A friend to the sciences…

Peck Scientific Hall 1884


Peck Hall was the first building built specifically for the study of chemistry and physics. It was built where Hays Hall stands now. Peck was a gift from a generous benefactor with very close ties to the founders of Wabash. James and John Steele Thomson were two of the founders of Wabash, their younger brother Samuel Steele Thomson was in Caleb Mills’ first class, another brother was the Treasurer of the College for decades while yet another brother was a missionary to Syria and among the founders of the Syrian Presbyterian University – now the American University in Beirut.  The Thomson brothers loom quite large in the early history of the college. What is less well known is that in a family of seven boys there was but one girl; Mary Thomson who served Wabash well in her own way.

In 1840, just eight years after the founding of Wabash College, Mary Ann Thomson married Edwin Jesse Peck. Peck was born in 1806 in New Haven Connecticut and came to Indianapolis in 1833 to “take charge of the stone and brick construction in the new state capital.” From the competence Peck demonstrated on this and other projects he was offered a position on the Madison-Indianapolis Railroad as it was being built. Again through his competence, Peck came to the notice of Chauncey Rose, a businessman from Parke County. I should note that it is this Rose who endowed the Rose Polytechnic Institute (now Rose-Hulman) and together they built the Terre Haute-Indianapolis Railroad. Peck served as superintendent, treasurer and eventually as president of the railroad company. (Rose was also a generous donor to Wabash College –  a story for another day.)

In 1855, and by this time a very rich man, Edwin J. Peck was elected a Trustee of Wabash College. He served as a trustee for 21 years and upon his death left a sizeable bequest to Wabash.  In a resolution passed following his death in 1876, the other trustees noted, “Mr. Peck gave to the college the benefit of a cheerful and wise counsel —and besides counsel, he contributed largely to the financial necessities of the college while living…”   The trustees continued the resolution with this, “…in death remembered it [the college] in a munificent benefaction, at once his worthy monument and the supreme token of his regard for Wabash College.”  While living Peck had given $18,000 to Wabash and upon his death he gave stocks, bonds and cash amounting to an additional $118,000 – which was, at that time, the largest gift ever given to the college by one benefactor.

The Peck bequest endowed a professorship in chemistry as well as another in natural philosophy (physics) and astronomy. A part of the Peck funds were used to purchase books for the Peck Alcove in the new library in Center Hall. The remainder funded the construction of Peck Scientific Hall which building held the chemistry and natural philosophy departments.


In this photograph scanned from the 1897 Viewbook we can see the physics classrooms, lecture hall and laboratories. In addition to the new building, a power plant was built which powered the physics equipment.


This is the power plant which was situated due west of Peck Hall on what is now the mall. I have read that it was about where the flag pole now stands. This photo really shows that the mall was the service area for the campus. In the 1920’s this plant was demolished and a new plant built near the football field.


Peck Hall was furnished with the most modern equipment available for the study of chemistry and physics. In these photos we can see the new Chemistry department above. These facilities brought a new world of learning to the students; they also brought the first electric light to Crawfordsville.  I should also add that just as Center Hall and South Hall, Peck Hall was built with its front façade facing east. This brick building served generations of science students and was finally pulled down just after WWII for the construction of Waugh Hall.

Edwin Jesse Peck served Wabash well. Following the Civil War, he donated enough money to pay the professors a living wage. So as we think about the Thomson brothers and their contributions to Wabash in the early days, I also like to think of Mary Ann Thomson Peck – the only sister to an overachieving  bunch of brothers – and how she, through bringing her husband to an interest in the college, served Wabash as well.


Beth Swift

Center Hall chapel and library

This photograph is one of the oldest that we have of our campus, dated 1875. In this section of the image, we see a completed Center Hall. That is to say that by this time the north and the south wings were added to the central structure.Center Hall was built in three stages. The center portion was first and opened for service in 1857. What a lovely gift to the College for its 25th anniversary and yet it would be almost another 20 years before the building was completed. The Civil War, lowered enrollments and the death of our beloved president, Dr. White, all took their toll on Wabash.

But by the 1870’s Wabash was on its feet again and the word was, “Build!” Center Hall was designed by Irish architect William Tinsley, who left Ireland for the opportunities in America. Over the course of his career, Tinsley designed a number of public buildings and private homes in the Midwestern states. He designed a building at Butler, one at Indiana, the Ascension Hall at Kenyon and many others. If any of you are familiar with the lovely church on the Circle in downtown Indianapolis, he designed that as well.

The photo above is of the College Chapel on the second floor of the north wing. The Chapel was a very tall room and ran the length of the entire wing, east to west. At the far end (which in this picture is the west or Mall side) there was a platform where the president and the speakers would have sat for Chapel exercises. The substantial beams overhead brought out the pranksters in the student body. Various items including the college skeleton were hung from the beams prior to chapel services.Today this is now the home of, appropriately enough, the philosophy and religion department. The offices break up the space yet, with a little digging, traces are still available to us. The Chapel was used until the student body outgrew its capacity to hold them all. At that point the Chapel was moved to the upper gymnasium in the Armory.

This image is of the College Library as it appeared in 1906. This is the area now used by the Business Office. It is a 16’ tall room. This allowed for the two stories of books that we see here. The little niches on the second floor are alcoves. To truly honor someone, a donor would outfit an alcove. Indeed, we still have many books in the Lilly Library which note that they are from one alcove or another. In a lovely piece of continuity, the framed picture of Abraham Lincoln, which can be seen hanging from the balcony in this picture, still hangs in Center – although now in the Dean’s offices.

As an aside, during the demolition of the business office over the summer of 2007, I was able to pop in and see the room wide open. It really is a very large space. When it is all enclosed as it is now, it is hard to believe that it is the same space.

This library served the college until the building we know as Detchon Hall (originally named Yandes) was built as a library building in the early 1890’s.

One small note about Center Hall – it was built facing into the Arboretum and the town. Although the Mall is now our main space – you may note that Center has no ornamentation on the Mall side. One the east side is a very intricate porch as seen in this old picture.In fact, the entire historic campus was built facing Grant Street.

The next posting will tell the story of the Peck Hall of Sciences – the first building on campus devoted entirely to science – and the story behind the Peck bequest.


Beth Swift

1870s campus

The decade of the 1870s is most marked by the many and vast changes to the campus. In this image, taken from the catalog of 1877-78 we can see that a great deal has changed. If we look at the upper left we can see that Athletics have truly arrived at Wabash with the coming of baseball. Right beside the ball field is the brand new Polytechnic Gymnasium. The college has sold the right-of-way to the railroad and life in Kingery will never be peaceful again. We also note that there are now wings on Center Hall. In the far right of the print, we can see Peck Hall, which was the first building built specifically to house the work of scientists.

One of the delights of my work is the chance that I have to really study old maps like this one. This is a part of the image for the City of Crawfordsville from the 1878 Illustrated Atlas, which gives us a really clear picture of the campus prior to Peck Hall.

We can see that on Caleb Mills’ land there are quite a number of trees. This shows us his famed apple orchard. He took his apples very seriously and his treat after a long day was a baked apple before bed. Lucky too, was the student invited to his study for a glass of fresh apple cider.

We should also note that the road which passed the Hovey and Mills houses was straight and named Mills Place. The walkway from the corner at Wabash and Grant has seemingly always been there. Clearly Wabash is growing.

The Polytechnic Gymnasium on the west side of campus was designed by Henry B. Carrington, who taught military history and engineering here in the 1870s. This building was designed as a place for students to exercise, learn the military arts and civil engineering. In addition the students were taught how to load and fire the lone cannon. As there was no money in the budget for livestock, students took turns being either artillerymen or mules. As you might imagine, this led to a good bit of grumbling on the part of the students.

On the map just below Center Hall, there is a rather large block labeled outhouses. Not to be indelicate, but there is a pretty good story about this area – known as “Little Egypt” – as retold by Dick Banta. It seems that these outhouses were roofless and much hated. So too was the military cannon. The students learned their artillery lessons well and late one evening loaded the cannon with, “a double charge of powder, horseshoes, scrap iron, nails and ferrous sundries.” I love that phrase, ferrous sundries…Anyway, they took aim and both the outhouses and the cannon were gone.

Next time I will share some more about the campus at this time…I hope that you are enjoying this series..I call it “A campus tour through time…”


Beth Swift

1860s campus

This photograph is of downtown Crawfordsville in the 1860s – at the intersection of Washington and Main Streets looking west. The building in the middle of the picture is the Hanna Building, the spot where Wabash held classes following the fire of 1838. (For more of that story, see the preceding entry.)

The next image is from the Atlas of 1864. It shows the growth of the town and of the campus.

We can see in the lower right near the gray star that the building, now demolished, which was known as Kingery Hall and was at that time the Normal School – has arrived on campus.

The red star shows the new home of Henry Crawford a local merchant. This old house is now the home of the Lambda Chi fraternity. The land behind the home was known as Crawford’s Woods and used by students and townspeople for picnics and gatherings.

The gold star shows the new home of Mr. and Mrs. Atlas Minor Hadley. He was a member of the class of 1852 and the principal of the prep school. The house was purchased in the 1920s by George and Yvonne Kendall from Mrs. Hadley. The Kendalls greatly improved the home and later donated it to the college. This home is now known as the Kendall House. It sits in the nook created by the natatorium of the Allen Center.

The black star in the middle  of our 1864 atlas marks Forest Hall which was moved from its original location a few blocks north. Caleb Mills had purchased the original college building along with Williamson Dunn’s 15 acres of donated land for $1,050.

North of the campus, near the large blue star, we see the cemetery which was owned by Caleb Mills. In 1864 Pike Street ended at the original plat of the town with West Street which we now call Grant Avenue. This graveyard is shown on various maps as the Crawfordsville Cemetery, the Presbyterian Cemetery, the Mills Cemetery and the Town cemetery. Whatever it was called, it was here that the founders, early friends and faculty of Wabash College were buried.

When Pike Street opened to the west, the graves in the right of way were moved to the Masonic Cemetery on south Grant Street. In the late 1870s the rest of the family plots were moved to the newly opened Oak Hill Cemetery. Each family plot was opened and the families were all moved together to the “Wabash section” at Oak Hill Cemetery.

In 1862 the Trustee minutes record that “Professor Mills made a generous offer to donate certain property to the trustees of the college, consisting of the Crawfordsville Cemetery and certain adjacent land, together with the building known as Forest Hall.” The Executive Committee later recommended that the Board of Trustees accept Mills’ offer of the old college building, with no further mention of Mills’ Cemetery or other land.

All of the land owned by Caleb Mills was sold by his heirs following his death. Indeed, most of the lots in the west end of town were a part of Mills’ holdings. The family kept the house on campus until the late 1920’s, at which time they gave it to the college as a home for their presidents.

The college, in 1864, was on its way to becoming the Wabash that we know today. The Civil War years were a trial to the college, yet Wabash held on and emerged stronger. Next time I will share a bit about the expansion of the Wabash College facilities in the 1870’s, a banner decade for “Dear Old Wabash.”


Beth Swift

The new campus

It wasn’t long after the founding and the construction of the first humble building, now known as Forest Hall, that the vision of Wabash College’s Board of Trustees expanded. Williamson Dunn’s gift of 15 acres was a start, but to really grow, it was clear that more land would be needed. Crawfordsville was still a tiny town and in 1835 Wabash purchased a quarter section of land, 160 acres, from Ambrose Whitlock. This parcel included our current campus.

The trustees of the college immediately held an auction, sold 100 acres off the parcel and made money. This profit was used to start the construction of the building known simply as “The College,” as there were no other buildings on this site. In a letter from November of 1835, Mary Hovey, wife of Edmund O. Hovey, tells her sister that they have purchased 7-8 acres of land and will build a house, what we call Hovey Cottage. In 1836 Caleb Mills built his lovely home and for the rest of their lives these two men lived and worked side by side.

This is a section of an 1857 lithograph showing the College, built of brick and consisting of four floors. The first three floors housed only student rooms as this building served also as a dormitory.

This is a floor plan of the fourth floor showing student rooms, classrooms and the Chapel. Where the student rooms backed onto one another there were shutter openings in the brick walls for ventilation. Each floor was divided into three “Divisions” North, Middle and South. The two walls which created the three divisions were built as a unit from the basement to the roof. The south end of the 4th floor contained the Chapel, recitation rooms and the library. At the time it was built, South Hall was a very large building and much admired. As it was considered to be as nearly fireproof as possible, it was not insured.

The fire of September 23, 1838 very nearly killed Wabash. Mary Hovey in a letter to her brother-in-law Charles White describes the fire, “The scenes of last Saturday morning can never be blotted from our memory. But the day before our beautiful college building – which cost sixteen thousand dollars – stood as the ornament of our town and pleased the eye of every beholder. The building was not entirely completed, but would have been this fall. Accommodations were already provided for sixty students. The building contained libraries and apparatus valued at six thousand dollars. At half past two on that morning we were awakened by the cry, “The College is on fire!” The flames had then burst through all the windows in the north-end which was unfinished and this whole roof was one sheet of fire. For a moment building library and all were forgotten in the thought Where are the students? We knew some were sleeping in the third and perhaps fourth stories and the fire was rapidly descending the staircases. But – we rejoice to add that the lives of all were saved, though many left all of their worldly goods behind to be consumed by the fire….”

From her wonderfully detailed letter we learn that the fire apparently started on the roof of the north division from a furnace being used by the “tinners” finishing the tin roof. It was largely due to the unique construction of the building utilizing the separate divisions of brick walls, basement to roof, that most of the damage was limited to the middle and north divisions. The exterior and interior walls held the fire somewhat in check. However, all of the library and the scientific equipment were destroyed. It was thought at first that this was the end, or in Mary’s words, “For a few hours our feelings were, ‘Wabash College is dead, henceforth it will exist only in memory’….that which was so speedily destroyed seemed to forbid any thought of rebuilding it. But the united voice of our citizens is it must not die.” Mary was writing this letter the day following the public meeting held between the college and the town. John Steel Thomson gave a rousing sermon which inspired the people of Crawfordsville to donate the money they had set aside for a female academy to begin the process of rebuilding Wabash. From E.O. Hovey’s entry in the faculty minutes, “The exterior walls…will do to stand, and the work of repairs will begin this week. This evening a spirited meeting has been held in behalf of the College and the word is rebuild.” It is for this outpouring of generosity that President Lew Salter, on the occasion of 150th Anniversary of the College, penned a thank you to the citizens of Crawfordsville. On the mall side of Baxter Hall (former site of South Hall) there is a small tablet that further expresses the gratitude of the college to the town.

This is a small section of a picture taken in the 1870’s, It shows us South Hall before the many renovations that were inflicted upon it.

The early years of our history were filled with struggle and all who labored to build this small school loved it as their own child. The story of Wabash throughout its many decades shows that the deep passion and abiding vision of our founders endures yet today. Still a small, private, liberal arts college for men, Wabash retains its strong work ethic, a bit of its pioneer spirit and its commitment, above all else, to its students.


Beth Swift