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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1871 Letter

Robert L. Bachman

Delivered: June 1921

General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. This was the close of the Civil War. The Confederate armies disbanded and the soldiers returned to their hours to begin anew the life of civilians. I was one of them, like thousands of other areas, that had undergone charges for the worse. The house and favor buildings were in need of repair, many fields were green over to briers and undergrowth, a poor remnant of domestic arrivals remained, the slaves were gone, saw over and only a tenant family was on the plantation. I entered the old house to be greeted only by black John, who was loyal to the family all his life long. His body sleeps in my father’s burial plot, and his resting place is marked by a marble stone, braving a suitable inscription.

After varied experiences and when I had about determined to be a farmer, Rev. William E. Knox of Rome, N.Y., made a vacation visit to East Tennessee. He met some young men who had been in the Confederate Army, and urged them to go to Hamilton College, of which he was an alumnus and trustee. He sent some catalogues to certain persons whom he had met in the south. One of them fell in to my hands, and in this way I came to learn of Hamilton College.

After counsel with friends and a survey of my financial condition, I sold my horse, “Bluchrer,” which I had ridden in Army Calvary service, and for which I paid over $1,000 in Confederate money. On sale, I received for him $150 in gold. With this, and a little borrowed money, and in company with my brother, I started for Hamilton College in September 1866. On arriving, the faculty treated me with marked consideration and kindness. My preparation for College was exceedingly poor, especially in Greek and Latin, yet by the indulgence of the faculty, I was enrolled in the Class of 1870, of which I was a member to the end of sophomore year.

My financial condition made it necessary for me to earn some money. So I taught for a year at Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. On my return to Hamilton, I entered the Class of 1871, and graduated with it. I have counted myself fortunate in having passed two years in two college classes, with both of which I had pleasant relations, and in which I had many good and dear friends. Hazing freshmen was quite prevalent in my college days. The victim was a neutral, non-society man. He was taken from his room at night by strong sophomores, initiated into some bogus society, for which he paid a fee, had his haircut in a haggled manner, suffered other bodily indignities, and then was permitted to go to his room, while the hazers congratulated themselves on having performed a valiant deed, the custom was unusually cowardly and barbarous. How it originated and why it continued so long are matters beyond my knowledge.

Frequently a professor was treated unkindly at recitation, and especially was this the case, if he was unpopular. Certain ones of the class would stamp on the floor, nestle their books, laugh, whistle and give catcalls. Occasionally, some of the boys would place firecrackers under the small platform on which the professor sat, and attach a fuse to them. During the recitation someone would light the fuse, and the explosion would take place, much to the discomfort of the professor, and much to the delight of the class. Literary exercises were held in the Chapel on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and attended by the student body. Four freshmen and four sophomores declared each week, being selected alphabetically. A certain number of juniors read essays, and a certain number of seniors delivered orations on Saturdays.

It was the custom to row each freshman when he declaimed. As soon as the literary professor called his name, and he started for the roster, many of the students shuffled and stamped their feet, clapped their hands and laughed. This racket drowned the voice of the speaker. All at once it ceased, leaving the poor freshman to a death-like stillness, and to a high-keyed voice, from which it was difficult for him to described with anything like oratorical grace.

This custom was considered not only innocent and amusing, but profitable, in that it helped the speaker to control his mind and voice under difficulties. At the beginning of the college year there was a row between the sophomores and the freshmen. This occurred at the close of morning Chapel worship. After the seniors and juniors passed, the underclassmen grappled in physical effort to see which could put the other out of, or keep the other in the Chapel. After the matching of strength for some 20 minutes or so, the struggle ceased, with each class claiming the victory. Some torn clothes, sprained limbs, scratched hands, bloody noses, and black eyes, even the most serious assets of the conflict.

One of the marked differences between the college of today and the college of 50 years ago is found in the number of professors. In my day there were nine professors, and all of them have passed to the great Beyond. At present, there are 30 professors, and consequently a very large increase in the number of departments. These facts, together with many new buildings, and a large increase of students show what substantial progress the College has made during the past 50 years, with its efficient working force, its working endowments, and its prospects of further financial aid, it bids fair for further enlargement and greater usefulness in the coming years.

My memory recalls little incidents connected with some of my professors, and with the College boys, which may be of passing interest to others. Professor North was not only a great Greek scholar but he was a real sport in thought and expression. These gifts not only manifested themselves in substantial, beautiful poems, but in little, passing everyday sayings. I was walking across the campus one beautiful October morning, where the trees were in their autumnal glory.  He looked up at a gorgeous maple and said, “It looks as if Jack Frost has had those leaves between his teeth and pinched through.”

In his presence, one remarked, “How lovely it is to lie on the grass and look up at the stars,” “Yes,” he replied, “but how more lovely it will be to lie under the grass and look down at the stars.” Dr. Upson frequently gave our class readings from Shakespeare and lectures on various subjects, all of which were much enjoyed. Speaking once on different times he said: “The Elue is the gentleman of the forest.” This is in beautiful contrast with the description given by someone of the Lombard poplar; it was always dying and never dead, and utterly worthless, living or dead.

Dr. Evans had a remarkable memory. This gift made him a great historian. He could begin with Alfred the Great, and cover the centuries, telling of every king or queen who sat on the English throne, to the reign of Victoria. His lectures were so replete with historical data, and delivered with such a flow of language that it was most difficult to take notes of them. When speaking of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth, he repeatedly used this phrase: “If Mary was legitimate, then Elizabeth was illegitimate,” and vice versa, “If Elizabeth was legitimate, then Mary was illegitimate.” This statement so frequently impressed upon us became an amusing historical slogan with the members of our class.

Professor Root was the mathematician and landscape gardener. Perhaps to him, more than to anyone else, the College is indebted for its beautiful campus, its well-defined lawns, its winding walks and drives, its varied shrubbery and trees are largely the result of his artistic taste and loving labor. I never knew any student to create disturbances in his classes. He was highly respected and reasonably feared by all who came under his instruction. One day he was working out an example on the blackboard and explaining it to the class. In doing so, he noticed one of the boys with his feet on the back of the seat in front. The professor looked at him quite sternly, and then calling him by name, said: “I do not care to have your feet in my face.” You may rest assured, the student immediately placed his feet on the floor, and always kept them there when he was in Professor Root’s class.

Professor Avery was a genial, loving and loveable old gentleman. He took a fatherly interest in the students and was easily approached by them. After President Fisher’s resignation, there was quite an intergence before the incoming of Dr. Samuel Gilman Brower. During that time the professors conducted chapel worship. In doing so, Professor Avery one morning read the 55th chapter of Isaiah, beginning: “Ho everyone that thirstieth.” Some of the boys said that the professor read H2o, the formula for water, as he was thinking more about chemistry than the scripture. Doubtless this was a boyish fiction.

President Brower was a New Englander of commanding presence, scholarly traits and an able, instructive preacher. He was an efficient executive, and maintained discipline. One morning during senior year while Dr. Brower was conducting chapel worship, I noticed one man in our class putting down some figures on the back of the seat in front of him. As we were going out of the Chapel, I said to him, “What were you putting down those figures for?” He replied, “I am keeping count of the number of thanks which Prex will return to the Lord this term,” He referred to the statement the President often made in his prayer: “O Lord, we give thee ten thousand times ten thousand thanks.”

Professor Peters was an astronomer — a regular night owl. While others slept, he searched the heavens for new stars. By his discovery of many asteroids, he added to the astronomical knowledge, and widely advertised Hamilton College in the scientific world. One night he invited our class to the observatory to look at the moon through the large telescope. One of the students asked him the cause of the Aurora. On reply, he told of an incident said to have occurred in a German university. A class was being given an astronomy exam. A student was asked the cause of the Aurora. He bowed his head, put his hands over his eyes, and seemed to be in deep study. At length he looked up and said: “Professor, I have forgotten.”  As if in deep sorrow the Professor held up his hand and exclaimed, “Oh! That our man knew the cause of the Aurora Borealis and forgot it.”

Peter Blake, known as Professor of Dust and Ashes, the quaint, fateful old college janitor! Doubtless many made kindly mention of him. His office was a large bunch of keys, suspended by a big string around his neck. These keys gave entrance to every room in the dormitories, as he carried in water and carried out ashes for the students. How often have I seen him slowly climbing the stairs, and plodding through the halls with his neck-yoke, to each end of which has suspended a bucket of water, or a pail of ashes, and how often have I heard him talking to himself about some of the students; calling them by name; as “Old Jones” and “Old Smith” and “Old Brower” and frequently using profane words in connection with them. On one occasion a student said to him, “Pete, stop your swearing. If you don’t, you will die and go to hell. What will you do then?” “I’ll carry water for the boys.” Such was his quick, witty reply.

One night, some of the college boys took an old horse from the service of the Chenango Canal, led him up the Hill, persuaded him up two or three stories of South College and offered the hall window so he could stick his head out. On this elevated, conspicuous position, he was the object of many beholders the next morning. Larger numbers of boys gathered in front of the building and made humorous comments, as he looked longingly down at the green grass on the campus lawn. Of course none of them knew how he got to this conspicuous position, but many of them made laughable suggestions as to how to get him down. The safest and most feasible method was adopted, that of backing him down stairs, a step at a time. Some of the boys held him by the neck, other braced him from the rear, while most of them bossed the job, giving amusing and conflicting orders as to its execution.

Bible study held a conspicuous position in the curriculum of my day. Monday mornings were assigned for such recitations. The instruction given was not of a narrow, sectarian character, but broad and comprehensive, emphasizing the fundamental facts and principles of Christianity.

Special religious services were held occasionally in the Chapel. The day of prayer was always observed. At that time, some prominent visiting minister usually addressed the student body. One such minister, in presenting the claims of the Christian ministry upon educated young men said, “It takes more religion to be a Christian lawyer than to be a Christian minister.” Evidently meaning that a lawyer would have to meet and overcome more and greater temptations than a minister.

Outside of college, the students had very little social life in the hours of the professors and in the village of Clinton. A few of them were very good mixers, had a talent for music, and took interest in local church affairs, had entered into the social life of the community and made many pleasant friends. Some young ladies invited me to their house on a certain evening. I was preparing myself to accept the invitation, when a friend asked me where I was going. I told him, whereupon he laughed heartily and said: “This is not evening, it is only afternoon.” His statement saved me from grave social embarrassment. I was dividing the day according to morning, evening, night. For the first time I discovered that this usage differed radically from that of the north, where day had five divisions: morning, forenoon, afternoon, evening, night.

The President’s reception for the Senior Class was a marked social event. All of the seniors were expected to accept the President’s hospitality and to meet the young ladies invited from College Hill and from Clinton. While the reception was generous and kindly on the part of the President and his family, it was formal. To many of the seniors who were a little green to social life, it was more of a trial than a pleasure. One of our class members was quite sick for a time during the course, and had to go to an institution for treatment. He was restored to health, and was present at the senior reception. After the formal introductions, and after a vain effort to carry our agreeable conversation with those about him, he disappeared. For some reason I went to the cloakroom and found him sitting off in the corner on an ottoman all alone. Calling him by name, I said, “How are you getting along?” With a humorous smile he looked at me and replied, “Bachman, I have had a better time than this in the insane asylum.” So I knew how much, or how little, he enjoyed the social event of four years of college life, the Senior Reception.

Thirty-three in the Class of 1871 graduated 50 years ago. Eighteen of that number have paid the debt of nature. The fifteen who survived are the following:

E.W. Abbey
R.L. Bachman
C.G. Baldwin
Albert Bushwell
W.A. Curtis
F.B. Daniels
C.R. Dwyer
D.A. Ferguson
J.E. Frost
S.R. Harding
A.A. Kirkle
C.J. Palmer
A.C. Phillips
Frank Purdy
C.L. Stour

Classmates and fellow alumni, my life’s sun is far down the western sky, and hastening to its setting. Where its last braun glints this old world, through which I have plodded many years:

Say not: Good-night, but in some brighter cheer, Bid ever, Good-morning.