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.

Abner’s letter is transcribed below.  Peculiarites of punctuation and syntax have been retained.

Easthampton, March 5th 1857

To all whom this may concern.

As the Lord ordered that one of the Williston Seminary’s should be burnt it took place yesterday afternoon the 4th of March.  It caught up in the 3d story about ½ past 4 and at ½ past 6 it was burnt to the ground.

It happened that their [sic] was not many students in at the time it commenced so that those in the  3d story lost all but what they had on.

I worked hard and so they all did.  The first thing I done was to holler fire and run to the engine house for the engine (the only one in town) Myself and another student burst the doors in with our feet and by that time their was enough their to help draw it over to the reservoir. [1]  I worked on it most of the time when I could get a chance but it did not do any good for the fire had got between the ceilings and we could not put it out any way.  So we gave it up and begun to play onto the other and also onto the wood pile and saved them.

The reverse of the sheet. Click to enlarge.

The Town Hall caught on fire & also another house but did not do any damage for their were men on both with pails of water ready to put it out.

The building was insured to its full amount so that, that will help.  The students loss was $600.  The loss of the cabinet which belonged to Dr. Hitchcock [2] was about $1000.  Most of the things were saved.  We go on with our school but in rather in a cramped up way.  It will not do me any good to stay nor any of the English department for we have to recite where it happened.  A part of the English [3] scholars have gone home and I thought of coming and then come back and bring the money.  I do not think that we shall go in at all after a day or two (the English Department) and if we do we shall go just where it happened.

Jake says he shall go home Monday if he gets some money to pay his bills, for his books was burnt and one of mine was too.

Lend me $5.00 [4] for I want to go to an Exhibition before I come home it is next Thursday night at Northampton.  I think it my duty to leave school now for I am learning nothing but uglyness, but if you wish I will stay for I calculate we shall have a good time about the last nights for we do now.  Write or send or come as soon as you get this for I want to know what and where I am going and what to do.

(This was written in haste the same way the Sem was burnt.)

A. E. Austin

Send the money up in two letters   Mrs. Coleman says that it will be safe enough she thinks  All the students have money come every day one of them had $100. come in a common letter.  I do not think it worth while for Andrew to come up for it will cost you $4.50   You can send it just as well.


[1]  From Austin’s description, it appears that Easthampton had a hand- or horse-drawn fire engine.  Since he makes no mention of a boiler, we must assume that the pump was operated by hand, rather than steam.

[2] Dr. Edward Hitchcock, Amherst College President, Williston Seminary Trustee, and the preeminent American geologist of the day, had presented the School with an extensive collection of mineral specimens.

[3] I.e., Scientific, as opposed to Classical scholars.

[4] The manuscript reads “lend me $52.00.”  It appears that Abner originally wrote “2.00,”  changed his mind and inserted “$5,” and neglected to erase the 2.

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