What the Beeches Saw
Eugenie Strassell, Class of 1916
R. H. S. Beech Leaves 1916
Long ago, in the year 1863, in the quaint little town of Rockport, there stood a magnificent grove of Beeches. The oldest of these trees are standing today, and by the soft rustling of their branches they revealed to me the following scenes.
On a September day, 53 years ago, these trees looked down on an unaccustomed sight. Up the narrow board walk that led to the large new brick building, which had been constructed in the midst of the grove, came groups of laughing girls, clad in beruffled dresses with hooped skirts and quaint basques (a close fitting bodice); wearing bonnets which were decorated with bright colored ribbons and flowers; chattering about the Collegiate Institute, which was to be conducted here by the Reverend William Hooper and his sister, Miss Susan. Following these groups there came with slower tread young men, who tried to appear unconscious of their holiday attire—their tall boots, high crowned “Bee-Gum” hats (a tall, slick, top hat) and the rows of glistening brass buttons which adorned their gay short coats. Here and there, the watchful trees heard a word about the universities which these students intended to enter after completing the Rockport college course, or of their desire to enter the army and to save their Union, instead of remaining immersed in an atmosphere of Latin, Greek, Algebra, Trigonometry, Chemistry, and Philosophy.
This College building had been begun several years before, but the stirring events of the Civil War had interrupted its completion until this year, 1863. The south side of the College lot had been used as a drilling ground for the soldiers, and this had been the refuge of the townspeople, when the report came that Morgan, the Southern raider, was advancing on the town.
Unmindful of these events, the merry group of students passed up the wooden steps and through the hospitable front doors, into a long narrow hall. Adventurous groups darted here and there discovering the Chapel, where the morning Exercises were to be held, or, on climbing the stairs, selected seats in the large double benches, in their recitation room. They inspected the library, the set of Philosophical apparatus, and then some of the less timid played the accompaniments to several familiar songs, on the new square piano.
The year passed by, and at the end of the last term the Beeches saw 135 students depart, while only 50 had been enrolled at the beginning.
Three years later a new faculty, consisting of Professors Smith, Webb, and Gillmore, was appointed. At this time, a frame building was added to the west side of the college, forming a dining room and kitchen, for the use of the pupils who came from a distance, and who occupied the dormitories on the third floor.
Two years passed—1868 found a faculty consisting of five members, in charge of 165 pupils. Three years later, a new superintendent was appointed.
In connection with the College, two literary societies, the Philomathian and Platonian, were organized, whose members often gave Exhibitions, consisting of music, carefully prepared essays and spirited debates.
Although this college had been a success educationally, it was a failure from the financial standpoint. Since the free High Schools were becoming influential, the necessity for maintaining the institution departed, and in the year 1873, the building was sold to the town of Rockport.
For a while, the Beech trees were lonely. Then the High School was established.
Once more, boys and girls strolled about under the shady branches and mounted the wooden steps at the door, or merrily played games on the south and west sides of the campus. The east end was a wilderness of small trees and swamp.
Many a happy group of students passed over the stile (a set of steps for crossing a fence), which surmounted the high board fence. In the springtime when doors and windows were opened wide, the Beeches delighted in watching the clever ruses of pupils, who, afflicted with “Spring Fever” desired to escape their school work. How many wandering chickens strolled idly up to the west door of the Latin room, on the first floor and ventured to the doorsill for the tempting grains of corn which were scattered there! And with what surprise did they find themselves anchored firmly to a strong string, concealed in the hand of a diligent Latin student! What surprise moved these same pupils, when some girl found herself fastened to her desk by her apron strings, which were once neatly tied in a bow! Those were indeed golden days for the Beeches. They smiled benignly down on interesting friends, gathered around the two great cisterns, which were located on either side of the building or on those who hunted beechnuts, during the sunny autumn afternoons, or perched on the posts by the side of the stile. Many of the students passed pleasant study hours on the beautiful campus, under the Beech trees, entertaining not only school companions but also “uptown” guests.
The Beeches saw the rapid growth of the High School. Each year found a larger graduating class taking part in the annual Exhibitions.
In the years that followed, many efficient superintendents and faithful teachers were appointed. Among them were Prof. Smith, who was first appointed; Prof. Kennedy, who had charge of the schools for eleven years; Prof. McKnight, who remained for three years, and who was succeeded by Prof. Tomlin. In 1894, Prof. Morgenthaler was appointed as superintendent, and he remained for twenty years. In 1914, Prof. W. D. Shewman became the head of the school department and holds that position at present.
In the year 1900 the Washington Building was built on the east side of the campus, which had been drained and cleared since the college days, and at present this building is used principally for the Domestic Science and Manual Training departments.
A concrete platform has been erected at the front door, to take the place of the wooden one. The high board fence was long ago torn down. A concrete walk has been laid around the college block, and the interior of the building has been altered somewhat. Despite all the changes which time can make, the old college will ever remain the same in the hearts of the former students.
“Undoubtedly the old Collegiate Institute, flourishing so early in the history of our county, had much to do with raising the standard of intellectual life in Spencer county; it set its stamp on the people. I like to think that the founders of our county builded so well in educational matters; that we had many good teachers in our pioneer schools; that we made our effort at establishing the Seminary when the law called for it; that in the Academy days, we had one of the best in the state, and that our public schools have always ranked high, our High School bearing its commission from the State University long before the High Schools of many other counties in the state. This is even better than Nature’s gift of all our rich farm lands.
I love to think of the old college, in its beautiful setting of forest trees, and I hope the Rockport High School boys and girls will always see to it that the name is never changed—that the name ‘College’ remains as a monument to our early educational efficiency.”
Kate Milner Rabb, R. H. S. Class of 1882
Some of the Beeches are gone, some blown down by storms, others lived out their allotted time. Some of them still stand, silent spectators of our school life, as faithful guards of our dear old Rockport High School.