The College in crisis, then and now
The current economic crisis may
make it feel as though the world is
ending. Three weeks ago, at a
forum discussing the impact the
recession has had on the College,
President William Adams told the
student body how and why the
College needed to brace itself in
these tough times.
As a nearly 200-year-old institution, the College has seen its share of hard times, yet often weathers them, managing to emerge even stronger. A glimpse into past crises--both national and Collegespecific-- reveal that many of the College's most important historical moments came along with financial troubles. Most notable among these moments are the source of the name Colby in 1864 and the move to the Mayflower Hill campus during the Great Depression.
Gardiner Colby was a local citizen who, during his youth, had watched the dedication of the South College building in downtown Waterville in 1821. In 1831, Colby had opened his own business selling women's clothing. He eventually used his experience with woolen fabrics to help outfit the Union Army during the Civil War, making a fortune.
According to Earl Smith's Mayflower Hill: A History of Colby College, Colby was in church at the Newton Center Baptist Meeting House one day in 1864 when he heard a sermon by the preacher, Samuel B. Swain.
Swain recalled a meeting in Portland with Jeremiah Chaplin, the College's first president, nearly 40 years earlier (the College had faced much financial turmoil in its early years). Chaplin had just met with a rich man who, he had hoped would serve as a benefactor for the College. The man wouldn't give any money. Chaplin had moaned to Swain, "God save Waterville College! Waterville College must not perish!"
Ernest Marriner in The History of Colby College writes that this inspired Colby, forcing him to think back on memories of the College, including how a former president had helped his mother move to Boston. He felt compelled to help. That night, after a prayer meeting, Marriner recalls how Colby "said to his wife, 'Suppose I give fifty thousand dollars to Waterville College?'" Mrs. Colby agreed.
The announcement of the donation was made at that August's commencement dinner. Colby would give an endowment of $50,000 if the College could raise $100,000 on its own, a task that was completed in two years. Colby then joined the Board of Trustees, serving until he died in 1879. He gave the College over $200,000 over his lifetime. The Board voted in 1866 to "change the name of this Institution from Waterville College to Colby University," an act that was completed when the Maine Legislature passed Chapter 180 of the Laws of 1867, announcing the name change.
In 1929, the crash of the stock market was preceded by two important events in the College's history: Franklin Winslow Johnson was inaugurated as the College's 15th president and the Maine Higher Education Survey Report was released. Johnson's desire to move the College from its downtown location coincided nicely with the Report's findings. The biggest issue was the school's "physical plant." The College scored only 377 out of 1000 possible points.
According to Smith, "the assessment of Colby's site was complete in its damming." The campus was too small and bordered by railroad tracks, a railroad station and yards, as well as the Kennebec River. One of Maine's largest pulp mills was located directly across the river "near enough to cause annoyance from smoke and unpleasant odors."
Furthermore, all possibilities for expansion were impossible because of the railroad and the river. This provided the "trigger for discussion" on a move.
Sites were considered in Augusta after William H. Gannett, publisher of four Maine newspapers, invited trustees to look at potential sites in the capital. Johnson's consideration of this proposal sparked outrage in town. "Keep Colby, Move Johnson" was a headline in the Morning Sentinel. Citizens formed a committee to explore possibilities for keeping the College in Waterville. Herbert C. Libby, class of 1902, was former mayor of Waterville and then served as the editor of the alumni magazine, Alumnus. He wrote: "the immediately important step is for Waterville to organize her citizens into a large group of Friends of Colby and for each to pledge to so generously as to convince the governing body of the College and its 4,000 graduates that the home folks deeply desire to keep Colby within its sacred walls."
Although Waterville, along with the rest of the country, soon fell into the Great Depression, the citizens of Waterville managed to raise $100,000 to keep the College here, in addition to a $500,000 campaign by the College for rebuilding. The Sentinel wrote: "In the new Colby that is to be, we believe that Waterville is to have its full share in making for a better and finer institution which will be an honor to the State of Maine and take its place among the outstanding institutions of higher learning in the country."
While the new Mayflower Hill campus was not fully functioning until well into the 1940s, construction was only made possible by numerous donations from such well-known names as Johnson and the Averills.