The Founding Era 1896-1917:
The Workman Who Needeth Not be Ashamed
All five women were instrumental in the decision to create a memorial college for Thomas. They knew that he valued education as a means to develop character, engage in lifelong learning and provide an opportunity for the less fortunate. In addition to sponsoring a night class in mechanical drawing free to anyone interested, he had also investigated the possibility of setting up a school. While establishing a college seemed fitting, no one thought of locating it on the Clarkson estate. Elizabeth and Annie took the lead in examining real estate options in Potsdam and visiting engineering, trade and technical schools to determine the resources and facilities that would be needed. They also worked with the architect and builders, even helping to select some of the sandstone blocks and maple flooring.
Additionally, they built a group of local business and political leaders who would take a role in developing the new school. Among such people was Malcolm McVickar, the principal of Potsdam Normal School. Although not a trustee, McVickar’s experience in education was vital, as was the relationship between the two schools. Potsdam Normal School had previously been St. Lawrence Academy, where all the Clarksons had gone to school. Old Snell was originally the Normal School building, across Main Street from the lot chosen for the new building of the Clarkson memorial school.
The other founding trustees were local businessmen and politicians:
- Charles O. Tappan — justice on the New York State Supreme Court
- Abraham X. Parker — lawyer, judge and New York state assemblyman
- John G. McIntyre — lawyer and member of the New York state constitutional convention
- George H. Sweet — former principal of St. Lawrence Academy
- Edwin A. Merritt — a general of Civil War fame
- Hervey D. Thatcher — doctor and inventor of the milk bottle with a sanitary paper seal
- Frank L. Cubley — lawyer; a small park at the corner of Leroy Street and Hwy 11 is named for him and his wife.=
Drawing of Old Main
The first president (called “director”), Charles Eaton, was director for only a year, but he set Clarkson on course to be an exceptional school. The founders may have been envisioning a two-year technical school in the footsteps of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute or other tech schools that were basically apprenticeship programs. Instead, Eaton planned for 4-year degree programs that would train students not only in technical skills, but also in the ability to teach those skills and participate in the wider community.
New students had to pass entrance exams (some on a par with those at Harvard, Cornell and other Ivy League schools) and show proficiency in English and a foreign language, as prescribed by the Association of Colleges and Preparatory Schools. The entering class comprised eight male and four female students, with six faculty members.
Director Eaton’s vision was to aid young men and women who showed a “desire to aid themselves” and had the capacity to become “resolute, exact and strong,” as well as “broad and liberal.” As such, Clarkson provided a technical, normal and liberal education.
- Technical. Training the student for an engineering profession, and for special skill in the various branches of industrial and domestic arts and applied sciences, by giving instruction in such subjects as are found to develop the qualities of self-reliance, sound judgment, and logical reasoning; together with laboratory methods of learning, which have been acknowledged to be the best means of giving lasting results.
- Normal. Giving the student a thorough preparation for the profession of a teacher or manual training subjects in the public school service.
- Liberal. Believing that there should be added to the scientific and technical studies and exercises, which tend to make men resolute, exact and strong, at least a moderate amount of those culture studies which tend to make men broad and liberal, a certain amount of this work has been added to the other studies.
In 1896, there were 10 students and six faculty members; in 1900, 13 students and seven faculty members; and in 1917, 111 students and 13 faculty members.
1907: From Co-Ed to Men Only
Clarkson was conceived as co-educational. Three Clarkson women served on the board as lifetime members, the first graduating class had women and one of the first faculty members was female. However, admitting women was discontinued in 1907, with no official explanation available to posterity. Theories include avoiding competition with Potsdam Normal School across the street, a lack of female student applicants and refining the school’s mission to focus on engineering education. The Clarkson women remained on the board until their deaths, and then were replaced by men.
1913: From School to College
In 1896, the school was called the Thomas S. Clarkson Memorial School of Technology. In 1913, the name changed to the Thomas S. Clarkson College of Technology. The change to college status was necessary in order to permit the ability to grant degrees and scholarships in New York state. A new seal was created based on the family crest.
Clarkson’s display of its curriculum won a bronze medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904. The original curriculum required English, foreign languages and shop classes. This combination was extremely unusual, i.e., “not in the usual line of ascent” for either an Ivy League college or a technical school. At various times, both thesis writing and shop classes had to be justified to various stakeholders.
The 1899 justification for shop class reveals the vision of the Clarkson graduate as a professional:
“In order for the engineer to be able to use all the resources at his command, it is necessary for him to be familiar with the labors and duties of the artisan upon whom he must depend for the detailed execution of his plans.”
H — Honor; C — Credit; P — Pass; L — Low pass; D — Deficient; F — Conditions unmet
Faculty … and Pranks
Everyone knew each other very well, in a way that is hard to imagine today. Students and faculty played pool together at the Tech Club. There was only one telephone (number 610), which was located in the President’s office. Every time someone was wanted on the phone, the president who had to “dash around campus looking for him.”
Due to limited space, some of the library books had to be stacked in a bathtub on the second floor of Old Main.
“Old Archie” joined Clarkson in 1907 as a fireman and worked up to teaching shop. He taught students to weld with a forge, anvil and hammer, and only a pinch of borax for flux. They made chains, shaping and welding them link by link. If Archie could break a link with his hammer and anvil, the students had to rebuild the broken link back at the forge in order to get at least a P in the course, along with a lot of burned hands, scorched shirts and singed pants.
“Doc” Powers came in 1909 and was a well-loved figure. During one of his mechanical laboratories in the early years, he had students calibrate an anemometer. One of the students looked up “anemometer” in the dictionary and found “a little wind machine.” For quite a while afterward, Doc was called “Annie”— though not to his face. In 1939, he was hospitalized for six months for a leg amputation and he wrote the following in the Integrator:
“To all, let me remind you that it is my leg and not my jaw which was hurt. The invitation to come and see me is as warm as I can make it. (I never visit with my leg!)”
In 1942, he advised students to remain in school rather than enlisting:
“It is the duty of every man to do his college work the best he can, because, whether the Army takes him or not, with a good record, he has a definite probability of a reasonably competent technical training.”
In the Annals: Two Pranks on Faculty
Around 1900, an unpopular professor was in the locker room shower in Old Main. When the hot water was shut off, his howls could be heard in the next building.
In 1916, while the physics professor was working at the board, a student stole the gradebook from his desk and raised everyone’s grade to a C (for “credit”), forgetting to do his own. The professor never noticed.
The Campus …
By 1917, the campus consisted of five buildings on the block at Main and Pierrepont streets.
Beginning in 1906, the Student Association, along with alumni and Lavinia Clarkson, raised money for a student gymnasium completed in 1912. It later became the Burnap Library.
Grant House, located near the current Lewis House, became the first presidents’ house, serving also as the main administrative building.
… and the Village
Clarkson College was integrated into the heart of Potsdam village. Villagers were avid hockey fans and provided room and board. The Perkins family ran a boarding house in the building that is currently the Newman Center. They were famous for their great food. Free food was offered to students of limited means as long as they worked: cooking, washing up or waiting tables. Students who needed financial assistance were often given loans. When the last Perkins closed the doors in the 1930s due to hard times, grateful student alumni took up yearly collections and eventually created The Perkins Award.
Weston’s Bookstore became the official hangout spot. The Tech Register at Weston’s was begun in 1901 in response to an idle comment by a student visitor who had “been in several times that day.” It quickly developed into a registry for rowdy commentary and the latest gossip. Some attempts were made to regulate it; however, the register was not retired until 1962.
During the first 20 years, enrollment hovered around 100 students. At that size, all could assemble together for chapel, convocation, assemblies, founder’s day celebrations and other events, such as Tech Nite and Field Day. Tech Nite occurred after students registered for the academic year in the President’s office. It was a rowdy march, during which songs and chants were belted out to wake the villagers, and ended at a bonfire by the Raquette River. Field Day was held in January at the fairgrounds, the current location of Potsdam Middle School. In 1906, student governance was initiated, first as the Decennial Committee and then the Clarkson Engineering Assembly.
Students accepted the role of making things happen for themselves. They worked hard and paid subscriptions to found the Athletic Association in 1900 and the Alumni Association in 1904, and they also funded the pool table in the Tech Club in 1904, the tennis courts for the Tennis Club in 1910 and the new gymnasium in 1912. By 1904, they had created the Clarkson Musical Association, an umbrella for Glee Club (25 members), Mandolin Club (12 members) and the orchestra (14 members).
Class Spirit and Rivalries
Since students boarded at various homes throughout the village, the natural way to foster school spirit was among the same classes. Each class had a banquet and fielded a class team during Field Day, competing in track, football, baseball and tug-of-war. The upperclassmen competed against each other while the sophomores competed against the freshmen. The sophomores took it upon themselves to haze the freshmen by kidnapping or “detaining” them, storming their banquets, dunking them in water tanks (Tank Rush) and steamrolling them in the Cane or Chapel Rush. The Cane Rush was a field game, but the Chapel Rush was literally a rush to leave chapel on the third floor of Main. Exit doors were guarded by the sophomores. Often, the rivalry grew ill-natured. The first fraternities, Omicron Pi Omicron and Sigma Delta, were founded in 1904 to encourage peace among the classes.
Class Rules were also created, requiring freshmen to wear certain types of hats or forbidding them from smoking pipes.
Sports were organized primarily by the students through their Athletic Association.
The main sports were football, baseball and track. Basketball began once the gym was built in 1912. Although sports teams travelled for competitions, the main rivals were with St. Lawrence University (SLU) — “the Larries” — and Potsdam Normal School.
In 1898, Clarkson’s first football match ended in defeat, 65-0. Clarkson then scoured the North Country for athletes, finding Bill Palmer in Fort Covington. Palmer first showed his skill in track. He was such a star that Potsdam Normal athletes got him drunk the night before their match. He still took nine firsts. In 1899, he led a 6-0 victory against SLU in football. In 1900, Clarkson football beat a professional team from Watertown.
The sports rivalries involved competition off the field as well. In 1900, for the first of many times, the Normal bell clapper was stolen by Techers. Rumor has it that if the lawn in front of Old Main were dug up, all the missing clappers would be unearthed. Tech Nite frequently featured Techers raiding Normal sorority houses. The women from Normal were the main source of dates for the class banquets.
Unfortunately, things often went too far, and in 1903, competitions between Clarkson and SLU were suspended for years because a rowdy group of Clarkson supporters (not students) began throwing sod at the officials at a track meet.
1902 Baseball Team
1906 Baseball Team
1906 Football Team
1910 Baseball Team
Hockey at Ives Park Rink
1900 Track Team
During the first 10 years, the Clarksons were very involved in the school. For the decennial celebration, they chose school colors and created a scholarship in honor of their brother Levinus Clarkson. They became personal friends with the third college director, William Aldrich and his family. In recollections of that time, his daughter Julia Aldrich noted that the Clarkson women were particularly known in the village for their gift-giving.
In 1909, however, everything changed. Frederica Clarkson died, and the Homestead, home to Elizabeth and Lavinia Clarkson, burned to the ground. They decided to move to Manhattan to join Annie, who had moved to Manhattan after the marriage of her sister Emilie in 1901. Annie steadfastly returned to Potsdam for trustee meetings, though Elizabeth only occasionally attended. It is thought that they convinced their cousin Banyer Clarkson to join the board of trustees while they were in Manhattan.
The Clarkson estate was left empty.
Directors in the Founding Era
- The first director, Charles Eaton, served for only one year: 1896-97.
- The second director, Barton Cruikshank, served for two years: 1897-1901.
- Aldrich served for 10 years:1901-11.
- The last director in the founding period was John Brooks, who was the longest serving president through the 20th century. He served from 1911-28, and again from 1932-33.