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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Clinton and the Hill in the 1870s and Now

George H. Ottaway, Class of 1880

Delivered: June 1930

Youth is said to live in its dreams and age in its memories. Alumni Day is, in part, a festival of memory.

Someone speaks of certain music as being “like the memory of joys that are past — sweet and mournful to the soul.” “Joys that are past” — what visions the words conjure! The mist of years is the sweetest illusion that earth knows. Memory’s pictures share the haze that art throws around its subjects, making them more attractive than anything that the full light of noon reveals. The witching hour follows the sunset. But what an attraction for youth and age has the long ago! Old friends, old books, old songs, old scenes, how they attract us as they come back to us through the purple mists of years that soften outlines like the fading light of day. As in nature God covers, in the lapse of years, every blemish on the visible landscape with some mantle of beauty, be it the merciful ivy, or moss, or lichen, or only the silver-gray staining that man never more than imitates, so with some loving care, He has ordered that in the human experience every scar be covered with a garment of forgetfulness, while memory keeps green pastures of daisies and meadows of asphodel. Memory has small room for tears, but its archives have generous place for laughter. If the half-century annalist inclines to be a bit frivolous here may be the secret, and ground for pardon.

If the sainted Dr. Edward North was right, as he doubtless was, in his statement of the origin and aim of the half-century letter, “the position of the half-century annalist holds out no summons to loud merriment. It is more in the nature of an invitation for one who ‘lags superfluous on the stage’ to make his farewell deliverance, to detail his personal reminiscence and to say his cheerful good wishes to the younger graduates before he takes his final sleep.” What remains to the survivors of the Class of 1880 is largely memories.

The half century whose close this day marks for some of us has been one full of interest and privilege. Perhaps most of us would sympathize with the distinguished Englishman who said that if it had been given him to choose the time of his life’s span, he would unhesitatingly have chosen the last half of the 19th century. Save for the tragedy that has so sadly marred the earlier part of this 20th century, one might incline to include the latest 30 years in one’s choice. A saintly bishop lately wrote, shortly before his death, these words which seem timely:

“The old order is certainly changing in many ways. Inventions and discoveries are changing our habits, our customs, our thoughts, our mode of living and our outlook on life. But underneath all these changes, the most precious things of life never change and never lose their freshness. The glory of the sunset, the sheen of the snow-capped mountains, the beauty of the landscape, the color of the flowers, the song of birds, the laughter of children, the joy of friendship and the sweetness of love — these never change, are never quite the same, and never get monotonous.”

The boys who for the first time climbed off the train at the old railroad station in June or September of 1876 made the acquaintance of a spot replete with beauty and charm. The village and Hill are both part of a picture that every boy of them all must remember, so long as life lasts. Some of the things that he saw were only commonplace, and others were uplifting like the westward view.

The village park with its bordering houses and places of business was much the same as now. Some noticeable changes, however, took place in the 1870s and later. The old “Park House” stood in the present site of the post office building. One of its landlords, who lived in dignified retirement in our day, connected it with early temperance reforms in setting forth the plea that the reformers never half appreciated his contribution to their cause which he made when he added so much water to his whiskey that the man who came to his bar drunk, soon went away sober.

All this the boys did not see, but it may delight to think of as a movement in the cause of sobriety that did not involve the marring of historic documents. It began with the individual, where reforms should begin. Another change that may have had something of the same influence was the burning of the buildings on the southwest corner, including the old Clinton House. The owner of the site had built a rude shack devoted to purposes of liquid refreshment on the corner of College Street. Some of the boys helped him in the reforms that he may, or may not, have had in mind by inserting a lever under the front of the shack and tipping it over. These were indeed “experiments noble in purpose!”

A sad change of the centennial summer that hailed the advent of the Class of 1880 was the burning of the “Old” Stone Church on the site of the present Presbyterian house of worship. It was always, in that period, the “Old” Stone Church, though its existence was really not long, its building having begun as late as 1833. With only this brief history, it was yet one of the influences that closely connected the village and the Hill. All the public college exhibitions, including the “Junior Ex” and commencement exercises were held there for many a year, and the dear old fabric was replete with sweet and lasting memories for many a seminary girl and college boy. Some of you can recall the sweet chamber music that was part of those exercises. Later, for a few years, including our time, the new edifice was similarly used for the benefit of the Hill. The first class, 1877, that 1880 saw graduated in the interim, took its diplomas in a “wigwam,” so-called, that was built for the occasion on the grounds of the old grammar school. The above reference to “The girls we left behind us,” or who left us behind them, leads to recall of the fact that in the ’70s, three or four “seminaries” for young women were among the stimulating features of the village. All these are gone, and now the boys on the Hill must work off their superfluous vocalizing and similar youthful movings in other directions. It seems probable that new facilities for wholesome recreation on the Hill with consequent contacts with other college groups may have more than compensated for the loss for the very limited enjoyment of the society that the seminaries accorded.

The College choir of which we are proud, and which many of the old boys have travelled far to hear — and hope to do it again — is a marked advance in recreation as well as in cultural lines. And what a compensation for the loss of the semi-cloistered beauty of the old “Sems” are the guests of the modern houseparty! Sweethearts and the other fellows’ sisters, with their youthful chaperones, supply a wealth of pulchritude which must atone for almost any loss! Reference to this admirable modern institution, the college houseparty, suggests the very marked change in the matter of fraternity houses now mainly on the campus, or the upper hillside. These furnish new comforts for their regular inmates and such social functions as properly center about their hospitable firesides. A moment’s reflection on these changes and others that have marked the latest 50 years reveals marked contrasts. This year’s half-century class, earlier, and several later classes had scant dormitory comforts or conveniences, and practically no luxuries — no telephones, no electric light, nothing better than kerosene, to mitigate what a venerable deacon of the Stone Church used to refer to in prayer meeting as the “dim light of nature,” in which he said men were “groping about.” No trolley cars to Utica; no automobiles or improved roads; no aeroplanes; no radio.

Recreations not already mentioned included baseball, occasional skating on the old Chenango Canal. Campus and Chapel “rows;” cane rushes and the annual “ringing off the rust;” hazing activities by the “army of the Oriskany” (a rather indefinite body of sophomores); and some other sporadic and equally cheerful functions answered as diversions for leisure hours. The rust-ringing ceremony was a somewhat successful attempt to make night hideous, and it is good to hear that it is a thing of the past. While it lasted, it produced some merriment at the expense of that better thing that “knits up the raveled sleave of care.” Among the instruments employed in addition to the Chapel bell was one unfamiliar to present day orchestras, the “horse fiddle.” This cheerful instrument of torture was composed of a sizable dry-goods box, a substantial rough timber and abundance of rosin. With a husky and industrious sophomore at either end of the timber, its capacity for hideous noise was considerable. On one occasion, this abomination was placed under a window of old South College where one of the professors had his room. Chester of 1879 was at one end of the “bow” sacrificing his comfort to the needs of the hour, when a very precise voice at his elbow asked that very pertinent question, “Mr. Chester. Would you be so kind as to change the seat of war?” It was changed.

Aside from these home functions, the village and Utica furnished some less-questionable recreations. There was an annual lecture course in Tower Hall, or Scollard’s Opera House, in which distinguished lecturers and fine musical groups appeared. A quartette composed of Miss Marie Stone, Henry Barnaby, Tom Karl and a lady, whose name cannot be recalled, appeared in concert. Later these were heard with the Boston Ideals, either there or in the Utica Opera House. To this latter Mecca we went, if we had the means, to see Maggie Mitchell, Joseph Jefferson, Emma Abbott, “Charlie” Backus (who never failed to make some witty reference to his connection with the College), Wilhelmi and other celebrities.

Probably the admirable movement which brings nearly all college functions to the Hill has lessened intimacies with the village. Even in the old days, the sympathy between these two communities was not always apparent. Torn-up sidewalks, broken lamps and lampposts, misplaced signs and annual unmusical serenades (designated as “kalthumps”) contributed to occasional lapses in friendly regard. An illustration of this was seen when the good Class of 1880, as some of you can recall, probably at the beginning of the senior year, called a meeting in the Chapel to consider the advisability of adopting caps and gowns. Someone (Strong, perhaps) went so far as to display samples, and good Dr. Evans gave his views. For some reason, the subject was dropped, but not before the witty editor of the Clinton Courier (otherwise “Terrifier”) had commented on the move to the effect that “Caps and gowns might be very well, but horns and hoofs would be far more appropriate.”

On another and quite different occasion, probably in our freshman year, some of the Class of 1877, having looked somewhat on the wine when it was red, stopped at Cottage “Sem” to honor its inmates with a serenade. When the noise had become tiresome to the faculty, a young woman, gray of hair and dignified of speech, appeared at an upper window and ordered the vocalists away. Very promptly, the Napoleon of the occasion, leaped to the vantage ground of an apple barrel. Swinging his battered derby, he shouted, “Gentlemen, Attention! From yonder window 40 centuries look down upon you. Depart.” As an evidence of the kind of sympathy that existed between the village and the Hill, it is said that the good woman who was thus slandered for her youth told the story as a good joke on herself. The leader of that party above-described, let it be said in passing, was graduated in the autumn of our freshman year, much to the disappointment of his fellows who associated his gaunt figure, “Prince Albert” frock coat, disreputable “lavender” trousers and battered “derby” with the near prospect of some new joke. He had been long enough on the Hill to write some classics for festive occasions, one of which poems a member of our class tried to quote in a class essay. The quotation began, you of 1880 may recall, with the words:

“Wifey, Dear Wifey, fate onward doth beck,
Cried Agamemnon from the Hurricane deck,
As he check his brass shirt
And took steerage for Troy…”

At that point the professor in charge vetoed further quotations.

Reverting to this poet’s early graduation, and other “from time to time” dismissals of humorists and practical jokers, it was probably the influence of Dr. North and Dr. Root that saved more from the same fate. Class essays, indulged in on certain Monday mornings, must have been, sometimes, a sore trial to certain of the faculty. On one occasion, the division that had the stage got together in the preparatory period and decided upon a subject for general use. The first boy on the programme paid his respects to George Washington and ultimately came to the hatchet fiction which called forth abundant applause, “cat-calls” etc. Strangely enough, the next fellow had chosen the same subject, but all went well til he reached the cherry tree and was promptly stopped. Number Three began with the hatchet and was promptly cut down, when we admitted that his paper was all about the same implement. The rest of the division when questioned confessed to the same choice of theme and the exercise was at an end.

The next step was to assign a biographical subject to each boy, and most of the essayists made somewhat light of the worthies with whom they had to deal. One of them, to whom Agamemnon was entrusted, referred to that worthy as a deserving to be put down as “an ordinary bar-room loafer.” “Seth” may not have been so far wrong in his estimate. Greek heroes and Greek gods had their weakness. A Rochester preacher said, a few weeks ago, that if these Greek gods should descend upon us, we should promptly have them in jail! With so large a past of our population behind the bars, this does not seem improbable!

To pass from trivial things to the more important, the material equipment of the 1870s and for several later years left much to be desired in creature comfort and facilities for doing the work for which this “great small college” stands, to say nothing of the recreational field so necessary to a balanced programme. There has been much of advance since the winters when the boys were awakened at 5:30 a.m. to attend upon prayers in a freezingly cold Chapel at 6:00 and a recitation in equally frigid atmosphere before breakfast! President Backus often preached in that same Chapel in “overcoat and mittens!” One of these boys (an annalist) remarks that “conditions were good for polar bears!” Still in 1880 there was yet room for improvement in material conditions. Even this incomparable campus was once in such condition that early annalists speak of the grounds as sadly in need of attention. But before the 1870s a wonderful transformation of this glorious hillside had taken place. This change was fostered by the appointment of a committee in 1852 to improve the campus and the cemetery. This committee consisted of Mr. John C. Hastings, Professor Oren Root and the Rev. Dr. A.D. Gridley as curators. These able men aided by Dr. Edward North wrought so lovingly and faithfully and well that Hamilton’s campus has been a joy, an inspiration and a synonym for beauty for many a year. To more than one of the boys of 1880 and other years, it must have suggested the words of the Psalmist: “Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is Mount Zion.” And how the saints of this hillside loved it and consecrated it by their devotion! How softly and reverently Dr. Root and Dr. North and other “stelligerants” walked its paths. And you and I, classmates and fellow alumni have loved it and longed for the sight of it and the views from it. Four years of companionship with such a “mother” is in itself a liberal education. And when there is added to its ministry the association of the choice spirits that have ever been in the faculty, this unspeakable gift of the dear College to her sons is beyond compare.

Up to the end of the 1870s, the gain in buildings and equipment, while considerable, had not been extraordinary. The pictures of that day show the Chapel, North, Middle and South, with the observatory at the north and the Perry H. Smith Library Hall to the east. This latter building (now the infirmary) was built and formally opened shortly before the centennial, which brought this half-century class to its best fortune. Some of us older boys regret the passing of the Litchfield Observatory. Should it not have been kept as a memorial to the distinguished, courtly and kindly scientist, Dr. Peters, who tended its shrine so many fruitful years? It may have been, and probably was, a little out of drawing with the general modern scheme, but it was replete with memories of worthy achievement. There are some recollections of a different sort that center around the venerable pile. It was passing strange that a column of smoke so often went up in front of the telescope just when Madam Piatt and a group of girls from the Utica Seminary wanted to look at the sky? Or again, on similar occasion, how a “bandbox” should have found its way over the glass! The good astronomer assigned all such troubles to a certain class for which his vocabulary found its own expressive name — not profane — but emphatic.

A reverent boy of an earlier class than 1880 once suggested on some public occasion that as evening comes to this hillside, the shadow of the Chapel spire lengthens until it rests on the grave of Kirkland. It rests also on or near the sod that covers all that men saw of many another who served this College with unstinted devotion. It is worthy of note that while the shadow of this noble shaft points earthward, its reality points both at eve and morning, at midday and midnight, in clouds and sunshine, heavenward.

Next to the influence of men in the training of youth is the unconscious tuition of uplifting environment. This dear old campus always appealed to many of us as “a thing of beauty and joy forever,” but the College buildings were not imposing from present standards. This Chapel so fine in outline and so rich in associations could never be ignored as a cultural asset. The three dormitories with the recitation rooms were dignified in aspect but somewhat lacking in comfort. The old Buttrick house that modern addition had spoiled for the time and until its most brilliant son and other generous alumni came to the rescue, the gymnasium and laboratory were in evidence, but less complete than their functions warranted. The YMCA building had been lately erected. Everything else of note architecturally has been added since this year’s half-century class was graduated. To look around is to realize somewhat how much modern collegiate education, at its best, differs from the standard of the 1870s.

For the material changes here, the late Dr. Stryker and his honored successor Dr. Ferry are largely responsible. They found invaluable supporters in such men as Senator Root, the late Mr. Andrew Carnegie, the Messrs Soper, Mr. H. H. Benedict, the Messrs. Truax, Mrs. Ellen Curtiss James, Mrs. Russell Sage and other able and generous spirits. Look around and see some of their monuments. This gem of colonial architecture, with a spire worthy of Sir Christopher, enlarged and beautified; the Buttrick house which we remember most appreciatingly as the place where Dr. Oren Root taught us conchology, changed back to its primitive estate, or something better, has a new dignity and attractiveness.

The beautiful and invaluable library — Root Hall of Science. the Hall of Philosophy, the Hall of Languages, the Biological and Geology Building, the Chemical Laboratory, the Russell Sage Building and the Hall of Commons, these impressive chapter houses and private homes all about us — how admirable! “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob!”

All these are sights to gladden the eyes of alumni who were familiar with conditions in the days of small things — if such days ever existed for the generations of fortunate boys who were privileged to be here in any of the four-year periods of more than a hundred years. All these can be seen. The immaterial, so much more vital, as is always the unseen, one would have to live on this hillside for many a day to appreciate. Some hints of the change in the real things of the curriculum and its sponsors may be found in the enlarged number of the faculty. An early annalist reported four devoted men in the chairs, including President Backus, who, to be sure, was a host in himself. Our day boasted of 13, and the latest catalogue lists – 45!

Students have multiplied similarly. Classes of 50 years ago rarely numbered more than 40, and now the student body numbers approximately 433. Our own class is variously put down during its four years as 35, 39, 30 and 25. The splendid class to be graduated next Monday numbers approximately 84. The Commencement programme for June 1880 listed 25. In addition to these, the following were with us from time to time: Moyer, Orr, Petrie (E.S.), Pritchard, Salladin, Strong, Whittemore, Brandt, Cross, Hughes, Mears, Millard, Sterns and Morrow.

In freshman year there was one rather loosely connected member of the class whose name never appeared in the catalogue. He came from the “Eternal City” of Oneida County, with a reputation for proficiency in oratory that would have made Demosthenes blush and perchance swallow a few pebbles! He was a “waster” and much of an absentee, and managed to defer his first Chapel appearance til the dandelion was in bloom. The sophomores, with unerring intuition, sensed an opportunity and entered their pews with abundance of blossoms. In due time the speaker, who was of commanding stature, was called, took the rostrum, struck a tragic attitude worthy of Edwin Booth and sneeringly asked, “Is the gentleman done? Is he completely done?” and so on for a moment or two, when it was clear that the gentleman was done! The riotous applause assured that. He left the stage under fire of a volley of yellow bouquets that made the place look like the historic “Field of the Cloth of Gold.” That master of discipline, Professor Frink, seemed to enjoy the fun as much as the rest of us, and made no protest. Practically the College community saw that freshman no more. Dear old Beckwith, later “Dr.” Beckwith, who was the latest of the class to die (last January), paid him tribute in his class prophecy by placing him, in imagination, on a spit over a fire, surrounded by a group of cannibals eager for answer to the question, “Is the gentleman done? Is he completely done?”

So far as is known 12 of the graduates survive. The original class was divided in its activities as follows: Eight were physicians, four were clergymen, three were lawyers, four were teachers, six went into business. It goes without saying that nearly all acquitted themselves creditably, and some have records not without honor. Few were in politics. One died a millionaire. The majority escaped the danger of dying “disgracefully rich.” Pike wrote at least two scholarly books. He was the only ambitious author. Living or dead, it is safe to say that all of them regret that they could not have done more to express in a substantial, material way their appreciation of the inestimable gifts which the College of 50 years ago bestowed on them, and that this splendid institution of today holds out to those who are privileged to tarry here for four halcyon years.

To try to speak fittingly of Hamilton’s faculty, past and present, were a work of supererogation. Hardly an annalist of the latest three score years and 10 has failed to pay grateful and eloquent tribute to the devoted instructors of his time. And thus every faculty group has been rich in deserved eulogies penned by grateful alumni. Any boy who associated, be it ever so distantly, with such choice spirits as the Class of 1880 knew, if he but touched the hem of their garments, was always uplifted by the contact.

In his oration for the Poet Archias, or the Manilian Law, Cicero remarks that, it is easier to find the beginning than the end of such a theme. Similarly, if one were to attempt to pen fitting tribute for the men of this faculty, past and present, one would find it difficult to end the eulogies. It seems a time to take advantage of a suggestion once made by the venerable Dr. Edward Everett Hale in a group of stock phrases for various public occasions. “So much has been said, and on the whole, so well said, that I will not take your time.”

My dear classmates and other friends of the old days, we who remain are facing the sunset. If there is somewhat of sadness at close of day, there is the promise that “at eventide it shall be light,” and “Beyond the sunset are the everlasting hills.” Without seeming to be a preacher, which some of you can readily believe your annalist is not, may I suggest as a petition that becomes us all, a Collect of the Church of the 16th Century:

“Support us, Lord, all the day long of this troublous life, til the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over and our work is done. Then of thy mercy grand us a safe lodging and a holy rest and peace at the last, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”