Friday, March 30, 2018

First Press in Vermont--in Dartmouth Hall

Opening page of An Oration on Early EducationWe have been moving though a very old backlog of minimally cataloged books and manuscripts. Most of them have to do with local history or Dartmouth and were in a collection called "Vault 4," a location that no longer exists except in the memories of some long-time staff members. We stumbled on a real prize this week, An Oration on Early Education. Okay, the text is a bit of a snoozer; it was one of the 1779 Dartmouth commencement addresses but was printed in "Dresden" by Alden Spooner. Spooner had been brought to Dartmouth the year before to act as printer for the College and the town. He operated his press in Dartmouth Hall for a little over a year, then he moved on to Windsor, Vermont. According to Ray Nash, who compiled a bibliography of Spooner's press at Dartmouth, this was the 32nd output of the press.

For a long time people thought the printing press Spooner used was the actual first press brought to the colonies--the same press that printed the Bay Psalm Book. That could be true, but there is no hard evidence to support it and many historians of early American printing doubt it. We do know it was the first press brought to Vermont and the press is now on display at the Vermont Historical Society.  Of course, when Spooner was printing in Dartmouth Hall, he was technically in Vermont, or at least the folks in "Dresden" and Bennington declared it so during a territorial spat involving New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont. The campus and community flipped back to New Hampshire shortly thereafter.

To take a look at the florid prose of the Oration, ask for D.C. History LB2325.W663 1779. If you want to learn more about Spooner's press, the best place to start if Ray Nash's Pioneer Printing at Dartmouth, D.C. History Z209.H3N3.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Dartmouth's Unsolved Mystery

Headline article reading "Two Fire Companies, Volunteers Battle 5 Hours as Flames Gut Dartmouth Hall; Arson Hinted."For one of the most iconic buildings on Dartmouth's campus, Dartmouth Hall has quite the checkered history. If you've seen any of our other blog posts on the building, you know that it replaced another building that was demolished by students in the late-18th century, and that it burned down in 1904, only to be restored for a brief few decades of glory before burning a second time in 1935. Whereas the details of the building's destruction the first two times are known, the 1935 incident remains a mystery.

The 1935 fire began inside the building in the early hours of April 25th, and it took two fire companies and numerous volunteers five hours to wrestle the flames under control. The fire was supposed to have started in the basement, burning unnoticed until it began to spread through the ground floor and caught the attention of a student, who sounded the alarm. The fire quickly became dangerous, climbing through inaccessible shafts to the upper floors and, ultimately, the roof.

The fire wasn't the only thing to spread quickly, though, as rumors of arson began to sweep the campus like wildfire. Over many articles published in April 25th and 26th, bits and pieces of "evidence" began to accumulate: the fire had started conveniently at the base of a shaft that ran right up to the belfry - allowing the fire to cause maximum damage in minimal time. Several other fires were started in other buildings around the same time, including one in Beta Theta Pi, where the brother who discovered the flames claimed to have seen a figure fleeing the scene.

Photograph of Dartmouth campus with sites of fires marked, headline reads "Traveler Plane Covers Firebug's Trail."

A rash of articles suggested pyromania and questioned the possible motives of an arsonist, however, the College claimed to have found no solid ground for connecting the other fires lit on April 25 to the one in Dartmouth Hall. If anything, the College insisted at the time, the smaller blazes were some perverse prank on the part of a few students.

The file we have on the fire in 1935 mostly stops there. Other than the articles dating April 25th and 26th, there are only a few other documents, mostly focused on fundraising and plans for a restored building - this time to be made completely fireproof. Only one other article, dated June 2 and headlined "Clue Found to College Pyromaniac: School Authorities Admit Suspicion of Some Person in New Attempt to Destroy Buildings," suggests that the debate - and even the fires - may have continued.

To conduct your own investigation into this unsolved Dartmouth conspiracy theory, come by Rauner and ask for the Vertical File "Dartmouth Hall Fires and Rebuilding, 1935" - and while you're at it, check out some of the other files on the historic building!