Bright College Days
In the years immediately before the Civil War, Kenyon enjoyed a brief period of unprecedented prosperity
A story is told about John Wesley, that he tried to found a school but failed because the maids couldn't settle their differences. Bishop Philander Chase knew the story; he included it in the reminiscences he published many years after founding Kenyon. We can't be sure when he first heard this cautionary tale, but it is clear that Chase did not stay in Gambier long enough to ever see the College run smoothly.
The frequency of domestic disputes declined after Chase's departure, partly because his successor, Bishop Charles Pettit McIlvaine, was of the same Evangelical turn of mind that predominated among the faculty. Financial troubles continued to wax and wane, however, and even in the better years corners had to be cut wherever possible. It was a full twenty-five years after Kenyon's founding before anyone felt very good about the state of the College's fiscal affairs.
In the 1840s, Gambier's reputation as a haven for Episcopalians of the Evangelical party brought a steady stream of students from far and wide. As the nation recovered from years of financial depression, McIlvaine succeeded in raising enough funds to get the institutions out of debt. The trustees' decision in 1849 to sell off unprofitable land helped to scale the whole project down to a more manageable size. Though professors were still paid poorly-and irregularly-men of significant achievement were lured to Kenyon. Their devotion to the idea of bringing sound, Christian education to the frontier kept them there. By mid-century, it looked like the College's house was finally in pretty good order.
An upward trend of undergraduate enrollment was undeniable by 1856. Kenyon was out of debt, but now it was running out of space. From this new position of strength, McIlvaine launched another appeal for funds, this time for the happier purpose of expanding the facilities and the faculty. He reported that there were between one hundred forty and one hundred fifty undergraduates at the College. Nearly a third of them were planning to go on to study for the ministry, and that proportion might yet grow. Meanwhile, the theological seminary at Bexley Hall was humming along with about a dozen students, a very respectable number.
Here at last was the realization of Chase's dream. Before long funds were flowing in to equip laboratories and build comfortable homes for faculty members. The cornerstone was laid for Ascension Hall, which, with its paneled halls and stained-glass windows, raised the standard of elegance on the campus.
The students of these days enjoyed a remarkable faculty. There was Hamilton L. Smith, inventor of the ferrotype photographic process and a scientist of considerable stature. Charles Messner, and later William Grauert, offered instruction in both French and German, at a time when the latter language was rarely taught at colleges such as Kenyon. The star of the faculty, and perhaps the most beloved by the students, was the first man to hold the title of professor of English literature, Francis Wharton. A devout Low Church Episcopalian with a law degree, he was renowned for his legal texts and treatises. Wharton had visited Gambier during a trip to the West, and McIlvaine had invited him to come and teach.
Wharton was a man of truly great intellect and learning-and, by all accounts, delightful conversation. Always on the lookout for ways in which he could be useful, he cared for ill students in his home, Sunset Cottage. His Sunday evening lectures on Biblical topics were so popular that most students chose to attend them, even though they had already sat through several required services. Wharton left the College to study for the ministry; later, he was nearly elected bishop of Kentucky. He served in the U.S. Department of State as a legal advisor, and even late in life he continued to update Wharton's Criminal Pleadings and Practice, a text he had written as a young man.
When President David Bates Douglass turned Kenyon's campus into an attractive park in the 1840s, the village across Wiggin Street remained a mess. Gambier never flourished during the years when the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio owned all the village property, when residents rented their homes and places of business and held no voice in civic affairs. In the 1850s that, too, started to change. The diocese sold town lots, a municipal government was organized, and the village took on new life. Pride in ownership led to a general sprucing up, which quickly transformed the appearance of the town. More residents were attracted to the area, and many built fine homes, such as Clifford Place on Wiggin Street. The "first real bookstore," as the Collegian proclaimed it, joined the expanding business district in 1857. Anyone who has visited a fine college in a forlorn location knows what a depressing effect such a location can have. Conversely, the now vibrant community added to Kenyon's appeal.
During the College's early decades, pastimes were extremely limited; hunting, fishing, and debating were among the few diversions on offer. The only group a student could join was one of the literary societies, Nu Pi Kappa or Philomathesian. Delta Kappa Epsilon, initially organized in secret, emerged as the first approved fraternity in 1853. Thereafter, an explosion of secret societies started to drain off energy from the two old literary societies, which stirred up new enthusiasm in their members by introducing colloquies into their exhibitions. The straight-laced community still looked askance at anything that smacked of "theater," and colloquies, with their costumed actors delivering witty dialogue, differed from theater only in the lack of elaborate stage sets. But the clever students managed to get these productions past their elders' disapproving eyes under the umbrellas of the staid literary societies.
Students began to organize clubs of all sorts, and sports teams proliferated. The first number of the Reveille appeared in 1855; the Collegian followed in 1856. The latter was primarily a literary magazine, published monthly and running several dozen pages in length. At the end of each issue, two regular features-"Memorabilia Kenyonensis" and "Editors' Table"-were filled with campus news and undergraduate silliness.
There had always been music at the College, of course: hymns sung to the accompaniment of Philander Chase's barrel organ, for example, and songs such as "Annie Laurie" and "Old Dog Tray." Lately the students, like their compatriots around the country, had taken up songs from German universities. But there was not, as yet, any song that was distinctively Kenyon's, unless one counted the adaptation of "Bango" to "Basco," in honor of President Lorin Andrews's dog.
In 1857, the Collegian's editors challenged the poets and musicians in the student body to produce some "soul-stirring Kenyon songs." The editors hoped that, in future, they might publish at least one good song in each issue of the magazine. Before long, there were numerous songs, of varying merit. "Dear Kenyon, mother dear," sung to the tune of "God Save the King," was a favorite for many years. By the end of the century, these early songs for the most part gave way to the truly soul-stirring songs sung today.
In the 1850s, town and gown mixed on a daily basis, as students patronized Gambier businesses. Villagers participated in many aspects of campus life, attending the Thursday evening lectures given by members of the faculty and borrowing books from the libraries of the literary societies. Holidays often brought the whole community together. On New Year's Day, all the men of Kenyon who had stayed on over the holidays visited the "Ladies of Gambier." The next day these ladies, sometimes numbering as many as two score, returned the call. They were treated to luncheon in the society halls, after which they spent the afternoon singing with their hosts to guitar accompaniment and visiting the museum exhibits and the libraries. If it was a leap year, the order of visits was reversed.
February 22 was an important holiday on the campus calendar. Like Philander's Phebruary Phling of today, the festivities helped to relieve the tedium of mid-winter. In 1859, the literary societies cooperated in the first joint observance of Washington's birthday. The event became more and more elaborate, with spectators enjoying oratorical contests, speeches, bands, and artillery salutes, all leading up to the grand finale, the illumination of Old Kenyon.
At Commencement time, farmers loaded their families and picnic lunches into wagons and came to town to join the celebration. Students also left the precincts of Gambier to take part in rural activities. They visited farms in maple-sugaring season to sample the wares. The annual county fair in Mount Vernon was a big draw, and students were granted a holiday so they could attend.
The organization of a Methodist congregation brought new diversity, and sometimes tension, to the town's religious life, but it was also a time of happier relations among the members of Harcourt Parish. McIlvaine had never enjoyed living in Gambier, and as soon as he thought affairs there were in good enough order that he could make his residence elsewhere, he moved to the Cincinnati area. In 1859, Rev. Gregory Thurston Bedell was elected as the first assistant bishop of Ohio. Bedell and his wife moved to the Hill, bringing a cultured gentility, generous spirits, and a clear love for the town. The parishioners reciprocated their warmth.
A less-happy aspect of Gambier life was the lack of connection between the College students and the seminarians. An alumnus from this era, Alexander V.G. Allen, described the undergraduates' attitude toward Bexley Hall. "Standing, as it did, at the opposite end of the long village street, it seemed for the most part as remote to our sympathies as it was removed by distance. But there was at least one among its faculty to whom I must refer when expressing my personal indebtedness to the influences of Gambier. . . . Dr. McElhinney did something to redeem the Theological Seminary from the contempt with which it was regarded by students in the College. I do not know that Gambier was peculiar in this respect or that the theological school is an exception to the other professional schools. But so it was, however it may be explained, that the College world seemed full of life and rich in interest, it lay to our imagination bathed in sunlight while, for those who entered the dark seminary at the other end of the village, we felt when in our kindliest mood as the old Greeks may have felt for those who had entered the world of the dead; they had left the fullness and richness of life behind them, they had become objects of commiseration. The feeling was, of course, a wrong one, but I recall it as an element in our life in the College." It should be said that, after he graduated from Kenyon in 1862, Allen went on to study for the ministry himself, although not in Gambier.
Allen's unusually thoughtful reminiscence, which he wrote for President William B. Bodine's Kenyon Book, includes a description of an environment that could hardly be more ideal for an undergraduate's growth. "As I review the life at Kenyon at this distance of time, it seems to me that it furnished in a remarkable degree the conditions necessary for the development of personality. . . . No great central influence overshadowed us so as to make us feel our insignificance. It was not difficult to take in the range of the required studies, there was healthy and generous rivalry, opportunities were offered for distinction and fame. . . . Perhaps we did not measure ourselves accurately with the great world outside of us. There were motives at work in society of which we did not dream. But we were storing up enthusiasm and self-confidence, qualities which might not have been grown so easily and naturally had the conditions which surrounded us been different."
And then, suddenly, everything changed. First, amid increasing hostilities between North and South, southerners left the College and enrollments started to decline. Once the Civil War began, Kenyon lost more students to the army-and faculty members as well. Then she lost her popular and respected president, Lorin Andrews, to an untimely death. Hard times settled back in at Gambier, and the once-familiar face of Discord was more and more in evidence.
There is an old college song-not from Kenyon but from Yale-called "Bright College Years." It is a rather sad song, about how swiftly the pleasant undergraduate years fly by. Students, at least, know from the outset that the span of their college years will be short. The decade before the Civil War is an especially poignant time in the College's history because the good years, when they came at last, were so very brief. Who would have thought, when the sun finally began to shine on Kenyon, that it would disappear again so soon?
Teresa Oden, a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group, lives in Gambier.
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