1980 Water Shortage

Amherst College and Western Massachusetts have experienced below-average rainfall amounts for a seventh straight month this year and as a result, water levels in town reservoirs are the lowest they have been in recent history. In mid-August, the state of Massachusetts issued a drought watch for the Connecticut River Region and the Town of Amherst has imposed mandatory water conservation measures for the town, including Amherst College campus.

If you’re on campus, you’ve likely noticed these signs around encouraging conscious consumption and water conservation.

Amherst College 2016 Drought Response poster

In the fall of 1980, Amherst experienced a severe water shortage due to a very dry summer, several hot days in September, an unusually light snowfall the preceding winter, and the yearly influx of many thousands of students to the area.

The Amherst Student, Sept. 11, 1980

The Amherst Student, Sept. 11, 1980

The Amherst Student, Sept. 11, 1980

In early September, University of Massachusetts, the largest of the three colleges in Amherst, closed campus for several days as an emergency response to lessen demands on the town’s water supply.

The Amherst Student Sept 15, 1980

The Amherst Student, Sept 15, 1980

By mid-September 1980, Amherst College director of land conservation and assistant to the director, along with a newly established Amherst College conservation program, met with all first year students to educate about wasteful habits and to promote on-campus awareness about water and energy conservation.  The conservation program offered suggestions to students about ways to reduce their water use:

  1. “Turn off the water when brushing teeth, washing face, and shaving.
  2. Use plugs in sink–fill the sink with hot water instead of letting the faucet run.
  3. Use full loads in washing machines and
  4. For those living off-campus, purchase the low-flow shower heads that all Amherst dorms already use.”
The Amherst Student, Sept. 29, 1980

The Amherst Student, Sept. 29, 1980

The Amherst Student, Sept. 29, 1980By October 1980, the water supply emergency had abated and the Town of Amherst completed the construction of a new well in South Amherst.  Student members of the Amherst Water Conservation Project, a state-funded study, established goals for water conservation in Amherst:

  • “To allow the town to remain self-sufficient in its water supply;
  • To extend the life of the town’s new sewage treatment plant;
  • To postpone or eliminate the need to develop new water sources;
  • To improve water quality by allowing the town to use its higher quality water sources;
  • To avoid future water shortages.”

The Amherst Student reported that members of the Conservation Project were meeting with the Physical Plants at University of Massachusetts, Hampshire College, and Amherst College to ensure that each institution was doing its best to conserve water.

The Amherst Student, Oct. 16, 1980

The Amherst Student, Oct. 16, 1980

The Amherst Student, Oct. 16, 1980The Amherst Student gives an interesting glimpse of the 1980 town water shortage and campus-wide response.  A full run of the newspaper is available to read in the Amherst College Archives & Special Collections.

For more information on Amherst College’s ongoing efforts to conserve water and for ideas on how to do your part, visit the Amherst Conserves website.

Sometimes social media offers up random gifts to brighten your day. Recently I have been enjoying posts from a Facebook group called “We Love Endpapers.” Enthusiasts from all over the world share pictures of both modern and antique decorated endpapers, and occasional links to related blog posts, like this one from the National Library of New Zealand. The post, “Opening up the Covers,” has great information about varieties like paste paper and gilded paper, with useful resources at the end, including the database of images at the University of Washington. In the spirit of “We Love Endpapers,” I offer a few images from Amherst’s collection that have caught my eye over the past few months.

click on an image to see it larger,

click on a caption to view more information in the library catalog

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Stephen Henderson’s Replies


The slaves on the sugar estates – do they appear hardworked dispirited and oppressed? Open your eyes and ears to every fact connected with the actual condition of slavery everywhere – but do not talk about it – hear and [see] everything but say little.*

1824-shepard-chas-u-1850sIn 1832, Yale’s eminent scientist Benjamin Silliman advised botanist Charles Upham Shepard (Amherst Class of 1824) on how to negotiate his visit to the South, where Shepard was to investigate sugar plantations in order to assist Silliman in the production of a report to the United States government on the sugar industry.  The investigation had begun in 1830 with a request from the House of Representatives to Secretary of the Treasury Samuel Ingham to “cause to be prepared a well digested Manual, containing the best practical information concerning the culture of the Sugar Cane, and the fabrication and refinement of Sugar, including the most modern improvements” (“Manual” preface).  Ingham’s successor Louis McLane gave the project to Silliman, and Silliman divided it into tasks for four men, including Shepard, who went to Louisiana and Georgia, “where the sugar cane is cultivated.”

In his advice to Shepard quoted above on how to treat with the planters, Silliman was suggesting that he avoid antagonizing them with any kind of anti-slavery argument if he wanted the planters to cooperate with the research.  Elsewhere — in correspondence between Silliman and Amherst’s President Edward Hitchcock — Silliman comes across as someone who could at once view slavery as an original sin and – from his own earlier visit to the South — observe that most of the slaves he saw were “well-treated,” simultaneous opinions that were probably typical for his time and station.  We don’t know what Shepard’s views were, but it’s likely they were similar to Silliman’s.

The Charles Upham Shepard Papers contain some of Shepard’s notes and correspondence relating to “the sugar inquiry,” including several documents from planters who either answered Shepard in the form of his questionnaire or who wrote their answers in a letter. Many of these focus on the manufacture of sugar from cane, rather than on growing cane itself.


Shepard’s sketch of a “Steam Boiler” used in the manufacture of sugar. (C.U.Shepard Papers, Box 3, Folder 5.)

In at least one case, though, we have notes in Shepard’s hand from his conversation with a planter. The planter was Stephen Henderson, who owned several cotton and sugar plantations, including one named Destrehan, a plantation that exists as a tourist site today.

The name “Destrehan” might not have caught my eye if I had not recently watched the film “12 Years a Slave” and then read both the book from 1853 on which the film was based and a little about the making of the film.

The film includes a scene filmed in Destrehan’s “mule barn,” which was re-purposed to serve as plantation owner Edwin Epps’s cotton barn.  If you’ve read “Twelve Years” or watched “12 Years,” you’ll remember that Epps is the man who enslaved Solomon Northup for ten years — he was apparently the cruelest of Northup’s many tormentors.

"Antebellum splendor": the home of Edwin Epps as it appeared in the 1970s.

The home of Edwin Epps as it appeared in the late 1970s. This photograph was probably taken by Dr. Sue L. Eakin, who brought “Twelve Years” back into public view after many decades in which it was nearly impossible to find a copy.

So, what exactly did this folded-up document that mentions Destrehan say? Here it is, including Shepard’s blurry ink-over-pencil tracing, abbreviations, and mistakes, in a sort of poisoned verse form. It’s a modest-looking document whose early 19th-century handwriting – itself dashed off probably while meeting with the planter– resists quick understanding, but transcribing it reveals sobering truths.  Perhaps only Kara Walker could illustrate this text properly.

























Of course, the people performing the labor described in the document above had names and identities. The document below is the first page of the registry of slaves on Henderson’s estate at the time of his death in 1838, five years after Shepard made his notes. This page shows only the first dozen of the 152 people listed on subsequent pages in the document.



Destrehan Plantation’s site has a transcription of the full list of enslaved people. The complete inventory of Henderson’s estate is available through ancestry.com or ancestrylibrary.com.   See also the new National Museum of African American History and Culture for complementary material on subjects discussed in this post.  The Museum opens next week, and the New York Times has published a preview featuring samples from parts of the museum.

*”Mr. Silliman’s Instructions,” Charles Upham Shepard Papers, Box 3, Folder 5, page 4.

Back to School

Part of the back-to-school ritual in the Archives & Special Collections is meeting new faculty and trying to figure out what we have in our collections that they might use. Recently, we had a couple of new faculty ask about what resources we have about Latin America and the Caribbean.

For the course “The Colonial City: Global Perspectives” several people in the department went in search of maps and/or architectural illustrations of cities and towns in the Caribbean. We were confident we would have something for this course given our strong holdings of books, manuscripts, and maps from the era of the French & Indian War:

Plan of Bridge Town This document — “A Plan of Bridge Town, in the Island of Barbadoes”– is part of the Plimpton Collection of French and Indian War Items, 1670-1934 (Box 10, Folder 1).

A bound volume from the same era also has a lot of what we were looking for:

French Dominions 1760 title

The Natural and Civil History of the French Dominions of North and South America (London, 1760) is a very thorough survey of French territories, many of which had just been captured by the English during the French and Indian War. It includes numerous maps of Caribbean islands, like this one

French Dominions 1760 Hispaniola

And some of the maps include detailed city plans:

French Dominions 1760 Harbor

An even earlier book may also be a fruitful resource for this course:

America 1671 title

This copy of America: Being the Latest, and Most Accurate Description of the New World (London, 1671) once belonged to Amherst College alumnus, Dwight W. Morrow (Class of 1895), who served as US Ambassador to Mexico under President Calvin Coolidge. The Archives holds several books from Morrow’s library along with his personal papers. The illustrations in this volume include more maps:

America 1671 Jamaicae

In addition to maps, some illustrations give a very clear rendering of some of the architecture:

America 1671 Potosi

Others are less architecturally detailed, but we hope will be useful:

America 1671 Lima

A third item worth mentioning doesn’t have any illustrations, but may be useful to the Colonial City course as well as another new class on Race and Religion in the Americas. The professor for that course told me he was particularly interested in Guatemala, and it turned out we had a very interesting item that fit the bill:

Gage Survey of the West Indias

This copy of The English American, his travail by sea and land: or, A new svrvey of the West-India’s also comes from Dwight Morrow’s library. It’s the extraordinary narrative of Thomas Gage, an English Catholic whose travels included “Twelve years about Guatemala.”

One of the ways we like to teach with our collections is to get at least one or two relevant books or documents into the hands of the students, then we can point them to deeper online repositories where they may find much more material on their topic. In this case, it is likely that the Digital Library of the Caribbean may be quite handy. And for more material on Guatemala, there are a wealth of resources to be discovered via the Latin American Networked Information Center, the Latin American Open Archives Portal, and others.  Our hope is always that the experience of seeing seventeenth and eighteenth-century books and documents will enable students to make better use of digital resources and bear in mind the physical artifacts that these digital projects are based on.

The Social Dorms

As the social dorms have just been torn down this summer, replaced for the moment by a giant construction site, let’s take a moment to look back at their beginnings.  The five social dorms (Pond, Coolidge, Crossett, Davis, and Stone) were built as part of a $17 million development plan (the Amherst Capital Program) which included building Frost Library and the Valentine Annex, among other projects.  Construction began in 1962, they began housing students in 1963, and the last of the dorms were completed by 1964.Construction was not without hiccups- several dorms were without hot water for the first months of school when they opened in September of 1963, and the entire complex was without heat for two months.


Social dorms 1962 groundbreaking B&G b18 f70

1962 groundbreaking (site of Davis dorm) with Plimpton, McCloy, and Knight

Socials dorms 1962 groundbreaking B&G b18 f79

1962 dorm construction

Social dorms- 1962 trustee spouses visit Crossett B&G b19 f2

A 1962 visit by Trustees’ spouses, in front of Crossett

Social dorms B&G b19 f24a

A view of the completed social dorms

The social dorms were built to alleviate overcrowding in Amherst’s housing- to accommodate more students from the growing student body, and provide more comfortable, private, effective accommodations.  A 1930s faculty committee tasked with a study of the student environment stated that:

“Without discounting matters of age, individual variation, maturity, or custom, it does not seem unreasonable to associate much of the immature irresponsible behavior of some of our students with the physical conditions under which they live. Crowded, impersonal, barracks-like accommodations are too apt to invite a lack of respect both for those surroundings and for their other inhabitants… To be housed like a schoolboy or a recruit is for many to behave like one.”

The creation of the new dorms, which were organized around a suite-style model, with singles clustered around a common room and bathroom, were intended to address such criticism and provide space for students to not just sleep, but also work, as school work was increasingly carried out in student rooms instead of the library.  The dorms were quite popular with students at the outset, and their layout and design were widely praised.  They were seen as largely quieter than the fraternities during the 70s and early 80s, but with the abolition of fraternities in 1984, they began to become more a center of student activity and partying.

Social dorms- Coolidge interior B&G b18 f85

Coolidge interior


Social dorms- 1960s Crossett interior B&G b19 f8

1960s Crossett interior

The dorms were named for a variety of Amherst graduates.  Coolidge Hall was (obviously) named after President Calvin Coolidge (AC 1895); Stone was named after Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone (AC 1894).  Davis Hall was named after Arthur Vining Davis (AC 1888), former chairman of the board of the Aluminum Company of America, who gave funds for the dormitory’s construction.  Crossett was named after Edward C. Crossett (AC 1905), a long-time beneficiary of the college.  Pond is the namesake of Peter Pond, an 18th century fur trader, soldier, and explorer who once served under Lord Jeffery Amherst and was an ancestor of the anonymous donor for the dorm.


Camping Out

1873 Camping Out by C. A. StephensWith summer heat now upon us here in Amherst, many a thought is turning to tents and s’mores.

How did camping come to hold such a central place in the dominant national narrative of summertime? I’m pretty sure that anyone in the town of Amherst 200 years ago would have been deeply perplexed by the idea of voluntarily sleeping in the wilderness in a canvas tent just for fun (in fact, the even concept of “leisure time” and using it for “fun” would have been quite suspect).

I pulled together a handful of books from the archives to look at the questions of “How did camping get to be a thing?” and “For whom?”

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With Amherst College’s Bicentennial coming right up in 2021, we in the Archives are working closely with the Digital Programs Department to digitize collections relating to Amherst College history, including the Amherst College Olios and soon, The Amherst Student.  With this in mind, we have revised the finding aid for the Amherst College Early History Collection in preparation for digitization.

The Early History Collection is an artificial collection, meaning a collection of material with varied provenance assembled around a single topic, in this case the early history of Amherst College.

"To the public" pamphlet in Amherst College Early History Collection (Box 3, folder 7)

“To the public” pamphlet in Amherst College Early History Collection (Box 3, folder 7)

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