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A History of Connecticut College: New London Raises $100,000

Historic New London
Historic New London

The following is an excerpt from Gertrude E. Noyes' 1982 book, "A History of Connecticut College," copyright Connecticut College.

How had Connecticut College come into being? The birth of a far-reaching idea or institution is always exciting, but few colleges have a more exciting story than Connecticut.

First, the College was the answer to a long-standing and by 1910 urgent need. Fifty years earlier there had been few college-educated women and fewer women in the professions; and the belief still held that woman's "sphere" - and sole "sphere" - was in the home. In 1910 there were only 10,761 college alumnae in the country, but a growing number of ambitious women were bombarding the colleges and universities for entrance. More than 1,500 promising applications were being turned away annually, just from the four leading women's colleges of New England, and each year more Connecticut girls were forced to go out of state or be denied the opportunity for higher education.

It was not surprising that women demanding the vote also sought recognition as intelligent citizens with a right to a college education. The principals of many forward-looking secondary schools which had begun as "finishing schools" now joined the demand for women's colleges, as they saw the high qualifications and the corresponding frustrations of their graduates. Locally, Principal Colin S. Buell of Williams Memorial Institute, a privately endowed girls' high school of proud heritage, had for many year been pressing for a woman's college in New London. The immediate stimulus for the founding, however, came from a group of Hartford women, when Wesleyan University announced that after the fall of 1909 it would discontinue the admission of women. This decision left the state without any collegiate institutions open to women, whereas neighboring Massachusetts had four.

In March, 1910 Elizabeth C. Wright, a Wesleyan alumna and teacher at the Hartford Public High School, rose to the crisis and took the matter to the Hartford College Club, an organization of alumnae of various colleges. Miss Wright had already enjoyed a career as teacher at the American School for the Deaf in Hartford and as assistant principal of the Portland (Connecticut) High School. The Club promptly appointed her chairman of a committee with Mary Clark Mitchell, and Miss Mary M. Partridge, both of Hartford, to explore interest in the state in founding a college for women. At once towns and individuals, foreseeing the cultural and economic benefits such as an institution would bring, began offering sites with supporting funds ranging from $1,000 to $100,000. The Investigating Committee was then converted to a Site Committee with the addition of Col. Charles W. Jarvis of Berlin and former senator Charles C. Cook of West Hartford. New London entered the competition late but with vigor. A leading citizen, Percy Coe Eggleston, trustee of Hillcrest, the Arthur H. Eggleston farm on high land at the northern limits of the city, invited the committee to view the site.

On September 9, 1910, according to Miss Wright's account, "The Committee came, saw, and was delighted." The movement gathered momentum, strongly backed by Principal Buell and by Mayor (and State Senator) Bryan F. Mahan, who was eager to promote his city. A man of action, he called a meeting of the Common Council and induced them to appropriate $50,000 toward acquiring the site. By city law such an appropriation had to be unanimously approved at a town meeting, but that particular meeting turned out to be the largest and most enthusiastic ever and the project was approved without a single dissenting vote. With this appropriation and the support it represented, the first hurdle was passed.

Meanwhile gifts of adjacent land were coming in. Mrs. Harriet U. Allyn, who would leave a bequest for the Lyman Allyn Museum, another important cultural asset of the community, offered forty acres. Frank L. Palmer, of the family that would later give the college library and the auditorium, added eighty acres. The large tract of woodland west of the old Post Road and bordering Gallows Lane, including the famous stand of hemlocks and the precipice, was made available by the Bolles family through the interest of the poet, Anna Hempstead Branch. Her ancestor, Thomas Bolles, had bought the land from Owaneco, Sachem of the Mohegans; and the original deed, dated 1693, is exhibited in the college library.

The advantages of the college site were described in an early Announcement (1914): About a mile from the New London depot and extending along the Yale-Harvard Boat Course is a picturesque stretch of land a mile or more in length, located on high ground and overlooking the Thames on the east and New London harbor on the south… A ramble through a grove of laurel, a canoe trip on the Thames, a drive to Ocean beach or Eastern Point, and on a warm day a dip in either fresh or salt water are some of the pleasures that would await the college. One would travel a long distance to find another spot located as is this on the line of the fasted train service in the east and combining the advantages of a city with those already mentioned.

By the end of 1910 the movement had accumulated 280 acres and $50,000; and the Site Committee, impressed by the beauty of the location and the enthusiasm of the townspeople, made New London their first choice. At a meeting in New Haven on January 14, 1911, their recommendation was unanimously endorsed by the Board of Incorporators, consisting of twelve men and women representing different organizations and towns of the state. To ensure that the College would not founder on inadequate finances, however, the acceptance was made conditional on the town's raising at least $100,000. The challenge was urgent, as about twenty other towns with attractive offers were still besieging the committee. Nearby sites offered were: the present Shennecossett Golf Course in Groton; 130 acres in Waterford overlooking the Niantic River; and the Riverview Farm, the present site of Red Top, the quarters of the Harvard crew at Gales Ferry.

In those days when New London was a little city and the dollar was a big one, the amount of $100,000 seemed almost unobtainable. Civic spirit was aroused, however; and confidence had been built up by another development of the same year. New London was practically assured of the million-dollar State Pier, which would attract cargo ships from all over the world. That development, officially approved in June, would put New London on the commercial map and restore some of the prominence as a seaport that it had enjoyed in whaling days. The town, eager to win the college also, rose to the challenge.

On February 20, 1911 a ten-day whirlwind campaign for $100,000 was launched with the slogan, "Get it by March First!" Headquarters was set up in a vacant store at 30 Main Street with a brave sign proclaiming, "What Other Cities Have Done New London Can Do…and More!" Mr. Buell was chairman of the executive committee and George S. Palmer, chairman of the campaign teams. Men and women volunteered as solicitors, and almost every citizen worked in some way toward the goal. Children raided their piggy banks, their parents rang neighborhood doorbells, and on Sunday in every church in town the clergy preached the gospel of education. In front of the Day Building a huge clock with a face twenty-five feet wide was set up with midnight marked at $100,000; and on the First Church Green a thirty-foot thermometer appeared, the highest temperature being $100,000. Every afternoon at two o'clock all business came to a standstill, as everyone listened to the fire alarm reporting by its blasts how many thousands had been collected during the preceding twenty-four hours. The Mohican Hotel and the Crocker House supplied free lunches for the workers while tables and chairs were lent by the Putnam Furniture Company and crockery by Wordell's at the Beach.

March 1, 1911 was a banner day for New London and for the college-to-be. People could hardly believe the good news when the hands of the clock pointed to twelve and the thermometer registered fever heat. The campaign had not only hit $100,000 but, with a last-minute boost of $25,000 from benefactor Morton F. Plant, had reached the unbelievable sum of $134,824.41.

In a city of 19,500 almost 6,000 individuals had contributed, and every business and organization had pitched in. Thirty-six donors had given $500 or more, but the most impressive were the small groups which contributed generously and showed the town's good will. The list included such varied groups as: the Western Union Messenger Boys; the Waiters' Social Club; the Employers of the Groton Ferry; all the fire companies; the Portuguese and Scandinavian Clubs; the American Association of Masters, Mates, and Pilots; The Wizards; the Niantic Menhaden Oil and guano Company; and the Green Trading Stamp Company. A bootblack contributed his day's earnings, and the mayor threw in his year's salary ($800). A washerwoman gave her hard-earned dollar, saying, "I'm giving all I can because I have little girls who may go up there someday." There were also many indigenous schemes, such as that of Miss Agnes Winslow, who had a little craft shop on Union Street. By embroidering names on a quilt for ten cents each and selling the quilt, she earned $18.50 for her donation.

With such successful a successful campaign there was no longer any question that New London would become the site of the new college. On that "glorious night" as The Day called it, the Victory Parade left headquarters on Main Street and wound up State and down Washington to the Armory, while the band from Fort Wright played "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight." In her scrapbook Miss Wright recalled that "the Mayor thoughtfully had the streets washed so that the ladies marching would not soil their dresses or shoes." The New London Telegraph gave the following account: The progress though State and Washington streets to the Armory was one stupendous ovation. The streets were ablaze with red fire and there was a veritable pandemonium. Every parader - women and men alike - carried fire sticks, and Greek fire spurted at every yard of the route. The city hall was completely fenced with fire torches. On Washington Street, in front of the Lyceum, a great bell in a cradle was rocked to and fro; and Sam Lung, a Chinese laundryman, had strings of Chinese crackers blazing in front of his place during the parade.

Banners carried such boasts as: "Thanks, Everybody," "Get, Getting, Got" and "When you make a Date, Keep it. We did!" Some 3,500 men, women, and children jammed into the Armory, while hundreds more cheered and shot off fireworks outside. The Jubilee Celebration was planned, according to the program, "as a Fitting Conclusion to the Campaign for Raising a $100,000 Endowment Fund for the Women's College and in Honor of the Public Spirit Shown by the Citizens and to Celebrate the Birthday of the New NEW LONDON." The much-loved preacher of the First Church, the Reverend Romeyn Danforth, in his best oratorical style proclaimed this "a true Commencement." Other speakers hailed a new era for city, college, and women. A song, written for the occasion and sung to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," wound up lustily: Glory, Glory to New London, The Bigger, Better, Beautiful New London. Glory, Glory to New London, She sure is marching on!

February 11, 2011