Category Archives: Academic 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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‘Hamp Alumnae Speak (1966)

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

This fall we are celebrating the 95th anniversary of the 1924 founding of Northampton School for Girls, which merged with Williston Academy in 1971.   Many Northampton alumnae consider their school a unique, special place.  It is harder, with nearly half a century’s perspective, to pin down just what the essence of Northampton School was.  But recently a survey of ‘Hamp alumnae came to hand.  It comes close.  The study was carried out in 1965 and published in their Alumnae News the following year.That report is reproduced here in its entirety, without further commentary.  We’ve included a few additional photographs mostly because we like them, and they break up the page.  They’re not meant to illustrate any particular narrative.  (As always, please click each image to enlarge.)

(For a history of ‘Hamp and the merger, please see Northampton School for Girls — and After.  Links to other posts about Northampton School are at the bottom of this article.)

Founders/Principals Sarah Whitaker and Dorothy Bement in 1925.

The library in Scott Hall.

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An Intersession Gallery

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

Alan Shaler’s cooking class, with Gwen Pullman and Barbara Sloan, 1979. (Click all images to enlarge.)

For twenty-one years, beginning in 1975, Williston Northampton culture was partially defined by the Winter Session, later called Intersession, program.  It was modeled on the January Term programs then popular in many colleges.  The “statement of purpose” in the prospectus for the first year read,

“During most of the academic year, the Williston Northampton School is primarily concerned with the very important task of giving its students the best in college preparatory academics.   This should and must be our primary task, but often this leaves little or no time for experimentation with new programs and different approaches to learning.  Thus, during the school year 1974-75, Williston Northampton has lengthened its overall school year and set aside 25 days in January during which the whole school community will concentrate on programs which tend to be extra-curricular during the bulk of the school year.”

A quilting workshop, 1991

“The emphasis during the Winter Session is on learning by doing.  The student will not just read about the Navajo Indians but he will actually go and live among them.  He will not just speak French in class but will speak it with and among Frenchmen in Cannes.  He will perform in a play; or sing in a chorus; or build a table; or learn to type; or serve senior citizens in the community; or work each day with mental patients; or observe criminal court proceedings; or … the list goes on and on.  Student and teacher will be active and involved.  The student will not be graded but will be expected to evaluate his own accomplishments at the end of the session, which evaluation together with a verbal evaluation of his work  by the teacher will be placed in his permanent file.”

Students at the Ming Tombs, Nanjing, China, 1982

One observes, alas, the use of gender-specific pronouns to describe a program at a school then in its fourth year of full coeducation.  But let us overlook that, for the moment; it is symptomatic of a cultural issue endemic to the school for more than a decade after the merger with Northampton School.  This has been discussed elsewhere.  (See the last part of “Northampton School for Girls – and After.”)  Better we should consider the ambitious nature of this fledgling program which, remarkably, achieved most of its goals and established a high standard in that very first year.

Bob Bagley assisting with wooden toy-making, 1991

Over the next few years the program would grow and evolve.  The range of some of the offerings is hinted at in excerpts from the annual catalog, reproduced at the bottom of this article.  Students were encouraged to try new things, new approaches to learning — and by the second decade, students were teaching some of the courses.  Faculty frequently taught their avocations, rather than their academic specialties: some of the offerings over the years included fine cooking with Alan Shaler (English), carpentry and toymaking from Bob Bagley (Math), wood carving with Ann Vanderburg (Math), home renovation with Stephen Seybolt (English) and Bob Couch (Math and Photography), music and architectural appreciation from Elizabeth Esler (Librarian), “Developing a Comic Character” with Stan Samuelson (Math),  investment from Robert Blanchette (French), figure skating with Harriet Tatro (Science). Continue reading

Going to Mount Tom (ca. 1870)

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

Abner Davol, class of 1872

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.

Abner Davol, “Going to Mt. Tom,” page 1.

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.

Mt. Tom from Holyoke Street, at the time unpaved. Except for a few farms, the mile between the “factory village” and the foot of the mountain was unpopulated.

Page 2

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.

Mt. Tom from Nashawannuck Pond, ca. 1880. Then as now, the mountain was irresistible.

After Williston, Abner Davol returned to Fall River, where he became a banker and City Councillor.  He died in 1940, aged 87.