Colby on the Kennebec: Campus Life in the 1880s
by Gregor Smith
Three weeks ago, we wrote about Colby College's new Arts Collaborative, the college's latest investment in downtown Waterville. Today, we look at a very different era in the college's history, when the college was much smaller than it is today and well before it made its move to Mayflower Hill. This look back was inspired by the serendipitous discovery of an old Colby Oracle, the college's yearbook, from 1889.
When the Class of 1889 started at Colby four years earlier, the main campus comprised six buildings, which were clustered half a mile north of downtown Waterville between the Kennebec River and College Avenue. The yearbook stated that at the time, the campus was run down:
The graduate of '84 remembers a back campus, devoted to swamps, alders, and ash heaps, and a front campus where walks were well nigh impassable in winter and spring; a gymnasium in which exercise was practically impossible because of lack of apparatus, and abundance of dust and urchins; and sanitary arrangements of the most primitive kind. All of these defects have been, at least in some measure, corrected.
During the class's four years, however, the back campus was cleared up and the walks repaired or rebuilt. The college spent several thousand dollars to fix up the gymnasium and stock it with new athletic equipment. It also connected campus buildings to a newly formed municipal water system and installed "water closets" (toilets) in one of the dormitories.
In 1885, the college bought and renovated the house of a former professor for use as Ladies' Hall, its first women's dormitory. Until then, the college's few female students roomed with faculty or townsfolk, as the two previously existing dormitories, Chaplin Hall and South College, were for men only. The house was at 31 College Avenue, where the U.S. Post Office now stands.
And in April of 1889, Col. R.C. Shannon, Class of 1862, announced his gift of $15,000 to the college to build a Physical Laboratory and Observatory, which was sorely needed as the existing facilities for physics and astronomy in other buildings were badly overcrowded.
In 1889, tuition was $45 per year and room rental, $12. The total cost for a year at the college, including "board, washing, fuel, and lights" ranged from $225 to $275. The college did offer several merit awards of $25 or $50 each, as well as scholarships averaging $50/year for needy students.
Instead of semesters, the academic year had unequal trimesters, of 12, 10, and 14 weeks, respectively, with a week off between the first and second trimesters and six weeks between the second and third. The academic year began the first Wednesday of September and ran through the first week of July, when commencement was held. (In 1888, commencement fell on July 4.)
The class of 1889 comprised fifteen men and two women. Although Colby enrolled its first female student, Mary Low, in 1871, making it the first previously all-male college in New England to admit women, by the end of the 1880s, the student body was still overwhelming male. In the '88-'89 academic year, only 19 out of 134 students in all four classes were female, 10 of them freshmen.
(The position of women at the college was tenuous. In a class survey, only five of the seniors supported coeducation. In the 1890s, Colby's second female graduate, Skowhegan's Helen Louise Coburn, Class of 1877, fought successfully to keep the college coed. She was later rewarded with a seat on the college's board of trustees, the first woman to achieve that honor.)
The yearbook gives incredibly detailed statistics for each member of the senior class, including height, weight, hat size, shoe size, collar size, age at graduation, political and religious affiliations, and expected future career. Here are a few highlights:
- On average, the students were older than today's graduates, with their average age at graduation being 23 years, 4 months. The oldest was 28 years and the youngest, 20 years, 3 months.
- All of the seniors came from Maine, as did all but 21 of the underclassmen. Of those 21, 10 came from Massachusetts, 4 from New Hampshire, and 2 from Colorado.
- For careers, the class included four prospective teachers, four future clergymen, three would-be businessmen, one doctor, one lawyer, one "sporting man," and three who were undecided.
In politics, all seventeen, including those not eligible to vote, were members of or sympathizers to the Republican Party. On the two hot-button political issues of the day, the tallies were 9-8 against Prohibition and 14-3 against women's suffrage. (Curiously, the two women split on the suffrage question, one for and one against.)
(Maine outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in 1851, becoming the first state to do so, and incorporated the ban into its constitution in 1885. National Prohibition did not start until enactment of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919. On suffrage, women were allowed to vote in some western states by the late 1880s, they did not gain the franchise in Maine until passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.)
By religion, the class comprised nine Baptists, four Congregationalists, two Episcopalians, one Universalist and one Unitarian. That Baptists held the majority is not surprising, as the college was founded in 1818 as a Baptist seminary. Although the Theological Department was closed after only ten years and the college re-formed as a liberal arts institution, it didn't hire its first non-Baptist faculty member until 1894 and formally retained its Baptist affiliation until the mid-20th century.
The college had thirteen faculty, including the president and registrar. President George D.B. Pepper also taught philosophy. The areas of specialization for the other eleven were rhetoric, Latin language and literature, Greek language and literature, "modern" languages and literature, chemistry, mathematics and art, history and economics, physics and astronomy, mineralogy and geology, rhetoric and elocution, and physical education. Note that one professor taught both math and art two seemingly disparate subjects and that rhetoric was the only subject taught by two people.
At the bottom of the page was listed a single staff member: "Samuel Osborne………Janitor." A former slave hired at Colby in 1867 as its sole custodian, his lowly title and lowly position on the page belies his significance. In his 1963 History of Colby College, Ernest Marriner devotes an entire chapter to Osborne, writing, "Samuel Osborne was more than a janitor. He was a campus policeman, unofficial guidance counselor, advisor alike to students and faculty, and above all a man of touching kindliness." Osborne worked at the college for 37 years and fathered its first African American alumna, Marion Osborne, Class of 1900. In the fall of 2017, Colby president David Greene renamed the president's house on Mayflower Hill as Osborne House.
The students must have had a lively social life. The college had four fraternities and one sorority. All but ten of the college's 134 students were members of a Greek organization. Unlike fraternities and sororities of today, the Greek organizations at Colby in the 1880s did not provide housing, but functioned more as social clubs. (Today, Colby doesn't have fraternities and sororities at all, having abolished them in 1984, citing declining membership and ongoing academic and property maintenance problems.)
Although there was considerable student interest in athletics, the sports differed from those common on college campuses today. The college's annual "Field Day," then in its tenth year, was a popular intramural competition, in which students competed as individuals in various track and field events, including a 120 yard hurdle race, running and standing high jumps, running and standing broad jumps, shot put, pole vault, a hammer throw, a 100 yard dash, and a half mile run. Field Day also had a few events that seem quaint today, including a potato race, in which runners would collect a predetermined number of potatoes one by one and drop them into a basket. The first runner to get all of his potatoes into his basket won.
"A Sketch on the Progress of Athletics at Colby" in the yearbook opined, "Much enthusiasm is called forth by the Field Day exercises, and the men who participate subject themselves to quite a rigid course of training before its occurrence." Like most sports at the college at the time, these events were for male students only.
The unnamed author of this report continued, "The practice in vogue for the last three years of offering a class cup for the greatest number of events won has greatly increased the athletic rivalry among the classes. Another interesting feature, recently introduced, is the struggle between the class tug-o'-war teams."
Somewhat related, the college had an informal "hares and hounds" club, a precursor to today's cross-country teams. An outdoor sport in English schools since Elizabethan times, hares and hounds, also called "paper chase," was a race between two groups of runners, in which the "hares" start first, scattering scraps of paper, the "scent," to mark a trail which the "hounds" will follow to try to catch the hares before they reach a predetermined ending point.
Among team sports, base-ball, which was sometimes spelled "base ball" but not "baseball," was the most prominent, or at least the only one for which the yearbook gave player statistics and game scores. Colby had an all-college team, a "second nine," and "class nines," i.e. freshmen, sophomore, junior, and senior squads. During May and June 1888, the all-college team played nine games, three each against Bates, Bowdoin, and Maine State College, which is now the University of Maine's flagship campus in Orono. Of those nine games, Colby won three and lost six. (Full results the 1889 season were not available, as the yearbook went to press before the season was over.)
Although there was no tennis team listed, the above-cited athletics report stated, "Lawn tennis exceeds in interest all other games with the students in general. While only a small number can win success on the ball field, it is in the power of almost every student to become a fairly good tennis player."
The yearbook did give a roster for the football team, but the athletics report devoted just one sentence to the sport, stating, "Football at Colby has never been very popular, one of two unfortunate accidents having thrown it into disfavor." The report does not say what those accidents were or when they occurred. As the young sport was rapidly evolving, it's not clear which set of rules Colby's players followed; their games may have more closely resembled soccer.
Two other sports that are common on college campuses today, basketball and hockey, were not mentioned at all. The former would not be invented for another two years, and the latter, still in its infancy, had not yet made it to Colby.
For other extracurricular activities, the college also had had cycling and rowing clubs; male and female polo teams; five card playing clubs; a Deutsche Gesellschaft, or "German Society", but no other foreign language clubs, or at least, none that were mentioned in the yearbook; Young Men's and Young Women's Christian Associations; five vocal quartets, one for each fraternity plus an all-college ensemble; and finally, a newly formed "anti-feminine society," whose membership was open to any "free born [male] citizen of the United States, at least eighteen years of age, a person of good moral character, and one who has never voluntarily sought the company of coeds, town girls, or other ladies…"
We hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into the past. We thank Rhaeto Pfister for supplying the old college yearbook that was the primary source of information for this article.
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