Thanksgiving, a national holiday since 1863, had special significance in Massachusetts, its state of origin. But the tradition of a school vacation is relatively recent. In the 19th century Williston Seminary celebrated the day, but that was all. Still, Seminary students welcomed any holiday.
George Benjamin Wardman, class of 1889, kept a scrapbook of his first two years at Williston, which he entered in the fall of 1885. It is a fascinating collection. Wardman saved printed memorabilia of debates, theatrical events (to which he happily journeyed significant distances), ballgames, dances, musical entertainments, the occasional restaurant meal – all in all, evidence of a student deeply committed to every aspect of school life except, perhaps, the academic program.
Among Wardman’s souvenirs is the menu from the Williston Dining Hall’s Thanksgiving Dinner in 1885. It is a sumptuous repast, featuring not only the traditional turkey, but goose, oysters, and an array of desserts that would have lifted the hearts, and possibly the arteries, of any adolescent in boarding-school exile from his family. Should he still be hungry, there was an “Evening Collation” offering even more treats.
The name “Williston Dining Hall” is misleading. In the 1880s, the Seminary offered lodgings, but no food services. Some students and faculty formed eating clubs in local restaurants or the town’s one hotel, the Mansion House (remembered by older present-day alumni as Payson Hall). About 100 students took their meals at one of two boarding houses, the larger of which was managed by a Mr. H. A. Stevens. Stevens grandly billed his establishment as the “Seminary Dining Hall,” and billed the students $3.50 a week for three squares a day. The other, probably more intimate and upscale boarding house was that of Mrs. Jane Olney, who charged a whopping $5.00 per week.
Wardman also preserved the program from an 1887 Thanksgiving celebration, “Salve” (“Hail”). The document is of interest for a variety of reasons: first, that it is dated, in Latin, December 8th. The national Thanksgiving holiday was, by Presidential proclamation, celebrated on November 24th, but some states, including Massachusetts, used different dates. Second, the party was held at the “Williston Mansion,” today called the Homestead. This had been the residence of Samuel and Emily Williston. But with Emily’s death in 1885, the house had been willed to the school. Emily’s intent was that it should become the Principal’s residence, as indeed it would be for four Headmasters. But in 1887 William Gallagher, in his second year in the top job, had either not yet moved in, or chose, even had he been the host, to leave his name off the invitation. Either way, it is unlikely that Emily, of Puritan sensibilities, would have approved of card games on the premises.
George Wardman’s biography has the flavor of the Old West long past: born in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1869, he came to Williston Seminary from New Orleans. He enrolled in the class of 1888, but financial difficulties forced his early departure. He went to California to seek his fortune, which he did not find, but returned to Williston to graduate in 1889. He studied civil engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for a year, then helped construct the Great Northern Railway from Great Falls, Montana, westward. He later became a chemist and assayer, working with several copper mining concerns in Colorado, Arizona, and Deadwood, South Dakota, where he was married. He later became a mining executive and commercial agent in Aguascalientes, Mexico, where he served as U.S. Consul. He died in California in 1951.
Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at Williston Northampton!