October 21, 2012

A history of Colby College, from a Baptist bastion to now

By Ben McCanna bmccanna@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

WATERVILLE -- More than 200 years ago, a little town on the Kennebec River was in the midst of a boom. The population had doubled in 10 years, and it suddenly needed a church.

In the bargain, it also got a college.

This is the history of Colby College, according to historian Earl Smith. Smith, along with two history professors, hosted a panel discussion Saturday at Hathaway Creative Center. The discussion, "1813: The World, Waterville and Colby," shed light on the shared history of the city and the college, and it was one of a slate of events to kick off a six-month bicentennial celebration for the 38th oldest college in the country.

The panelists painted a picture of the life in 1813, both here and abroad. In Europe, Napoleon waged a costly conflict in Russia. On the coast of Maine and elsewhere in the United States, the War of 1812 was heating up. In Waterville, a booming economy had an adverse effect on the community. Smith said. Whiskey and barrooms were becoming legion. On the riverfront alone, 10 bars had sprung up.

"Not many of the new fishermen, shipbuilders and tradesmen were Baptists. They were a rough and tumble new crowd, rarely focused on redemption," Smith quipped to an audience of about 100. "It's little wonder that the Baptists thought the place was overripe for the civilized influence of the college."

The Bowdoinham Assembly of Baptists approached town leaders about a proposal to build, and the town accepted, Smith said.

In 1813, the Maine Literary and Theological Institution opened at the area now known as Colby Circle, on land that was purchased through fundraising efforts by Waterville residents.

Eight years later, the school was renamed Waterville College. Then in 1867, it was renamed Colby University in recognition of Gardner Colby, who made a $50,000 donation that saved the institution during tough financial times. As time went on, it was renamed Colby College. Ultimately, it outgrew its space downtown and in 1952 moved to Mayflower Hill, after residents raised $100,000 toward the purchase of 600 acres of land.

College president Bro Adams concluded the panel discussion by thanking Waterville for its financial assistance throughout the years. He invited Mayor Karen Heck to the podium to announce a gift of a granite bench to the city, engraved with the school's original seal. The bench will be installed downtown at a later date.

Heck, who graduated from Colby in 1974, said she didn't always appreciate the relationship between the town and school while she was a student.

"There was always a sense of us being up on the hill, and we were not particularly engaged with life in the 'ville. Over the years, however, I have come to understand the incredible economic and cultural value Colby has provided to Waterville," she said. "Colby has repaid its debts to the city a thousandfold, offering its courses to residents and high school students, opening its lectures, musical and theatrical events, library and world-class museum at no cost to the public."

Paul Boghossian, owner of Hathaway Creative Center and a Colby graduate, began the panel with a hint of things to come at the former mill on Water Street.

"I expect that within a year we'll announce a major addition to our offices, probably adding another 200 employees to this building -- 200 jobs to downtown Waterville," Boghossian said. "And I bet, within a year, there will be a brew pub in this space."

Ben McCanna -- 861-9239

bmccanna@centralmaine.com

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