In the earliest days of Williams College, when many students devoted their entire day to school work, the faculty and administration decided that these students were ‘wasting away’ under the heavy burden of study. Students were then granted one day each term to get away from the books and do physical activity and observe the natural beauty surrounding Williamstown. The more well known of these days was Mountain Day, a tradition that still survives at Williams College. There were, however, two now extinct holidays as early as 1800: Gravel Day and Chip Day.
When the roads and sidewalks of Williamstown consisted of mud and clay during the nineteenth century, according to Dr. Hopkins in one of his commencement speeches, “the road would undulate as you walked,” the worst of the “undulatory places” being the long walk between West and East Colleges. One Williamstown resident, General Sloan, had to send his hired man out with his daughters while they did their errands so that the hired man could place wooden boards in front of the girls as they walked the muddy paths.
Soon it was determined that the terribly muddy campus conditions must be improved, so the students were granted a day off to dig up mud, sometimes as much as two feet in depth, fill the walks with rocks, and then cover them with gravel. Many students saw that this process had certain beneficial ‘economical aspects’ to it, but the true purpose was to separate the over-ambitious or lazy student from his room. Charles Burton Sheldon (Class of 1847) in his journal comments about Gravel Day that “those students who are most averse to their studies are the ones who are most zealous in procuring the appropriation of this day for gravelling the walks although it is possible that they may be at the same time the ones least desirous of laboring.” The lazy students who chose not to aid with the gravelling of walks were fined one dollar, and for a while the students were more fond of a dollar than rest, so the walks were promptly graveled.
An even older tradition than Gravel Day at Williams is Chip Day, which according to student publications, was ‘celebrated’ as early as 1800 and possibly earlier. On this day in late April or early May, “the students studied aesthetics by removing the cumuli of chips, that had accumulated in the College yards during the winter, and other unsightly objects, that had offended the sense of beauty; and at the same time obtained exercise,” thus achieving two suggestions of the college faculty. In a letter to his parents, John N. Murdock (Class of 1845) describes the process on Chip Day:
“The way the chips have to clear out around here is a curiosity to you who have never seen the operation. About fifty students surround a wagon, and fill it in about two minutes, and then another wagon and another until all the chips, logs, wood and everything else about the college have utterly disappeared, occupying about one hour: then they all drink about a barrel of lemonade, and pass the rest of the day playing ball, hunting, or fishing.” (April 21, 1845)
As on Gravel Day, a collection was taken up among those students who had not participated in the gathering of the chips and the extra money was used to buy the work-weary students beer. This beer-purchasing tradition was later protested as the students would drink and then go to church services in the afternoon where they would be loud, rowdy, and boisterous during the solemn services. As time went on, the Williams students figured out that they could take up a small collection among students and use it to pay ‘hangers-on’ to do the work around campus for them so that they could take the day as a holiday and use it however they chose. Eventually, and the exact date is not known, Gravel Day and Chip Day proved to be two traditions that could not stand up to time. They ultimately disappeared with the revelation that the students could pay for someone else to do work for them, new classes in ‘Physical Culture’ that kept them active and away from studies for a short while, and with the advent of a steam-heated Morgan Hall, the new dorm built in 1882 that eliminated the need for chopping wood altogether.
By Elizabeth O’Grady
Perry, Arthur Latham. Williamstown and Williams College. Norwood Press, 1899.
Williams Literary Monthly, February 1913.
Williams Quarterly, Vol.3, No. 4, June 1856.
Murdock, John N. Letters
Diary of Charles Burton Sheldon, 1843
Denison, J.H. Mark Hopkins. New York: Scribner’s, 1935.