Your College and You

As all of you should recall from your first-year convocation, Gamaliel Painter, whose cane you passed among yourselves right here in the Chapel, was the leading force behind the establishment of this College. He could barely read and write, yet he was wise to the world, knew how to assess risk, and had a remarkable ability to master whatever kind of work he pursued or needed to get done: a self-starter in the true sense of the word. He was a successful businessman, skilled negotiator, bold entrepreneur, and a farmer, and was always looking to improve his and this town’s lot. Germane to us here, and to our College, Painter and his brother purchased land on speculation just east of the Otter Creek during a chance trip to the region in 1763. A decade later, newly married, he and his wife left their native Connecticut and moved to Middlebury to take their chances on a new life. When Painter moved to Middlebury, the population numbered fewer than 125.

Painter, again largely uneducated, saw the need for his children and other children in the growing town to obtain a better education than what was then available in and around Middlebury. He began negotiations with representatives of the state to establish a grammar school, or what he called a central academy, to supplement the local district school, which sat along the falls on the site that today houses, of all things, American Flatbread Pizza. In 1797, with the help and cooperation of several prominent Middlebury families, Painter purchased land on the west side of the Otter Creek where Twilight Hall stands today, and acquired a state charter to begin a grammar school.

A year later, in the fall of 1798, Timothy Dwight, then president of Yale and New England’s most venerated educator, visited Middlebury. The Yale president was in Vermont to complete research on the economic geography of the region, but also to enjoy Vermont’s wondrous natural environment. The trustees of the new grammar school, and Painter in particular, believed strongly that if Middlebury was to become a prosperous town, and the greater Champlain Valley was to become a viable economic region, both would need a college or university. Gaining the support of someone of Timothy Dwight’s stature would make this goal far more attainable.

In what College historian David Stameshkin and Painter biographer W. Storrs Lee describe as Vermont’s version of a Potemkin Village-like affair, Painter and the grammar school trustees wined and dined President Dwight during his visit to Middlebury. They asked Samuel Miller, who, by virtue of his recent marriage, ran Middlebury’s finest inn, to host what was described as the fanciest prepared meal anyone had ever witnessed in town. They lubricated the meal, and the guests, with Miller’s finest liqueurs, and by the end of the dinner, the hosts had secured Dwight’s approval of the project. In his own account of the evening, written in his personal papers, President Dwight alluded to the unusually fine meal, the intensity and conviction of the hosts’ cause to start a college, and confirmed that he had conveyed his blessings to the project, along with a pledge to continue to advise Painter and his colleagues through the tedious process of securing a state charter.

Soon after the Dwight dinner, Painter began his work with the Vermont legislature to gain permission to establish his college in Middlebury. He called upon many in the local community to join the cause, highlighting how all would benefit with the addition of an institution of higher learning in Middlebury. His proposal failed to make the assembly’s agenda in two successive legislative sessions—the 1798 and 1799 gatherings—but though irritated and impatient, Painter persevered. He had succeeded in gaining support for his cause from a significant portion of the town population, and as a way to pressure the legislators to take up his cause in 1800, he offered Middlebury, with its spanking new courthouse, to play host to that year’s legislative session. Much to Painter’s delight, his offer was accepted. By the way, in those days, Vermont’s state capital was not located in Montpelier, as it is today. In fact, adding to the list of interesting and unusual things to know about Vermont, it was not located in any one place. Rather, until 1805, the state capital moved each year, alternating between towns on the eastern side of the Green Mountains one year, and the western side the next.

The 1798 and 1799 legislative sessions may have ignored Painter’s petition for a charter, but the third session was the charm. During the three-week 1800 legislative session, Middlebury citizens, merchants, and especially tavern owners gave the visiting legislators the red carpet treatment, hoping to win the much sought after charter. Despite the significant and even hostile protests from the 20 representatives from Burlington and Chittenden County, where a university charter had been awarded nine years earlier, the assembly approved Painter’s petition, and officially granted a charter for what would become Middlebury College on November 1, 1800. Perhaps the representatives from Burlington were somewhat embarrassed: for even though their town received the state’s first charter for an institution of higher education in 1791, nine years later, despite having already built a president’s house, the university had yet to hire a faculty member or teach a single student.
It was a true team effort that won the College’s charter, with a good portion of the town’s population joining Painter and other prominent citizens, which is why the College, from its founding, took on the moniker “the Town’s College,” and why it was named Middlebury College, after the town, rather than for a single visionary or major benefactor.

Painter and his colleagues—all New England Puritans, and most of them educated at Yale—donated $4,150 to construct the first college building on the site of present-day Twilight Hall, where, earlier, Painter had started his grammar school. One might say things got off to an inauspicious start. The first Commencement ceremony took place with great pomp and circumstance, but, unfortunately, without any graduates. The lone student who was to have received the College’s first and only diploma during that first year tragically died just days before the graduation ceremony.

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