Mountain Day: changing tradition

The autumn colors wash over the mountains, apple cider flows freely, and a capella melodies drift over the hillside.

Each year, 100s of Williams students, faculty and families enjoy the requisite outdoor experience of autumn in the Berkshires with the Outing Club’s Annual Mountain Day celebration.

Mountain Day has changed significantly since its inception in the 19th century. While the original premises for the occasion may have been lost over the years, a spirit of appreciation and enjoyment of the natural environment remains strong.

Mountain Day is believed to have evolved from Chips Day, which began in 1800. On Chips Day students were required to clean up the grounds of the College. By about 1848 each student was contributing six pence to employ two or three men to do the work of cleaning the grounds, while the students themselves ascended Mount Greylock. This date is somewhat questionable, though, as some sources suggest that a tradition of campus-wide hikes may have begun much earlier. For instance, in 1827 President Griffin wrote in his journal, “About the 24th of June a day to go upon the mountain.”

President of the College Mark Hopkins believed that Mountain Day offered an excellent opportunity to speculate on the work of the Creator, an opinion much influenced by the transcendentalist movement. (Ralph Waldo Emerson is reported to have visited Williams numerous times). However, later generations of Williams students have viewed Mountain Day more as a time for gathering with friends than as communion with God.

The Williams Quarterly of June 1856 reports that students, carrying backpacks, would gather together in a single file line, summoned by a tin horn, and march up to the top of “Old Mount Greylock.”

Mountain Day was an official holiday off from classes for over a century. It wasn’t scheduled in advance, but was chosen spontaneously at some point during the fall. The evening before Mountain Day, the bells in the chapel would play “The Mountains,” signifying to the students that they would be off from classes the next day.

In 1934 only 40 students participated in Mountain Day, so the College ended the holiday. By the 1960s, students were asking for its return. It was finally resumed in the late 1980s, but was now scheduled in advance and held on the weekend.

Activities are now less regimented, with an assortment of hikes offered by the Outing Club. Students can choose from treks of varying lengths and difficulty levels, or they can even ride in a van straight to the festivities at the top. The day is simply an invitation to everyone to get outside to take in the beauty of the surroundings in good company.

Since the reinstitution of Mountain Day, levels of participation have remained steady. In 1993, the celebration of the College’s Bicentennial anniversary, Outing Club Director Scott Lewis said approximately 300 people attended Mountain Day. “We’ve been able to keep that momentum and every year since 1993 has had 200 to 300 people. In fact last year we had about 300 people on Stony Ledge.”