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Pioneer Days in Beloit

Published in The Beloit Alumnus, March 1923
REV. HENRY BURTON, D.D., of West Kirby, England



     I have the pleasure in complying with the request of your letter of November 22nd, though my failing sight makes writing or typing very difficult now. If my memory does not deceive me it was in the fall of 1857 that with fear and trembling I passed the Lighted Door of the Academy, which was then under the mastership of that prince of teachers, John P. Fisk, whose brother at that time occupied the Chair of Rhetoric and English Literature. In the year '58 we matriculated as the class of '62--the largest Freshman class the College had known. There were no elective studies in those days, and no specializing; the curriculum was well stereotyped, and in our excelsioring up the Alps we straitly followed the beaten path of our predecessors. If one may be allowed to criticise the curriculum of the early '60s we should say that it attempted too much; it was extensive rather than intensive; it lost in depth what it gained in breadth, while its estimate of the practical values of the subjects required was set too low. The coming of the "majors" has remedied this defect.

     In material equipment ours was "the day of small things"--Middle College (not yet crowned with its Mansard roof), North College and the new chapel, (the present Art Hall) were all the buildings we knew, and our laboratory had but a scanty furnishing, as compared with the wealth of appliances it possesses today. It was a strenuous life we lived, almost Spartan in its stern simplicities. There was but little relief from the daily grind, and but little time and attention was given to sport; inter-collegiate contests were unknown, and though the diamond-space was duly marked out at the northwest corner of the campus, there was no organized club. Football had yet to be introduced, and I had the honor of playing in the first football match of the College. It happened in this wise. The '63's, then newly entered as Freshmen, proud of their numbers and their skill, had challenged the whole College with the leather. We Sophs accepted the challenge for ourselves, and went into training for a time. When the eventful hour arrived, and the two teams met in a field by the Turtle Creek, the Sophs. were the victors by four goals to one. The '63's did not invite us to a return match!

     Academic dressing was not in vogue in those early days, and we knew nothing of hoods and gowns; indeed, I do not think that the College had as yet made choice of "old gold" as its distinctive color. It was the '62's who first struck out in this direction, as we decided to wear a distinctive head dress. It was a white straw hat, bound with light blue ribbon, and a tail of the ribbon, about a foot long, gracefully flapping behind. This was too much for some jealous souls, and they planned our discomforture, for one day half-witted John was proudly parading the streets wearing the identical hat with the blue ribbon streamers! We took the rebuff in good part, but soon resumed our normal habits.

     The '62 men brought another innovation into the traditional life of the College. For some years it had been the practice, at the close of the second year, when the field of mathematics was left, for the Sophs to have a public burning of Calculus, when appropriate addresses were delivered about his funeral pyre. This seemed to us rather a senseless way of parting with an old friend, for such he was, in spite of his frigid manner and his exacting claims. Besides, it gave opportunity to the lawless element of the city to create disorder, and even panic; and so it had to be suppressed. So instead of the banned "Burning" we prepared, and carried out another function, the "Crowning of Alma Mater", which was rendered on the evening before Commencement Day. We had first to elect our queen; but this presented no difficulty, as our unanimous choice fell upon Miss Helen Osborne, the charming sister of our classmate, Henry Sayre Osborne. At the hour appointed Middle College was brightly illuminated, its many windows all ablaze. Seated in her carriage was our queen, attended by her maids of honor. We, as her officers and ministers of State, with our flaring torches, formed her escort. Preceded by the town band the stately procession moved on to the grove near North College, which was lighted up with Chinese lanterns. Here in the presence of some 500 spectators, the ceremony of the "Crowning" took place. Speeches were delivered detailing the virtues and many honors of our Queen, and after the class-poet had "Gaily cantered through an Ode" amid acclamations and salvoes of applause, the crown of flowers was duly placed upon the head of our queen, the pageant closing with a stanza of "My Country, 'tis of thee". So did the '62's express the loyalty and love they had for their honored Alma Mater.

     But I must stop this meandering, or you will think the old man has become very garrulous. Still, I cannot close these old-time memories without calling and recalling the names of those who, within the "Lighted Door" led us to the lighted windows: President Chapin, Professors Emerson, Porter, Fisk, Blaisdell, Bushnell, Nason and Alan Miles P. Squier who used to visit the College a few weeks before the Commencement, to arm the departing Seniors with his deep philosophies. They were men to be proud of, whose very names haunt us still, like a strain of music. They have passed on to the higher service of the Master; while of the '62's, only three remain, Edwards W. Porter, Lathrop E. Smith, and "Burton Second", as he was called in the class-room.

     But with the coming and the going of the generations, Beloit survives yet-and flourishes, growing larger, fairer with the years, and "the best is still to be".

With all good wishes,
Yours faithfully,

     P.S.--On hearing my daughter read over the foregoing, I find that I have omitted all reference to the social and religious life of the college in the early sixties. Of the social life, I am scarcely qualified to speak, as my home then was two and a half miles southwest of Beloit, and morning and evening, I was accomplishing my 5000-mile walk to and from the College. So I was excused from attending morning prayers, and in the winter months, also from evening prayers, so that I saw little of the social side of College life. Its social life was in process of development, but it had not reached very far. There were two debating societies, the Delian and the Alethean, which held their weekly meetings for the discussion of all sorts of questions; and these jointly formed the Archaean Union, which once in each term had its public debate. The fraternities had not made their appearance as yet, but in 1860 the Betas slipped in by stealth, the first of the several Greek Letter Societies of today. In our time, an unique privilege was granted to the Sophomore class of paying a social visit to the corresponding class of the Rockford Female Seminary, which in its constitution and government was closely linked with Beloit. By permission of the faculty, we were allowed this privilege, and I well remember the cold and bracing sleighride across the prairie; the hospitable reception we had at the Sem.; the two hours in its lighted parlors, with music, light refreshments, and interesting conversation with its fair maidens; the oyster supper which followed at the hotel; our parting serenade under the Sem. windows; and the drive homeward in the early hours of the morning. We were the last class to which this privilege was accorded. When the next Sophs. put in their claim, it was disallowed; but when they ventured to go without the necessary permit, on their return they found themselves "rusticated" for a term. They had, however, the sympathy of their fellow students, who escorted them to the railway depot with a band!

     As to the religious life of the College, I need not say much, but Religion was ever a silent, dominant force. Without being in the least oppressive or intrusive, it made itself felt everywhere; it pervaded the whole atmosphere of the College. We felt it in the daily exercises of the chapel; we saw it exemplified, and beautified in the lives of our teachers and we could not well get away from its influence. The number of its graduates who have found their vocation in the home ministry, or out on the wider mission-field is ample proof that Beloit has ever kept the sacred fire burning upon her altars. It was lighted hearts first fashioned its Lighted Door, and these lighted, burning hearts have ever had a bright succession. Let me close my too-long reminiscences by a word of testimony. In all the years of my College life, I never heard, in dormitories or on the campus, one unchaste or low-down word, and with all the pranks and pleasantries of our College life, I saw no action that was unbefitting a gentleman. Personally, I owe a great deal to Beloit, and I count it one of the greatest blessings in my life that a kind Providence should lead me 4000 miles to its doors. I found there the training and equipment for my life-work, friendships which have outlasted the sixty years, and it was a few words spoken to me by our beloved Professor Blaisdell in his own home which set me seriously to think of the ministry as my high calling; and if my sun were rising, as now it is setting, I count no better service and no greater honor than to be a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ.