The exact origins of Mountain Day are unclear, as the date and nature of the holiday have changed greatly through its history. It can, however, be traced through its two antecedents, Chip Day and Gravel Day, to at least as early as 1800. Chip Day, the origins of which are nebulous, was a holiday from classes granted to students in the spring so that they might spend the day cleaning up the campus. Grounds tended to become covered in wood chips left over from the chopping of firewood over the course of the long Williamstown winter. By at least the mid-1800’s, students cleverly began paying residents of the town to do their cleaning for them and went into the mountains for a day of hiking instead. Gravel Day, a day similar to Chip Day, was held in the spring so that students could perform necessary repairs to the college’s muddy pathways. It too fell victim to the same student ingenuity and was replaced in 1857 with Bald Mountain Day, a class-free day during which students were encouraged to be outdoors. A large group of students climbed Mt. Greylock, reportedly in high spirits after receiving news of the Free State victory in Kansas. That first successful Bald Mountain Day became an annual event and was joined in 1874 by a fall counterpart in lieu of Chip Day, generally called either Scenery or Foliage Day in its early years.
The 1886 catalog set the rules for the two holidays which eventually, and confusingly, were both being referred to as Mountain Day by the 1890’s. The older spring version, always held after the first day of June, had its date determined by a vote of each of the classes, while the fall Mountain Day, which always fell after the tenth of October, was set by the faculty in consultation with the weather and without the students’ knowledge.
Students particularly enjoyed the spontaneous nature of the fall Mountain Day “when the chapel bells would ring our Alma Mater”, waking the students and letting them know they had the day off from classes. Spring Mountain Day, with its predetermined date, saw many students in the earlier years hiking to Mt. Greylock late at night, in order to spend the night in the bunkhouse at the peak and take advantage of the sunrise. In the early incarnations of the holiday, those students who weren’t already at the mountain were called together in the morning by tin horns to march single-file to Greylock. Eventually, trips were organized on Mountain Day to other destinations, including Killington and Prospect, although Greylock remained the most popular, particularly with the freshmen. Student participation seemed to be widespread for the first few decades of Mountain Day, with the primary grumblings about the holiday centering on the apparently disturbing phenomenon of certain “luxurious” students “who so far forgot their manliness as to design to ride in a carriage” to the top of the mountain. Typical of student attitudes was a somber Record editorial which maintained that “Mountain Day is not a holiday for idle amusement; it is something of a ceremony, more alive because of its age, more typical of Williams because of its individual expression of a common spirit.”
By the turn of the 20th century, student enthusiasm for Mountain Day had declined noticeably. As early as 1872, there were rumblings of discontent with the holiday, with the Record reporting that “comparatively few of the students now visit the mountains on their holidays.” By the 1920’s, Wyllis Wright (Class of 1925) recalled Mountain Day as “the period when half the college went to Smith, and the other half climbed mountain, and (soon) all the college went to Smith and Vassar.” The decline of Mountain Day was blamed on the rise of the automobile, which created the possibility of trips not only to neighboring women’s colleges, but also to popular destinations like Northampton or Saratoga Springs. Having lost its traditional impetus for existence, student attachment to Mountain Day vanished. In a 1932 Record editorial, it was referred to as a holiday that “retains no vestige of its former self” and a “traditionless tradition.”
The students, spurred by the Record‘s words, petitioned for the exchange of the fall Mountain Day for an extra day of Thanksgiving vacation, which at the time was only one day. The faculty, which included many alumni unwilling to break with tradition, rejected the petition. In response to student discontent with that measure, a campus meeting in Jesup Hall was called, attended by over 700 students along with President Harry Garfield and many members of the faculty. Professor James B. Pratt decried the movement to eliminate Mountain Day, saying “Mountain Day for the alumni and faculty is a cherished tradition; it is essentially an educative institution whose value cannot be measured in dollars and cents, A’s and B’s. Should we let it go, it will be one more step toward factory-made Americans and factory-made colleges.” Partially swayed by Pratt’s oratory, the students came back with a plan to hold Mountain Day on a Sunday in lieu of mandatory chapel services to preserve the tradition while still getting their extra day of Thanksgiving holiday. Attendance at the Sunday Mountain Day was extremely poor, prompting the faculty to vote that both the traditional Mountain Day and the extra vacation day be instituted. In 1934, the last Mountain Day was held, experiencing a minor revival of the tradition, with 40 undergraduates climbing Mt. Greylock. President Tyler Dennett’s distaste for Mountain Day – combined with faculty disillusionment and student apathy – saw the holiday finally abolished by the Committee on Administration on May 20, 1935.
The college went decades without a Mountain Day, apparently with little student complaint. By the 1950’s, however, student interest in outdoor pursuits was stronger than ever, paving the way for the possibility of the return of Mountain Day in some form. The Outing Club’s popularity, along with the distressing reality of students going four years at Williams without seeing the view from the top of Greylock, prompted a 1957 Record editorial calling for the reinstatement of the tradition. The editorial took pains to address the causes of Mountain Day’s decline, noting that “naturally, as in the Twenties, many would prefer the smell of gasoline and Matchabelli perfume to clean mountain air” but if a joint Williams and Smith Mountain Day were organized, student participation would be guaranteed. Despite such argumentation, it wasn’t until 1981 that student demand for Mountain Day created the conditions for its return. Under the auspices of the Outing Club, Mountain Day was brought back as a scheduled fall Sunday of hikes and outdoor concerts on Greylock.
Mountain Day carried on in this new and popular form until 2000, when new college president Morton Schapiro revived the tradition fully, re-instituting Mountain Day as a spontaneous holiday from classes on a suitable October Friday. Students were once again woken up by the bells ringing out the “The Mountains” and, with apparent wide participation, spent the day taking part in an expanded offering of outdoor activities. Instead of just the march to Greylock, the Outing Club organized a variety of hikes of varying distance, along with rock climbing expeditions, bike rides and canoeing trips. Greylock remained the focus, however, as it became the site of an afternoon concert by student and community groups. Buses were used to transport students to the mountain, although a short one-mile walk from the parking area was still necessary. Although the holiday had changed greatly from its original form over the course of its existence and years of lapse it still remained essentially true to its original conception in the words of college President Edward Dorr Griffin in 1827, as “a day to go upon the mountain.”
By Brian Van Wyck (Williams Class of 2007)
The Williams Record, October 8, 1929
The Williams Record, October 8, 1935
The Williams Record, October 8, 1953
The Williams Record, February 13, 1957
The Williams Record, October 3, 2000
The Williams Record, May 13, 1964
The Williams Alumni Review, 1841-1842
The Williams Alumni Review, 1909
The Williams Athenaeum, October 19, 1878
The Williams Quarterly, October 1868