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The Beginning of a New Era

Published in Alma Mater VI 1957-1958
By William A Whitcomb


The oldest graduate of Beloit College is William A. Whitcomb of the Class of 1892, now living in Culbertson, Mont. He here tells of his coming to Beloit and of the great changes that were started by Beloit's second president.

EDWARD Dwight Eaton came to Beloit as the second president in September, 1886. Lancaster, Wisconsin, was his early home, and he was the son of the Reverend Samuel W. Eaton, Congregational minister there.

     At the same time I traveled from Lancaster – a farmer's son – and enrolled as a Junior "Prep" in the Beloit Academy. That was just 71 years ago.

I continued to reside in Beloit for six years and came to know the College and the town, (then having about 5,000 population) quite well.

     At first I roomed at Widow Brown's house on Emerson Street, and had table board at the "Club" in the basement of North College. Board cost two dollars a week. The food was wholesome, with plenty of milk. There was a matron in charge, but students waited on table and a student steward kept the accounts, made the purchases and did other necessary business.

     A grocer would on occasion quote prices to a student on apples by the dozen, and be amazed to receive an order for apples by the barrel.

     There were at that time but 58 students – all men of course – in the four regular years of the College, and 161 men and boys in the Academy. The College classes were divided into 17 Seniors, 12 Juniors, 14 Sophomores, and 15 Freshmen.

     The aim of the College, according to the Catalogue of that day, "is the thorough liberal, Christian education of young men who are to be the leaders of opinion and influence in Society, in the Church, in the State . . . The education of previous years is supposed to have laid the foundation on which special instruction and discipline may be carried on, so as to develop in symmetry and strength the powers of the man so as to give him self-possession in the command of these powers for any work, and so as to furnish the mind, in considerable variety and fullness, with knowledge for its enjoyment, growth, and usefulness."

IN THOSE days, school started on September 1 and continued through the following June 14 or so, with College Commencement taking a full week after the "preps" had finished. We had two weeks off at Christmas time, one week in the Spring.

     The first Eaton faculty was an awesome group of older men. Several of them were preachers. Eaton himself was a preacher, having served two pastorates, the latter one in Oak Park. Chapin, Blaisdell, Burr, Emerson, Porter, and Whitney were all preachers. Apparently in those early days the first question asked of a candidate for a professorship was "Are you a Congregational preacher out of a job?" (Eaton's first job was to change this.)

     In my second year (I squeezed through Prep in two years with "conditions") my mother, then a widow, came to Beloit and we engaged rooms at 500 School Street, which I understand is now East Grand Avenue. Our corner – Pleasant and School – was at the beginning of the residential district. All four of the corner houses (including that where the postoffice now stands) were residences, and all eastward from there were residences except the Baptist Church which stood about in the middle of the block, facing south. No change had occurred at that corner when we left in 1892.

     Some of the industries in Beloit at that period were the Iron Works, Norwegian Plows, Dowd Knife Works, Straw Board (a paper rnill), Overall factory, Foster Shoes, the Eclipse Engine Works (this became Fairbanks, Morse & Company in 1893), and several others.

     Beloit College of seventy years ago was still a very religious college. I use the word "still" because it was more so previously and less so subsequently. Blaisdell's courses in the Junior and Senior years were practically pre-theological, and they were required of all, including Jews and Catholics, if any. Both chapel and church attendance were required of Preps, and if upper classes were technically exempt, nevertheless daily chapel attendance was practically universal. Morning and Sunday chapel had previously been required, but a compromise had been conceded by requiring all 8 a.m. classes to be opened by prayer by the professor. Bible classes on Monday were required of all students from top to bottom. The Catalogue of that day says of these required Monday morning "recitations:" "In these exercises, the authority of God's word is recognized, the grand features of the scheme of redemption by Jesus Christ are contemplated, and the principles of pure morality and spiritual godliness therein embodied, are studied in their application to the life that now is and to that which is to come."

Beloit College 1886 

BUT change was in the air. Eaton never added another preacher to the faculty. His appointees were specialists and taught only their specialty. Preachers were supposed to be able to teach everything. That day ended with Eaton. His appointees were out-and-out Christians, but "Rastus," the chemistry professor, was known to smoke, in the privacy of his home, and even defended smokers and beer drinkers in his "required" chemistry class. I know, for I was there and heard him. "Tommy" Smith, who taught mathematics and chemistry, was above reproach, so far as I know, and a model of propriety, but had a reputation as being a good story teller in a select group. He had the reputation of flunking about half the class in mathematics, but I managed to squeeze through, but never with a high mark.

     Certainly Beloit could never be dubbed a "preacher factory." In the earlier decades classes often turned out fifty per cent or more preachers. Our class was the largest until then. Twenty per cent of our class entered the ministry. Few subsequent classes have furnished an equal percentage.

     Infractions of the rule against smoking were rare. Drunkenness was likely to result in expulsion. Gambling was equally banned, and infractions were rare.

     In the period now under review there were amazing increases in funds from wealthy donors. From Scoville of Eaton's former parish in Oak Park came $25,000 for the building of Scoville Hall. (Money was worth more in those days.) From Dr. Pearsons of another Chicago suburb a short time later came $100,000.

     Did any of those very wealthy men whisper that there ought not to be any economic heresy to contaminate the good boys whose wealthy parents sent them there to be safe from economic heresies?

     Seventy years ago, Bryan and LaFollette, although alive, were still too young to be dangerous. Harrison was president and "all was right with the world." At about that time in Illinois there was a very wicked governor whose name was Altgeld. I knew he was bad because the papers, and folks generally, said he was. He had taken the side of striking union laborers in a riot in Chicago. That was enough. And it was a local scandal that a college professor had voted for a Democrat. A little later he resigned. From my own childhood I had known that Republicans were good and Democrats bad. How could a Beloit College faculty member commit such an indiscretion?

THE average of scholarship at Beloit was high, as always. It was college policy to mark low. Ninety was a high mark, 100 was never given. I never heard then of a "snap" course, although I was later to hear of them at Yale and the University of Chicago. Tommy Smith in math and "Saul" (Rollin D. Salisbury) in geology were especially severe.

     A few more words about religion. To my mind, Professor Blaisdell was the top intellect of the entire group. He dominated the religious thinking of the entire school. And he was strongly orthodox. No heretic graduated from Beloit College if he could help it. He was probably the oldest, but he was not at all senile. Also he could preach. In Beloit I never heard sermons equal to Blaisdell's. They might be long to some, but not to me.

     I find it difficult to make vivid the revolutionary changes which took place in the college during that six-year "critical period." I saw the end of a small Congregational college and the beginning of the change to a church-related liberal arts college for both sexes as it is today.

     About this time fraternities were permitted, due, I believe, to Eaton's sanction, and Beta Theta Pi, Sigma Chi, and Phi Kappa Psi were chartered. Phi Beta Kappa was not organized until later.

     I never had a bid to a fraternity; I was too poor. I did odd jobs – sawing wood, etc. – for 15 cents an hour, and for tutoring I received larger pay – 25 cents an hour. But students were not "organized." There were two literary societies which did not have dues – the Alethean and the Delian. When they sat together they were the Archaean Union. This Union controlled the Round Table and annually elected its editors. In the spring of 1892 the editor-in-chief was called away and I was asked to substitute. For the only time in my life I possessed editorial omniscience, and proceeded to exercise it. For two or three issues all went well, but presently a letter came from an offended party which caused me to make an editorial apology. My omniscience received a jolt.

     It was then the universal practice when students met faculty members on campus or street to give a military salute which would be likewise acknowledged. But when a recent grad became an instructor in Prep, the salute was omitted.

     Chatty intimacy between student and professor was rare. When Denny (H. D. Densmore, botany professor) came, his smooth boyish face caused an upperclassman to ask him what Prep class he belonged to! But he mentioned it later with great glee.

     A few students found wives among the Beloit girls met at church or boarding house, but more often casual acquaintances were likely to be dropped and so-called "college widows" resulted.

     Most students attended the "First Cong" church, but farmer-boy type students found "Second Cong" more congenial.

THE college we left in 1892 was still a small college – about 100 students. The curriculum was still restricted. The college had its virtues and its limitations. But we were entering a new era. New faculty members were in many cases graduates of Beloit who had gone on to graduate study in the field of their specialty. The curriculum was being broadened and electives offered in the upper years. Four new buildings – Scoville, Chapin, Pearsons Science, and the Chapel – rose on the campus during my residence there. Property values were more than doubled; endowment funds were increased, and higher salaries were possible for the fifteen or so faculty members. Our class of 1892 – 21 men – was the largest to that time, but within a few years because of the admission of women the number increased greatly, and a new era started in Beloit's history.