Sharing Williston Northampton and Local History

Abner Austin, Fireman

Henry Perry’s description of the Williston Seminary fire of March, 1857, was presented in an earlier post His schoolmate, Abner Ellsworth Austin, class of 1859, wrote a very different account of the event.

Abner Austin’s letter. Click to enlarge.

The Archives hold 10 letters to and from Abner Austin (1839-1918), the gift of Margaret Gardner Skinner and Warren F. Gardner.  Beyond providing wonderful detail about school life, the documents are a testament to Abner’s irrepressible nature.  Even as he is reporting the fire’s impact — the phrase “learning nothing but uglyness” seems heartbreaking — Abner is contemplating his next bit of fun.

Austin entered Williston in the fall of 1856, in the equivalent of the modern 10th grade.  As his letter suggests, he remained for only one year, then returned to his native Meriden, Connecticut.  He went to work as a butcher, then in 1871 opened a livery stable.  He became one of Meriden’s leading businessmen.

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The Great Seminary Fire

The first Seminary building, Detail of an 1845 engraving by G. H. Throop.

Williston Seminary’s first building was the so-called “White Seminary” or “Old Sem.,” erected in 1841.  Of neoclassical design, it was built of wood — indeed, it was Samuel Williston’s penultimate wooden structure before his decision to build entirely in brick.  (His 1843 mansion, today’s Williston Homestead, was the other.)  In 1857 the White Seminary burned to the ground.  Two student letters describing the fire survive in the Archives.  That of Henry Perry ’58 is reproduced below; another very different account, by Abner Austin ’59, will appear later this summer.  The letters are remarkable not only as documents of school life but as reflections of the authors’ personalities.

Henry T. Perry (1838-1930), class of 1858, of Ashfield, Mass., went on to Williams College and Auburn Seminary.  He entered the Christian missions and spent most of the years 1866-1913 in Turkey, where he was witness to the Armenian massacres.  His biography, Against the Gates of Hell, by Gordon and Diana Severance, was published by The University Press of America in 2003.

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From the Archivist’s Bookshelf

Edward J. M. Rhoads.  Stepping Forth Into the World: the Chinese Educational Mission to the United States, 1872-81.  Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011.

In the 1870s, under the auspices of the Hartford-based Chinese Educational Mission, 120 carefully selected Chinese boys were sent by their government to be educated in American schools.  The boys, some as young as ten or eleven, initially stayed with host families, then enrolled in a number of private and public schools in Connecticut and Massachusetts.  Many went on to enroll in New England colleges, including Yale and MIT.  The students faced not only the challenges of language and curriculum, but of maintaining their cultural identities in an utterly foreign society, one in which anti-Chinese sentiment was growing.  The program ended suddenly in 1881 and the students were recalled home, many to face suspicion over their newly acquired Western educations and mores.

Eleven Chinese Educational Mission students attended Williston Seminary.  Many excelled in academics, and in such activities as oratory and debate.  Several publicly embraced Christianity, an action sure to create controversy both back home and within the CEM.  One of the founders of Williston’s Chinese Christian Home Mission, Tan Yaoxun ‘79, actually defected rather than return to China.

In the first scholarly study of the CEM since Thomas LaFargue’s China’s First Hundred (1942) Edward Rhoads’ research brought him to dozens of libraries and archives throughout the Northeast, including Williston’s.  Dr. Rhoads (Professor Emeritus of History, The University of Texas) tells a compelling, highly readable story of students caught between two worlds.

Your comments and questions are encouraged!  Please use the space below.

The Angelus

“There is so much to be done at school that we often forget to think, to pray, or just enjoy the taste of life. This Student Council is presenting an Angelus bell to the school to remind us all of the need of quiet thought. Traditionally the Angelus is rung as a call to prayer. Our Angelus will be what we make it. There is much to think about in that brief moment of our own. There is world peace to pray for, boys in Korea to be remembered, people at home to be loved, and our own thoughts to be thought. The Angelus will be rung daily to provide a moment of peace in the whirl of activities. It is a small beginning but if eighty girls pause in the middle of rush and confusion to pray and to think, it is a beginning.”  – Maria Burgee ‘52 [Maria Burgee Dwight LeVesconte], at the dedication of the Angelus, 1952.

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Sharing Williston Northampton and Local History