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Editor’s note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont.”
In 1801, Ira Allen’s dream came true. The University of Vermont, to which years before he had offered to donate land and money to help found, finally opened. If students flocked to this new institute of higher education, it was a small flock. Only four enrolled for classes that first year. The staff was similarly miniscule. It consisted of one man — Daniel Clarke Sanders, who served as the school’s president, administration, instructor, and dorm monitor.
Today, the school’s student body, staff and faculty total about 15,000. The story of how the university grew in size and stature since its founding is the subject of a free 90-minute walking tour the school is offering at 10 a.m. Saturdays through Oct. 12.
“We want to bring people back to the roots of this community and its rich history,” says William Averyt, an emeritus professor at UVM, who created and runs the tour. Though Averyt’s background is in business — he ran the school’s MBA program — he admits that “history has always been a passion.”
Averyt says his is an “unvarnished” tour of the university. The tour begins, appropriately, at the statue of the school’s troubled founder, Ira Allen. Soon after Allen made his generous pledge to found the school, it began to look less and less generous. By the 1790s, many of the 50 acres he had offered for the university’s use had been seized by his creditors. And Allen’s persistent financial woes meant that he never made good on his financial pledge of 4,000 pounds.
But Averyt gives Allen his due. Allen had envisioned Vermont as a republic, which he wanted to dub “New Columbia.” The nation would thrive by trading its natural resources up and down Lake Champlain, a maritime highway of the era. Burlington would be the republic’s capital, and sitting atop a hill overlooking the lake would be the Universitas Viridis Montis, UVM for short, or the University of the Green Mountains.
Well, Allen got the last part right.
Standing on the UVM Green, with cars whizzing past and the impressive buildings of University Row towering nearby, Ayeryt asks people assembled for the tour to imagine the year is 1791. They are standing in the midst of what was then a pine forest. At the corner, where the DeGoesbriand Building (formerly the DeGoesbriand Hospital) now stands, was a new tavern. Across the street was the home of Col. Stephen Pearl, a veteran of the Battle of Bunker Hill, whose house still stands. The current-day Pearl Street runs past the house.
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Wood from the pine forest went into constructing President Daniel Sanders’ house on the east side of the Green. The building also housed UVM’s first dormitory, classroom and library, which held the school’s original library collection, all 31 books. Tuition that first year was $12.
Things went well enough at UVM that in 1807, six years after its founding, the school completed construction of a larger building known, a bit confusingly, as The College. The College was needed to handle the university’s expanding enrollment. The building, also built with pine from the Green, contained 46 dormitory rooms, several classrooms, a library, an administrative office and a museum whose collection at one point included a magnet and a whale skeleton. Perhaps as a budget-cutting measure, students had to complete construction of their dorm room walls when they arrived on campus.
Several years later, the Army requisitioned the building to serve as a barracks during the War of 1812. After the war, the federal government paid $500 to cover damages caused by the soldiers.
The College outlived the war, but in 1824 it was destroyed by fire. The university quickly launched construction of its replacement, which would be called Old Mill and which still stands at the center of University Row, albeit modified and expanded from its original design. The building, which featured large wings, apparently got its name from its resemblance to a mill and because students liked to say “that’s where the faculty grinds us down.” The Marquis de Lafayette, the Revolutionary hero, who visited Burlington in June 1825 as part of a tour of the United States, accepted a request that he lay the building’s cornerstone.
A more important figure in UVM history was the less celebrated James Marsh, who became UVM’s president during the mid-1820s. Some have called Marsh the first transcendentalist, because he wrote an influential essay that inspired Ralph Waldo Emerson to change his philosophical thinking in a direction that helped give birth to transcendentalism. Emerson’s father, William, had his own connections to Burlington, having traveled to the city to give the installation sermon for its first Unitarian minister. Much of the walking tour focuses on the recurring connections between players in the history of Vermont.
Marsh, Averyt notes, made a major contribution to American higher education by introducing flexibility to the curriculum, allowing students to follow their interests rather than a rigid set of prescribed courses. His lead would influence faculty members and future students, including John Dewey, who would become an internationally revered educational reformer. Dewey championed the idea that students would learn more through participating in an activity than by following a rigid curriculum. James Marsh’s cousin, George Perkins Marsh, was a gifted linguist and diplomat. But his most lasting role was as a naturalist whose writings helped spark the environmental movement.
And then there is Frederick Billings, who later purchased George Perkins Marsh’s childhood home in Woodstock. Billings was a lawyer and financier who made a name for himself by investing in Western railroads (think Billings, Montana.). Billings made a major gift to his alma mater, UVM. He provided the funds for construction of a library that was named after him. Billings wanted the library to have an excellent collection of books to stock its shelves, so he purchased the collection of the late George Perkins Marsh.
The tour focuses mostly on the work of men, because women weren’t a major part of the university until the 20th century — women weren’t even admitted to the school’s Faculty Research Club until 1945. The tour does, however, touch on the contributions of several women, including Professor Bertha Terrill, a native Vermonter who joined the faculty in 1905. During her tenure, Terrill created a strong home economics department, one of the few academic domains in which women were allowed to tread at the time.
The tour route meanders across the most historic sections of the UVM campus, but it also includes a stop at the university’s new $70 million Dudley H. Davis student center. With its soaring atrium, well-stocked book and gift shops, and expansive food court, the student center is a clear reminder of the changes UVM has undergone since its earliest days, when it was a pine forest sitting atop a hill.