Whispering Pines: The Spaces in Between

Whispering Pines

More than four feet of snow have fallen on the campus in the past three weeks, with more predicted over the next few days. For all the cold and snow of this season, Brunswick has fared better than Boston, Worcester, and points to the north and east of the College. Winter affords outdoor recreational opportunities for the most hale and hardy among us (even under sub-zero wind chill conditions), but it also constrains our movements and activities.

Detail from "Bowdoin College, December 1992," by Ann Lofquist.

Detail from “Bowdoin College, December 1992,” by Ann Lofquist.

We tend to walk briskly, anxious to reach the next heated destination, with head down against wind and snow, alert to the possibility of ice underfoot, and following the shortest plowed or shoveled route that connects points A and B. Once the novelty of early winter snows wears off, things are often pared down to the bare essentials: staying warm and safe; getting to where one needs to go; making sure that family, friends, and neighbors are okay; accomplishing objectives at work; and counting the extra minutes of daylight gained since the winter solstice.

The outline of Hubbard Hall, the façade of the Walker Art Building, and the lights flanking the entrance to Massachusetts Hall are guideposts for navigating the campus during blizzards and less extreme snow events. The smooth contours of deep and drifted snow mask what lies underneath, creating an abbreviated landscape of buildings and trees separated by expanses of white. The potential for growth and renewal lies under the mantle of snow in root systems and seeds that await the liberating warmth and light of spring to fill in the “spaces in between” the features of the winter landscape. Some seeds may lie dormant in soil for years or even decades before germinating when conditions are favorable (e.g., light reaching the forest floor when a tree falls and creates a clearing).

February 1949 photo by Steve Merrill ’35.

February 1949 photo by Steve Merrill ’35.

In the same way that midwinter weather focuses our attention on cleared walkways and familiar landmarks, there can be a tendency to view the College’s history solely through the perspectives of well-worn narratives and famous alumni. Perhaps it is a desire to think of spring at this time of the year, but I’m drawn to stories of Bowdoin’s past that are largely invisible in a figurative winter landscape of history.

I was contacted several months ago by a gentleman seeking biographical information on his grandfather and great-grandfather, both of whom had been Bowdoin alumni. The family name was Smith, the most common surname in America, but there was nothing common about the family narrative.

When Perley Smith died at the age of 44 in 1846, he left his wife, Louisa, with a small farm in Bridgton, Maine, and four sons between ten years and fourteen months in age. Louisa and Perley had wanted to send their oldest son to college to become a minister, and she was prepared to make whatever sacrifices were necessary to keep to that plan. The oldest son, Isaiah, wrote that “She subjected herself to extreme self-denial and hard toil…she never regarded anything impossible that she desired to perform…With only the capital of a small farm, not only her eldest, but all her sons, graduated at Bowdoin College, in their native State, and she finally had her farm free from debt.”

Isaiah (Class of 1858) taught school before coming to Bowdoin, and he continued to teach one term each year while he was a student to pay for his tuition and expenses. The route to becoming a minister had a few more twists and turns, and Isaiah was principal of a seminary and then a high school before entering Bangor Theological Seminary. In the three years after his graduation from the seminary, he taught at private schools in Maine and New Hampshire. A year after his ordination as a minister in 1864 he became a chaplain in the 29th Maine Regiment towards the end of the Civil War. He held pastorates in churches from Maine to Nebraska over the next thirty years, was versed in twelve languages, earned a doctorate at age sixty-five, taught German and Greek at Shenandoah Normal School in Virginia, and was president of the college for a year.

The three younger Smith brothers, Henry (Class of 1861), Andrew (Class of 1863), and Joshua (Class of 1867) all had experience as teachers early in their careers, and all three later became physicians. During the Civil War Henry enlisted in the 32nd Maine Regiment and became an assistant surgeon with the 31st Maine, while Andrew was a hospital steward, serving with Joshua (a private) in the 2nd Maine Cavalry.

The brothers completed their medical training at Berkshire Medical School, Dartmouth Medical School, and the Medical School of Maine, respectively. Andrew served in the Maine State Legislature and Senate and on the State Board of Health. Five Smiths in the next generation became Bowdoin alumni (Isaiah’s sons Perley [1895] and Charles [1898]; Henry’s sons Orrin [1889] and Arthur [1890]; and Andrew’s son, Harold [1892]).

Even this thumbnail sketch of the Smith family gives a glimpse into the richness of the Bowdoin legacy that lies below the surface. The hopes, determination, and sacrifices of parents carry down through generations within a family. The Smith family descendant who had initially contacted me about his ancestors traced his own family’s work ethic and high regard for education to Louisa Smith and what it must have taken to see four sons through college and either divinity school or medical school in the mid-nineteenth century. The career trajectories of the Smith brothers didn’t always follow direct paths; Isaiah took a series of teaching positions before and after divinity school to make ends meet. All four actively supported the Union cause in the Civil War before pursuing professions that ultimately served the needs of others. In their roles as educators, physicians, clergy, and public servants, Louisa’s sons tended to the minds, bodies, and spirits of family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues in the respective communities in which they lived.

As I contemplate shoveling after the next storm, I’ll think of the seeds of opportunity sown more than a century ago by the Smith family that may still lie dormant beneath the snows, awaiting the return of spring sun and rain to germinate and fill in the “spaces in between” the College’s historical landscape.

With best wishes,

John R. Cross

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations

Comments

  1. Peter Small says:

    Very nice John.

  2. Christopher Garner says:

    I cannot tell you how much I enjoy and appreciate your periodic written pieces that reflect on the history of Bowdoin and the human condition. My connection to the College is that of a parent of a now sophomore student. I hope in the future that he will appreciate as much as I do the history of Bowdoin, its contributions towards molding generations of Americans and how they have shaped our history.

  3. Tom Sides '68 says:

    John. Loved this well written reflection of the current Brunswick winter and the narrative of the Smith family.

  4. Chet Freeman '68 says:

    I guess some of them were at Bowdoin for the “perfect storm” – the Blizzard of 1898:

    The 1898 blizzard could also be called”the perfect storm” of the 19th century. From New York to Maine many houses were destroyed. Over 56 vessels and 400 people were “lost” as the storm raged for 36 hours.

    The blizzard is most often referred to as the “The Portland Gale”, after a steamship, the SS Portland, one of the last side-wheel coastal steamers. The seas were calm when the Portland left Boston at 7 PM on the Saturday after Thanksgiving en route to Portland,Maine. Snow started falling a half-hour later and by morning Boston had received 10 inches of snow. Hurricane-force winds of 90 mph and 40-foot waves developed within two hours of the ship’s departure. The 281-foot vessel went down off of Cape Cod with almost 200 people on board. Today several plaques can be seen on Cape Cod and Scituate in memory of The Portland Gale.

  5. Dick Henderson, Class of 1975 says:

    John~ Your February 17, 2015 article “The Spaces in Between” is one of your finest missiles to appear in “Whispering Pines”. Beautifully penned, prosaic, historically vibrant, rich in the essence of the timeless Bowdoin experience. Your writing is a profound gift to the College indeed. Thank you and continued success~ Dick Henderson, 75′

  6. George Croswell Cressey Maling Jr. '52 says:

    Your story reminds me that I was named for George Croswell Cressey, Class of 1875. He had quite a career as a unitarian minister which is well documented in the Bowdoin archives.

  7. chuck dyer '59 says:

    Very interesting and well written. Appreciated!

  8. The Smith family are certainly worthy, I’m the words of the pre-coeducational Alma Mater, “to march in that great company of poets, statesmen and each son who brings thee fame by deeds well done”

  9. Bob Delaney '55 says:

    Great story, John. I enjoyed it.

  10. Barbara Kaster says:

    God bless Louisa. What a blessing for Bowdoin and the country that she managed to get her sons to Bowdoin. What a legacy they have created. Thank you, John!

  11. Nancy Bellhouse May '78 says:

    What a wonderful Bowdoin-family story!

    I appreciate your unearthing this information about the Smiths and then putting it in perspective for the rest of us.

  12. Barbara Kaster says:

    God bless Louisa. What a blessing for Bowdoin and the country that she managed to get her sons to Bowdoin. What a legacy they have created. Thank you, John

  13. Bob Lakin '68 says:

    John,
    I really enjoyed this edition of Whispering Pines. I learn so much about Bowdoin through your writings. Many thanks.

  14. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece-moved by the strong woman who connected her sons to Bowdoin. Well done. thanks

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