Tyler Resch

A sense of enthusiasm is in the air awaiting the inauguration of the tenth president of Bennington College, Mariko Silver, who has demonstrated her interest in closer ties to the Bennington community. That community might wish to explore some of its many historic connections with the origins of the college.

It is ironic, for example, that a progressive college not known for any religious orientation can claim such close connections with Old Bennington’s Old First Church, the first organized church in Vermont, whose covenant was written in 1762. But in 1923 it was the pastor of the Old First Church, the Rev. Vincent Ravi-Booth, who planted the fragile seed of an idea that survived nine years of droughts and storms before it finally matured as Bennington College and opened in the fall of 1932.

Ravi-Booth’s goals, to be sure, were far more modest than a pioneering institution of higher education for women that would be known for its integration of the visual and performing arts within a liberal-arts curriculum. Dr. Booth was the son of a Sicilian father and Scottish mother whose name he added to his own. He had come to Old Bennington in 1919 from the Manchester Congregational Church but by 1923 was ministering to a village that had a population of less than 200, many of whom fled Vermont winters for homes in Cleveland, Chicago, Florida, or Troy, N.Y. He fantasized: Wouldn’t it be nice to start a school for girls, even a college, in Old Bennington? A few more people around would be good for his church as well as the local economy.

While making a tour of colleges to lecture about Italian literature, Booth tried out his idea on the presidents of Middlebury and Russell Sage and was pleasantly surprised at their enthusiastic response. He decided to consult persons of influence in the Bennington community, and he wisely chose, among others, Hall Park McCullough of North Bennington and James Colby Colgate of Old Bennington, both of whom also had homes in New York City. Indeed, both their wives took an especially strong liking to Booth’s idea. Another wealthy summer resident, Mrs. James Eddy, invited 12 women of Booth’s choosing for tea, and they heartily endorsed his proposal -- on paper. It was the first of many sessions in which an innovative educational philosophy was gradually developed and money was arduously raised.

It is a long story, extremely well told with much candor and nuanced humor in the book "Bennington College: In the Beginning" by Thomas P. Brockway, which I edited and produced while I was the college’s publications director in 1981.

Booth remained a dedicated early trustee of the incipient Bennington College and wrote some preliminary pamphlets and brochures to promote the idea, but his mostly orthodox views on education were often overridden by those of more progressive persuasion. The view that prevailed was strongly influenced by William H. Kilpatrick, a professor of educational philosophy at Teachers College, Columbia University, who was brought into the picture early and served for many years on the college’s first board. Kilpatrick was a follower of the John Dewey learning-while-doing approach. In fact, several other leaders of women’s colleges such as Wellesley, Radcliffe, and Sarah Lawrence were consulted or brought into the picture and proved supportive. Especially prominent was President William A. Nielson of Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

Most important among the many founders and early board members of Bennington College in the years before it opened were Hall Park McCullough and his wife, Edith Arthur VanBenthuysen McCullough, known to friends and family as "Artie." She became chairman of the board and is remembered as perhaps the most powerful figure of all.

In those pre-Depression days great attention was given to the process of selecting a president. At last the successful candidate was Robert Devore Leigh, a professor of government at Williams College, who had taught at progressive Reed College and held a doctorate from Columbia, where his influential wife, Mildred, had earned a master’s degree at Kilpatrick’s Teachers College. Leigh’s presidency began in June 1928 and the college was expected to open in 1929 or 1930. More meetings and fund-raisers took place in many locations, with many ups and downs -- too many to attempt to summarize here. 

Trustee Colgate had pledged early to donate 45 acres of land at the head of Elm Street, Old Bennington, for the new college’s location. The architectural firm Ames & Dodge of Boston drew a set of plans for an entire campus of traditional buildings. A president’s house was chosen on the edge of that campus and the Leighs moved into it and remained there until his resignation in 1941. (The house is known more recently as that of the late Fabian and Helen Kunzelmann.) But economic circumstances following the crash of October 1929 caused Colgate to withdraw his pledge of land in the summer of 1930. He could do that because his offer had been contingent on $2.5 million being raised by that fall, a goal that fell far short. Colgate was discouraged about going ahead with plans for a new college in Bennington, and so were many others.

To be continued.

Tyler Resch is research librarian of the Bennington Museum.This is Part 1 of a two-part series on origins of Bennington College.