One of the pleasures of working in the Archives is that sometimes a question will lead to a whole new line of inquiry. Or, to put it more simply, one will open a file and an idea for a blog post will jump out. Recently, research on behalf of a member of the Class of 1940 led to this photograph, from the first in a long tradition of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta performances. On May 5, 1939, the Glee Clubs of Williston Academy and Northampton School for Girls performed Trial by Jury on a makeshift stage in the basketball court. Chuck Rouse, Ruth Dunham, and Frederick “Binky” Hyde were co-directors; Howard G. Boardman provided scenery and lights.
American photography came into its own during the Civil War, when photojournalists like Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner documented the conflict. Peacetime brought photography to the civilian population, as hundreds of photographers set up studios or embraced picture-taking as a hobby.
We have what may be the earliest extant photograph of the old Williston Seminary campus on Main Street, opposite Shop Row. Today the Easthampton Savings Bank stands on the site of North Hall, the leftmost structure. Beyond North Hall we see Middle and South Halls and the Payson Church, now the Easthampton Congregational Church. The image is by an anonymous photographer, and measures approximately 14 x 10½ inches. The event of being photographed was sufficiently novel to attract the attention of most of the students, who turned out to watch the process and, not coincidentally, to get into the picture.
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.
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.
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.