Al Daniels stands on the site of the former New Hampton Institute just off Firemans Pond Road
(Above photo scanned from the Friday, March 30, 2007 St. Albans Messenger taken by Nat Worman)

Fairfax's NHI: Genesis 1852, fiery end 1897

By NAT WORMAN, Messenger Correspondent

FAIRFAX - From Puritan New England on, Americans have knelt, prayed, listened to fulsome sermons and been driven to disputes on points of doctrine. It was just this heat, which welded learning to piety: an educated congregation was needed to understand an educated clergy.

New England of the 1940s was no less intense. Free Will Baptists were on the rise, Calvinist Baptists, who ran the New Hampton (N.H.) Literary and Theological Institution (NHI), founded in 1827, were on the decline and support for the school was drying up. An association of churches in Vermont and Canada, the Northern Educational Union, promised assistance and Fairfax churches were members.

Local historian Henry Raymond writes of the Fairfax of the 1850s: "To the best of my knowledge, there were sawmills, tanneries, woolen mills, grist mills, a chair factory, all of which used water power from the Great Falls, Stones Brook, Mill Brook or any other brook available that eventually flowed into the Lamoille River."

A measure of wealth was at hand and so was the feeling that Fairfax young deserved education beyond the town's one-room schoolhouses. (The last closed in 1944.)

Two local ministers, Rev. L. A. Dunn and Rev. H. I. Parker took this to heart. They found that NHI trustees would be willing to move the school from New Hampton, N.H. to Fairfax, if Fairfax citizens would construct a building and provide an endowment. The cost: $10,000, depending on the calculation somewhere between $250,000 and $500,000 in today's dollars.

This was in the spring of 1852. By November the move had been made.

Photo of The Old N.H.I., courtesy of Mike McNall

Fairfax now looked away from its mills on the river to the New Hampton Literary and Theological Institution on the hill, its Greco-Roman colonnades, those fluted Ionic columns, shining in the sun. In no time at all, its fame and erudition spread throughout the state.

Last Sunday at the Community Library in the Bellows Free Academy, Michael Cain, the president of the Fairfax Historical Society, spoke of the institute and its tie to Bellows Free Academy, the current school here.

Written by Raymond (the man at the heart of the town's Web site), the paper traced the history of the school from its Fairfax reincarnation in 1852 to its death by fire in 1897.

Though it had begun with 300 students and faltered during the Civil War, NHI by 1867 had an enrollment of 280. One hundred seventy-six students came from Vermont towns outside Franklin County, from which 94 hailed, 56 of them from Fairfax itself. Another 10 came from Connecticut, New York, and Quebec. They paid tuition for each quarter and had room and board on the hill and at houses up and down Main Street.

What the Institution meant to little Philo Leavens of Berkshire shines a light on what it meant to many.

"I remember the long ride over the stupendous hills of Fairfield, through the fertile vale of Buck Hollow, up the almost endless ascent beyond, till the dome of the Institution loomed in sight," wrote Leavens in 1897 from Passaic, N. J., where he was a Presbyterian pastor.

He continued: "I have lived to look upon the capitols, the palaces, the cathedrals and the universities of Europe, but never has anything seemed so grand as that building on that day. It was in the autumn of 1855. The school was then at its prime and thronged with students."

How had this come about?

The letter that Leavens, then a grown man, wrote the month and year NHI burned to the ground makes it clear.

"I could go to the spot on the farm up in Berkshire where work was stopped one forenoon, away back in the (1850s) by the arrival of two callers in a buggy. One was "Elder" Dunn, who did most of the talking. They were working up an endowment for the proposed school at Fairfax.

"The method was to take a man's note for twenty, forty or any number of dollars with the understanding that he need not pay it so long as he would keep up the annual interest. If paid of course the money would be invested. It is easy to see now what a poor and cheap way it was to create an endowment."

Raymond wrote: "The most active in circulating the subscription were (Fairfax citizens) J.H. Farnsworth, Reuben Dewey, Silas W. Brush, Herman Hunt, and S. D. Alfred. J.H. and Judge J.D. Farnsworth gave the four acres on the hill for the school. The Farnsworth house still stands at 1193 Main St.

Stand with Fairfax Historical" Society member Alfred Daniels, a local sixth grade teacher, on a bare windy hill of Fireman's Pond Road and look about.

Down below is the village, hugged by the Lamoille River, to the south a view of Mt. Mansfield. It's easy to imagine what those students saw from the institute's stately structure, about a half a football field in width.

"The center building consisted of a large audience hall, chapel and, the Masonic Hall, on the third floor," Raymond wrote. "The two wings consisted of recitation rooms, libraries, reading rooms, and dormitories."

Intertwining walks and a mall extended down hill to what is now Main Street. The school's 1867 catalog said: "Our patronage is general, rather than local, thus furnishing a higher average grade of scholars."

Students were enrolled in courses in the Literary Department that embraced arithmetic, English grammar, geography, reading and spelling, and Latin and Greek grammar. They were reading Virgil, Homer, Livy, Cicero and Horace's odes.

In theTheological Department, scholars were taking, among others, mental and moral philosophy and English literature courses. In the purely theological course, students were confronted with archeology and sacred geography, analysis of the Epistle to the Romans and Lectures on Hebrew Poetry.

"The Greek is intended," reads a course description, "not so much for the classic culture, as to secure a proper basis for New Testament exegesis."
It was a rich fare. With strict rules.

The school bell ended all recitation at the same moment for "highest efficiency."

Other rules applied, "Gentlemen and ladies may not board in the same family, nor occupy rooms in the same house." Also, students boarded only at places approved by faculty, could not be absent after 10 p.m., nor meet after 9:30 p.m., or be absent from Chapel Prayers or from Church without permission, nor could "gentlemen visit ladies in their rooms, nor walk nor ride with them without permission."

"Of young men whom I remember vividly," Leavens wrote, "there was a Julian H. Dewey who has risen to the rank of tutor; and I thought him a fellow of the most princely bearing in the world; there was Guy C. Noble from my part of the country. What a cheerful genial youth! Both became leaders at the Franklin County bar."

He added: "From my town there was Orville E. Babcock. He soon obtained a cadetship and went to West Point (and) graduated in the eventful year 1861. Presently he was on the staff of General (Ulysses S.) Grant and accompanied him through his campaigns till he came to bear that intimate and delicate part in the surrender of Lee at Appomattox."

A letter to the St. Albans Messenger of Sept. 14, 1903 from F. W. Shepardson shows the twinkling link between past and present.

". . .. December 20, 1877, this town came in possession of a legacy of $25,000 from Hon. Hiram Bellows, a former thoughtful resident and native of Fairfax."

It continues; "The legacy consisted of 250 shares of capital stock of the Chicago, Rock Island, & Pacific Railroad Co., par value $100 per share (and will be used to construct a new school).

The Bellows Free Academy will be a substantial brick building approximately 68x128 feet, the main part three stories, and the wings two stories above basement."

And from the Messenger, May 31, 1904: "The four schools in the village closed Friday uniting with exercises at the New Hampton Institution Hall (it was rebuilt, as a single building, after the 1897 fire) ... Mr. Shepardson very feelingly bade adieu to the New Hampton Institute . . . and welcomed the work of Bellows Free Academy..."

And thus, a chapter had closed in local education history. The BFA building spoken of in the Messenger report in 1904 officially opened on Aug. 13,1904 and itself was lost to fire on Jan. 17, 1941. It was rebuilt and opened Feb. 17, 1942, and with major renovations and additions, that new building continues the legacy of learning that began with the Hampton Institute so many generations ago.

Henry A. Raymond
March 31, 2007