Benjamin Labaree, class of 1824, was a native of Charlestown, NH, and a student for two years in the early days of Kimball Union. We may never have known of his personal experiences here if not for his great grandson who wrote to Headmaster Mikula in 1975 after having learned of the Academy from an advertisement he saw for Kimball Union in a Yankee magazine the very same day he finished transcribing his great grandfather’s autobiography. Written for his grandchildren in 1879-80, 54 years after his graduation, several pages included his life on The Hilltop, and his great grandson felt we should have them. We are fortunate that he did as descriptions from a student’s own hand is the purest way to understand what life was like for young women and men here on The Hilltop so many, many years ago.
Many students in Larabee’s time had enrolled in their late teens and one can imagine didn’t expect any entertainment to be provided for them as life in the early eighteenth century was often austere. Labaree was 21 when he enrolled and had already taught school for four years in three different states: Massachusetts, North Carolina and New Jersey, all in townships of different protestant denominations: Congregationalists, Baptists, Reformed Dutch, Methodists, and Presbyterians. He later felt it gave him a more comprehensive view towards religion as he studied amongst men preparing for the ministry at KUA.
“The other students,” he wrote, “were young men and boys, and a few young ladies, and except a few rude lads, all were well behaved and industrious….But life in an Academy is very monotonous; first to morning prayers, then recitation, then to our rooms for study then to another recitation, after which the day closes with evening prayers, So it went on from day to day and from week to week.” Labaree, having already been employed as a teacher, recognized his purpose here in this remote village, “So true it is that ‘diligence will overcome difficulties.’ But it must be the right kind of diligence, not that sort which is careless stupid and sleepy, and is satisfied merely with dozing over a book, but I mean that sort of diligence which is vigorous, wide-awake, and in earnest. This kind of diligence, accompanied with a good method, is sure to succeed.”
Larabee described the town of Meriden as seen from all four directions on The Hilltop. He described the First Academy building to the east as “a large two story, building containing a few public rooms for worship and recitation, and a few in the second story for the use of students.” The church, to the north, was a “large, old fashioned meeting house, full of windows, which used to make a great noise in sermon time, when the wind blew…” Labaree wrote of the preacher who had difficulty in writing sermons each week and one Sunday repeated one from the “Sabbath before. He apologized for it by saying that some elderly people of the congregation had not been able to hear the discourse, the Sabbath before on account of the noise made by the window blinds, and at their request he would repeat the sermon. … being situated upon a high hill, the noise from the wind and blinds was very troublesome, especially to aged people, but we young folks would quite as soon have heard a new discourse.”
He also included a lovely story that conveys a distinct sense of a shared community among women and men and a sense of occasional fun in their “monotonous” lives.
“The church steeple was very high and from the top of it the prospect was truly grand. Not only grand to behold, but I remember well, the boys and girls who could sing, would go up to the belfry in a still evening and sing. They would select music adapted to such circumstances and it would appear grand and impressive to hearers below. I call to mind quite vividly one of the pieces they sang in that belfry. One party sings aloud, ‘Scotland’s burning, Scotland’s burning,’ another party shouts ‘Fire, fire, fire,’ a third party calls out earnestly, ‘Cast on water, cast on water.’ I may not relate it quite correctly, for it is fifty five years since I heard it. Words and phrases may be forgotten, but I am sure I can not forget the delightful and solemn impression made upon my mind at the time – There were very few dwelling houses on the Common; the villagers resided for the most part on the East and West roads which ran from the Common down hills rather steep, and off among the farmers.” This was student-led entertainment at its best and fun for us to visualize these young men in their formal dress and women in their heavy, floor length dresses, huddled together in the steeple singing to those below enjoying the evening air.
Although romance as we know it in the 21st century was prohibited at Kimball Union in the 19th century, the Rev. Charles Richards, class of 1854, spoke of its ability to flourish in its own unique way. “The girls sat on one side of the chapel and classroom, and the boys on the other, demure and absorbed in the topic in hand. But electricity is an eccentric and unmanageable force, and the way the sparks would leap from some eyes across the aisle making hearts tingle on the other side was amazing. … a considerable number of young men found here the finest girls they ever saw, and afterwards persuaded them to become their companions for life.” Harriet Wines and her 1816 classmate, W. Bela Adams, have the distinction of being the first “companions for life” who met at Kimball Union; they were married in 1821.
Another KUA couple that became “companions for life” was the third principal Israel Newell (1822-1835) and his wife, Esther Whittlesey, of Cornish, NH, a classmate of Labaree. Again, I turn to him for this interesting assessment of the Newells. “He was not as well versed in the classics as he should have been, but being a diligent student as he went forward from year to year, we students should not have known, that he was at all deficient, had it not been for the following circumstances. He was called home to the funeral of his father to be gone several days.” A senior from Dartmouth was hired to fill in “a complete and finished scholar. From him we learned many things about Latin and Greek which we had not known before…” When the principal returned, they felt they had profited greatly from their substitute teacher. He said Newell was a “good disciplinarian, kept the rude boys in order, prevailing more in his government, by the sternness of his brow than by the affections of his heart. I think it was true generally that his pupils feared rather than loved him. This can not be said of all for a bright and accomplished young lady, among his pupils … gave him her hand and I suppose her heart with it -” They were married soon after she left Kimball Union.
Larabee’s approach to his studies proved successful for after graduation from Dartmouth College in 1828, and further work as a missionary and teacher in the West, he was elected President of Middlebury College where he remained for 26 years, 1840-1866. He died in November 1883 having only reached the year 1834 in his autobiography.