Look out for Mountain Day

For the third year in a row, Mountain Day will be held spontaneously on some beautiful Friday in October. The day will be announced by the ringing of the Thompson Chapel bells (to the tune of “The Mountains”) in addition to an e-mail from President Schapiro. Throughout the day, the Williams Outing Club (WOC) will be providing many opportunities to get outside, with a kick-off celebration on Baxter lawn and hikes for people of all ability levels. Most hikes will end up on Stony Ledge which, as per tradition, will be the site of the holiday’s culminating activities.

Mountain Day is perhaps the oldest Williams tradition, dating back nearly to the founding of the College. It grew out of a holiday known as Chip Day, which was celebrated starting in 1796. This was a day set aside each spring when students were given a vacation from classes in order to clear the debris from cutting firewood the previous winter. Williams students, always resourceful, created a fund used to employ others to clear this debris, giving the students a holiday which soon became a day for hiking in the nearby mountains.

The first actual reference to “Mountain Day” is from President Griffin’s 1827 journal. Griffin envisioned it as a day to exercise “muscles obsolescent from study” by climbing the surrounding mountains, especially Greylock. After this, Mountain Day became an annual event. Until the mid-19th century, Chip Day was still observed in addition to Mountain Day, but then the former was dropped and only the latter kept.

In 1857, an additional celebration was added in the fall. Formally called either Scenery Day or Bald Mountain Day (Bald Mountain), was the name of what is now known as Stony Ledge – and informally referred to as another Mountain Day, this was a day to celebrate the fall foliage. Mountains of Eph, WOC’s trail guide from 1927, describes the fall Mountain Day as “that day set apart by the Faculty to give the students the opportunity of becoming better acquainted with the mountains in the glory of the autumn foliage.”

The Williams Athenaeum describes the need for two Mountain Days: “It is the desire of our Faculty that nature should be to the student of Williams a valued text-book, and so it is that we have two days in the year to view her finest pictures, besides the daily inspiration which each true lover of nature may here find time to gain without offering a slight to study from the books.”

The fall Mountain Day was spontaneous, decided by the weather and the faculty, and would be announced by the playing of the College’s song, “The Mountains,” on the chapel bells. The date of the spring Mountain Day was decided by the students, with each class deciding individually which day to have it.

By the 1870s, few students actually traveled to the mountains on these holidays; many went to Pittsfield, Albany or their own homes. Some, though, (mostly freshmen) continued to hike up Greylock to celebrate Mountain Day in the traditional manner. Many of these hikers left the night before in order to see the sunrise from the top of Greylock on the morning of Mountain Day. These hikes up Greylock generally drew about 40 students.

Mountain Day continued into the early 1930s, at least in the fall. After 1933, there was no longer much interest in climbing the mountains on Mountain Day, and so the College abandoned the celebration.   Â

Starting in the 1960s, students began to ask for the return of Mountain Day. While not actually bringing the day back, in the 1970s the WOC began to hold “Mount Greylock Day” in October. This was a day of hikes and bike rides up Greylock, in the Mountain Day tradition, but on a weekend. Finally, in the early 1980s, Mountain Day returned. The administration did not want to add another holiday, so Mountain Day was held on a weekend day. Greylock had become too crowded with tourists, so after trying a few other locations, WOC settled on Stony Ledge as the location for the holiday.

Mountain Day quickly became a huge success, drawing 250-300 students. Besides day hikes, overnight hikes and bike rides up to Stony Ledge, there were buses to bring people up who just wanted to take part in the festivities on the mountain, included musical performances, cider and donuts.

Mountain Day today is similar to the holiday of the early ’80s, with one major exception: starting in the fall of 2000 it has occurred spontaneously on a weekday. Some Friday in October, when the weather is nice, the chapel bells play “The Mountains” (as they did throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries), and students are given the day off from classes. Mountain Day now draws about 600 students to Stony Ledge.