During the nineteenth century, 10 different principles served the Academy for a total of 85 years; one of these men, Cyrus S. Richards, dedicated 36 years of his life to Kimball Union. He is considered our foremost principal of that century and is credited with bringing Kimball Union to the forefront of New England preparatory schools during his tenure here. Although the only known portrait of Richards is owned by Dartmouth College, there is one beautiful reminder for us on campus that this man was loved and honored by the people he served here.
Who was Cyrus Smith Richards and why and how did this poor son of a Vermont farmer find his way to KUA and then on to Dartmouth College? His granddaughter, Helen D. Richards, wrote an article in 1941 for the Kimball Union Alumni Bulletin about his life and times that gives us great insight into his personality. His grandparents, like Daniel Kimball’s Family and many others, came up the Connecticut Valley on horseback. The Richards bought and cleared a farm in Norwich, Vermont, and later, his father, the first male child born there, bought his own farm and cleared land on the Norwich and Hartford line. Here is where Cyrus was born in 1808, the eighth of nine children. Helen Richards wrote, “Cyrus grew up on the farm, a barefoot boy in homespun, but with a love of books and an eager desire to learn.” Sadly, when he was four years old his father died and all the children, led by his eldest 16 year-old brother who gave up his own dreams of an education for the sake of his bright, younger brothers, had to help on the farm. His schoolmaster was very disappointed when Cyrus was taken out of school and impressed upon his mother that he was a student of great promise and so a compromise was reached whereby he was allowed to go to school for a few months each winter. Cyrus was an eager student and supplemented his formal education by constant reading and study at home; he soon had a reputation locally as “one of the best scholars in the neighborhood.”
Another descendant writing in the 1980s said that there were too many mouths to feed on the farm and eventually Cyrus’ mother “bound” him out to a neighboring, childless couple to help with chores on their farm. “Cyrus was deeply homesick, missing both family and school. He was rarely permitted to go home for a visit, though he lived near enough to see the smoke from his mother’s chimney curl upward into the sky behind a hill in the distance.”
One of Cyrus’ gifts was “a clear, high tenor voice” and he found he was in much demand by his neighbors as a singing instructor and was able to save a little money. This, along with his academic success that had so impressed everyone, meant that “the citizens of the surrounding area raised money to pay for his enrollment in KUA.” Finally, his dream of a formal education came true and he was able to enter KUA in his 20th year, an age not unusual in those days of “poor and pious young men” finding a way off the farm and into Kimball Union. Cyrus was an excellent student and graduated in the class of 1831 along with his younger brother Jonas. Both men went to Dartmouth College with Cyrus graduating in 1835 and Jonas in 1836. Among Cyrus’s friends in college were the Honorable Amos Tuck, Governor Washburn of Vermont and President Bartlett. During Cyrus’ senior year at Dartmouth, Principal Newell became ill and asked Cyrus to assist him for a term. He showed such great ability as a teacher that on the day he graduated from Dartmouth College, Cyrus was elected the fourth principal of Kimball Union Academy.
In the fall of 1835, KUA was prosperous with over 100 students, including some young women, enrolled each term. Students, other than those within a day’s travel, undertook long journeys by stage or wagon to attend a school with a growing reputation as it was the chief preparatory school for a large region of the northeast. Meriden and all of this area was still being settled and many people were poor but believed an education at the Academy was a dear thing for their sons and daughters to attain. Helen Richards’ wrote of those years as a time “… when scholarship, so dear to the New England heart, was a prize to be won by the farmer’s boy through long struggles.”
Next Time: Cyrus Richards’ early years at KUA.