accomplishment.
What were they thinking? Apparently Abner and his companions decided to descend via the steepest part of the escarpment, just beneath the basalt cliffs, a field strewn with broken shale. And after sunset. Contemporary maps confirm that there was a perfectly good road, but perhaps the kids were taking the most direct route from the summit to it.
“Factory village” was the residential area east of Nashawannuck Pond and the factories alongside it. Town-gown relations were imperfect at this time, but Davol’s concern seems overstated. It was probably added for dramatic effect, since it is likely that he expected to read his essay to his English class.
After Williston, Abner Davol returned to Fall River, where he became a banker and City Councillor. He died in 1940, aged 87.
[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 →
In the fall of 1876, a new Principal, James M. Whiton, arrived at Williston Seminary. One of his first acts was to hire an assistant, Dr. Robert Porter Keep (1844-1904), at 32 a rising star among classical scholars. The two of them announced their intention to modernize Williston’s innovative dual-track Classical and Scientific curricula. This attracted the attention of Keep’s friend, the critic, author, and editor Horace E. Scudder (1838-1902). Scudder was preparing a study of New England private schools, and must have visited Williston at about this time. In his article, “A Group of New England Classical Schools,” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (Volume 55, June to November, 1877, p. 562-570 and 704-716), he asserted that with some curricular tweaking, particularly in the Seminary’s unique Scientific Division, Williston could join the pantheon on what Scudder considered education’s Olympus: Andover, Exeter, Saint Paul’s, and Boston Latin.
Scudder advocated adding the study of English to the curriculum. It is hard to believe today, but Williston students of the time took only one literature class, plus weekly or monthly meetings in English fundamentals. Appreciation of literature was largely absent from the Scientific curriculum. The Classical scholars got plenty of it — but solely in the Greek and Latin classics.
Keep was clearly intrigued, and appears to have written to Scudder asking him to elaborate. One challenge would have been to create a framework that accommodated the different needs and backgrounds of Williston’s Classical and Scientific students. Scudder, in his long-delayed response of April, 1878, addressed this and more in the following letter. It is a remarkable document, presenting a surprisingly modern approach to the study of reading and writing.
[Note: In transcribing the manuscript, I have retained Scudder’s punctuation and included crossed-out text. Editorial additions are in [bracketed italics]. Where a word was unclear, I have placed it in [brackets?] with a question mark. – R.T.]
My dear Dr. Keep,
I have two pleasant letters from you unanswered, but I have been taking a little journey, and that has broken up my regular life. I had not forgotten my intention of writing to you on the matter of teaching English, but the more I have considered it the more difficult I find it to make any practical suggestions. It is a harder question I think at Easthampton than elsewhere because of the two classes of students. English literature as part of a liberal training would be taken differently when the students was ending his special studies and when he was beginning them. The boys who go to college not only will have opportunity later, but the very character of their early grammatical study in Latin & Greek would modify the study of English. The boy who ends his studies at Easthampton – and I suppose the great Scientific schools by no means stand to your scientific side, as the colleges do to the classical side – ought to make of English literature a substitute, in a degree, of classical literature, and to obtain from his training some of the liberalizing influences which follow from a classical course, though his age and previous studies do not give him any advantage for this over the classical student. His only advantage I conceive is that he can and ought to give more time to the study and to its cognate study of modern history.
Still, with this complication, I think there might be a method which would be better than a mere desultory study with reference to college examinations, or than the somewhat haphazard method which prevails largely in our academies and high schools.
First of all I would lay down the principle that literature itself should be studied and not books about literature, and in that I am sure you will agree with me as the course sketched by you indicates. Now there are three sides which literature presents, the philosophic, the historic, the aesthetic, and I conceive that each should be carried on, but that greatest weight should be given first and last to the philosophic, that the historic should be of more [regard?] midway, and that the aesthetic should be deferred as much as possible until the close of the course.
The philosophic side I conceive to begin with the analysis of sentences and with philosophic grammar; the historic to begin with the history of words and with the political and social connexions of literature; the aesthetic to begin with a discrimination of forms of literature and end with conceptions of its art, in harmony with other forms of creative work.Continue reading →
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.