Tag Archives: Samuel Williston

The Button Speech

Each fall Archivist Rick Teller ’70 speaks to the assembled School on some aspect of Williston Northampton history.  The event, popularly known as “the button speech,” only occasionally concerns buttons at all.  But this year it did.  These remarks were delivered on Friday, September 20, 2013.

The Williston Birthplace, ca. 1880. Note the kid on the tricycle! (Click images to enlarge.)

Good morning.  At solemn occasions … like hockey games … we sing about someone named “Sammy.”  Our hearts yearn for him … for his campus and geriatric elm.  But, you might well ask, about whom do we sing?  Just who was “Sammy?”

Samuel Williston was born across the street, in a house located where the Homestead now stands.  The house, where Mr. Swanson lives and which we now call “The Birthplace,” was moved across Park Street in 1843.  It is much grander now than it was when Sam arrived.

That was in 1795.  George Washington was President.  Easthampton was a small farm village.  Samuel’s father, Payson Williston, was the minister in Easthampton’s only church.  Payson was a stern, old-fashioned New England preacher, with strong Calvinist leanings.  We will get to Calvinism in a minute.  The Reverend Mr. Williston’s salary was tiny, and he had a house full of children.  He added to his income by planting a few acres of mediocre farmland.  That farm is now the heart of our magnificent campus.

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The Depot

In 1854 Samuel Williston established the Hampshire and Hampden Railroad Company.  He and his longtime business partner, Joel Hayden of Williamsburg, Mass., initially hoped to extend the line as far as Troy, New York, but their realistic concern was to connect Easthampton and Williamsburg, both former villages that were now evolving into factory towns, with what they correctly saw as a rapidly developing national rail grid.

The H. & H.R.R. purchased the route of the defunct Northampton-New Haven Canal, an ill-conceived enterprise that had already lost Samuel a considerable sum.  The project took five years; competing railroads did their best to create obstacles.  Samuel ultimately spent $35,000 of his own money—about $820,000 in current dollars—to see the 24-mile rail spur’s completion.

His biographer, Frank Conant, points out that it was more “a matter of public service rather than for profit.”  But “the day would come when he could board the cars at Easthampton’s nearby depot and arrive in New York City a few hours later.”1

The Easthampton Rail Station in the mid-1950s, shortly before passenger service ceased.

Whether there was an elaborate rail station in the early years, or just a simple shed, has not been determined.  The present building apparently dates from 1871.  In its original state it contained a large waiting room, baggage room, and office for the station master.

The depot appears frequently in Williston Seminary lore: teams and spectators would board “the cars” for travel to away games as far away as Worcester.  The train provided quick access to the entertainment delights of Springfield.  Individual anecdotes describe torchlight processions of departing student “heroes”  down Union Street from the campus.2  Even freight service found its way into legend: witness the tale of William Peck’s double bass, retold in “Williston’s First Orchestra.”

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The Button Mill

S. Williston, Williston & Knight, and Hayden buttons of Easthampton and Williamsburg manufacture. (Click images to enlarge.)

The fabric-covered buttons that made Samuel and Emily Williston’s fortune began humbly enough.  Most small-town and rural families, regardless of occupation, had a cash- or barter-producing sideline; Emily, a talented seamstress, made buttons to supplement her family’s meager income.  The date is uncertain, but sometime early in the 1820s, she had the opportunity to dismantle a fancy button of foreign manufacture and see how it was made.  The several versions of the story are the stuff of legend (and a future blog post); what she and Samuel did with the information is a matter of history.

They organized as many as 1,000 households throughout western Massachusetts – a gigantic cottage industry – in sewing buttons to Emily’s design.  Essentially, fabric was cleverly sewn around a wooden center.  Emily provided patterns and instruction; Samuel, materials, cartage, warehousing, marketing.  The buttons produced income beyond anything the Willistons might have dreamed.  The demand for S. Williston buttons was so great that by 1827, Williston created a “budget” line – fundamentally, discounted seconds – of buttons that sold under another name.  He wanted the public to associate his brand only with the best-quality product.

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First Thoughts: Mission Statements of Williston Academy and Northampton School for Girls

by Richard Teller ’70, Archivist and Librarian.  Originally published as a “web extra” to the Fall 2011 Bulletin.

Sarah Whitaker and Dorothy Bement, 1925

The idea of a formal statement of mission is relatively new, but schools have always had equivalents, whether found in the prefaces to catalogs or as essential portions of re-accreditation studies.  It would appear impractical, if not impossible, to found a school without some kind of declaration of one’s purpose in doing so.  At the time of their founding, both Northampton School for Girls and Williston Seminary, as it was originally called, issued documents that not only set out their plans, but reflected the personalities of their founders.

Northampton School for Girls, which opened in 1924, was imagined by Sarah B. Whitaker and Dorothy M. Bement to be rightly considered … the lineal descendant of their former employer, the Capen School for Girls.  They said as much in a 1923 prospectus, “Announcing the Northampton School for Girls”:

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