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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1842 Letter

Edwin Lawrence Buttrick

Delivered: June 1892

Oliver Wendell Holmes has said:

Youth hopes, manhood strives, but age remembers —
Sits by the raked up ashes of the past,
Spreads its thin fingers above the whitening embers,
That warm its chilled life-blood 'till the last.

But today, as I look down the vista of 50 years, the "raked up ashes" are living fires, bright with the hopes, the courage, the audacity, and the inexperience of youth. I recall the Class of 1842 the day we separated, and as I call the roll, the living presence of each member is as vivid as the recollections of yesterday. We parted, many of us never to meet again, each to follow his own path, and work out his own destiny. It would give me great pleasure to detail the life experiences of each classmate, so far as they could be learned, but it would have been a great labor, and I doubt if it would interest any who hear me, except perhaps the few who knew and loved them. Of the 23 who graduated, 10 are living; of the 13 who have died, three passed three-score years — three, three-score years and ten. Of the nine who became ordained ministers, six are still living; of the seven who embraced the legal profession, five are dead. Of the seven who adopted other professions or pursuits, only two survive.

Clinton was the home of my boyhood. I feel a kind of proprietorship in College Hill and its surroundings. I recall the village as I saw it more than 60 years ago — a dull, sleepy village where, to the inhabitants, existence seemed a pleasure, with little care for anything beyond. I see the white wooden church, standing on the treeless village green; the cows ruminating in its shade or cropping the scanty herbage about it; the pigs wandering in unrestrained freedom where their fancy called them—when it was dry, rolling in the dusty road; when it was wet, bathing in the grateful mud. The pews in the church, blue on the outside, unpainted on the inside, straight-backed, remind me of the purgatory of the children and the penance of their parents during the orthodox but interminable sermons of dear old Dr. Norton — the interval at noon filled up by Sunday school — the exhilarating walk between afternoon and evening service to the burying ground, where we were expected to learn lessons of mortality from the mouldering heaps where each in his narrow cell forever laid, the rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep and reading the epitaphs, gather inspiration from the virtues recorded there.

At that time, the flames of devotion which burned in the breasts of the worshipers, were deemed sufficient to keep them warm — no artificial heat tempered the arctic cold of winter, no shades the heat of summer. There were few trees between the village and the College until about where the president’s house stands, from there to the College grounds, a dismal row of poplars, as ragged and moribund 50 years ago as they are today — it is a tree always dying and never dead, and utterly worthless living or dead. Where Professor North's house stands was a pasture, without a tree. From the bend in front of his house was a landscape, beautiful beyond expression.

The broad valley of the Oriskany with its crystal stream threading its way through farm and woodland, the wooded hills sweeping back to the horizon's verge, broken here and there by verdant meadows, the quiet village, the spires of Utica, and then the sweep of almost unbroken forest to the horizon of the Trenton hills, formed the picture.

The College campus had no shade except a few small elms, now grown to splendid trees, along the white fence which marked the road leading from College Street north. On the opposite side of this road was a row of poplars — that part of the campus below this road was a pasture surrounded by a board fence, where President North turned his cows, and the students — milked them. The beautiful lawn at Professor Root's was a kitchen garden — the luxuriant hedge in front of his house replaces a white, paling fence, not in the best of repair. The ravines in the rear of the house were as nature formed them, used only as a receptacle for the brush from the trimmings of the trees and the refuse from the house.

The College grounds had nothing attractive about them, but from every part of the campus, the landscape was superb. It is a pity that "rural art" in its generous distribution of trees and shrubs now shuts it completely out, except from the upper stories of the College building or the belfry of the Chapel.

The valley of the Oriskany, with its protecting hills, its clumps of woodland breaking the monotony of the cultivated fields and luxuriant meadows; its quiet villages, its comfortable farmhouses, its evidences of taste and refinement, everywhere present a picture of rural beauty rarely seen, and it is a pity that it should be shut from the view of those, to whom, of all others, the sight would be both restful and inspiring. Trees are beautiful, and he who would ruthlessly destroy them is a vandal; but the rural artist who shall judiciously open out vistas through the jungle which shuts out this landscape, will not only add to the beauty of the campus but give pleasure to those who, from time to time, come back from the busy cares of life, to this quiet Mecca of their youth.

The Hamilton students of today would find little pleasure in the College life of 50 years ago. We had no gymnasium, no athletic clubs, no croquet, no tennis, no cane rushes, no football, no boat races. We played occasionally an improvised game of baseball, but it had none of the complicated rules of the game as played today. When we hit a ball we hit it for all it was worth, and the further it went, and the more inaccessible the spot where it struck, so much the better for the one who struck it. There were no "bounds," no "fouls," no "sliding to base." The balls were not like round shot; the catcher needed no visor to protect his face, no cushion to break the force of the ball. We had no "umpires" to take their lives in their hands in deciding the differences which sometimes arose between the opposing forces; but we did sometimes appoint someone to keep the tally by cutting notches on a stick, and we used to think we enjoyed the game. I recall no foot races, except an occasional sprint barefooted, with Pomeroy, between the South College and the Chapel. No one bet on the result, and we rarely had spectators, and as I was usually beaten, I did not take much interest in the game.

There were only two secret societies — Alpha Delta Phi and Sigma Phi. There was an anti-secret society, composed mostly of those who were not invited to join the secret associations, and the feeling of its members was naturally very bitter against those, who in secret conclave hid their doings from the world. The literary societies, the Phoenix and Union, were centers of social interest. They were naturally rivals, and each new student was solicited to join. I have always believed that it was a great mistake when they were dissolved. Many of the lawyers and divines, of whose eloquence as alumni of Hamilton College we are proud, took their first, and I believe their best lessons here.

Fifty years ago, the rooms of the students were mostly in the College buildings. In the earlier part of our course, the Chapel bell rung for morning prayers at 6 a.m., summer and winter—rang two minutes and tolled three— two minutes to dress and three minutes to get there. To fail was a tardy mark, and tardy marks counted. Toilets were not always very carefully made; and sometimes, but for the kindly protection of great overcoats, they were not made at all. After prayers, we had recitation until 7 a.m. and then breakfast, which in winter was eaten by lamplight. This was before the days of coal oil and we burned either tallow candles or whale oil. The rule requiring early rising was abrogated about 1840.

I think there were no members of the Class of 1842 who could be called wild; it was in the main a sober class. About the worst things we ever did, were to fill the recitation-room with new-mown hay, and to get 120 sheep and 15 mules into the Chapel. The mules and sheep were driven from the hill back of the College buildings, and from the South College to the Chapel. Trowbridge led the advance on the back of the patriarch of the flock. The mules were arranged in order on the stage, the one with the longest ears and gravest face, occupying the post of honor in the center, and from the top of the pulpit, dominating the wondering sheep below.

There was a haystack burned, but by whom was for a long time a mystery. It was charged to our class, but the ringleader confessed, and paid the owner so liberally, that he would have been delighted to dispose of his whole crop of hay at the same price and in the same manner. The burning and its incidents were graphically illustrated by a cartoon on the north wall of South College, representing the immense haystack on fire, around which students were dancing, while in the distance Dr. Penney, the president, was represented as approaching with giant strides, like an avenging Nemesis, whirling above his head an enormous club. For 40 years, one who saw the tracing in its freshness, could trace the outline — in fact it was not obliterated until the building was repaired, and re-stuccoed. I miss the familiar outlines, as I would miss the face of an old friend. It was one of the few things left, linking the past with the present.

In looking over an old scheme of the Class of 1841, I have discovered a notice of a dialogue, entitled Woman, by E. North, of Waterbury, Conn. The half-century annalist of the Class of 1841 makes no mention of it. It contained, among other amusing things, a recipe for a domestic love letter, which, from personal experience, I know to be satisfactory. It was as follows:

Take for paper, one flapjack, the bigger the better,
With a fork for a pen, commence at your letter,
With ink made of butter and 'lasses combined,
Write, My dear, your coffee is just to my mind.
With a case-knife for folder, then double your sheet
And dispatch it post haste down the turnpike of meat.

Memories of the pleasures and disappointments, the successes and failures of College life, of the teachers and those who were taught; of the wonderful changes which scientific research and inventive genius have wrought in the past 50 years tempt me to say more, but I forbear. They have been grand years in which to live. We hear people—particularly old people—speak of the "good old times." They may have been "good" but the good new times are better. The world is better than it was 50 years ago, and it is pleasant to know that the Class of 1842, within its limited scope, helped to make it better.

For the comrades who are gone, peace to their ashes! The temples they built in their youth, unlike temples of more substantial structure, have vanished, leaving no dusty cloisters to echo to the tread of ghostly visitants—no crumbling walls where clustering ivy with clinging tendrils covers and conceals with perennial beauty, the ravages of time; but if in their daily lives their arms were ever strong to protect the weak, their hands ever open to succor the needy, their voices ever gentle to soothe the suffering, their faith ever steadfast in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, they have gained a "temple not made with hands," "an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away."

For those who survive—we are the rear guard of our generation. The great mass of the mighty army that marched with us to fight life's battle has surrendered to a conqueror whose black flag is never furled, and who gives no quarter. The "whitening embers" picture the faces of friends and kindred—the loved and lost:

The mossy marble rests
On the lips that we have pressed
In their bloom,
And the names we loved to hear
Are carved for many a year
On the tomb.

If we have learned how to live, we shall know how to die.