Back to the Past: Williams traditions in time

September 16, 2015 by William McGuire, Contributing Writer

PHOTO COURTESY OF WILLIAMS COLLEGE ARCHIVES Before World War I, the College was a markedly different place than the one students experience today.

PHOTO COURTESY OF WILLIAMS COLLEGE ARCHIVES
Before World War I, the College was a markedly different place than the one students experience today.

Our college’s traditions and organizations have evolved rapidly over the last century, not to mention over the College’s entire history. As we enter a new year here, glimpsing into our past not only provides us with fascinating anecdotes, but also allows us to see that though much has changed over the last century, many aspects of the College experience remain the same.

Imagine that the year is 1915, and you are one of the 300 male students at the College. If you are an upperclassman, you may have joined your peers in angrily protest-ing the abolition of a recent campus tradition, the Cane Contest. On one of the first Saturday evenings in March, the freshman class would be challenged with sneaking enough canes for each member of their class into town limits, while the sophomores tried to foil their plans by 11 p.m. If the freshmen succeeded, they were permitted to carry canes for the year, a privilege usually restricted to sophomores and upperclassmen – if they lost, the sophomores would be given the freshmen’s canes. The contest often grew divisive and violent; in 1914, after several freshmen were pinned to the ground and publicly beat senseless by sophomores, the College abolished the contest.

However, you’re likely too busy focusing on the other upcoming social events to miss the forbidden tradition. Students from every class were busy preparing for the College Smoker, a night of songs, plays and sketches – most of them offensive or vulgar – held in Jesup. Provided for students were food, drink and trays of cigarettes – cigars were reserved for faculty. You might also be busy reuniting with classmates in one of the many campus societies for alumni of your private high school, or partying with the newly-rushed freshmen in your fraternity. If you didn’t make the cut, like 20 percent of College students, you need not worry: The Garfield Club prepared events for the non-fraternity crowd to enjoy.

If you prefer action and adventure, the Williams Outing Club isn’t around to organize hikes and camping, but you might enjoy skeet shooting with the Williams Rifle Club. As an upperclassman, you could practice (and occasionally apply) firefighting skills with the Williamstown Fire Brigade, an extension of the town’s volunteer fire department. In 1919, you could take to the air thanks to the Williams Flying Club, which offered flying lessons, rented out leisure flights and raced its airplane housed at the North Adams airstrip.

Many of you may shiver in terror at the idea of some of our peers being invited to play with guns, fire and an airplane anywhere near campus. For you, the College boasted a bevy of discussion societies, like the Adelphic Union, which had its own private library, or Deutscher Verein, open by invitation to those of German, Austrian or Swiss ancestry only, where students could partake in our favorite habit of arguing with other college students under the guise of scholarly debate. For writers, the Record was still the essential source of campus and community news, and the Purple Cow provided humor, while more literary organizations like the Poetry Circle allowed authors and poets to collaborate with national writing associations.

As a senior of the class of 1916, you would have helped purchase an “indestructible” Ingersoll watch, wondering if it would survive the 80-foot fall from the spire of the College chapel. This was the beginning of the watch-dropping tradition, a commencement exercise that was considered an omen of good luck for the senior class, so long as the watch breaks. That Ingersoll survived. The bad luck followed quickly: the National Guard was called within the week, and many College men, alumni and students alike, were called to fight for their nation against the Central Powers in Europe. Alongside the birth of the tradition, the Great War would forever change the College and the world.

In this alternate life, we can still see the same craving for debate, activity, games, jests and public service that our college is known for today. These qualities are what make a Williams student, and it is always wise to keep in mind that, despite the challenges of the coming year, they will not change as we inevitably face our annual storm of social issues, difficult discussions, disagreements and far too many weekends spent in the library.

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Jennifer Wolcott June 30, 2016 at 10:24 am

Thanks for this–I am doing some research in this area to accompany my grandfather’s (Charles F. Ely ’14) letters to his mother from 1913-1914. He was an editor of the Record, tapped for Gargoyle, friend and later roommate in Boston to Baxter, etc. Other than the Record itself (wonderful archive by the way!) are there any particular materials I should look at? An email response would be fine unless you want to add them here.

Jennifer Wolcott ’70

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