Williston Northampton and Local History . . . Your History!

“A Perfect Paradise on Earth”

by Rick Teller '70, Archivist (Retired)

Early Coeducation at Williston Seminary

September 2021 will mark a true milestone in school history: exactly 50 years earlier, Northampton School for Girls and Williston Academy, newly merged, opened as the fully coeducational Williston-Northampton School. That story is told elsewhere (see Northampton School for Girls – and After). It wasn’t always an easy transition – a few years later, according to legend, the hyphen was legally dropped from the school’s name after a highly placed administrator, in an ill-timed jest, suggested it represented a minus sign. Times have changed, and we are preparing to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of coeducation at Williston Northampton.

Williston Seminary in 1845. (Click any image to enlarge it.)

Few, perhaps, are aware that in 1841, 130 years before the merger, Williston Seminary had opened as a coeducational school. Part of Samuel Williston’s motivation for founding the Seminary was that Easthampton had no high school. Poor eyesight had forced him to curtail his Andover education, and Williston, already on the road to becoming Easthampton’s principal municipal benefactor, must have wondered whether, had there been educational opportunities closer to home, things might have been different. Williston was also acquainted with the great Massachusetts educational reformer Horace Mann, a pioneering advocate for the education of women. (For biographical information on Samuel and Emily Williston, see “The Button Speech.”)

Samuel Williston in the 1840s (Emily Williston Memorial Library and Museum)

There are suggestions, though, that from the beginning, Samuel had misgivings about coeducation. His original inspiration had been the great English public (i.e., private) schools, notably Rugby, all of them bastions of maleness. The bylaws of Williston Seminary, published in 1845 but in effect from incorporation, stated,

From Samuel Williston’s Constitution of Williston Seminary.

When classes first convened in December 1841, there were 192 scholars, 53 of them – 27% – young women. The Seminary’s literature made it clear that young women had access to all the curricular resources of the school. The Annual Catalogue of 1844 notes,

From the August, 1844 Annual Catalogue of Williston Seminary

So far, so good. But as the passage specifies that young ladies might attend the lectures in the sciences, it implies that the “same instruction as the other scholars” was taught separately by the “Lady of experience,” regardless of the subject matter. The “Lady” in question in the earliest years was one Miss Clarissa Stacy, listed in the Catalogues as “Teacher of the French Language.” In 1844 she was joined by Miss Sarah Brackett, who had the grand title of Preceptress. More often than not, over the next two decades of staff changes, the French teacher and the Preceptress were the same person. But only rarely did the Catalogue even acknowledge that individual as Preceptress, This was the case even in 1849-50, when Samuel Williston’s adopted daughter, Harriet Richards Williston held the job. Harriet, class of 1847, had no college education, having enrolled briefly at Mount Holyoke but withdrawn. Before becoming Preceptress, Harriet had also taught French, which she’d learned from Miss Stacy, from 1847-49.

Harriet Richards Williston Clark, much later in life, with some of her children.

In all but two instances we do not know the educational backgrounds of the nine women who served as Preceptress between 1844 and 1863. Besides Harriet, two others were recent alumnae of the Seminary. But it appears that the Preceptresses, occasionally assisted by another teacher, were responsible for every facet of the girls’ education outside the sciences, regardless of qualifications. This certainly calls into question how seriously the Seminary took its claim of “the same instruction.”

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The Williston Theater Turns 100

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

One of the highlights of May 2020 was to have been the Williston Theater’s much-anticipated presentation of Les Misérables. The COVID-19 crisis having closed the campus, it was not to be. It would have been an opportunity to publicly celebrate the centennial of The Williston Theater, which made its debut (as the Dramatic Club) in 1919-1920.

The very first Williston Dramatic Club production, December 1919. (Please click any image to enlarge it.)
Prehistory

To be clear, student theatricals were regular occurrences at Williston Seminary (as it was then called) prior to 1919. Teenagers have always been dramatic, and the “hey kids, let’s put on a show” instinct, often coupled with an urge to clown, is rarely far from the surface. Most of the student-produced shows of the time took on a rough-and-ready quality. Today we might call it skit comedy, and would probably be baffled by inside jokes and perhaps disappointed by the overall taste.

Skit comedy, 1881.

For a nominal fee, Williston students had the use of the auditorium and stage in the Town Hall, directly across Main Street from the campus. Although the building belonged to the town, it had been donated by Samuel Williston, and students made certain assumptions.

The mysterious rubber chest, a mere prop in the preceding poster, gets a script of its own.

In some instances, we might be more than disappointed at the tone of some of these efforts. “Appalling” is perhaps not too strong a word to describe student minstrel shows that featuring stereotypical characters and ethnic humor. Reflecting the times, the targets were most frequently African Americans and the Irish. Ironically, Williston was an integrated school by the 1870s. One can only speculate on how students of color might have responded.

Poster for a minstrel show, 1878.
The program for the preceding minstrel show. (Please click any image to enlarge it.)

Happily, some aspired to loftier dramatic pursuits. George Wardman, class of 1889, was one of a cadre of theater-mad students invited to participate in a faculty reading of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in 1888. Participants read multiple roles, and the female parts were undertaken by faculty spouses — Lady Macbeth by the Headmaster’s wife. The organizers were sufficiently pleased with themselves to attempt Hamlet a few weeks later. (Wardman preserved his invitation and cast list in a scrapbook full of other theatrical memorabilia; see An 1880s Williston Scrapbook.)

Professor Charles Buffum’s invitation to George Wardman.
The Macbeth cast list.
The Birth of the Drama Club

Student productions up prior to 1919 had enjoyed neither school sponsorship nor faculty supervision. All that changed with the 1917 arrival of Professor Laurence J. Smith, an English teacher and graduate of what was then known as Emerson College of Oratory. Smith set about convincing colleagues and students of the importance of “the promotion of the art of the theatre and the development of self-confidence and imagination through dramatic expression.” In October 1919, under Smith’s direction, a student cast took to the Town Hall stage with an evening of one-act plays. (The program is at the very top of this article.)

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A William Rittase Gallery (II)

By Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist
A William Rittase classroom image from the 1940s, with teacher Earl N. Johnston. The dramatic lighting, from floods placed outside the margins of the image, is characteristic. (Please click images to enlarge.)

William Rittase (1894-1968) was an American photographer based in Philadelphia.   On several occasions from the mid-1930 to the early 1950s, he was hired by Williston Academy to create catalogue images. He also, on at least one occasion in the ‘forties, shot photos at Northampton School for Girls. Rittase’s artistic interests lay in industrial and railroad subjects, for which his work is prized by collectors today. Catalogue photography was undoubtedly meant to pay the bills. But in retrospect, Rittase’s catalogue photography frequently surpasses the medium for which it was intended.

Rittase’s images are sprinkled throughout this blog, but only once, in A William Rittase Sports Gallery, have we devoted a full post just to his work. Not long ago his grandson left a comment on that page. That led to the realization that we have a great many wonderful images that we haven’t shared. Thus, this article.

South Hall, on the Old Campus, with the Easthampton Congregational Church in the background. The cloud effect is another Rittase signature

His style lent a distinctive look to Williston’s and Northampton’s marketing materials. Rittase’s work is typically characterized by dramatic lighting and high contrast between light and shadow.   In outdoor photographs, billowing clouds are another signature.  Sometimes he obtained his singular chiaroscuro through artificial means, placing floodlights at unusual angles, occasionally casting striking shadows. Retired Williston photography instructor Bob Couch ’50 has observed that Rittase’s trademark clouds sometimes repeat themselves from one image to the next. (And Rittase worked half a century before anyone had imagined digital photo editing.)

Chemistry at Northampton School for Girls, around 1945. Rittase has darkened the room, except for a flood placed low behind the glassware.

Most of Rittase’s photographs survive in the Archives as mounted gallery prints, in which the images measure approximately 13.75″ x 10.” Over the years, many of these have faded or the dyes in the prints turned sepia. But because we have the published images, and because other Rittase work is available as a reference, we have a good sense of what the originals once looked like. A number of years ago, using modern scanning and digital editing, we undertook a project to try to reproduce the photographs in something approximating their original state.

A Rittase print in its present state.
The preceding photograph, digitally restored. The tower of the old gymnasium appears in the background.

Beyond their often sheer beauty, Rittase’s pictures present aspects of student life and the campus that have long since vanished. Here are some of his best — or most interesting images. Viewers are encouraged to look for some of the Rittase attributes described above.

Faculty and Students
Classics master Lincoln Grannis, 1944. In this case we can date the photo from the calendar on the wall.
English teacher Chuck Rouse in conference.
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The Tale of The Lion

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

We are not a campus of monuments.  Other schools may have their statues of alumni Presidents, of creepy idealized schoolboys, of King Ozymandias . . . Williston has a statue called “The Actor,” generally understood to represent a fictional knight whose every attribute defies institutional aspirations toward Purpose, Passion, and Integrity.  And, of course, a lion.  No . . . The Lion.

The Lion in Winter. (Please click images to enlarge.)

The Lion has no name, nor does he represent the school’s Wildcat mascot.  He stands guarding the flagpole.  His empty eyes scan Mount Tom, perhaps anticipating danger from the bike path.  For generations he has been a magnet for children, some of them quite old, who cannot resist riding him.  Chameleonlike, his colors change so often that while his aging body is cast iron, observers may be forgiven for assuming that he is comprised entirely of layers of paint.  Perhaps like Auden’s Sphinx, The Lion is admired. but unloved.

Periodically, especially before important events like Convocation and Commencement, The Lion metamorphoses to a neutral color, institutionally repainted in the name of Looking Neat and Clean.  It never lasts.  The Lion has celebrated the national holidays of many countries, graduations, and the occasional birthday.  At times of local or national tragedy, leonine memorials have been de rigeur.  These have tended to last longer than other redecorative efforts.  He has been painted to advertise school plays, has appeared in support of political candidates, has been colored pink to promote breast cancer awareness,  and adopted a rainbow insignia to commemorate Williston’s participation in an LGBDQ Day of Silence.

(Ann Hallock)

Not every paint job has been so high-minded.  A couple of years ago, The Lion sported an odd shade of light blue, serving as background for a too-public senior prom invitation.  (Embarrassed, she declined.)  And painting traditions have changed over the years.  There was a time when a student subject to involuntary early departure might leave a farewell message.  More often, his friends would paint the beast in the miscreant’s memory.  Until a recent shift in tradition, it was rare actually to see anyone painting The Lion.  Most of the time, he appeared, overnight, to have painted himself.

The Lion in the 1930s, in its original Williston location, next to Swan Cottage

How the Lion Came to Williston

Edward Clare (William Rittase)

The Lion was brought to Easthampton in the 1920s by Williston Junior School Headmaster Edward Clare (for whom Clare House is named), and was installed next to what is now called Swan Cottage, on the crest of the Main Street Precipice.  When Ed Clare died suddenly in 1947, his widow Hazel stayed on, as did his Lion.  In 1965 the statue was relocated to a spot on the main campus, next to the Theater, where it remained until 1996, at which time it was moved to its present location, to make room for Falstaff.

The Legend of the Lion

According to legend, as transmitted by Hazel Clare, The Lion was one of a pair that stood overlooking the Charles River in Boston, on the property of a British merchant.  At the time of the Boston Tea Party, a mob invaded the merchant’s house and dumped the lions into the river.  The Tory fled to Canada, and the lions remained underwater until around the time of the Civil War, when they were dredged from the river during the expansion of the Charlestown Navy Yard.  Col. George Moore was the officer in charge of the recovery operation.  In civilian life, Col. Moore sold pianos.  That detail becomes relevant because at home in nearby Walpole, Mass., Moore had access to a variety of cranes, blocks, and tackles meant for hoisting pianos through upper-story windows, thus also useful for fishing cast iron lions out of the muck.  Moore took one of the lions for himself and installed it at his Walpole residence, which he named Lionhurst.  The second lion was taken by someone else, and lost to history.  Col. Moore had a daughter, Treby Moore.  Treby, who never married, was Edward Clare’s aunt.  She gave Ed the Lion, which he brought to Easthampton. Continue reading

Williston Northampton and Local History . . . Your History!