I really need to get out more. I mean out around campus. Despite having worked at Amherst for over a decade, I somehow never heard about the boulder sitting on the south side of the Octagon until recently. On the occasions I’ve gone past it, I’m sure I didn’t notice it.
This may seem like a minor offense – it is, after all, just a rock on campus, right? But knowing the history of the College is mandatory in the archives. It’s our raison d’être. We seek to know everything about our turf, and then to make it possible for others to know it too.
So when I heard about this boulder, I immediately reached into my bag of paranoias: surely I alone was ignorant of the facts surrounding the boulder. I would have to hide my ignorance from my colleagues. My stomach churned.
But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps other people don’t know about the rock either. On the assumption, therefore, that my reader may also be ignorant of the facts, let me set them down here with the few relevant documents that remain to us.
The story begins with Edward Hitchcock, as so many Amherst College stories do. The man was everywhere back in the day, and his influence on the College in those early years was unequaled, and may be still. Probably we should be called Hitchcock College. A clergyman, a geologist, a professor, and for many years a president of Amherst College, Hitchcock roamed the area in search of its geological history. Geology was his passion.
As a person of good taste, Hitchcock was especially fond of bowlders:
One day in 1855, Hitchcock was walking along Main Street when he glimpsed a chunk of rock poking out of the ground at the edge of Edward Dickinson’s property. The road was being graded, turning up rocks previously invisible. No doubt Hitchcock was taking the opportunity to scavenge for interesting bits when he came upon this choice specimen of the Bowlder Family.
In an article for The American Journal of Science and Arts,* Hitchcock described the discovery and how the students in his geology class moved the 8-ton boulder to the Octagon (here called the “Geological Cabinet”):
Clever man, that Hitchcock. One can just imagine him suggesting hopefully to his students that he “doubted their ability” to move the boulder. No doubt the Class of ’57 sought to please him and would have moved heaven and earth, let alone the boulder.
Three years later an article in the Springfield Republican about a meeting of the American Association of Science featured a colorful version of the tale, as related by President William A. Stearns. Here, Pelham is the original location of the boulder, rather than Montague, where Hitchcock had placed it in his earlier article.
The local Hampshire-Franklin Express also chronicled the spectacle:
I wondered about the unnamed song mentioned in the article. Was it really possible that a song with the refrain of “Coki-chi-lunk” could be “sad, pathetic, and affecting”? Or was the reporter being funny? I wondered if I might be able to determine what the song was and looked in the files for the class of 1857. This item was in the general file for the class.
The Express article above mentioned Alvah L. Frisbie as having delivered the oration when the rock reached its destination, and a notice buried in the July, 1856 Amherst Collegiate mentions a second student, Nathan R. Morse, describing him as the marshal of the class.
I’ve managed to get through this post without mentioning Emily Dickinson, but it was always my intention to bring her into it, for the rock came from in front of her house. It would have taken no effort at all to watch the proceedings from her bedroom or from one of the rooms below, and it’s hard to think she didn’t. It must’ve been something to see (literally and figuratively, in her case). There are no letters from the period, so we don’t know if she commented about the occasion anywhere, and she seems not to have mentioned it in any poems. Even so, she was very likely the hidden spectator at the event, or perhaps she even departed from what was becoming her habit of seclusion to bring water or food for the workers.
If you’ve not yet noticed the rock on the south side of the Octagon, have a look at it the next time you walk by. You can’t miss it.
*American Journal of Science and Arts, Vol. XXII, Nov., 1856, pp. 397-400.