The Great Seminary Fire

The first Seminary building, Detail of an 1845 engraving by G. H. Throop.

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.

Henry Perry. (Courtesy of Diana Lynne Severance)

Easthampton, Thursday, March 5 [1857], after dinner

My dear Parents,

Doubtless by this time you are expecting a letter from me, and perhaps the more, after hearing, as you probably will before this reaches you, that we have lost the wood Seminary by fire.  I came home as usual from the rhetorical exercises yesterday and thought I would exercise a short time at my “wood pile” before commencing the morrow’s lessons [1] — had worked about an hour and was just going home to my room when I heard the alarm of fire and the bells commenced ringing.  And upon looking toward the Seminary I saw a dense cloud of black smoke coming from the L part.  I went down as quick as possible and commenced helping the students get out their things — the seminary furniture, &c &c.  It was all bustle and confusion, I tell you.  Some throwing looking-glasses, chairs, bedsteads, &c out of the second story windows and breaking things up at a great rate and others more careful carrying them down by hand.  Everything was got out in some shape or other, except from the attic rooms of the L part which the poorest students occupied and where the fire originated.  There were five or six students who were out at the time the fire commenced who lost all they had in the world except what they wore at the time.  One of these, a Mr. Porter, is a member of the Middle Class [2] and is Brother to the Porter that lived at Mr. Horace Coles and whom he treated so badly.  He has no father — was boarding himself, and working his way along.  He had over $100 worth of clothing, books, &c which were all destroyed and which was all he possessed anywhere.  I presume measures will be taken to help him with some others.  The building burned from 4 to 7 o’clock when it was level with the ground.  It was largely insured, and is attended with no very great loss, but considerable inconvenience.  Mr. Williston has today made arrangements with the brick maker for the brick to build another Seminary, which will be larger and more commodious than the last and will probably be finished for use next fall term.  We met this morning for prayers in the vestry of the church which will be used for that purpose for the present and also the recitation room for the Senior Class.  Our recitations will go on as before as we recite in the other Seminary [3].

It is well for me isn’t it: that I am here, for if I had taken a room in the Seminary as I expected I should have been in the one which was burned as the rooms in the other were all taken up before I came here.  The burning of the Seminary does not affect me in the least, beside the inconvenience which it occasions the whole school as respects recitation rooms.  Those students who were thus driven from their rooms are mostly provided for either in the other Sem. or with those who roomed alone or with private families.  I presume if Grenville [4] did not stay with me I should have taken some one in with me, but cannot as it is, and prefer not to if they can all find accommodations elsewhere.

Perry’s letter (Click to enlarge)

I am getting along well in my studies, am enjoying myself much but am anticipating vacation more.  I have been shut up studying so long it will be quite a relief to retrace my steps in the same way in which almost fifteen weeks ago I came.  I shall probably come via South Deerfield as I can start from here at 1½ o’clock upon the train that arrives in Northampton just in season for the up train from Springfield, and get home at six without stopping at all which will be far preferable to going by the Post.

I commenced a week from last Tuesday reciting in Latin pronunciation in addition to my other studies with two other young men who are going to join our class next term which increases somewhat the amount of study which I have daily to perform and makes me unusually busy, but am having a little leisure today as we were excused from our usual Cicero lesson this morning on account of the state of affairs yesterday afternoon and evening, and as the students, being tired and worn out by the labor and excitement of yesterday, were not well prepared.

I found myself deficient in Latin pronunciation.  I thought this was a good opportunity to learn it, and I would improve it especially as it has to be learned sometime.  I received last Friday evening a letter from Sarah Ann, and day before yesterday a short one from Mr. Lloyd.  I think I shall not answer either till vacation.  I shall have quite a bundle of letters to write then, shan’t I?  But I can write some of them in the store when it would be impossible to study.

I received an invitation to call at Dr. Clark’s through Miss Ellen who is quite intimate with Mr. Clark’s daughters, but don’t know as I shall find time to go but think I must before school is out.  I met the Dr. in the street last Saturday and introduced myself to him.  He made many apologies for not sending the catalogue he promised Father and said he was going to Ashfield soon on business, I believe something about Dr. Smith’s estate.

Miss Ellen suggests that I call at the Dr.’s before our public Adelphi [5].  I suppose that I may form an acquaintance with the ladies there and accompany them home on that evening, but I am not going to, and if I do call before then I am not going to invite them, would you?  They go in the first company here and I mistrust they would not care to have me.

There has been a little religious interest in the school all along previous to the day of the annual fast for colleges and seminaries of learning and four or five conversions since that time.  A Mr. Graves from New York, a city missionary has been here laboring and preaching, speaking before the students every opportunity he could get, and has had two or three inquiry meetings which 30 of the other students have attended, and Tuesday night it was reported there were 22 conversions but I very much fear the number has been exaggerated and that mere optimism has led many in who will be worse than before, but I hope it will prove a pure work of the Holy Spirit among us, and that we may be blessed with a revival of pure religion.  Our meetings are interesting.  I enjoy them much and occasionally take part in them.  The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was administered last sabbath, which is the second time I have been permitted to meet with God’s people in Easthampton and to celebrate with them the abounding love of our Lord Jesus Christ.  I thought much of you and Sarah Ann. — I would like to fill this sheet but time forbids and I cannot write more but shall soon be at home and can tell you the much better.  I should be very glad to receive another letter from home this term.

Much love to all.  From your affectionate


(Please excuse mistakes as I have not time to correct this.)


[1] Perry, like many students of the time, did household chores for a family in town in exchange for room and board.

[2] The equivalent of the modern 11th grade.

[3] The “other seminary” was “English Hall,” constructed of brick in 1844.  Alumni prior to 1951 will remember the building as Middle Hall.  The new structure, “Classical Hall,” would later be known as South Hall.

[4] Probably Timothy Grenville Darling, class of 1860.

[5] Adelphi was a literary society, offering weekly public debate and oratory.

And see: Abner Austin, Fireman!

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