College barely survived Great Depression


Tyler Resch

In September 1930, dispirited by the impact of the Great Depression, early trustees of Bennington College experienced a make-or-break session in which the very existence of the college hung in the balance. The informal gathering followed a board meeting, chaired by Professor Kilpatrick, which had proved inconclusive and gloomy. In after-dinner conversation, Hall Park McCullough proposed that each trustee state his position informally on whether they should go ahead with starting a new college or give up the whole idea. Kilpatrick agreed and asked McCullough to begin. (McCullough later quoted one of the discouraged members as saying, "Maybe we best let the old cat die.")

McCullough said he thought the chances were poor but figured that if they gave up at this point there would be no hope of resurrecting the college, that they would set back the idea of liberalizing education for years. In calling on the other trustees the chairman noticed that those who wanted to go ahead were to his left and the pessimists were on the right. He chose to turn to the left and call on the more optimistic members first, thinking, evidently, that they would state the case for continuing and might prove persuasive. The stalwarts managed to prevail and the result was a vote of 8 to 3 to proceed, though two of the doubters chose to resign on the spot.

President Leigh’s secretary, Polly Bullard, who was present, later recalled "Mrs. McCullough’s spirited and courageous fight talk that won the day."

(Sources for this information are found in the book "Bennington College: In the Beginning" by Thomas P. Brockway and also in a series of the recollections of Mr. and Mrs. Hall Park McCullough published by the college on its 25th anniversary in 1957.)

But the trustees had reason to be encouraged after James C. Colgate withdrew his pledge of 45 acres of Old Bennington land for a campus because Mrs. Frederic B. Jennings immediately offered 140 acres of her estate in North Bennington. Though the new location prompted Henry W. Putnam to withdraw his $100,000 pledge, it was clearly a larger and better site. McCullough described it as "just a rolling field, farm land and pasture, with only one sizeable tree on it." Another advantage was that prospects for a water supply were more ample than in Old Bennington.

Mrs. Jennings’s offer represented another link, though more remote, with the Old First Church. Her husband, F.B. Jennings, a New York lawyer with an expansive Vermont summer home, was one of several sons of the Rev. Isaac B. Jennings, the church’s influential pastor for 34 years, 1839 to 1887, whose namesake son was also its pastor from 1905 to 1919 and was succeeded by Vincent Ravi-Booth.

Mrs. Jennings, nee Laura Hall Park, nicknamed Lila, was one of two daughters of the aggressive businessman-lawyer Trenor W. Park, who in 1865 had returned to North Bennington from the California gold rush, having probably made more money than any other native Vermonter in his business deals and managing John C. Fremont’s Mariposa gold mine.

Though he died 50 years before Bennington College opened, Park seems to play a key role in this story. He had purchased extensive acreage near North Bennington from Hiram Bingham, father of a son of the same name who was a pioneer missionary to Hawaii. The 1869 Atlas of Bennington County by F.W. Beers shows today’s Bennington College campus clearly as "Bingham Hill" and also shows the residence of T.W. Park. For each of his daughters as a wedding present, Park gave half of that property. Daughter Eliza Hall Park, known as Lizzie, married John G. McCullough, another New York lawyer, former attorney general of California, who was elected governor of Vermont in 1902; he was the father of Hall Park McCullough.

It should be noted that Mrs. Jennings’s daughter, Elsie Jennings Franklin, chaired the board of trustees for many years both before and after the college opened.

When the college finally opened, with 87 freshmen, on September 6, 1932, it used the 140 acres given by Mrs. Jennings. Because today’s long curving entrance driveway was not part of her gift, the entrance to the college was made from the driveway into the Hinsdillville Cemetery at Papermill Village. Then in 1939 she donated the rest of the estate including the family’s stone mansion, now known as the college’s Jennings music building, the long driveway, and the shingle cottage.

The residence of the current president, the brick house on Mattison Road in Shaftsbury, also had its origins in religion. It was built circa 1844 for Rev. Isaiah Mattison, who was pastor of a nearby Baptist church that no longer stands, one of several Baptist churches in Shaftsbury’s history. In recent years it was the residence of John G. McCullough, son of Hall Park McCullough, grandson of his namesake, and was turned over to the college in the 1980s.

Tyler Resch is research librarian of the Bennington Museum.This is the second part of a two-part series about Bennington College.


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