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.
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.
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