After the 36-year tenure of Cyrus Richards (1835-1871) came to a close, changes were bound to take place at Kimball Union. Some of them were attributable to the various leadership styles of six different principals before 1900. It perhaps was not easy for John Goodrich (1871-1872) to have followed Cyrus Richards as his tenure was for one year only. As a later principal candidly noted, “It was fortunate for the school that he stayed only one year as he was a misfit and lacked power to control students. The pupils would hiss and scrape in chapel when he said things they did not like.” Lewis Austin (1872-1875) took over the next year, but, unfortunately for KUA, left after “… three years of faithful and acceptable service …” due to ill health.
The seventh principal, George Cummings (1875-1880), had the advantage of familiarity with KUA having been a student, class of 1865, and a teacher here since graduation from Dartmouth College in 1869. In the spring of 1875, St. Johnsbury Academy offered Cummings a good teaching position which he considered accepting as KUA was experiencing financial difficulties. The KUA trustees, not wanting to lose him, asked under what conditions would he agree to stay on as the new principal. “I would stay,” he said he told them, “If I could have all the income to spend as I thought wise and could have a few changes made in the Academy building. I had no idea that the Trustees would consent to any such arrangement.” They did consent and the teachers agreed to stand by him. He later wrote that he had “… a love for the school that led me to wish to help it, if possible to pass the present crisis.” He and his assistant agreed to share equally, as their salary, any money left over after paying the bills; as it happened, they were only $50 under their normal pay. At the end of his five-year commitment, Cummings accepted the position of principal of Monson Academy. In 1885, he received an urgent request from Cyrus Richards urging him to come to Howard University and work as his assistant; it was too good an offer to refuse. After Richards retired from Howard, Cummings took over as Professor of Ancient Languages and Dean of the Preparatory Department where he remained until 1919.
Marshall Gaines (1880-1884) and David Miller (1884-1890) led the Academy until William Cummings (1890-1900) took over the reigns. It was a daunting task as enrollment had steadily declined for several years due to the rise of public high schools throughout New England. Parents found it more convenient for their children, especially their daughters, to gain an education without the cost of board and tuition. By 1890, KUA had about 50 students from a sometimes high of 300 during the Richards era. A solution came in the form of a former teacher, Myra L. Everest, of New York City, who said she often thought of the contrast between the factory workers and the healthy lives of KUA students and wanted to help the Academy solve their financial problems and avert disaster. She devised a plan that became known as the One Hundred Dollar Plan whereby a student paid $100 for board, room, fuel, lights and full tuition rights, but was required to work on campus “cheerfully” one hour each day. Everest’s program was a success and brought KUA into the new century with its prestige restored. However, before Cummings retired, several other unforeseen events brought challenges of another kind to The Hilltop.
The Meriden House, an inn built by John Bryant C.1820, had become the property of the Academy in 1853 for use as a dormitory. Tragically, on March 29, 1890, it caught fire at noon and was totally destroyed. The Honorable Dexter A. Richards of Newport, NH, a trustee and long-time supporter of KUA, was instrumental in the replacement of the dormitory with the building later named for him. Another disastrous fire in 1891 destroyed the Third Academy building. It began in the night in one of its four chimneys. According to the New Hampshire Argus and Spectator newspaper, the students living on the top floor were lucky to escape with their lives. As it was, the library and most other valuables were saved, but the building, along with its bell, was destroyed. The alumni were told “… the familiar sweet-toned bell had rung its last call.” It was replaced by Baxter Hall.
The third calamitous Hilltop fire destroyed the wood-framed church. On Saturday, June 16, 1894, the bell steeple was struck by lightning and caught fire, but men working nearby saved the church by cutting off the steeple. The next day at Sunday service, the congregation gave thanks that their church had been spared, but unbelievably, on Monday, it was struck again and this time the church was destroyed. It’s believed that lightning travelled down the metal rods from the roof to the chandeliers and set them on fire; they had just been cleaned that morning and refilled with kerosene. John D. Bryant, class of 1851, (donator of Bryant Hall) offered to rebuild the church if it would be made of stone. The offer was accepted and and the beautiful church we see today with its long connection to KUA was dedicated on May 23, 1899.
By the autumn of the new century, The Hilltop had a new timber dormitory, a new brick Academy Hall, a new stone church and a new principal, Ernest Roliston Woodbury.
Next time: Principal Woodbury 1900-1905