A Path for All Seasons (Even February?)
Built by students, beloved (and sometimes cursed) by all, Middle Path has weathered parades, rituals, and rumors of pavement
Cursed in winter, when its surface turns to an icy sludge, praised in spring, when its gravel dries and its flowers bloom, beautiful in all seasons, Middle Path always has a hold on Kenyon's emotions. It's central, both literally and figuratively. It's defining-physically, socially, metaphorically. It feels essential, as if it were as permanent a feature of the campus as the Hill itself. As if it were here forever.
But, of course, it wasn't. Like everything at the College except for the Hill, Middle Path has a human history, and an often fascinating one.
Imagine a time when Gambier was young, unkempt, and very much part of the frontier. Old Kenyon dominated the hilltop and provided the cornerstone for Bishop Chase's grand Gambier plan-a large open boulevard traversing campus and village, with large squares, three hundred feet in width, around which the College would be built. Chase began construction of Rosse Hall, his second building in Gambier, to be the focal point of Bexley Square. He departed Kenyon in 1831, however, just as the foundations for Rosse were being completed and prior to the implementation of any serious campus plan.
In the early 1840s, our president-civil engineer David Bates Douglass sought to rid Gambier of its rough edges (and marauding livestock). With this aim, he chose to define the College park and grounds in a more controlled way than Chase had envisioned. Leaving in place the "grand avenue" idea for the village, Douglass created a pedestrian park, with roadways on the periphery providing carriage access to the College grounds. Central to this plan was a path, laid down from the center door of Old Kenyon, running north for fifteen hundred yards, and terminating at a row of lots along the south side of Wiggin Street, south of the village.
Student labor built the path. Excavation took place first, with the creation of a two-foot-deep trench, into which a layer of larger broken stones was placed as a foundation. Finer stone and then gravel finished off the path back ground level. No mean feat of labor: the path was ten feet wide. Under the direction of a professor, the students planted hard maples alongside the path to provide an attractive shady frame.
For twenty years, the "Path" is it was then called, was entirely a College feature. Then, in 1860, Bishop Gregory Bedell sought and received permission from the Village of Gambier to extend the pathway north past the gates to the door of the seminary, Bexley Hall. Bedell paid for the expansion. The College agreed to maintain the path within the center of village, while the village agreed to maintain the surrounding roads.
This extension was named the "Bishop's Walk" at the desire of Bishop Bedell, although that distinction soon faded as people began to call the entire pathway by the name that they had used for the original southern stretch-simply, "The Path."
Changes to the Path since the 1860s have been few. Gas lighting was added in the 1890s, followed by electrical lights in the 1920s. Periodically, the College groundskeepers have made efforts to keep the width to the original ten feet, although in many places this has been a losing battle. The path is resurfaced and regraded periodically, although perhaps not as often as some would like in the winter months, when puddles make it messy and icy gravel makes it slippery. (In nicer weather, the main problem seems to be pebbles getting into people's shoes.)
Sometime in the mid twentieth century, the qualifer "Middle" was added to
"Path," resulting in its current name, Middle Path.
Middle Path has figured in a number of Kenyon traditions. From the days when freshmen were required to crawl north from Old Kenyon to the chapel, to the days of fraternity marching and singing up and down the path, it has served as Kenyon's unofficial parade route. Military formations drilled up and down the path during both World War I and World War II. More recently, it has been the scene of vigils and rallies protesting the war in Iraq. Since 1978, seniors have marched south on Middle Path through two columns of faculty members on their way to Commencement exercises. In 1981, first-year students began this same tradition as part of Opening Convocation.
Rumors often fly in Gambier about plans to pave Middle Path, and at various times in Kenyon history the real possibility of pavement has been discussed. In the fall of 1970, the College faced tough budgetary decisions regarding the upkeep of a gravel path. Not only was path maintenance an expensive proposition, but the damage to building interiors from tracked mud and stones had created a large enough problem that the adminstration began to talk about blacktopping the path.
The Collegian supported this measure, running an editorial that berated the student body for not taking care of the path but rather "cover[ing] the path with Coke cans, cigarette packs, and broken wine bottles." Facing the horrible prospect of asphalt in the College park, the campus Senate responded by conceiving Middle Path Day, held for the first time in the spring of 1971. Students provided volunteer labor to clean up the paths around Gambier to save the College the expense of having to pay staff to do the work.
In 1979, the possibility of paving came around again. The College actually laid a test strip of asphalt from the north side of Ascension Hall to Middle Path. Workers put a top layer of gravel into the asphalt in order to give the appearance of the original path while avoiding the puddles and maintenance difficulties of a real gravel surface. Another section was bordered with iron rails to prevent path expansion. Neither of these efforts were successful in easing path maintenance, and the College decided instead to devote more resources to maintaining the paths regularly.
During the 1979 debate over path maintenance, Professor of Anthropology Kenneth Smail put forth a plan to pave Middle Path with bricks, to be donated by alumni or friends of the College, who would pay $50 per brick and, in return, could have their names inscribed on the pavers. The money thus raised would not only cover the cost of paving the path but also provide additional support to Kenyon.
This idea was discussed by the Board of Trustees and others, but no action was taken; the College could not devote the necessary resources to raise money to brick the path, especially in light of the estimated 133,200 bricks needed to finish the project. The Buildings and Grounds Committee of the Board of Trustees also decided that "the tradition of the gravel on Middle Path is a strong one and such a drastic change wouldn't fit the style of the campus and buildings."
In the fall of 1989, students made a startling discovery upon their return to campus. With no warning, the College administration had gone ahead and paved many tributary paths on the south end of campus. Paths to Leonard Hall and Ascension Hall were paved with "exposed aggregate" a surface designed to mimic but not exactly replicate the old stone paths. These new paths, donated by trustee Robert Tomsich, had been installed to test this new surface and protect the newly renovated interiors of Leonard and Ascension. Students had not been notified because of the timing of the gift, which was made at the very end of the spring semester. Rumors once again ran rampant that these paths were the harbingers of a paved Middle Path. The administration denied these allegations and continued through the early 1990s to pave additional tributaries as funds became available.
After more than 160 years, Middle Path continues to successfully avoid concrete encasement. And despite the inconveniences of February, it's hard to imagine it being any other way.
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