Our Earliest Photograph?

The campus, 1867 (Click to enlarge)

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.

1856, showing the First Church prior to its relocation (Click to enlarge)

One may tentatively date the photo to 1867, the year that North Hall was completed.  Not only does the building appear new, but careful viewers will note a pile of leftover bricks and an absence of plantings.

North Hall was constructed on the site of the First Congregational Church.  Samuel Williston arranged to have the church moved to the east side of the Town Common in 1866.  The church is pictured in its original location in the 1856 engraving at right, and in its new situation in the photograph below.

The Town Common, ca. 1890 (Click to enlarge)

The second photograph is the work of Charles Akeley (1858-1933), a photographer based in West Brattleboro, Vermont, active in the 1880s and 1890s.  Akeley was primarily a farmer whose photographic efforts were a sideline.  What brought him to Easthampton is unknown.  His wife’s maiden name was Pomeroy, so it is possible that she was connected to the many Pomeroys in Easthampton and Southampton.

The image, measuring just under 10 x 8 inches, is a recent purchase from Stacy Waldman.  It is undated, but is probably from around 1890.  It can be no later than 1895, when Easthampton laid down trolley tracks.  Longtime Easthampton residents and more venerable Williston alumni will recognize the Mansion House Hotel, later known as Payson Hall, at left.  The First Church is in the center.  One can just make out the cornice of the first Easthampton High School, known today as Memorial Hall, at far right, where one will also note the distinctive cast-iron fence that was erected around the campus in the 1870s.  A portion of that fence remains on the corner of Main Street and Campus Lane today; much more was relocated to the present Williston Northampton campus on Payson Avenue.

The common item in all three images is the Pulpit Elm, planted on the site of the pulpit of the first (1788) Meeting House.  Today the elm is long gone, but there is a stone marker and plaque.

My thanks to Elizabeth McCollum of the Brattleboro Historical Society for providing information for this post.  — rt

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