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Fridays with Fred: Campus scenes, circa mid-19th-century (pics)

A glimpse at Beloit College in the 1870s.

“These victuals are inedible.”

“The leftover meatloaf should have been left behind.”

“My lodging is so frigid, even Old Man Winter would find it too bitter.”

“My room is so hot you could fry an egg on the radiator.”

“Recitations are exceedingly arduous.”

“Exams at Beloit are no piece of cake.”

The language may change, but student grousing and complaining during 166 years of Beloit College history abounds in common themes. Of course every student generation also revels in its own grumbles and gripes. The activists among them try to effect change, often via editorial blasts in their handiest mouthpiece, the student newspaper.

Let’s go back to the mid-1850s. President Aaron Lucius Chapin sits at his desk in Middle College, working on a sermon for tomorrow’s chapel service. Stretching, he stands up and paces around his cramped office, pausing for a moment at a window, peering down at the serene, pastoral view. Entirely too pastoral! Someone has allowed a couple of cows to graze on verdant Beloit College grass.

Far too many locals mistook the college’s unruly lawn for pasture, and no city ordinance prohibited it. The campus provided a nifty shortcut, as well, for heavily loaded carts and cattle on their way to market downtown. Chapin and other college officials decided to erect a strong wooden board fence surrounding the entire campus. For the first time in its short life, the college seemed isolated from the town that gave it birth. The students may have felt safe from marauding cows and pigs, but they reviled the fence for other reasons. The fence-builders left such slim gaps for entrance and exit that one had to turn to the side and squeeze through with belly sucked in. The fence effectively prevented women wearing popular hoopskirts of the day from visiting campus. An editorialist in the Beloit College Monthly of October, 1856, commented:

It is our humble opinion that our college officers are lacking somewhat in gallantry. They certainly are if we take the new improvement at the college gateways as an index. This improvement is indicative either that they have no desire to be visited by any of the fair sex, or that they are determined to oblige all who may have a desire to attend any of our exercises to conform to their idea of the proper style of dress. Against such old fogy notions we beg leave to enter our most solemn protest…

The college obliged by instituting stiles here and there which allowed visitors to climb in and out of campus, but stymied the larger four-legged critters. Thawing conditions of a typical Beloit March, however, raised student ire once again:

With due respect we, the Students who go to prayers, morning and evening, and recitation three times a day…are compelled to wade through an enormous mud hole at the stile on the south side of the yard…

Someday, campus archaeologists of the future will scratch their heads in wonder at the plethora of hobnails all in the ground, the remains of lost mid-19th-century overshoes.

By the centennial year of 1876, despite whitewashings to keep it looking fresh, the fence remained a sorer and sorer spot among the students. Newly christened The Round Table, Beloit’s student newspaper escalated its anti-fence rhetoric that October:

It has been suggested that it would greatly improve the appearance of the campus if the fence were taken down and removed. We heartily second the suggestion. Since the City Fathers (and by-the-way we thank them for it) passed an ordinance some time ago which keeps cattle out of the street, the only objection to the proposed plan is removed, and perhaps the sale of the boards of which the fence is composed would raise a sufficient amount of money to pay for painting Middle College cupola. It is very evident that no fence is greatly to be preferred to the present fence, and indeed, we think, to be preferred to almost any fence that could be erected.

The college heard them. The president consulted with faculty and trustees and city officials and after two years of discussion, the college took action. On Sept. 25, 1878, a euphoric Round Table editorialist celebrated a student victory after 20 years of ardent complaining:

A part of the college fence has been removed and the remainder will soon disappear! Alumni friends we can see your pleased faces as you learn of this, and we wish we could picture to you the change. The campus never looked more inviting than it does on these early autumn days, and the removal of the forbidding affair known through numerous editorials as the “college fence” has given it the idyllic air that open and well kept grounds often possess. Other changes are also being made which will add to the beauty of our retreat. A carriage-drive already coils itself about the various buildings…

Fred Burwell ’86
October 17, 2013

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