Reflections from the House: 1928-1929


Adaline Pates Potter



the memory of


Head of Residence Hall:



Preface  Adaline Pates Potter, known to all as Pates (pate eze) came to Mount Holyoke College from western Pennsylvania with the firm, if romantic, intention of majoring in French and joining the US Consular Service on graduation. She hastily switched to an English major when she learned that Consuls are expected to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of economics, however, she did take as many courses in government and political science as the college then offered. After graduation at the height of the “Great Depression”, she spent four years in Northampton, Massachusetts, as a governess, finishing that period with an M.A. in English from Smith College and a position in the English department at the Northfield School for Girls. At Northfield she was given permission to marry  Gordon Potter; her employment was terminated two years later, on the grounds that, as a married woman, she would be unlikely to stay in the school into an old age.

    She then returned to Smith to begin her studies for a Ph.D. in English, but after two years found more interesting a freelance career in teaching English, and editing the works of foreign refugee anti-fascists scholars who found Northampton a congenial and stimulating home. This wartime work led her to return to the Mount Holyoke English department, as a teacher of English as a foreign language and of composition. In 1960 the position of foreign student advisor was added.  She retired as Associate Professor of English and died in 2006.

    She blamed her inability to discipline her love of telling tales on her Kentucky father and on her mother and four siblings, all of whom were passionate readers and indulgent listeners.


                                FOREWORD:  BY WAY OF EXPLANATION

Some years ago, I had two friends, sisters, who were superb weavers.  Most of their productions went to churches and cathedrals, historic houses, or private mansions, but one they kept for their own and their friends’ delight.  This was their “friendship cloth”, a large table-cloth that they used when they had very special dinners for very special guests.  It had started out as a white linen damask square with a subtle but very intricate pattern in the weave.  For a while that relationship of warp and woof was enough.  Then Vi and Bea came to see further possibilities in it; for they were also gifted embroiderers, and embroiderers find a plain surface a challenge.  So they decided to commemorate each noteworthy party by some sort of brightly colored but tiny design that would spark our memories.  Sometimes it was just a flower, perhaps the first flower of the season from the bowl on the table; sometimes, a book we had been enthusiastic about, a bird, the colors of a spectacular sunset over Gloucester Harbor -- whatever was appropriate to that particular occasion.  Each symbol was agreed on by the guests and each was dated for identification in later years.  Over time, as the embroidery increased, the cloth became almost three dimensional, though the sturdy linen base remained to give strength and background.  Eventually, of course, there was no more room and it was put away, to be brought out only when some particular evening was recalled.

This “friendship cloth” came to my mind as I began to think of writing up my memories of a year at Sycamores.  I like metaphors, and this, not quite a cliché, seems to me a useful one.  The warp, those parallel threads that give shape to the cloth, is the college itself, especially its common life, with its general character, its customs, even its frequently deplored rules.  The woof, giving strength and pattern to that year, is Sycamores, the building and its history.  The embroidery is our own group and our experiences that made ours different from every other year the house has known.

So I shall start with a brief outline of the Mount Holyoke College community of which we were only a part.  Then, I’ll turn to Sycamores, what attracted us to the house and what made it so memorable.  That will take care of the warp and woof.  It is the embroidery that really matters, a description of who we were and a sampling of what we did, both silly and serious, to stand for the whole dinner party that was Sycamores from September 1928 till June 1929.



In 1928:

M.H.T.” -- “Mount Holyoke Type”, a label (or libel) never used by Mount Holyoke students themselves, meant an earnest young woman in rather dogged search of the kind of education her brother was being given at Amherst as his natural male right.  It also meant that when that brother was in search of social diversion, he went across the river to Northampton, not over the mountain to South Hadley.

Mount Holyoke had only 1,000 students.

M.H.C. was so determinedly a woman’s college that only sixteen members of the faculty were male.  The college did not suffer by the exclusion:  among the women were such nationally respected figures as Emma Carr, Bertha Putnam, Amy Hewes, Ann Morgan, and Charlotte d’Evelyn.

M.H.C. students paid $900.00 for room, board, and tuition.  The room and board were confined to an assigned dormitory and included having our rooms cleaned by a college maid every other week.  It did not include the electricity used by a student-owned radio; for that, we paid extra.

The Great Depression was one year in the future.

M.H.C. was confidently authoritarian, reflecting the family structure of the day; “in loco parentis” was a perfectly acceptable term.  Nevertheless, there was an active student government, really a community government in which members of the faculty, elected by the faculty, held office as board members.  Administration influence was inevitable but minimized by that ideal of “community.”  Symbolic, perhaps, were the activities of the “Grass Cops”, appointed in the spring by S.G.A. to blow admonitory whistles at anyone setting a careless foot on the new grass:  “anyone” included any trespasser, student or faculty.  That was the year, too, when the smoking rules were changed, despite the Administration’s -- in this case Miss Woolley’s -- determined opposition.

We were an astonishingly homogenous group.  Almost all of us were middle-class and Protestant and came from east of the Rockies, and most of those, from the Atlantic coastal states north of the Mason-Dixon line.

I could go on and on and on.


    A returning alumna trying to find the Mount Holyoke she knew in the late ‘twenties, would see much to reassure her if she drove along College Street.  S.A.H., renamed Mary E. Woolley Hall, the Rockies, Skinner, the Mary Lyon gates, Mary Lyon itself, the libe, and Dwight have altered their front elevations so little, or so subtly, that she might even overlook the new link between the libe and what she knew as the “art building”.

Yet, back of the façade, the college has changed not only structurally but essentially, and one of those most essential changes is the student body.  As I’ve said, the student body was almost ridiculously homogeneous.

Most of us were Protestant:  Congregationalist, Presbyterian, or Methodist, although there was a sprinkling of Episcopalians and Quakers.  There were also some Roman Catholics and Jews.  Whether the Administration had a quota system for those students, admitting just so many and no more, I can’t know, but I can say that their number was not so small that they could have been called “tokens” in today’s jargon and that, once admitted, their special needs were accommodated.  In fine, they were bona fide members of the college, and treated as such.

Unhappily, I can be less certain about any non-whites.  We thought Native Americans, Japanese, Chinese, even dark-skinned Indians, exotic and would have welcomed more; yet, for African Americans, despite the defensive explanation that “they” preferred cities, I can’t imagine that there was not conscious discrimination so far as their admission was concerned.  I’ve no idea how to explain the two or three on campus during the late ‘twenties.  Trying to adjust must have been truly difficult for them; nevertheless, I never heard of anything worse than toleration, an attitude that just may be less bearable than active hostility.  Once again, they were a part of the community and accepted, by at least some, on the same terms as any other members of that body.

Most importantly, we were predominantly middle class, the daughters of lawyers, doctors, clergymen, and middle-echelon businessmen, the sort of men who had the good sense to understand why their daughters wanted to go to an unconventional woman’s college like Mount Holyoke instead of to the more usual finishing school or state university,  In other words, social or not, we were “M.H.T.’s” with all that implies of serious aims, and not aspiring debutantes or “Betty Co-Eds”; we had decided on Mount Holyoke primarily because we wanted its rigorous kind of education and only secondarily, if at all, because college might be the best way to better jobs or suitable husbands.

If all that lack of variety -- social, religious, and class -- made us parochial in outlook, it was also the basis for what I find the most distinguishing and influential characteristic of the college I knew: we were classless.  If you and your fellow students have so much common ground, you can subconsciously assume that there is similarity in everything that really matters; you don’t dwell on chance differences.  I never heard of a student’s religion being held against her, or of her family’s social position’s making the least difference to her classmates.  I know now that some came from affluent, even wealthy, families and that others had a hard time financially even before the Depression that hit most of us in our junior year.  We were aware, vaguely, that there were a good many scholarship students and that there were campus jobs filled by our classmates, but we never thought of financial aid as demeaning.  Rich or poor, we simply didn’t care.  Whatever the practice of the Admissions Office may have been, from the time a student was accepted, however set apart in some way she may have felt, she was a part of the community.  The college was its own “support group”.  Intolerant of any fragmentation into small divisions, like the Three Musketeers, we were “one for all and all for one”.

I’ve said, classless.  Not a bad thing.


        Warnings are in order.

It all happened between September 1928 and June 1929; that was a very far-off time -- sixty-seven or sixty-eight years ago, to be specific.  Over such a period even a good memory forgets some things and embroiders others.  Moreover, by nature being a tale-teller rather than a historian, I am tempted to write little stories about that year at Sycamores, to heighten dramas, draw out scenes, attribute feelings:  to see events with logical causes and beginnings and dénouements.  To follow this natural bent would be much simpler and certainly more interesting for both writer and reader.  Unhappily, I must try to stick to what I believe to be the facts.  The facts?  My memory is generally pretty clear, but it is memory only and only my own memory.  I think, then, that the basic facts will be there, but someone else may recall the details quite differently.  And it must not be forgotten that the tale-teller is always in the picture.  A case in point is my controlling sense of the role Miss Laura Dunklee played in our Sycamore lives and, therefore, of her crucial place in these anecdotes.  We called her “Dunk” but she was Miss Dunklee, the Head of House for several years before 1928 and for at least five years after that, and it was she, with her strengths and foibles, who set the tone.  It is fashionable at Mount Holyoke to laugh at “house mothers” -- a term that was not in general use in those days and one that I think she would have scorned -- and goodness knows we did often find her funny enough, but as I look back, I realize that without her Sycamores would have been a very different and possibly, given other Heads of House I knew, a less happy place.  Sentimental, slightly old-fashioned, sometimes a rule-enforcer beyond what we thought common sense, she had set a high goal for herself:  to make Sycamores a place we would enjoy while living there and look back on fondly.  I’m sure many of the Heads of House told themselves that those were their goals, too.  Dunk, for me, succeeded.

One more warning.  Besides possibly being guilty of “personalizing” my year at Sycamores, I have to confess that I have, indeed, just plain forgotten some things.  For instance, was the mysterious tower, rumored to be the home of some sort of ghost, really opened for us on Halloween, or do I just think that some such revelation would have been appropriate?  At least one other in the group remembers something like that, but she, too, may be imagining what should  have been.  Then there is the matter of the street-car.  From the village, the tracks went down the east side of Woodbridge and continued on that side toward Amherst.  But how did they get past the park where Silver Street comes in?  I do not know.  Why don’t I recall stepping out of the house and boarding the trolley right there when we went to the movies in Holyoke?  Was I bothered or not by the noise as the car clanked by at night on ties that I do remember were famous for being badly laid?  Surely, I would sometimes have ridden to classes instead of beating my way through snow and freezing wind.  Did the street-car, then, usually end its run in the Center? I think that must be so, but I don’t remember a thing about it.

Another lost part of our life is the matter of “gentlemencallers”.  I know that some of my housemates were quite popular and that “dates” were taken for granted, but again, except for the fairly frequent visits of my roommate’s “almost -fiancé” accompanied by one or two classmates from Yale, I cannot dredge up details.

All these forgotten little matters are really trivial, but another is important.  To my astonishment I cannot for the life of me recall why my particular group chose Sycamores.  I do know that the twelve from Brigham had drawn among them two sufficiently low room-choosing numbers to be sure of getting into any dorm they wanted, and put Sycamores at the top of their lists on purpose.  But the four of us?  We, too, had a number so low that we could have gone to any of the Sophomore dorms.  Sycamores was farthest from campus of any residence hall; it was certainly not a place we had passed often enough to have formed a wish to live there.  Had one of the other two -- certainly  not my roommate or I -- had a friend among the larger group?  I really doubt that I knew enough, when the possibility of going to Sycamores came up, to choose the house for its history or its architectural distinction.  What was it that led to one of the most important decisions of our college lives?  I shall never know.


    In many ways, all dormitories are alike; sprawling imitations of private houses with common rooms on the ground floor and individual living quarters above.  The living quarters are alike, too:  bare-walled boxes furnished by the college with the barest necessities.  The Sophomore dorms of the ‘twenties and ‘thirties differed fundamentally from the norm.  With few exceptions, they really had been private houses, with the intimacy and quirkiness of the individuals who built and remodeled them.  They fringed the campus, almost more a part of the village than of the college.  Farthest away and least dormlike of all was Sycamores, still basically the house Ruggles Woodbridge had built for himself in the late 18th century.

How handsome it was, and how livable!  The two silver sycamores on the arc of the driveway out front shaded the house from the morning sun in spring and fall and, in the winter, gave an excuse for romantic clichés like “sentinel” and “guardian”.  The barrel vault and slender columns of the porch, the well-proportioned walls with their quoined angles, the generous slope of the gambrel roof with its hooded dormers, could never belong to a mere dormitory. Yet here it was, our home for some nine months, and a home we had chosen for ourselves when low room-choosing numbers allowed the choice.  Room choosing had been a stressful time for the four of us from Mead, but drawing number 14 had practically guaranteed our getting our first love:  Sycamores, of course.  It had been a little more difficult for the large group from Brigham.  College rules allowed only six to move on one number, and there were twelve of them, a problem that necessitated their division into two “crowds”, as the campus term was; however, two sufficiently low numbers combined with the general reluctance to go so far off campus had taken care of that.  Our seventeenth was Florence Gooch, who had come alone -- perhaps because of the way student waitresses were assigned to dorms; though her closest friends were in other houses, she was always considered one of us, and her loving snapshots of Sycamores under winter snows suggest that her affection for the house came to be as warm as ours, even if it was not her original reason for being there.

Of course, Sycamores has changed now, although at first sight it seems to be the same.  A casual glance is not likely to reveal that the roof, no longer shingled as in 1928, is badly in need of replacement.  Nor does the front of the house even hint at the deplorable condition of the back with its peeling paint and sagging porch ceiling.  Despite all its problems, Sycamores still looks dignified and welcoming.

Inside, the story is different.  All we can do when we return is exclaim, “ How could they?”  The paneling, original still, has come loose from neglect; the paint on the walls repeats the natural peeling of the sycamore bark, an ironic case of art imitating nature; the HL hinges on the doors are almost invisible under their layers of off-white paint; and oblong, flat “office” lights have been forced into the ceilings of at least two of those gracious rooms, a solution to a practical problem one might think only gleeful vandals would have suggested.  As for the kitchen, that generous room where we put together our breakfasts each morning and where Margaret conjured up those fabled Sycamore meals, it is now so beaver-boarded, so reduced to a jumble of forbidding corners, that I cannot even try to reproduce the original in my mind.  Even worse is the third-floor hall:  its beaver-boarded barrier has thriftily reduced the heating bill, no doubt, but it has ruined what was once a distinguished stairwell.  In other words, Sycamores was in our time one of the finest unchanged 18th-century houses in western Massachusetts; now, owing to neglect and the endemic poverty of a woman’s college, it has become potentially one of the most dilapidated.

Fortunately, it was the unspoiled, four-square house with its practical ell that we knew.  On the ground floor, to left and right of the front stairs, were the parlor, Regency in flavor, and Miss Dunklee’s spectacularly paneled room.  Back of the parlor was a student room, a double, and across the back hall from that was the dining room with its two long, white-linen covered tables.  Under the stairs there was, and still is, a lavatory.  On the second floor there were four more “doubles”, all big and light, and all with paneling, wainscoting, and fireplaces, except for the one on the northeast corner, which was perfectly plain for some reason.  A glassed-in back porch, furnished with chairs and lights, doubled for a passage to the bathrooms and kitchenette in the ell.  The four third-floor rooms, three doubles and one single, lacked fireplaces and paneling but made up for any aesthetic disappointment by slanted ceilings and romantically deep dormers; the third floor had its own bath, too, a great selling point for those who regretted the lack of decorative woodwork.

The ell was the practical, workaday part of the house.  But, besides kitchen, pantries, and bathrooms, it held the living quarters of two of the most important members of the household, Margaret and Nellie, two Irish sisters, the one the cook and the other the maid.  Margaret was gray-haired, thin, and serious; Nellie, rather a dark-haired dumpling, was friendly and cheery.  She was a little naughty, too, as I found out when Margaret informed me that some of the Gaelic expressions she taught me were unladylike, if not downright shocking.

So there we were, seventeen students and two domestics.  And Miss Dunklee, the presiding genius of the house.  She planned the meals, kept the house in order, prescribed for our toothaches, and tried to make us worthy of our house.

If Sycamores has ghosts today, I think they are not of the students I knew there, but Margaret, Nellie, and Dunk, assuming still their roles as guardians of the house.

“I have a garden all my own --

Shining with flowers of every hue.

I loved it dearly, when alone,

But I shall love it more, with you”!

(Thomas Moore.)

From Miss Dunklee’s Christmas Card


        It took spring to force the garden on our notice.  Though it had been there all along, we just hadn’t paid it much attention.  Then we came back after Easter and golden forsythia banked the house and piled up on the lawn.  We were delighted when the pale yellow flowers gleamed through the white netting of a late snowfall.

Later came the daffodils, narcissus, and hyacinths in clumps at the bases of the big trees, filling the borders, escaping somehow into the wilderness beyond the grape arbor.  The arbor itself broke into full leaf, a shadowy passageway leading to nowhere.

Finally, we discovered that we had lilacs.  I recall precisely only the high hedge separating our garden from Woodbridge Street, but there must have been others, in groups or singly, like the earlier forsythia.  I was reading “modern” poetry that spring, and my head was full of Amy Lowell’s lines:


False blue



Color of lilac.

Naturally, being girls still, we did not confine our reaction to the garden to aesthetic raptures.  With its giant trees and scattered thickets, it made a perfect place for post-dinner games of hide-and-seek.  I had an advantage there; in spite of my height, I knew how to disappear so thoroughly that I was never seen till the “allie-allie-aughts in free” rang out.  Then I would appear, grinning, with a tale of having found the entrance to the secret underground-railway tunnel that we all believed in.  The truth was less romantic.  At the end of the grape arbor there was a tangle of blackberry bushes, daisies, black-eyed susans, and wild geraniums, an obvious hiding place, and the first to be searched, it would seem.   But -- it had as well a huge spread of poison ivy into which, surely, no hider would venture.  So it was never searched.  And there I crouched, confident that I was safe, for I was -- and still am -- one of the few who are immune to that particular poison.

Sycamores garden!  The last cry of “allie-allie-aughts in free” can have been heard no later than the years the A B C students occupied the house, and that was generations ago.  The lilac hedge has gone, the arbor has gone, and so have many of the trees.  Times change, and gardens with them.  But in the case of that particular garden, I can’t help wondering why.


Having chosen Sycamores for its eighteenth-century charm, we tried to furnish our rooms in the spirit of the house, at least in so far as our not very knowledgeable taste, our pocketbooks, and our comfort allowed.  I have forgotten the details of the others, but I recall our own very vividly.

We had the southwest room at the top of the stairs on the second floor, the one with its own dogleg staircase leading to a locked door on the third floor.  Although it was a corner room, it had only one outside window, for the west wall was backed by the windowed upstairs porch, which was used as a study-lounge as well as the passage to the kitchenette and the bathrooms in the ell.  Our door to this porch was locked, but the window beside it could be opened and frequently was.

As they are now, three of the walls were wainscoted.  It was the fireplace in the heavily paneled east wall that set the tone for us.  I can’t recall whether the college had closed it up somehow, but certainly the ugly beaverboard that blocks it today was not there then, for we had enough room for brick imitations of firedogs laid with small birch logs to give the illusion of usability, a paper fan at the back, and a cast-iron white angora cat sitting alertly on the rug to the left.  Only one of the closets behind the paneling was unlocked.

Both windows were curtained, of course.  In Mead we had used burnt-orange theatrical gauze, but in this Sycamores room we hung ruffled white muslin, which we were under the impression was colonial.  On the floor was Quink’s hooked gray rug with its pink roses, in addition to the homely college-issue gray-brown strip.  The two beds were set along the sides, one under the window and the other alongside the porch wall.  They were covered with our sand-colored, handmade, monkscloth spreads with slightly gathered skirts, and were, of course, strewn with the wholly modern bright pillows that were not only collegiately approved but also a practical necessity for beds that had to be used as couches for sitting.  Quite modern, too, was Quink’s wicker chair -- a case of anachronism giving way to comfort and the pocketbook.

We tried to make the double desk, again college-issue, as inconspicuous as possibly by setting it to the left of the door; at least, it didn’t strike the eye as one entered.  The only other visible piece of furniture -- for we were able to banish the chests of drawers and the shelves for books and my tea set to the closet and the stair landing -- was the small oak table that we draped with a beflowered white chintz skirt and used as a dressing table.  I don’t recall any pictures except my Gainsborough “Blue Boy” print, on the wall behind the desk, I think.

It was a really pretty room, not wholly unworthy of its old house.


I begin with a ghost story.

In the fall of 1971 or ‘72, the Dean of Students office, faced with a shortage of rooms for an unexpectedly large freshman classand having on its hands an empty Sycamores -- if a really old house so full of memories can ever be called “empty” -- decided to move foreign students from Dickinson, where most of those on the graduate level had been housed for at least twenty years, to Sycamores; that is, from the extreme south end of campus to the even more extreme north.

As foreign student adviserI was worried about the change, but since I had been presented with a fait accompli, I had no opportunity to raise the questions that troubled me.  And I did foresee trouble.  Students who had never lived in dormitories -- many of them, not all -- were given roommates who had been chosen because they came from the same continent, without regard to ancient ethnic and religious enmities -- a Muslim Pakistani with a Hindu Indian, for instance.  All meals except breakfast were taken in an undergraduate dormitory a good ten minutes’ walk from “home”, and Sycamores was cut off from campus life in a way that Dickinson, though not in the middle of things, was not.  Those were the worries I had; a greater concern was that the students themselves would find drawbacks that I did not foresee.

I must confess that it worked out fairly well, though the difficulties I’d predicted did arise.  No counter-suggestion that it was a privilege to live in an architecturally distinguished and historically important house seemed to make any impression on disgruntled young women whose ideas of “old” went back a thousand years.  I had anticipated aesthetic objections to the plumbing fixtures, which were hardly up-to-date in appearance but, I thought, worked perfectly well.  I had certainly not anticipated the bitter complaint that there were two faucets, one hot and one cold, forcing the student -- Indian, in this case -- to use that American abomination, a washbowl, instead of washing her hands in truly sanitary fashion under a stream of commingled running water -- I am not  making this up!  Moreover, they did find daunting the chilly distance of Pearsons, where they took their main meals, and they were disappointed to find their social life confined to other foreign students when they had come to America to learn about Americans.

Despite their initial disappointment, they began to accept the situation, and gave in gracefully, or at least, not too plaintively, as they fell into the rhythms of their adopted life.  By the second semester, I had stopped trying to conjure up demands for my immediate presence elsewhere whenever some distressed young woman from Thailand or Bangladesh knocked on my office door.  There were still problems;  there had always been problems, but none that could not be lived with.  Until --

Second semester had begun, everyone had returned, somewhat gratefully, to the safety of campus after the confusing scramble of Christmas vacation, and everyone had settled in nicely, I thought.  Then, in the middle of an ordinary English conference, one of the Thai students suddenly dropped the discussion of footnotes and introduced a totally unrelated subject.  She must, she stated, be moved from Sycamores.  I was flabbergasted, for I’d have thought her one of the steadiest of the group.  Was she fighting with her roommate, like herself a graduate student in English, and harmlessly Indian?  Not at all; they were good friends and got along very well together; indeed, though both  must be moved to a different dormitory, they wanted to remain roommates.  I was appalled.  Both of them disliked Sycamores so much!

Were they finding the cold unbearable?  -- No, they had warm coats and boots and rather liked having to take the walk each day.  -- Was it some other girl?  I recalled the distress of a Japanese student a year or two before who had had to resist attempts to Christianize her.  But no, they all got on very well.  They’d just like to move.  In fact, everyone wanted to  move, or would want to do so very soon.  -- But why?  Well, they just did.

“You have to have a reason,” I persisted.  Sycamores was a lovely place.  She might recall that I, as a sophomore many years ago, had not only lived there but had used the very room they were so eager to leave.  “Oh!” She looked relieved.  “Then you knew about it already?  Why didn’t you warn us?  At least you won’t think we’re crazy.”

“Knew what, for goodness sake?”

“Why, the ghost, the ghost of Mary Lyon, of course.  It’s just as they said:  she comes almost every night and roams about the halls.  Someday she’ll try to get into our room.”

Evidently, I looked receptive, for she went on to explain.  They hadn’t noticed it at first, but when one of the American girls who had lived there a couple of years ago had asked whether anyone had seen the ghost yet, they had realized what had been making the creaky sounds they’d put down to the settling of the old wood.  And only two nights ago, they’d seen the light from Mary Lyon’s candle as she crossed the landing at the head of the stairs.  They were terrified.

At first I tried to reassure her.  Back in 1928 there had never been any such visitation or rumor of one.  Moreover, Mary Lyon had had nothing to do with Sycamores, which had belonged to a town family when she was at the seminary.  It all went over the student’s head.  A possibly-malevolent Mary Lyon was walking the halls now and that was that.

So I decided to take her complaint as a practical problem that must be solved.  The Dean of Students might, I said, be willing to move two students, even though the ghost had never done any harm, but to relocate the whole house would be impossible, and to take only some and not all would be greatly unfair.

She appreciated my dilemma, she looked distressed, but she remained obdurate.  Clearly, sweet reason was not going to work.

I thought harder.  And my eye lighted on the large, wrought-iron key, a souvenir from Old Sturbridge, holding down some papers on my desk.  Hadn’t I heard some bit of folk wisdom from Salem days about using cold iron to ward off witches?  Surely, what applied to a witch might apply to a ghost, I told myself.  Did Toy have anything made of iron, I asked?  No. -- Well, I happened to have right here this iron paper weight.  It was well known, I said, stretching it a bit, that ghosts could not pass over cold iron.  They could borrow my key, and every night before she went to bed, she could lay it on the floor inside their door -- I did not see fit to ask her how the rest of the house was to protect itself, or to remind her that their door already boasted its original iron HL hinges.   -- The key would surely keep them safe from ectoplasmic intrusion.  -- Was that true? -- I had been told so by experts.

So she went off with the key and it was so effective that Miss Lyon returned to wherever she had walked in my day, and never turned up at Sycamores again.

Or so I was assured.


If we did not have ghosts, we did have minor mysteries.  One, the subject of much idle speculation, was the history of the stone and shingle tower in the northeast corner of the property -- still not satisfactorily solved, I gather.  Another was the problem of Miss Dunklee’s baths.

Our relationship with our Head of Hall was fairly close, but our meetings usually took place at meals, in the halls, or in our own rooms, though Evelyn Ladd, as House President, probably saw more of her than I was aware of.  Decently separated from her students, hers was the large, square room to the left of the front door, easily accessible if a toothache struck in the middle of the night, but definitely her territory, not to be invaded on a whim.  It was not that we were  unwelcome or that we were not fond of her, though fond in the limited way the young feel liking for an adult in authority over them.  It was more, I think, that we felt her need for privacy; the room was, to that extent, off limits because we considered it so.  Of course, we knew a good bit about its layout.  The front windows gave Dunk a view beyond the eponymous sycamore trees to the little triangular green at the head of Silver Street and the Muilenbergs’ classic square house across the road; they also gave her a sidelong view of the front porch, though I can’t remember our ever complaining that she spied on fervent goodnights there.  In the far corner, a door in the paneling led to a little entry-way opening to the south onto a porch and the rather ragged garden with its pleasant lawn, its trees, a grape arbor, and the weedy tangle beyond.

We knew, of the room itself, that one whole wall was white-painted paneling with a fireplace, and that it was fitted up like a sitting room, with chairs and a cot, of the sort we students had, with a serviceable dark green couch-cover.  But there our knowledge stopped and guess-work began.  Could there be a minuscule bathroom back of the panels, somehow fitted between the sitting room we knew and the dining room?  The lack of an obvious window made even a very small room unlikely, we were willing to grant.  But -- and it was an important “but” -- did she have, as we felt should have been her right, her own bath?  No one ever saw her going into or leaving one of the second-floor bathrooms; indeed, no one ever saw her in robe -- “kimmie”, she called it from some distant past -- and slippers, armed with soap and towels, either on the stairs or in the halls.  Yet, how could there be enough space for even a sitz tub behind that paneling?  We wondered and wondered.  Of course, we could have asked her outright; it says much for the essential dignity of our relationship  that we never did.  It was a private matter and ought to remains so.  --Or was it just that we enjoyed our little mystery?

It is a mystery no longer.  Several years after graduation, when I thought that perhaps I had reached a somewhat equal social footing, I decided to forget that we were in New England where privacy is privacy, and boldly put the question to her.  Naturally, I was disappointed.  No, she had no second room.  Like her students, she had the bed-sitter where we were taking tea, though unlike us and our obligatory roommates, she had it to herself.  And no, she had no bath.  For cleaning teeth and casual washing, the lavatory sufficed, as we had surmised.  But for baths, she waited until the house settled down for the nightand then trekked up the back stairs in the ell to a bathroom on the second floor, either one of the two student baths, or, more often, I suspect, the maid’s sanctuary.  It may have been a chore, but at least she preserved her dignity.  I thought of her often, with greatest sympathy, when as a young teacher at Northfield Seminary I had to do my pre-breakfast washing up in the one bathroom on my floor, surrounded by a crowd of similarly occupied thirteen-and fourteen-year-olds, all agog as I revealed my choice of toothpaste and soap, and the intimacies of my underwear.

This juxtaposition of bathroom and Miss Dunklee was at the heart of one of our more dramatic experiences that winter.

As I have said, we were really a pretty solid group.  Nevertheless, despite the modern insistence that all female students are “women”, sophomores are only a year out of secondary school, still trying to place themselves, sometimes responsible, but often thoughtless if not downright scatterbrained; in other words, they are “girls”.  It was so with us.  Though we were unlikely to get into any serious scrapes, academic or social, we were not always exemplary.  The third floor -- sometimes serious but never solemn -- was particularly given to hot water.  They giggled or even laughed aloud during “quiet hours”, they banged doors, sometimes they didn’t quite make it to the house before locking-up time, they forgot to sign out for meals or off-campus jaunts.  In sum, they saw little reason for the halter of petty campuswide rules that may have made community life simpler in large dormitories but were hard to justify in a small house where everybody lived very much together, studying at the same time and playing at the same time, or, at least, not being bothered when someone chose to be different.  Life would have been harmonious even if we had not had rules or had had none more onerous than those enforced in our own homes.

Unfortunately, the rules, petty or not, were what Miss Dunklee was supposed to enforce.  Even more difficult to live up to was her view of what we basically were:  it was not enough that we were girls or women; we were “ladies”, and we sometimes failed her.  The night I have in mind, the failure was so great that it could not be excused -- not even by us.

Dunk was out; that, at least, I know for certain.  I think my roommate and I had spent the evening at the libe, and the happy-go-lucky third floor was presumably hard at work.  But no.  As we opened the door, shouts of laughter burst from  upstairs over our heads.  Evidently, quiet hours were over and something was up.  What fun!  Fun, yes, but something more.  The stair carpet was squishy and water trickled down the stairs from above.  The second floor was worse:  water was cascading down the stairs from the third floor.  We bounded up the steps, our screams even penetrating the hilarity in one of the bedrooms.  We turned off the bathtub taps.  Towels were grabbed and a momentarily sobered mopping-up brigade set to work.  Was it really such a flood?  I’m sure I remember gallons of water; I’m sure I remember the whole house sopping up the floor and the carpets.  I do  remember that dismay gave way to shouts of laughter as Ibbie Blairtried to explain how she could have forgotten her intention to take a good hot bath.

My memory may be wrong:  it couldn’t have been more than a healthy trickle, though a reprehensible one, after all.  However, I am not wrong about the aftermath:  Miss Dunklee’s return as we were still gathering up the soaked towels, our sudden silence, our feelings of collective guilt, and above all, Dunk’s grieved disappointment in her girls.  All of us had laughed and it was not by any definition funny.  Chastened, we finished mopping and, in sackcloth, went off to bed.  Dunk was serene the next morning but we were not; we felt sure that she was on the verge of giving us up.  We were beyond the Mount Holyoke pale.  Such guilt!

So for a while we tried to live up to Miss Dunklee’s dreams of a “house”.  We got to meals on time, were quiet when quiet was prescribed, tried to tone down the noise when noise was permitted, and never, never, even under the most absent-minded circumstances, forgot the bath water.

Still there were, there had to be, lapses; further disappointments for Miss Dunklee, though none so serious as the bath episode.  Perhaps her exemplary forbearance, her often amused patience, increased our sense of guilt, for we were fond of her, as we knew she was of us, and had come to feel with her that our beautiful house deserved only the best; in letting her down, we were letting Sycamores down, too.

Whatever the reason for our unease, an evening came when we feared that the sheer numbers of our small infractions had accomplished what one serious carelessness had failed to do:  discouraged Dunk irrevocably.  The house had been quiet all evening with everyone dutifully working away like model students.  At nine-thirty came the normal relaxation before ten-thirty quiet hours, and we were gathered in small groups for our habitual crackers and milk.  Trouble came quietly.  Evelyn Ladd as House President, needed Miss Dunklee and Miss Dunklee was not to be found, though she was expected to be there.  Where could she be?  She almost never went out without leaving word and was always in by ten unless she had left a warning that she would be absent.  How inexplicable!  Rather annoying, indeed, but not worrisome.

Ten o’clock came.  No Dunk.  Ten-thirty.  We began to wonder seriously.  Eleven!  Could she have had an accident?  -- Or worse?  Someone reminded somebody of how often we had tried our Head of Hall’s patience.  Had we finally gone too far?  Had the strain of constant failure to keep us in hand been too much for her at last?  Had she simply decided to walk out on us, leaving us to our disgraces -- or, to put it crudely, had she snapped?

Then somebody else had an idea.  There was a full moon and it was not a cold night for walking.  The river was only a mile away.  Would she, could she have been so upset that she had decided to put an end to her worries?  -- Remember that we were young and, most of us, taking psychology for the first time. -- We thought of her tramping steadily to the river -- and into it.  Should we take the time to look for a note, we wondered hysterically.  Should we call the campus police?  Or maybe Miss Woolley?  We jittered.

And then, of course, as we were jittering, Miss Dunklee walked in.  Why were we all downstairs so late?  Worried?  Why on earth?  She had only been playing bridge at Pearsons with the “ladies” and forgotten how late it was.  She hadn’t signed out?  Well, we forgot to do so, too.  Surely she could be allowed a lapse now and then?

She smiled benignly, went into her room, and shut the door, leaving us to trail upstairs feeling, if truth must be told, a little flat.


The name “Sycamores” brings up memories of one of the happiest years of my College life.  Why not? Seventeen congenial girls in a beautiful house situated far enough from campus to give an opportunity for lots of fresh air and exercise.  Even the best food to be had in dorms . . . . We were quite popular with our on-campus friends who hankered for a Sycamores dinner.  I believe . . . Miss Dunklee tried hard to please us.  That pretty much sums it up:  congeniality, health, and wonderful food.

-- Evelyn Ladd Belden, 1996

What more could one want?  “Congenial” friends; a handsome and comfortable old house; health; that rarest of blessings, a Head of Hall whose delight it was to find us delightful; and extraordinarily good food.  That last blessing deserves a section of its own, not just because it was so excellent, but because it, unlike the food on the rest of the campus where it was accepted or grumbled about as a matter of course,  played a special role in our lives.  To divorce Sycamores from its food would be to deny that our Sophomore year existed.

Take, for the supreme instance, “Sycamores’ Delight”.  We had been aware of this confection from our first visit to the dorm as the freshmen to whom Sycamores and its secret life was to be handed over in the fall.  For it was the exasperating custom, always duly adhered to, that the current residents made mysterious reference to the dessert -- we were allowed to know it was a dessert -- as the dessert to end all desserts, the triumph of Miss Dunklee’s culinary imagination, a treat given sparingly and without warning, for no discernible reason.   That much we were vouchsafed, but enthusiasm always stopped at revelation.  It was a secret, never to be revealed to anyone outside the house.  I don’t know what happened when an unexpected guest appeared on one of The Nights.  Perhaps she was only sworn to secrecy; more likely, she was done away with and buried, still silent, in the underground passage said to be in the cellar.

I wish I could recall when we  first had Sycamores’ Delight, and I wish I could say that it was something Escoffier would have risked his life for.  In sober fact, it was simply an individual cupcake, possibly a very light pound cake, perhaps made exotic by finely ground almonds.  Whatever it was, we found it delicious.  And, of course, there was more to it than that.  Each cake was hollowed out and filled with a delectable custard, then set on a dessert plate and blanketed with a thick, very rich and creamy fudge.  To you, it may sound like a version of Boston cream pie; to us, it was something to die for.  Such is the power of mystique! 

    -- Or perhaps the power of unrecognized affection, the feeling that comes when someone has troubled to give us pleasure.  At any rate, my sharpest memory of Sycamores’ Delight is Miss Dunklee’s smug satisfaction and Margaret’s embarrassed but very pleased reception of our enthusiastic compliments when we clapped her from the kitchen, as we always did.

That was the most spectacular of Miss Dunklee’s exceptional inventions.  Another, and here I suspect the self-interest of a weary Head of Hall had a role, was the Sycamores version of Sunday morning breakfast.    Of course, all over campus, Sunday breakfasts were different from the hurried stoking up of weekdays, a leisurely consumption of pancakes or waffles drenched in real New England maple syrup, fortified by heaps of sausage and bacon.  At Sycamores, with the exception of an occasional “sticky-bun” bought at our favorite Holyoke bakery, the menu was similar, though undoubtedly better cooked.  It was the party atmosphere that was different.  In other dorms, you got dressed, straggled down to the dining-room,  took your cup, saucer, and plate to the kitchen, piled your crockery high and returned to the dining-room, where you plunked your booty down on a table -- with your friends, if you were lucky -- and ate.

Not at Sycamores.  Breakfast would not be served in the dining-room, Miss Dunklee explained; therefore, we need not change out of our pajamas.  Instead, we could put on our “kimmies” -- her insistence that bathrobes were kimonos was always good for a suppressed giggle -- and could breakfast in

unhurried comfort.  Nellie would have everything ready for us in the kitchenette on the second floor, and we could gather as we wished and enjoy the cozy informality of our rooms.  From this distance, I can’t remember how the food was kept hot -- Did Nellie replenish it from time to time? -- but hot enough it must have been, for we never complained.  Every Sunday morning was just one more Sycamores party -- and Miss Dunklee, wise woman, could read her Springfield

paper in uninterrupted, quiet seclusion.

We did enjoy those breakfasts.  Nevertheless, one Sunday, we decided to try something different, or rather, Phyl did.  During spring vacation she had been at a house party where she had had mushrooms on toast instead of the traditional fare, a most sophisticated -- sophistication was our goal in those days -- innovation; we must have mushrooms on toast.  The rest of our “crowd” of four were amenable, but wouldn’t it be better to invite a couple of guests and make a real party of the occasion?  So Phyl invited guests, bought mushrooms and cream at the A & P, wangled a skillet and butter from Margaret, and prepared to prepare a feast.  On that Sunday morning, she got up before the rest of us, wiped the mushrooms clean according to her instructions, and made sure that an ample supply of toast would be coming with the more mundane provisions for the rest of the house.  Not until all that was ready did she heat the cream and butter in the very large skillet; she’d been told that ten minutes was ample time for cooking, and she didn’t want the mushrooms to be ready so early that they’d get cold while we drank our juice.  We sipped our juice while the mushrooms and cream bubbled most professionally.  Juice consumed, Phyllis

tried the mushrooms with a fork.  Hum!  Better give them a little more time.  The fork didn’t seem to make a dent in what should have been soft, fungus flesh.  The warm toast was returned to the insulating napkins, and we waited.  After another ten minutes, Phyl tried again.  The cream burbled richly, the mushrooms bounced enticingly -- and the fork bounced, too, off the surface it should have

penetrated.  Nellie gathered up what the rest had left of waffles and bacon, having been assured that we would need nothing but the by then somewhat wilted toast.  Half an hour later the mushrooms were still adamant and it was

time to dress for church.  We never did eat the stubborn things.

    At dinner, Miss Dunklee entered into our disappointment.  She was very sorry for us, but she did wish we had told her what we were planning.  The kitchenette burners were purposely set low, much too low to cook mushrooms thoroughly, she said.  Phyl felt relieved, and, indeed it did make a consoling explanation if you didn’t think about it too hard.  Why, if the voltage was so low, could I, the acknowledged fudge genius of the house, always make perfect candy on those same burners?  Had Phyl done something rather stupid, and was Miss Dunklee protecting her from embarrassment?  I now think the answer to that would have to be yes.  Perhaps Phyl’s frying pan was too large for the burner; that can have serious consequences, as I well know.  But I have a hunch that the real explanation is that they were button mushrooms, always a bit pebbly, and that Phyl had been using a dining-room fork with the blunted tines of those over-used utensils.  Probably they had really been cooked through in the allotted ten minutes and we inexperienced cooks could have eaten our

breakfasts with sophisticated aplomb.  In either case, Dunk was kind to cover up sophomoric ineptness with her story of low power.

What else?  When we get together, someone is sure to exclaim, “And that food!  Do you remember how our friends in other houses . . . ?”and we gloat.  I am sure the gloating is justified, but it is a very unspecific gloat, for none of us seem able to recall details beyond Sycamores’ Delight.  Still, it was “the best food on campus”, one more star in the Sycamores crown.  That’s enough for us, as it will have to be for the hungry reader of all this.



Whether they were called “boys” (as in “college boys”), “men” (as in “she’s pinned to a Harvard man”), or “guys” (“this guy from Amherst came over last night”), men were important.  But just how important, I’m afraid I don’t know, perhaps because, for whatever reason. they were of only passing interest to me.  Nor do I think anyone, not even my roommate, who was “sort of” engaged to Stan Blish, the “Yale man” whom she later married, or Helen Enberg and Anne Wirtz, who were our belles, lost much sleep over dates as such.  It was obviously desirable to be popular, to know a man well enough to invite him to Llamie Dance, to have Stan, up from New Haven, pick up his family’s car in Ludlow and appear with a couple of classmates who could be parceled out among Quink’s friends, and to be invited to fraternity parties or football games at “Aggie”or Amherst College, both outings which usually entailed a bumpy trolley ride over the Notch, for students’ cars were forbidden at Mount Holyoke to all but some final-term seniors and very rare among men students, even in the jalopy stage of cast-off family autos that were all one could hope for.  So, though most weekends did see one or two men at Sycamores, for those of us left to our own ingenuity for amusement, there was none of that modern atmosphere of general gloom peculiar to the overlooked on football and party weekends.  We were healthily conscious of the joys of dates; we were not dependent on them for our happiness.
Specific events?  That is another thing.  Try as I do, I can think of only two occasions when anything outstanding happened, and of these two, the first is very much someone else’s recollection and practically a non-event, and the second was anything but romantic.  Still, they should be chronicled, I suppose, if only because  of their singularity.

The first was, as so often, connected with Miss Dunklee.  Inside that forbiddingly strait-laced figure swanned a sentimental maiden lady who had a vision of her girls besieged one and all by handsome young men.  I wonder now whether it was so much her wanting a full life for us or her feeling left out when her head-of-hall friends livened their bridge games with tales of their invariably popular charges, but then we were conscious only of her unfulfilled dream.  So two of us decided to give her a thrill.  Was it Jo and Sunny?  Nobody remembers and it doesn’t much matter.

Since ordinary dates were usually confined to weekends, a week day was chosen for this occasion, in order to highlight the glory.  Of course, it had to be an evening when Miss Dunklee was sure to be in, an assurance that must have had to rely on much subtle detective work beforehand.  The day was set at last.  The Dramatic Club Green Room was raided for trousers -- skirts were de rigeur  for everything then -- hats -- boys wore hats in those days -- and overcoats.  Just after dinner of the chosen day, the clothes were donned and the two “men” sneaked out through the maids’ back door to escape the eye of Miss Dunklee, who usually sat reading in her room with the door open.

Meanwhile, the two young lady dates, having got themselves dressed for an evening out, were lurking on the second floor at the top of the stairs.  The doorbell rang, the girls descended the stairs in somewhat undignified haste and opened the door before Miss Dunklee reached it.  The dates were welcomed and in their turn greeted the giggling girls in as gruff tones as they could manage.  All four bade Miss Dunklee good night.  They stepped outside.  The door was shut, and off they went, leaving, they hoped, a satisfied “Dunk” to gloat over the fecklessness of dates in the middle of the week.

That’s not much of a story, is it?  Worse yet, I’ve made up most of what there is.  Nevertheless, some such thing was really planned and carried out.  It must have happened in much that way, though no one remembers more than the fact of the joke’s having been played.  On second thought, I’d say that it was not really a non-event after all.

About the other, I can be more sure and detailed, though the 1931 Llamarada, placing that winter’s Llamie Dance in late October, shakes my certainty about the background.  It has to have happened in the winter, and I can’t think of any occasion but “Llamie” that would have furnished all the necessary background.  So, let’s say I’m right, despite the dubious evidence to the contrary.

“Llamarada Dance” was the big all-college social event of the winter and everyone who could find an escort did so.  The Sycamores group was no exception; probably half the house went.  Traditionally, the dance weekend had two parts, the big ball in Chapin on Saturday night, and the smaller, more intimate parties arranged for the next day.  If there was enough snow, one of the popular Sunday outings was a sleigh ride to Hadley, where a farmhouse restaurant served particularly good breakfasts before a huge log fire.  Some of the Sycamores group elected to try this, probably on the theory that any romantic impulses stirred by the jingle of bells as they skimmed over the frozen wastes of the river road would be exhilarated by plentiful cups of coffee and stacks of hot waffles smothered under maple syrup and butter.

Once more, I have to confess ignorance.  I don’t know just who went, though probably among them were Anne, Helen, Phyl, and their dates; quite certainly, there was Tina Warren.  The ride was delightful.  Everyone was just tired enough from the dance to be willing to sit still for the five- or six-mile ride, and just rested enough to enjoy the company.  At the farmhouse, they were made welcome in good New England fashion and taken into the dining room immediately.  Marvelous! Piles of waffles, pitchers of syrup, pots of coffee . . .  And an extra:  if anyone broke the previous record for quantity of waffles gobbled, that person’s entire breakfast would be on the house.  A poster on the wall made the promise and proclaimed for future visitors not only the previous title holders and their record numbers, but the names of their Smith or Mount Holyoke hostesses.

There was much good-natured chaffing as each date boasted of his prowess as a trencherman and vowed to add his name to the list.  They fell to with the usual undergraduate gusto and really did keep the waitress running.  But then, to Tina came a niggling of unease.  Her date was enjoying his waffles rather too much.  Tina was a modest girl.  She liked the young man very much and wanted him to be happy, but did she really want her date’s name and her own name attached to that list of gluttons?  Surely he would stop when the others declared themselves stuffed.  But, no indeed.  Tina risked mild protests, but they were lost in the general cheering on.  He did not stop; by that time it had become a point of honor to him.  He called for the serving that would equal  the record.  Triumph and a free breakfast were within his stomach’s grasp.  He wiped up his plate with the last bit of waffle.  He signaled the farmer’s wife . . . .

Feminine modesty required observance of two conflicting dicta:  one did not interfere with the innocent pleasures of one’s date, and one did not allow notoriety, especially if there was any danger that it might be accompanied by public ridicule.

Tina bit the bullet:  she called a halt.

I don’t know who paid for all those extra waffles.



For the most part, “Sycamores” meant going about the daily routine of being students.  We got ourselves up in the morning; we drifted in to breakfast; we -- most of the time -- made our beds, every other week preparing the room for Nellie’s good offices with vacuum cleaner and dust cloth; we went to chapel the prescribed three -- or was it four? -- days a week; we went off to classes and the libe, coming back to the dorm for lunch -- there were no flexible hours in those days; spring and fall we put on those awful sports knickers and black cotton stockings, and stayed in them for the day; we slogged through the required “core” courses left over from freshman year and joyfully attended those that set us on our way to majors and graduation; we returned to dinner and study in our rooms or at the libe, or attended a lecture; or, very rarely, went by streetcar to a movie in Holyoke; and finally, at ten p.m., capped our work day with that hallowed Mount Holyoke custom, crackers and milk.  At last, we went to bed, early or late depending on our individual tastes and the demands of papers and bluebooks.  Obviously, the week was for work.

Friday nights, Saturdays, and Sundays differed somewhat from class days, and greatly and crucially from the present weekends.  Dependent as we were on trolley, train, and taxi -- no planes and few student-owned cars, even at the men’s colleges -- off-campus forays were the exception; consequently, there were always students around for social or cultural events, and when we weren’t catching up on reading and writing papers, we could be certain of plenty to do:  sports, Saturday dates, and informal dances, class receptions, and Dramatic Club plays were our regular weekend fare, highlighted by the annual great symphony orchestras, especially the Detroit Symphony conducted by Mount Holyoke’s special fan, Ossip Gabrilowic, the Ben Greet Players, “Llamie dance”, Junior Prom, and Senior Dance.  We did go to fraternity parties at “Aggie”, Amherst, Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and very occasionally spent the weekend in Boston or New York, but for the most part we stayed in South Hadley.

Within that routine, there were, naturally, variations, sometimes worthy to my nostalgic mind of treatment in some detail, sometimes very minor but insisting on a brief notice.  They might or might not have been peculiar to Sycamores, but all of them contributed to the pattern of our life that year. 

There was, for instance, the evening -- day? -- the Mount Tom House burned.  We had an unobstructed view from the west porch of that marvelous conflagration.  Today, I’d have hated the fire as the destruction of a part of history; but then, being feckless, and young, and having no particular ties to the region, we looked on it as a gigantic bonfire, set for our particular amusement.

Some of our elders, and some of the more conventional of us, must have thought there were other, more dangerous flames that year, for 1929 was an election year and, though the Republican Herbert Hoover became president that fall, despite my own staunch adherence to the Democratic party, radical criticism, even some talk of listening to the demands of “those unions”, was in the air.  Indeed, Phyllis joined a group led by Alzada Comstock that went to Boston to take part in a gigantic rally in memory of Sacco and Vanzetti.  Even I thought that was pretty “red”.  Mussolini and Hitler were still far-off figures for jokes, but Miss Ellis made her political science students a little uneasy about dictatorships that spring, and I can’t believe there weren’t others who shared her concern.

For the most part, though, our interests and activities were confined to college and, more specifically, the dorm.  It was as “Sycamores” rather than as sophomores, therefore, that, one Saturday before Christmas, most of us trudged off to the woods near Moody Corners bearing cumbersome laundry baskets which we brought back to college -- it was possible in those pre-environmentalist days – piled with trailing ground pine that we wove into garlands to decorate the Chapel -- the old one, of course, not the new Gothic church we have today.

Such long walks were common for us in spite of the skirts we still wore everywhere, but they tended to be informal.  That changed in 1928 when the old Outing Club was reinvigorated.  Though I did not know that there had ever been an Outing Club, during the summer I had a dream that one should be started.  Just why I saw myself as an outdoors type, I can’t imagine, but a cabin seemed to be indicated as a start.  As it happened, a number of upperclassmen had the same idea; they somehow learned about me, and I became one of the members of the committee.  Our first project, as I had hoped, was to raise the money for a simple cabin, preferably on Mount Holyoke.  So, much of our spare time was spent on fund raising:  selling hot dogs at hockey games, sponsoring movies at Hooker and selling eskimo pies at them, making hundreds of “spit cards” for Christmas sale, and begging for small sums from our friends.  There must have been other ways of fund raising, for we did finally have enough -- about one thousand dollars -- by year’s end to propose to Mr. Joseph Skinner, the College’s most enthusiastic trustee, that we build our cabin on his property on Mount Holyoke, above the Half-way House.  We could have done it, too, but generous and paternalistic man that he was, he not only agreed but put up the cabin at his expense and told us to keep the money in our treasury.  I’m afraid we accepted with poor grace.  It was our project and we wanted to plan the place ourselves; we particularly resented his insistence that we have a telephone.  How effete! --And, alas, how right, as we learned when someone broke a leg on the mountain that spring and we had to call for medical help in a hurry


Some of our walking was less healthy that sophomore year than Outing Club hiking; the fall of 1928 saw the Administration’s capitulation to the Campus cigarette lobby.  Just six months earlier, a number of seniors had been suspended within weeks of graduation for smoking in a Holyoke restaurant.  Now, smoking was permitted, but only off campus, a prohibition that meant long treks to Button Field or the brooks that crossed Silver Street and Morgan Road.  How poor Miss Woolley, to whom the issue was a moral one, must have hated the sight of those groups of “her girls” perched on the railing of those little bridges like so many starlings, puffing defiantly away!

Nevertheless, give an inch, take an ell. Dedicated smokers now snatched a fugitive drag in dormitory rooms, with all the consequent flurry of suddenly flung-open windows and frantic waving of towels if someone in authority approached.  I think authority must have heralded its coming at Sycamores, and approached slowly.  No one was ever caught, though Phyl confessed to one of those scares;  since I had not been present, I was spared a conflict between loyalty and the honor system.

What else stands out?  -- Christmas must have been a very busy time.  A number of Sycamorites were in Sophomore Choir, and it was that group that paraded through all the dormitories on campus early on the very last day before vacation, carrying lighted candles and singing familiar carols.  We would also have been industriously engaged in the manufacture of “spit cards”, those small, enveloped cards embellished with Christmas stickers -- hence “spit” -- and sent to everyone we knew, not just in the house but all over campus.  I remember, too, though I’ve forgotten how we made our choice, that we gave Miss Dunklee a piece of jade -- I think a drop on a chain -- for Christmas along with a sentimental and very aesthetic poem written by me.

In those days, one of the entertainment glories of the Connecticut Valley was the Court Square Theater in Springfield.  Plays did not try out there, as they did in New Haven, but having been tried and proven in New York, they came to Springfield at the start of their road tours.  As Mr. Lovell with his taxi service lived just down Silver Street, we often used him to take us to the theater:  Unhappily, I can’t recall just what plays we used him for that year;  I know we saw, at sometime, and think it was then, No, No Nannette, Rosemarie, The Vagabond King, and Minnie Madern Fiske and Otis Skinner in The Merry Wives of Windsor.  And I know very definitely that it was that spring that we saw Bill Tilden in Dracula.  How can I be so sure?  Because afterwards I trembled in my Sycamores bed all night long, wishing I had the nerve to shut the South window.  I knew there were no werewolves, I knew that my roommate was sleeping without a single whimper of fright.  But I was scared out of my knowing wits.

We used Mr. Lovell freely, to take us to the Court Square, and to Springfield at the beginning of vacations.  Though stretch limousines were still to be invented, his car had room for six of us, and he charged by the trip, not the passenger.  Naturally, when we wanted to go anywhere in comfort, for whatever reason, we called on Mr. Lovell.  I remember a gala day when he took us all the way to Goshen -- Mary, Phyl, Quink, me, and two others -- where we had a very romantic birthday tea in front of a correctly roaring fire.  That jaunt of over thirty miles into territory quite unknown to us would have been noteworthy had we lived in an ordinary dorm down on campus.  What made it important to me -- I was the birthday girl -- was that we went from one fine old new England house to another, and that the extra hostesses made it a dorm affair.   At Sycamores, it seemed, we were to do things together.

One incident that really had nothing to do with Sycamores but certainly lent flavor to our lives there, took place during the winter.  I can’t give a first-hand report, not having been there, but Sunny Mogensen had observed the Play Shop scandal with her own eyes and gave us her breathless account as soon as she got back to Sycamores that night.

A function of Jeanette Marks’s Play Shop was to lend its expertise to the foreign language departments when they put on their annual plays.  This was the French department’s turn.  The department director was Paul Saintonge, a new member, stage struck, young, and -- Oh frabjous day! -- male.  The students loved making Moliére come to life for him.  The Play Shop assistant was Constance Meadnis, Class of ‘28, a graduate student in English and also in love with the stage.  Their rehearsals had been great fun for everybody, but Paul, who had to prove himself academically to all those women, had been under great strain.  He needn’t have worried, for the play went especially well.  The costumes were glamorous and a tidy fit; the cast knew their lines and delivered them with passable accents and enthusiastic élan.  In other words, Paul had reason to be not only relieved but exuberant.  And he was.  Thunderous applause; a group bow from the principals; decorous retreat; more applause; a group bow from the whole cast, including the stage hands and the two directors; and then -- Paul turned to Connie, threw his arms about her, and there, right out in public, in view of students, faculty, and visitors, kissed her.

We were shocked; we were thrilled.  We didn’t know what to think, but it was certainly an event.

More connected to Sycamores was one more of these passing events, small in itself but important to the participants; in this case, to me.

Sophomore year, as I’ve said, was the year a class began to define itself as a part of the college community.  We were still “little sisters” to the seniors but we had responsibilities to the rest of the college, like decorating the Chapel and caroling through the dorms at Christmas, and to ourselves, like choosing a major.  A symbol of this new definition was the class song.

Each class inherited its color -- red or blue, green or yellow -- and its heraldic emblem -- lion or Pegasus, griffin or Sphinx -- but the song had to be original.  Sometime in the spring, words and then music to fit were written by sophomore poets and composers, anonymously subjected to a class vote, and then rehearsed in uttermost secrecy.  When the song was ready for revelation, the senior class -- big sisters -- were invited to Chapin to hear it.  1931 did their song proud, ending with a rousing -- and not very original -- “All hail, the Sphinx!”  Flowers were presented; the seniors sang their song and the odd-year sister’s song; sophomores duly responded; all of us went “rolling down to the Rio” or “put on the loud, loud pedal” and finally crooned the Alma Mater.  The concert broke up with feelings of great satisfaction on both sides.  Satisfaction is an inadequate term for the feelings of the writers of the song, for this was probably the first time either had had anything like that public acclaim.  At least, this was true of 1931’s “poet”, Adaline Pates, and probably of the composer, Lydia Shaw.  And there was more back at the dorm where I discovered more flowers in my room, this time from the whole house, Sycamores itself.  For days, I thought I was the bees’ knees, the cat’s pajamas!  You can be sure that those flowers were carefully dried and kept in my college scrap-book long after we left Sycamores for good.


         End of term.

End of an extraordinarily satisfying year for seventeen sophomores and for one -- yes, I really do believe it -- often distraught head-resident.  As an inveterate story-teller, I am troubled that I can find in my well-stuffed memory no final, sentimental farewell party, no climax.  If there was such an event, it has escaped me.  To be honest, I don’t think the fault is mine.  I fear there was none.

The only explanation I can advance for such an uncharacteristic omission is that this was a “middle” college year, merely the end of a dormitory, not the end of college.  For seniors, second semester goes out with both a bang and a wrench, not just the galas attendant on graduation, so hardly achieved, but the realization that one is leaving for good a world that has become familiar -- defining, really.  Every customary act, thoughtlessly taken for granted over the past three years, assumes a new and weighty significance.  For seniors, then, remembrance and celebration are more natural, even obligatory.  But for sophomores, and juniors, too, each spring semester simply drifts to June and vacation:  “See you in September.”  Nothing to get excited about.  This is as true today as it was in the ’twenties.

To return to that far-off time, then . . . . .  Not long after Easter came room-choosing, usually less stressful for sophomores than for freshmen.  In May there was Pageant -- Was that the year I was a Dutch doll? -- and the election of class and community officers for the following year, the latter a placid ritual not to be compared with all the passionately argued agendas-for-change that characterize those contests today.  Then came “finals”  -- It was an irresistible spring-term current in which we drifted.

At least, that is how I see it now.  If I am wrong, it is, as I’ve said, because I have no corrective memory.  If there was that last party, if we promised to write during the summer and to keep in touch “next year”, even though “Sycamores” as we knew it would be scattered among three -- or four? -- on-campus dorms and two continents,if we even gave a final gift to Miss Dunklee, it’s all forgotten.

Nevertheless -- here the story-teller gives a shout of triumph -- I do remember most fondly and with a little hindsight embarrassment one event that might be described as a climax of sorts:  Dunk’s final attempt to give pleasure to “her house”.  As it turned out, it became an all too typical Sycamores ’29 snafu.

In those days “finals” came at the very end of May.  We took them by Registrar Caroline B. Green’s decree in the assigned classrooms and at the scheduled times, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and when all on our particular slate had been completed we went home.  Of course, each individual had gaps in her schedule, but the main pattern never varied and one could expect that a dormitory, especially one for underclassmen, would remain intact for at least the first week.  It was natural, therefore, for Miss Dunklee to be confident that she was not taking a chance when she arranged a surprise for early in the week.

I can’t say whether I had an exam that morning, but I do recall the late May flowers and fragrance and our great pleasure when Dunk told us as we assembled for lunch that we were to have a picnic in the garden.  Those of us already on hand straggled onto the side porch where dishes and silver had been set out.  A little mystified, we indulged Dunk’s request that we wait for her signal before picking up what we would need.  Apparently there was a secret.  When we asked what was going on, we had only a sphinx-like smile for response.  Not everyone was there, we were told, it was not quite one o’clock.  At that the final lunch-bell chimed and at almost the same instant the front doorbell rang.  A real surprise!  We had a guest.  Miss Dunklee had invited our neighbor and Evelyn’s major adviser, Mr. Muilenberg, to enhance our festivities.  Those were the days when “faculty” were distant figures seldom descending from Olympus to share our everyday lives, but here was one of the most revered putting himself on our level.  Our cup almost ran over.  A perfect May day among the flowers in the garden, and now one of the most popular members of the faculty as our guest!

The cup was not quite full, however:  no food had appeared and Evelyn Ladd, the designated hostess, was missing.  And she continued to be missing.

Miss Dunklee, mindful of the passing time and Miss Green’s inexorable schedule, reluctantly took care of the first problem, giving away the second part of her secret:  the food was to be hunted for.  She passed out “libe slips” on which she had written clever and sufficiently challenging rhymed clues to the whereabouts of the salad, sandwiches, and drinks she and Nellie had hidden in the bushes, in the tower, and under the seat of the arbor at the bottom of the lawn.  A treasure hunt!  We swarmed over the garden, letting out triumphant view-halloos when we came upon a platter, a bowl, or a stack of one of the various kinds of sandwiches.  For once, our reaction must have been all she could have wished for.

But, of course, our pleasure was inadequate.  The point of the party had been Evelyn, and there was no Evelyn.

The food was laid out on the tables, our plates were piled very high;  Miss Dunklee and Mr. Muilenberg were served with due ceremony.  And still no Evelyn.  Dot Benware was dispatched to their room to make sure that Evelyn had not come home and decided to take a nap.


Someone else was sent, like Sister Anne in the Bluebeard story, to see whether a laggard Evelyn was even so belatedly wandering down the road from the college.


Miss Dunklee heroically tried to hide her disappointment.  Mr. Muilenberg made avuncular conversation with students he had never seen before.  All of us cheerily gobbled.

Poor Dunk!  Her surprise had not merely fallen flat, it had died a-borning.  She had been let down once more.

In the end, we returned our empty plates to the serving-tables.  Mr. Muilenberg left amid protestations of having had a very good time, and the day proceeded along its previously ordained lines.

At about five o’clock that afternoon Evelyn turned up, exhausted but jubilant that the questions on the exam she had just taken had called forth her best.

“Where were you at lunchtime?” we demanded.

“In the libe, studying for my exam.  I wanted to do as well as possible so that Mr. Muilenberg wouldn’t be sorry he’d taken me on as an advisee.”

“Mr. Muilenberg!  It wasn’t Mr. Muilenberg’s exam you had this afternoon?”

We whooped.  We thought it a howl.  I’m afraid it was only later, much later, that we recalled Miss Dunklee and her disappointment.  We had had a good time.  She had been responsible for it.  We were appropriately grateful.  Did the irony of a party gone wrong for such a reason add to our enjoyment?  I’d like to think not, but I’m not sure.  Anyway, it was as I said at the beginning, a typical fiasco.  If Dunk’s treasure hunt didn’t put a decided period to our year at Sycamores, it certainly made a splendid semi-colon.


In 1996, the class of 1931 held its sixty-fifth reunion.  Ten of the seventeen students who spent that college year of ’28 -’29 at Sycamores were still living and fairly active.

I find it hard to accept that the sophomores I have been writing about and whom I can see so clearly are now in their mid-eighties, elderly women by anyone’s standards.  Just before Reunion, I had to call Ibbie Blair, the first time I’d talked with her in twenty or thirty years.  Did I talk with an old woman?  Certainly not.  I’d have recognized her voice anytime, without any warning at all; it still had that faint Ohio diphthongal turn, it still bubbled, it was still Ibbie.  So may they all be the same, if not in living fact, at least in all our memories.

As for Sycamores -- Like us, it is decrepit.  Must it be mortal, too?

                                                            THE FLAPPER

                                                                                                                            by Dorothy Parker

                      The Playful flapper here we see,

                            The fairest of the fair.

                      She's not what Grandma used to be,

                               You might say, au contraire.

                      Her girlish ways may make a stir,

                               Her manners cause a scene,

                      But there is no more harm in her

                               Than in a submarine.

                   She nightly knocks for many a goal

                              The usual dancing men.

                     Her speed is great, but her control

                                Is something else again.

                     All spotlights focus on her pranks.

                               All tongues her prowess herald.

                     For which she well may render thanks

                               To God and Scott Fitzgerald.


I knew Adaline Pates Potter long before I had a close connection to Sycamores.  She and her husband, Gordon, were our next door neighbors when we bought our first house at 116 Silver St in South Hadley in 1964.  She entertained our three small children and as Foreign Student Advisor would occasionally ask my wife, Louise, to translate a letter from a French student.  A graduate of Mount Holyoke in 1931, she was an Associate Professor of English and retired in 1975.  Gordon worked  in the Hampshire Book Shop in Northampton before joining the staff of the Amherst College library.  Pates died in 2004 at the age of 94. 

    Pates (her middle name), as she was universally known, authored Reflections From the House in 1998.  I set it in print, along with the photos she provided, on my Apple computer and had it printed; she kept an eagle eye on my efforts.  Not a comma escaped her detection.  It is still available for purchase at the Sycamores store. 

    Reflections is dedicated to Laura Dunklee, the housemother of Sycamores.  We are fortunate in knowing a bit about Laura, or Dunk, as Pates refers to her, because her niece, Dorothy Ellen Phelan, lived in Sycamores during her sophomore year in 1932.

    John and Mary Dunklee had four children, Helen Elizabeth Dunklee (Dorothy’s mother), Charles Dunklee, Laura Dunklee (never married and housemother at Sycamores from 1915 to 1935), and Harry Dunklee.  Helen Elizabeth married John Murry Phelan.  Their daughter Dorothy was born in 1911 in Brooklyn, NY, graduated from Dana Hall and, in 1934, from Mount Holyoke, where she majored in psychology and was vice president of her class.  She married Burton Hess, a Wesleyan graduate, whom she met while working at the Chatham Bars Inn on Cape Cod.  They were married in 1940 and in 1946 their only child, Barbara Elizabeth, was born.  Dorothy Phelan died in 2002 in Newtown PA. It is Barbara Elizabeth Hess Kube who has provided all the information we have about Dot and Dunk and to whom we are greatly indebted. 

    In addition Barbara Kube has donated several of her mother’s books including Recollections of Mary Lyon, On a New England Campus, and a copy of Sophie Eastman’s In Old South Hadley that was given to Dorothy Phelan’s father by Laura Dunklee for Christmas, 1929, two years before Dorothy entered Mount Holyoke.  And Dorothy’s 1934 copy of Llamarada in which I noted appended to the 214 photos of the graduates a list of 55 names labeled “Former Members of Class of 1934”--undoubtedly a poignant reminder of the effect of the Great Depression.

Ken Williamson  9/1/2013




Weekend, May, 2014

A Brief History

Montagues at Sycamores

Joseph Brodsky

Brodsky Exhibit

The Sycamores Committee

Outline History of Sycamores and Rawson House
Mount Holyoke Alumnae of 

Sycamores Restoration 

Parlor Wallpaper

Wallpaper and Paint

Concealed Shoes

Rawson House

Water Tower
HABS, Historic American
Buildings Survey

Reflections from the House

Letter from Sycamores, 1832

Bark of the Tree