Fridays with Fred: A personal history of the Beloit College Archives
The student worker trundled his book cart across a sea of linoleum tile, rounded a corner, and beheld a mountain range of oversized map cases with a mysterious chain-link fence looming in the distance. He pushed the cart through a narrow passageway, fumbled with a key dangling from a tennis ball, and opened the gate which protested with an ominous-sounding squeal. A few steps more and he found himself hemmed in by shelves crammed with boxes and teetering piles of photographs stacked on ancient file cabinets, breathing in a sweet aroma of crumbling leather-bound books, century-old paper, geological layers of Beloit dust, and loving it.
That was me. It was the fall of 1983, my first semester as a transfer student at Beloit College. Cree Joslin, my boss at the library circulation desk, had sent me to the top floor of the library to return some books to the Beloitana collection. I remember wandering back a ways into the stacks, half afraid to touch anything, but completely intrigued by the innumerable relics. After all, I’d spent a childhood at flea markets, antique stores and second-hand bookshops, trailing after my parents. In order to stave off boredom I joined the hunt, and by age 10 I had—along with my baseball cards—accumulations of old books, vintage photographs, and stamps. I also enjoyed learning about family history and attempting to decipher 19th- and early 20th-century correspondence penned by long-ago ancestors. So I guess it wasn’t surprising that I was eager to learn more about the Beloit College Archives.
This is “Fridays with Fred” #100, and it seems appropriate to examine the history of the place where so many Beloit stories slumber, patiently waiting for reawakening.
I suppose that in a sense the Beloit College Archives hearken back to the dawn of the college itself. The trustees purchased a handsome oversized leather volume and their secretary christened it with ornate lettering on pale blue paper, “Records of Beloit College.” The faculty kept a more modest ledger, a handwritten chronicle of every meeting in exhaustive detail. Professor William Porter began his famous “Porter Book,” meticulously jotting down data on each student in the college and academy. Eventually the college library got into the act, binding copies of the Beloit College Monthly, the college catalogue, and a hodgepodge of both official and student documents and ephemera. Other one-of-a-kind documents wound up in a gaudy-looking safe in Middle College. A formal Beloit College Archives, however, was many years away, and needed the efforts of a dedicated historian.
Robert Kimball Richardson began teaching history at Beloit College in 1901. Over the next half-century he became one of the most revered professors in the college’s history. So spellbinding were his lectures that rumor has it the college constructed the auditorium in Morse-Ingersoll with him in mind since no other space would accommodate the vast numbers of students clamoring to attend his classes. Although a specialist in medieval European and English constitutional history, Richardson’s keen fascination with Beloit College history grew and knew no bounds. As he began to study and write about the college he recognized the urgent need for gathering as many of its primary documents as possible before their inevitable dispersal and possible destruction. His wife, Helen Drew Richardson, picks up the story in her sketch about his life:
Told, after the death of Mrs. Helen Brace Emerson in 1920, that there were precious papers in the attic of the Emerson house on College Street, which should be preserved, he had, without money or formal authority, but with notification to the college administration, dealt with them in his own fashion. He removed them in bushel baskets on his wheelbarrow to his home, where, as time permitted, he read, digested, and calendared the letters.
As Richardson soon discovered, word got around, and before long he found himself disappearing in his own office, engulfed by heaps of Chapin and Whitney and Peet papers and…it seemed like a never ending flow of paper. He stored the growing archive in a room underneath his office in Morse-Ingersoll until 1947 when President Carey Croneis named him Centenary Historian and College Archivist and offered him an archives room in the basement of the Carnegie Library (WAC). Until his death in 1952, Richardson toiled at researching and writing the history of Beloit College.
The college did not have to search far for its second archivist. A 1939 Beloit College graduate and protégée of Richardson’s, Robert H. Irrmann had returned to the college in 1948 as his mentor’s replacement. Like Richardson, Irrmann was a British and European historian, but became increasingly entranced by the people and stories and colorful details of local history. In 1953 Carey Croneis named Irrmann Beloit College Archivist. Over the next 33 years, Irrmann, often with the help of Helen Drew Richardson, oversaw the expansion and promotion of the archives and assisted countless researchers. He was also a prolific writer and speaker on Beloit history.
In 1962 the Beloit College Archives moved to its quarters on the top floor of the newly constructed Colonel Robert H. Morse Library. There was a tiny reading room, a tinier office, a tunnel-like section of shelving, and a large vault guarded by an impenetrable metal door with combination lock.
By the early 1980s, Irrmann was physically unable to do the work anymore. For several years the archives sat dormant. After my first visit, I phoned Irrmann, visited him at his charming, clock-filled house on Emerson Street, and then began working as his assistant. After Irrmann’s resignation in 1986, the college hired me as only its third archivist. Not long after, Irrmann finally gave me the combination to the vault, where I discovered cartons sealed in 1964, metal tins brimming with 19th-century documents, a large bust of the missionary, Lucius Porter—whose eyes seemed to follow me everywhere—and a psychedelic paisley shirt that had apparently belonged to Mrs. Richardson, who had passed away several years before. Many other treasures awaited discovery.
In 1991 the archives moved again, this time to the lower level of Morse Library, featuring a much more commodious space, including a larger reading room with display cases, and compact moveable shelving. In recent years, due to an ever-increasing number of research requests as well as class use, we’ve added an even larger reading room with the well-appointed Paula Black Seminar Room next door.
The Beloit College Archives today is an active, vibrant place. Project Archivist Michelle Tom, student workers, and volunteers create inventories and finding guides for our continually growing collections. We meet with classes from a variety of departments, work with campus offices to preserve our history, help researchers from around the world, and, once a week, the former student worker turned archivist provides a new installment of “Fridays with Fred.”
I often wish I could travel back in time and visit this historic place in its infancy, hear the carpenters hammer together the framework of Middle College, recite my Greek lesson before Professor Emerson, conjure up a devilish prank or two with Horace White and Stephen Peet, greet the first “Coeds” as they arrive in 1895, swat a “base ball” with the Olympian Club, and watch Ding Darling draw one of his wickedly funny cartoons. The documents and photographs we’ve preserved for 167 years help me reach my hand across time and sometimes it feels as if I’m really there: