Professor Alvord Speaks His Mind

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

Henry E. Alvord, ca. 1886. [Lovell, J. L. (John Lyman), 1825-1903. University Photograph Collection (RG 120_2). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries] (Click images to enlarge.)
Henry Elijah Alvord (1844-1904) had the privilege of reinventing himself several times during his lifetime.  A native of Greenfield, Mass., he graduated Norwich University in the spring of 1862, aged 18, with a degree in Civil Engineering and a military education.  He immediately enlisted as a private in the 7th Rhode Island Squadron, rapidly rising to the rank of First Sergeant, and by November 1862, was commissioned Lieutenant in the 2nd Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry.  By the end of the Civil War in 1865, he had achieved the rank of Major, and was assigned a joint appointment as Superintendent of Freedmen’s Affairs in Northeastern Virginia and Superintendent of Schools in the Carolinas.

In 1868 he became Inspector General of the Indian Territory District (now Oklahoma), serving until 1869 when, by order of President Andrew Johnson, he was appointed Professor of Military Science and Tactics at Massachusetts Agricultural College (now UMass) in Amherst.  In 1871 he resigned from the Army and joined the U.S. Department of the Interior as a civilian Commissioner of Indian Affairs, eventually serving as Special Commissioner to the Sioux of Dacotah and Wyoming.

Then, for reasons unknown, he set his hand to other things.  In 1873 he was elected Professor of Drawing and Commercial Business at Williston Seminary, where he would remain until 1881.  (As shall be seen in the document below, he acquired other responsibilities.)  Most of his students were enrolled in the scientific, as opposed to the classical, department (for a look at the different curricula, see the last third of the article “Entrance Exam.”) “Commercial Business” primarily entailed bookkeeping and business math.  Students of drawing largely focused on mechanical drawing and drafting, but Alvord insisted that his program begin with an intensive study of freehand drawing.

Principal Joseph W. Fairbanks

In the spring of 1880 Principal Joseph W. Fairbanks, then completing his second year at the helm, asked Alvord, and probably all the faculty, to present status reports.  Whether this had been regular practice in the past is uncertain; few such statements from earlier years have come to light.  Fairbanks’ self-destructive predecessor, James Whiton, hadn’t lasted long enough to poll his faculty, nor would it have been in his character.  And by his own account Marshall Henshaw, who preceded Whiton and had hired Alvord, quarreled with him.  So it is likely that  Alvord was pleased to have been asked, possibly for the first time.  In any case, he responded with a detailed letter whose scope extended beyond the confines of Alvord’s assigned duties.  The document provides wonderful insight not only into faculty workloads and responsibilities at the time, but also addresses wear and tear on the buildings, student behavior, and much more.  (The first page of Alvord’s manuscript is reproduced here, followed by a transcription of the entire document.)

Department of Drawing, Williston Seminary
Easthampton, Mass, April 17, 1880

To the Principal.
In compliance with your request, I respectfully present the following statement of the duties performed by me in connection with the Seminary, during the current year, with remarks thereon.

Joseph Sawyer with his surveying class, ca. 1900.

My duties have been similar to those of previous years — three classes in Drawing of 2, 3, and 4 hours a week, respectively, extending through the year; one class in Book-keeping in the Fall Term, in history in the Winter Term and in Surveying (assisting Prof. Sawyer) in the Spring Term, five forenoons in the week; supervision of Gymnastic exercises four afternoons and Inspection of Dormitories on Saturday mornings.

The time thus passed by me with classes or on specific duty at the Seminary has averaged twenty-four (24) hours per week, during the year; in Drawing, 9 hours; in Recitations 5 hours; at Gymnasium 9 hours, on Inspection, 1 hour.

The Drawing: During the year there have been 35 different pupils in Instrumental Drawing, members of the Senior and Middle Scientific Classes, and 31 pupils in Free-hand Drawing, from the Middle and Junior Middle Scientific Classes.

A particularly fine piece of freehand drawing, indicative of the standards Alvord asked of his students.

When called to the Seminary, now about seven years ago, I was informed that the special object was to establish and develop the Dept. of Drawing, and particularly to teach the practical branches of Drawing, then just beginning to receive attention in the schools of this country.  The work has been gradually introduced as a requirement in the Scientific Course of Study and only within the past year has the original plan been realized.  As now in operation, the course of instruction is this:

The student begins with elementary work in Free-hand Drawing at the opening of the Junior Middle year and during that year devotes two hours per week in drawing outlines and practice upon the fundamental principles of Perspective, in the last Term.  In the Fall Term of Middle year, the instruction is given three hours a week, in outline drawing from models and solid objects, with applied perspective.  With the second term of Middle Year begins Drawing with Instruments (the class having then had one term’s instruction in Plane Geometry) and during the Winter and Spring Terms, Geometrical Constructions and Elementary projections are taught 3 hrs. a week.

At the opening of the Senior year, the students are prepared to follow the different branches of industrial drawing, as applied to wood, stone, and iron-work in architecture, mechanism, etc., as each may elect, and they then spend four hours a week in the Draughting Room, for two terms, copying from the flat, tracing and drawing from models, to scale.  The drawing for the last Term of Senior year, is that which properly accompanies Plane Surveying including the principles of Topography and an introduction to the practical office-work of the civil engineer.

Attention is asked to this detailed statement, because this course of instruction is more comprehensive, systematic and practical than in any other school in the country, of this grade, and has received special commendation from the Higher Schools of Science where constant annoyance arises from students otherwise well prepared, being lamentably deficient in this branch, now so essential to advanced Scientific study.

The appointments for this instruction are not all that could be desired; but we manage to get along pretty well.  Mechanical and architectural models are especially wanted, but these are expensive and can be gradually obtained.  I would be glad to place one new model before each class, at an expense of fifteen to twenty dollars a year.  A few more drawing boards and some other small articles are needed, and I request authority to expend $25 for such purposes during the next year, subject to your approval.  The Drawing Room has been full during the present year, and if the classes continue to increase in numbers, additional accommodations must be provided.

The interior of the gymnasium, showing gymnastic apparatus.

Book-Keeping, History, etc.  My classes during the third morning hour have been small this year and require no special comment.  The work in Surveying will be covered by Prof. Sawyer’s report.

The Gymnastic Exercises have been carried through the year in the usual way, concerted exercise by classes, and without special friction.  All the members of the school participate, except the Seniors and a few other students who have presented special and sufficient reasons for being excused.

The building has received pretty hard usage during the year and considerable repairs are now needed, chiefly upon the apparatus.  From the experience of the last two or three years, I am inclined to doubt the expediency of lighting the Gymnasium in the evening, before study hours, except on special occasions.

Allow me to renew the reminder that I accepted the charge of the Gymnasium in 1875, with reluctance, as a temporary matter; and hope, whenever it may be practicable, to have other duties substituted more in accordance with the terms of my original engagement as a teacher.

Middle Hall, which had just acquired indoor plumbing, “thoroughly appreciated . . . by the whole neighborhood.”

The Weekly Inspection of Students’ Rooms, has been continued, and the economy and good effect of the matron service is still apparent.  The water-closet improvement in Middle Hall has been thoroughly appreciated by the students — as well as by the whole neighborhood, and with trifling exceptions, these accommodations have not been misused.

In regards to students’ rooms, I make these recommendations:

1. That upon occupying a room, or rooms in the dormitories, students be required to make a sufficient indemnity deposit and to sign a receipt for the perishable articles of furniture, the same to be held by the Asst. Treasurer and refunded upon presentation of a clearance receipt from the Janitor, when the room is vacated.

2. That occupants of rooms be prohibited from attaching anything to walls or woodwork, which will injure the paint or paper.

3. That a uniform article of earthen or stone-ware, or galvanized iron, be adopted for a slop-jar, and that the occupants of every room be required to procure one and keep it in a condition satisfactory to the inspector.

A student group, Class of 1880.

Although asked only for comments upon that portion of the work of this institution which comes under my immediate charge, I venture to add a few remarks upon the general conditions and interests of the Seminary.

We must admit that for a few years, the institution has had a surplus of the wrong kind of advertising — notoriety rather than reputation, and that while improving in this respect, we are suffering from the effects of it.  I seldom get away from Easthampton without being compelled to meet from some source the opinion that in point of character and conduct, our students as a body are objectionable.  The same thing appears in correspondence.  Unpleasant as it is, the fact cannot be avoided or ignored.  Williston Seminary most needs, at the present time, an energetic effort to correct this difficulty.  We must maintain good discipline at any cost, and may rest assured that if this be done, there will speedily result a reputation which will bear good fruit.

In its educational organization, the Seminary appears to stand in great need of a revision and more systematic classification of the departments of instruction.  In general terms, it may be said that our two Courses of Study include these definite parallel lines of teaching:
Mathematics, Latin, Greek, English (with Mental Science), Modern Languages, Natural Science, History, Drawing, Elocution and Physical Training.  These divisions but little exceed the different instructors in number, yet in nearly every division, two or more instructors teach, and but one or two of the teachers are able to confine themselves to their chosen specialties.  The six or seven classes in mathematics organized every term have been taught by five different members of our corps during the past year; there is no teacher of mathematics alone.  The natural sciences, three or four classes at a time — just about work enough for one man, if united, are divided among three different instructors.  History classes during the year have been under four or five different teachers.  Even the modern languages have not been under one man.  It is true that Greek, Elocution and Drawing have but a single instructor each, but these teachers all have other duties of an entirely different character.  The result is great difficulty in arranging the daily duties to accommodate both classes and teachers — an unfortunate necessity for instructors to ride several horses at a time — and the danger that some will favor their hobbies.

A general re-organization of the work of the school, forming well-defined departments of kindred subjects, about equal in quantity of service, without regard to individuals — the only true basis, would unquestionably promote the efficiency of the instruction at the Sem’y.  Such a re-adjustment might necessitate changes in the personnel of the corps of instructors — I can see that it might sever my own connection with the institution, which I should greatly regret — but no such reason justifies a failure to recognize and suggest measures which seem essential to the general interests and future welfare of the Seminary.

Respectfully submitted,
Henry E. Alvord, Instructor

Alvord left Williston in the summer of 1881.  During his service in the West, he had taken an interest in the emerging cattle industry, and since 1871, had operated, often in absentia, his wife’s family’s Virginia farm.  After Williston, he directed the Houghton Experimental Farm in Cornwall, New York, and rapidly became the preeminent scholar in the field of scientific dairy farming.  He would serve as President of two land-grant agricultural colleges, the University of Maryland and Oklahoma State University, and ended his career heading the Dairy Division of the Bureau of Animal Industry of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  He died in 1904.

2 thoughts on “Professor Alvord Speaks His Mind”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *