Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1868 Letter

Cassius H. Dibble

Delivered: June 5, 1918

Mr. President and Alumni of Hamilton:

Your annalist has been asked to “prepare and read a letter describing the College as it was 50 years ago.”

If this is the standing subject for the occasion, as the request seems to imply, then the aforesaid letter may turn out either a chestnut or a lemon. The only relief, from vain repetition, is in a change of victims.

Was it Artemas Ward who used to say, “If my memory serves me right, and I think she does?” As the Annalist, on his Ward side, perches somewhere in the same family tree, his memory ought to serve. There was not much in the storehouse of memory to begin with, but in the words of John Bunyan, “Still as I pulled, it came.”

The four years in a man’s college life are distinctive, they stand out foursquare from all the years that precede or follow — a peculiar and intensive experience, not to be repeated and easily forgotten.

We find the college of 50 years ago in the middle 1860s, from 1964 to 1868 inclusive. The Hamilton Literary Monthly, first published in 1866, and a common crib for Annalists, has been an aid to memory.

Entering Hamilton in the fall of 1864, Clinton was reached by a safety first stage coach, starting from Baggs Hotel in Utica. Two years later, a railroad from Clinton to New Hartford, connected with horse cars for Utica. The engine was of the “dummy” variety — a very humble specimen of “The black Knight of modern civilization, with white plumes waving in the air” — a frequent favorite quotation with Professor Upson. With steam care and electrics, following the old stage coach to the junk heap, the Annalist predicts, that, in the 1920s of the twentieth century, daring sophomores will “mount up on wings as eagles,” while timid freshmen will “fly as doves to their windows.”

Our remembrance is, that it was a long, long way to the top, we took our first walk up College Hill; reminding us of the Swiss guide who had for his epitaph, “He died climbing.” No figure of speech for a freshman, this hill of Knowledge.

The first point of approach was the College Chapel, beautiful outwardly, but inwardly, like an old Jewish Sepulcher, full of all uncleanness. An old-time stove, with lengths of rusty pipe, held the center. The windows were wide and staring with the light of common day. The seats, of right angle construction, were not calculated to encourage repose during devotions. These seats were out with the names of those who had diligently improved their only chance for the “Hall of Fame.” The pulpit, irreverently called the “the bearbox,” was of Puritan plainness; and on either side were the upper seats of the synagogue for the faculty. Very little there was to inspire devotion; to dim religious light, no churchly appointments in keeping with Christian institutions in a distinctively Christian college. Subsequent class rows within these sacred precincts, only confirmed our first impressions.

The freshman’s second point of contact was his natural enemy, the sophomore, who had a nasty way of saying “Fresh! Fresh!” in a contemptuous nasal, as if the very word were offensive to his refined olfactory organs. His favorite diversion was a class row in the College Chapel after rhetorical exercises. As the classes filled out in order, the “sophs,” leaving a few of their strongest men to dispute the freshman passage, would close the door and reentering through the windows, would attack the freshman rear. The beleaguered freshmen straightway put forth the labors of Hercules to pass that door — to go out the way they came in. This meant the rending of garments, the disfigurement of faces, the struggle to the point of exhaustion, with the upperclassmen enjoying the row on the outside, and the professor in charge sitting helpless on the inside, with a frown on the brow which said, “wild animals let loose, let them rend one another ‘till they retired.”

Hazing was also indulged in those ancient days. When a freshman was thought to “think more highly of himself that he ought to think,” for the good of his soul, he was taken from his room, or perchance his bed, and trimmed — his inordinate self-conceit disappearing with his scalp-look. This was not a performance to be proud of — 10 valiant “sophs,” more or less, snatching one poor defenseless freshman, without immediate society prospects, or upperclassmen friends to protect him.

It was indeed jungle law, and the animals played the game of precedent to the last ditch. Habeas Corpus, the great writ of personal liberty, had no standing in College lawlessness, and the unfortunate victim could not appeal to a higher court, before the indignity had been inflicted, and then silenced, lest a worse thing come upon him.

Three years later, after repeated failures to abolish class rows in the Chapel, the reform was accomplished by refitting the interior. The old whittled and straight-backed seats were replaced by those of better material and more comfortable angle, while the students paid the bill for cushions. The old “bear-box” was succeeded by a black stove with its rusty pipe, gave place to a furnace. Through the kindness of Mrs. Root, the windows heretofore helpless in resisting the intruding rays of the sun, were protected by neat and effectual shades. As a consequence, Chapel rows were discontinued.

The exclusive credit for this long-delayed reform was of course claimed by each class in turn. The freshman, soon to become a sophomore, with great self-sacrifice, was willing to deny himself the sweetness of revenge upon his innocent successors. The sophomore, who had reveled in a full year of rowing, was quite willing to deprive his successors of the exquisite pleasure. The juniors and seniors of course, has always frowned upon the custom, even though they had practiced it somewhat, through the compulsion of precedent, in their unthinking days. But to the re-creation of Chapel surroundings, which even half civilized men were bound to respect, the greater credit is due.

How long the cruel and cowardly the custom of hazing continued, after this beginning to reforms, we know not.

Athletic privileges — outside of give and take in rowing, were very limited 50 years ago. There was a gymnasium, so called, a mere shell of a building in the rear of Middle College, never warmed until our senior year, with very meager facilities for exercise, limited mostly to parallel bare and swinging rings. A physical director was not even dreamed of.

There was much rivalry in coasting, and the record of the fastest sled must be surpassed at all hazards. The use of the sidewalk, a forbidden privilege and therefore often indulged in on the side, or in the dark, was also attractive for its thrills, especially in shooting the narrow way of the arbor, a perilous passage, and sometimes serious, if not fatal.

Baseball — was then in its infancy as the following official report reveals:

Grand Game of Baseball for the oysters played by the first nines of the Senior and Junior Classes — 1867 and 1868 — game very close until the seventh inning when the Seniors brought in eleven tallies (Note that rustic word: “Tallies.”)

Score: Seniors 40, Juniors 27.
Time of Game: Two hours and thirty minutes

No body or head protectors in those days. The game had not yet reached the effeminate stare. The ball was handled without gloves. The pitcher pitched—the catcher was expected to take the ball off the bat no matter what happens to his fingers, and it often did. The vulgar spitball and the elusive curve and drop, had not yet arrived. The first College nine went into training senior year. Match games with other colleges were expected — challenge seldom accepted. Grove Hopkins was our most graceful player, and as good as he was graceful.

Thus, athletic exercises were mere child’s play then, as compared with those of today, in Steuben Athletic Field, with tennis courts, football field, and running track. Yet the grand old rallying cry of a famous English school, “Play up! Play up and play the game!” was always in order with such things as we had.

Fear God and take your own part — was practiced 50 years before T.R. preached his characteristic sermon upon that text. We recently ran across those words in reading “Romany Rye,” by George Barrow, and can easily understand their special appeal to Theodore, who fears God only and man never, always rising to the occasion of taking his own part. As well as that of others, personal responsibility, taking our own part in taking another’s part, as the altruistic attitude in those days. “The Religion of the Inarticulate,” literally without joint, jellyfish variety, had not yet emerged. Our religion had joints, a spinal column well articulated, and muscular Christianity of the “Tom Brown at Oxford” type. That, at least, was our ideal, however little we may have realized it.

Biology — which was challenging the religious beliefs of some, had not yet found a place in the College curriculum. Now we observe that it offers six courses, and no one objects. Strange indeed that the science of life should ever have seemed to threaten foundations of faith!

Sanitary conditions — were not all that could be desired in the middle 1860s. It is rather remarkable that so many of the dormitories were dark and unventilated. No tub bath was possible. Only the Oriskany was available for bathing on moonless nights. But the worst feature of the unsanitary will not bear description. It needed the fifth labor of a Hercules to turn the water of two rivers to the cleansing of the Angean Stables.

Unclean “Pete”, drawer of water and disposal of slop from upper story windows, regardless of passers by, was a walking advertisement of the unsanitary. He was a living example of the survival of the unfittest. His daily approach through the halls was announced by the jingling of keys, strung around his neck upon some cast-off lazy cord. The caths and cursings which he heaped upon the head of the heretic student he would serve, were in their degree, a measure of his affection. The better he liked a man, the deeper his curses. He would do anything for the fellow he favored, save to wash himself. He would make his bed and clean his room, but himself he would not clean. It is hoped that Peter’s long reign as the College chambermaid, has had no successor in kind.

Now, after 50 years, we read that “the college dormitories are fire-proof and equipped with every modern convenience: steam heat, broad fireplaces, hardwood floors, electric lights and bathrooms.” The naturally healthful conditions are supplemented by a private water supply from spring-fed reservoirs above the College, and by an extensive system of sanitation, constructed in accordance with the best modern practice, and officially approved by the State authorities.” All this marks the most vital change, which has taken place in physical conditions on College Hill, in 50 years.

The faculty, 50 years ago, numbered nine, now 24. Since, “where much is given, much will be required,” we are rather glad, having survived the unsanitary conditions referred to, that we were then rather than now. The old days had some compensations, even though limited in range for mental equipment. We wasted no time and no costly mistakes, in choosing between the Classical and Latin scientific courses, as to which might require least brain strain. We all unconsciously sympathized with the lines of would-be poet Prior, and even followed his advice:

Be to thy faults a little blind,
Be to thy virtues very kind,
But clap a padlock on thy mind.

The reaction upon self-discovery, tended to self-mastery. Indirect influences are often greatest.

“Hazlitt” once wrote an essay on “The Ignorance of the earned,” and declared “that anyone who has passed through the regular gradations of a classical education is not made a fool by it, may consider himself as having had a very narrow escape.” Thus warned, they were made wise as to our perils, and were careful to avoid the lurking dangers of the classical course.

During our day, President Fisher resigned, after eight years of fruitful service, the endowments of the College having increased fourfold. As a result, the salaries of the professors were increased to $1,500. President Fisher had his trials with the flock scheme at Junior Ex. He prayed that this thorn in his flesh might pass from him without result. He was succeeded by President Brown. Dartmouth thus paid her debt to us, contracted by our furnishing her with the excellent President Smith. A large part of President Brown’s inaugural address was occupied with a discussion of the comparative merits of the classics and sciences in our curriculum. Thus, the more than 50 years war was on. The present result, averaging the four classes, is about half and half; with the Latin scientific course leading the classical by the large freshman class of 1921 has 30 classical and 47 Latin scientific — a lead of 17. But is not the Latin-Scientific about half-classical?

Note, in passing, the latest spawn of illiberal education. The idea, as reported, is to eliminate all the formalism, the red tape and adherence to tradition, which now retard the free development of professors and students alike. Modern political science and the current issues of real life are the two principal subjects upon which attention will be centered. The application of scientific methods and of unrestricted research into the needs of changing social order, will at all times animate the activities of the new institution. No elementary instruction of immature students will be undertaken, which means the Devil take the hindmost, as he surely will the foremost. New York City, we read, is to see the opening of such a college next fall. God save the mark of “College.” It ought to fly a red flag with “Bolsheviki” and “Anarchist” and “I.W.W.” inscribed thereon. We are reminded of a day when the Earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. Is that time a primeval chaos and darkness to come again in the minds of men? No answer is necessary.

Of all the Faculty, Professor Oren Root was most feared, when the occasion for fear arose — feared first and much loved afterward. No student ever tried to “put it over on him” more than once. We had a quick and extinguishing return, administered with mathematical exactness. We read the “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It was very much the same with “Cube” Root, in our study of mathematics.

Professor North was loved first and feared afterward. His gentleness made him great, and commanded respect .His occasional lectures were popular, not just because they gave us a recitation off, but for their classic beauty and finish — to quote one of his own expressions — “on golden hinges turning.” He was the father of necrology in Hamilton College. Beginning, 52 years ago, with the Class of 1818, 100 years ago, he brought the dead to life in the obituary records of the Alumni, and continued to serve in this capacity until the end of June 1902, a period expanding through 36 years and covering a period of 84 years.

Professor Upson was most efficient in his department. He gave the college a countrywide reputation in Rhetoric and Elocution — a reputation which, in spite of all competition, continues to this day. You may not always know a Hamilton man when you see him, but you know a Hamilton man when you hear him. The endless drill, drill for the Prize Speaker and Junior Ex. — the whole class — and for Commencement — the whole class — continued year after year, was enough of a grind to bring him to an early grave. Professor Upson labored to conceal labor, to make art nature. Was Paul a worse preacher for being brought up at the feet of Camaliel?” “Austin, do you hear that?” A student of that name, has survived the personal application of that question for 50 years, and is here today. Only the saving health of humor, which he has not a little, could have prolonged his life. Hamlet’s instructions to the players were often required:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, rippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of our players did, I had as Leif, the town crier, had spoke my lines.

Professor Me Herg, may he rest in peace where “the wicked cease from troubling,” for he had little peace in teaching Latin prose and prosy Latin. He lacked control in his classroom, and “certain rude fellows of the baser sort,” made his life miserable beyond expression.

Doc Evans, “In fair round belly, with good capon lined, Full of wise saws and modern instances”

Professor of Law, History, Civil Polity and Political Economy — now represented by four Professorships — introduced us to Blackstone. Many of us are content with the introduction only. This many-sided professor put on the gloves and taught the science of boxing to those so inclined, who often got a “blood” without making a “ten-strike.” Thus, as an expounder of the Constitution, he combined in his generous breadth, both the mighty mobster and the late John L. Sullivan, slugger.

Doc Avery, Professor of Chemistry, boasted that he could tell the color of the eyes of every man he remembered to have met. He could certainly answer his own questions in the classroom better than the student, and needed but little encouragement to do so. He took the first daguerreotypes ever executed this side of New York. Harper’s Magazine 50 years ago, speaks of him as one of the most witty college professors, and tells the following story:

A certain student, given to undue indulgence, asked the doctor if it would not be well, as a matter of safety, to analyze some of a certain brand of whiskey and test it for strychnine. “No need of that,” said the doctor, “If there was any in it, you would have been dead long ago.”

On April 19, 1868, Christian Henry Frederick Peters, Litchfield Professor of Astronomy, announced the discovery of a new asteroid, the seventh in number since his connection with Hamilton College. Here 48 asteroids were discovered between 1861 and 1889. Nothing, perhaps, gave a wider reputation to the College than these discoveries. They were extensively noticed and discussed, not only by the scientific journals of our own country, but by those of Europe. Although his name was a fourth part Christian, he was not always in fact, even a fourth part Christian in his manner of address. The story was told that after a night of fruitless watching for vagrant asteroids, he had retired to his room in North College to indulge in tired nature’s sweet restorer. But some freshman overhead was chopping wood and sleep was impossible. Whereupon he went up and rapped at the door. When it was opened with astonishment at the sound of the call and addressed him thus: “You tam freshman, what for you go Chip! Chip! Chip! And keep me from sleep?”

Dr. Goertner, College Pastor and more especially solicitor of funds, had the compensation of deafness, for he was deaf to all refusals, but keen and quick to hear all consents.

Thus, in the words of Professor Gay of Goucher College, “The sieve of time, which we call memory, has a disconcerting way of retaining the little and releasing the big.”

It is amusing what things we remember from our teachers: from one an anecdote, from another a scrap of information, from another a point of view, from another a conviction, and, sad to relate, from many, nothing. They talked to us. Let our personalities play upon them, advised us, scored, bored, cajoled. Undoubtedly, the sum of their influence went to make us different from what we would have been without them. Yet often, the least thing we remember about them is the facts they taught us. Thus, that elusive thing we call personality persists — it is irresistible — it takes the whole of life to solve the perennial equation, and even then its most potent factors escape us.

There were men in the making in the middle-1860s, representative men who have made good in different walks of life, men whom the College delights to honor for they have greatly honored the College. He who fails to call the honor roll of the middle-1860s, but we would mention three still living:

First: Alexander C. Soper, 1867, who played 2b in the game shall already referred to, and who was one of the stars in the first College Nine, also a High Oration man, founder of the Memorial Edward Huntington Mathematical Scholarship for Seniors, one of the donors of the Hall of Commons and of the Soper Gymnasium, a generous supporter of the Hamilton College Summer School, contributor toward the completion of several college buildings and endowment funds, trustee of the College and one of the committee to raise $1,000,000 additional endowment for the institution. Surely his gifts and service speak for the man whose modesty is equal to his magnificence – Alexander the Greater.

Second: The Annalist has in a memory a very vivid picture of a future President of Hamilton College, then a freshman, coming down the stairs in South Hall, South College, in undignified haste, enlocked with a predatory sophomore. It was one of those entangling alliances bound to result disastrously for at least one of the parties. The sophomore we have long since forgotten, but the freshman was Melancthon Woolsey Stryker, for 25 years the brilliant President of Hamilton College, who, true to his great names, both of them historically associated with Greek culture, stood stoutly for the preservation and continuance of our classical curriculum. His staying powers were even then in evidence, and if you will pardon the pun, he has had abundant opportunity to strike back at offending sophomores, although we once heard the president of a Theological Seminary introduce him at a banquet, where he was very much in demand as an after dinner speaker, as “No Striker.”

Third: One more example of a man in the making. Turning over the first volume of the Hamilton Literary Monthly for May 1867, the Annalist once came upon an essay, a prize essay without doubt, this subject: “The Jew of Dickens, Scott and Shakespeare.” In the masterly analysis of Jewish character, in the comprehensive grasp of Jewish history, in the judicial mind which weighs motives as well as acts, and puts with unerring justice, Fagin, Isaac and Shylock each in his own place, we see coming events casting their shadows before them, in a person of a son of Hamilton who was to be successively, a distinguished leader of the American Bar, an efficient Secretary of War, a great Secretary of State, a brilliant United States Senator at will — too great to be President — (and a most generous benefactor of his Alma Mater) than whom, no son of Hamilton, or any other institution, has borne more modestly than illustrious honors, Elihu Root, Valedictorian of the Class of 1864.

Long may the call of the Old Hill, whither the Classes for more than 100 years up to commencement anniversaries and reunions, be heard by our widely scattered alumni, an ever increasing host of the loyal sons of Hamilton! Let each son of Hamilton, who would give a good account of himself, say with the pious fervor of the captive Jew by the rivers of Babylon:

If I forget thee, O Hamilton, let my right hand forget her cunning! If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!