Whispering Pines: Friends, Neighbors, and Community

Whispering Pines

In 1827, in the woods at the south end of campus, housewright Samuel Melcher built side-by-side residences under a single roof for two young faculty members and their new brides. Numerous houses in the area and college buildings (including Massachusetts Hall, Winthrop Hall, and Cleaveland House) attest to Melcher’s skill at combining subtle elegance in style with practical considerations of function and cost.

The house passed from the families of Professors Alpheus Spring Packard [Class of 1816] and William Smyth [Class of 1822] to other alumni/faculty members and their families (Professor Henry Johnson [1874], the first director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art; Professor and College Librarian George T. Little [1877]; his son, Physics Professor Noel C. Little [1917]; and longtime Professor of English Wilmot Brookings Mitchell [1890]). Eventually the College came to own both halves of the house, and in 1970 the house at 6-8 College Street was dedicated as the Afro-American Center by President Roger Howell Jr. ’58. In 1979 it was re-dedicated as the John Brown Russwurm African American Center and today it continues to play a vital role in the life of the College.

Which thread to pull?

Which thread to pull?

If I tugged on each strand that sticks out from the dense tangle of intersecting historical issues, events, and people connected to this house, then I could easily end up with a book instead of a single column. I’ll focus here on the associations with Packard and Smyth (pronounced with a long “ī”, according to Smyth’s youngest son, George [Class of 1868]).

Of the two, William Smyth was the older by almost two years. His father, a ship’s carpenter in Wiscasset, died when Smyth was sixteen. Young William enlisted in the US Army in the final year of the War of 1812, serving as a quartermaster sergeant. After the war’s end he opened a private school in Wiscasset, using his modest salary to support his younger brother and sister. He then taught at Gorham Academy for two years, as he also prepared for college. He entered Bowdoin as a member of the junior class and graduated in 1822 at the top of his class. After a year as student at Andover Theological Seminary he began his forty-five-year teaching career at Bowdoin as a tutor in Greek and later as professor of mathematics and natural philosophy. His name figures prominently in the history of the College and town—as the architect of the public school system in Brunswick; as the primary liaison with Richard Upjohn (who designed both the Chapel and the current meetinghouse of First Parish Church); and as the fundraiser and “clerk of the works” for the construction of Memorial Hall.

Packard’s path to a college education had fewer obstacles than the one traveled by Smyth. As the oldest of six Bowdoin sons of Mary Spring and the Reverend Hezekiah Packard, a Trustee of the College, Alpheus entered Bowdoin a few months shy of his fourteenth birthday and graduated with distinction in the Class of 1816. Over the next three years he held various teaching positions, including a year as the preceptor of a public Latin Grammar School in Wiscasset, where the qualifications for admission were “…good moral conduct and submissive orderly behaviour.” He returned to Bowdoin in 1819 as a tutor in mathematics and languages. Packard may hold the record for the longest teaching career in the history of American higher education. In his sixty-five years as an active member of the Bowdoin faculty, Packard taught ancient languages, Classical literature, rhetoric and oratory, and natural and revealed religion, was college librarian for twelve years, and served as acting president of the College for a year between the terms of Joshua Chamberlain and William DeWitt Hyde. Packard was for forty years a member of the school committee in Brunswick and was for forty-five years the librarian and cabinet manager for the Maine Historical Society.

Smyth and Packard had attended school together in Wiscasset, and young Professor Packard counted the older William Smyth among his students at Bowdoin. In 1827 Packard married Frances Appleton, a daughter of Jesse Appleton, Bowdoin’s second president. Historians think it likely that the Packards introduced the youngest Appleton daughter, Jane, to her future husband, Franklin Pierce [1824], who later became the fourteenth President of the United States. Alpheus and Frances had five children (a daughter and four sons, three of whom graduated from Bowdoin). Five years after the death of Frances, Packard married Mrs. C.W. McLellan, and they had a son (who became another Bowdoin alumnus).

The same year as the Packard-Appleton wedding, William Smyth married Hannah Porter Coffin of Wiscasset, the sister of one of his contemporaries (Egbert Coffin, Class of 1823). Hannah’s sister, Sarah, married Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother Charles [Class of 1834]. After Charles and Sarah Beecher’s son Frederick [Class of 1862] was wounded at the battle of Gettysburg, he came to Brunswick to recuperate at the College Street home of Aunt Hannah and Uncle William Smyth. The Smyths had nine children; six sons (all Bowdoin alumni) and a daughter survived to adulthood.

Known by the students as “Old Ferox” (the Latin word for “fierce”), Smyth became a passionate advocate for the abolitionist cause. He was elected secretary of the Maine Antislavery Society, which first met in October of 1835. He edited Advocate of Freedom, an abolitionist newspaper in Portland in 1838-39, a time when there was considerable opposition to this view in Maine, especially from those linked to the shipping and textile industries. Risks for abolitionists were not abstract. At a meeting in Bath, Smyth was not dissuaded from speaking by rocks thrown through the windows of the meetinghouse or the shouts of the mob outside.

Smyth, the firebrand, and Packard, the more cerebral scholar (and abolitionist), both harbored escaped slaves in the house on College Street before sending them on to a free black community in East Brunswick, and then on to freedom. No claim is made that the numbers were large, but the eyewitness accounts of Smyth and Packard children are clear on the matter. The well-documented case of Harriet Beecher Stowe harboring fugitive slave John Andrew Jackson in her home in 1850 began when William Smyth directed Jackson to the home of Professor and Mrs. Thomas C. Upham. According to Stowe, the Uphams were nervous about having Jackson stay in their home, so they gave him some money and provisions, and sent him on to Stowe’s house for the night.

When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow addressed his classmates at their 50th Reunion in 1875, Packard was in the audience, the sole surviving faculty member who had taught the members of the Class of 1825. Between them, these two professors taught some of Bowdoin’s most prominent nineteenth-century alumni, from literary giants Longfellow and Hawthorne to Civil War figures Oliver O. Howard and Joshua Chamberlain.

6-8 College Street

1874 photo of 6-8 College Street.

Among these illustrious alumni was John Brown Russwurm [1826], the first African-American to graduate from Bowdoin and the third African-American to graduate from an American college or university. Russwurm entered Bowdoin as a member of the junior class and was elected to the Athenæan Society (over the objections of Franklin Pierce, if one classmate’s story is accurate). He lived in a house “at the edge of the village,” where he was sometimes visited by fellow Athenæans Horatio Bridge and Nathaniel Hawthorne. At Commencement he offered a treatise on “The Condition and Prospects of Hayti.” I cannot imagine that his time at Bowdoin was easy, although an article in an 1841 African-American newspaper reported that “as soon as he [Russwurm] appeared upon the stage, he was loudly cheered, and when he left it, the house resounded with heartfelt applause.” After his graduation, Russwurm co-edited Freedom’s Journal in New York, the nation’s first African-American-owned newspaper. Initially an opponent of plans to re-settle freed slaves in Africa, he later become the governor of the Maryland Colony in Liberia.

I can’t walk by this historic house without reflecting on Russwurm’s legacy, the extraordinary lives of the Bowdoin faculty members who lived there over the course of more than 140 years, and of Roger Howell’s words at the re-dedication of the building as the John Brown Russwurm African American Center: “As we have become, in terms of admissions, a more national college, so too has grown the awareness that we are under an obligation to strive for a student body reflective of the marvelous diversity of American society, and that sense of obligation must not fade… it is all too easy to stray off the path, to become entangled in the briars and thorns that line its route, to sit down discouraged because the walking is difficult and the climbing harder still…Our vision, as John Brown Russwurm’s was, must be to the future. We will walk on—and we will walk on together—and Bowdoin will be the better college for it.”

With best wishes,

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

Comments

  1. Louis B. Briasco says:

    Bravo, John! Another welldone!

  2. John:

    Your article is an excellent history of Bowdoin’s on-going commitment to the common good, and a better world. I hope that all students and alums who read the column are filled with both pride and sense of duty to continue to work toward a more inclusive society.

    Bob Graves
    former Director of Residence Life

  3. Stephen Rule '58 says:

    I never fail to be fascinated by John’s articles. So detailed and interesting. And always about stuff that I never knew happened!

    As you celebrate 40 years out, John, many best wishes from The Villages, Florida!

    SWR

  4. Barbara Kaster says:

    Another winner! We are all so blessed to be associated with Bowdoin. Thank you, John!

  5. Al DeMoya '72 says:

    Absolutely dazzling column, John, as always, but you should write those books (yes, I’d expect several volumes. You are mining a rich mother lode)

  6. Al DeMoya '72 says:

    Oh, yeah, just realized, it’s your 40th reunion. May it be a happy one.

  7. Merton G. Henry '50 says:

    Another great Bowdoin history chapter John. I remember well both dedications. Saving the historic houses was more than worthwhile.

  8. Doug Watkins says:

    Thank you for sharing this history. It is always interesting to me to learn more about Bowdoin.

  9. John Ottaviani says:

    John — Your writing always makes events, people and buildings come to life in a way they never did (or to which we never paid attention) when we were at Bowdoin. Many thank for many great stories.

    John Ottaviani ’79

  10. robert Ives '69 says:

    John,

    What a wonderful article as always. I remember when Roger Howell shared those words back in 1970. They were stirring then, and remain compelling even now. Many thanks John for all you do, and remind us of regularly.

  11. william shoemaker '50 says:

    Another wonderful article. As a DEKE I lived next door for 3 years. The Whispering Pines keeps Bowdoin alive for old guys like me. Keep it up.

  12. It is always interesting to me to learn more about Bowdoin. Thank you for sharing this history.

  13. Jose-Manuel Torres says:

    To say that I enjoy reading your articles would be an understament of gigantic magnitude. Due to my immigrant status While a student at Bowdoin, the college was also my home. As I read your articles I realize my connections to Bowdoin history and many of its illustrious people. As an undergraduate student I stayed, albeit briefly, at the John Brown Russwurm African American Center. I also lived for a summer and one academic year at The Stowe House. On a few occasions, I visited upperclass students who at the time were residing at the Joshua L. Chamberlain House. A rental house back in those years.

    Thank you, Mr. cross. I look forward to continue enjoying your future articles about Bowdoin, its people and history and finding my connections to them. Even if marginal.

  14. Jose-Manuel Torres '85 says:

    To say that I enjoy reading your articles would be an understatement of gigantic magnitude. Due to my immigrant status while a student at Bowdoin, the college was also my home. As I read your articles I realize my connections to Bowdoin history and many of its illustrious people. As an undergraduate student I stayed, albeit briefly, at the John Brown Russwurm African American Center. I also lived for a summer and one academic year at The Stowe House. On a few occasions, I visited upper-class students who at the time were residing at the Joshua L. Chamberlain House. Back in those years a student rental house.
    Thank you, Mr. Cross. I look forward to continue enjoying your future articles about Bowdoin, its people and history and finding my connections to them. Even if marginal.

Leave a Comment

*