What was it like for the first class at UMass Amherst?

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The first students to arrive at UMass Amherst, on October 1, 1867, 150 years ago, were greeted by four faculty members, several (not quite finished) buildings, 311 acres of run down farmland and meadows cobbled together from 6 different farms – and a dream.

According to one of those freshmen students, L.B. Caswell, who wrote in his “Brief History of the Massachusetts Agricultural College” …

“Never did pioneer settlers, nor those engaged in any great work or cause, face greater difficulties and problems than did the professors of this new college and the Pioneer Class of 1871 in this great … experiment in agricultural education. 

“It was fortunate that the faith of the students was great, and that they became imbued with the enthusiasm and optimism of the faculty and trustees of that time.”

University of Massachusetts campus in 1868 – NOTE: (the Durfee Plant House in the foreground is in the same place today as it was then but today it is smaller)

Upon arrival on October 1, 1867, the students took an entrance exam covering reading, writing, spelling, geography and math.  William H. Bowker, reported in an address given at the 40th anniversary of the opening of Mass Aggie that some of the new students…

“…were dressed in home-made clothes, faded at that, and some in broadcloth and fine linen… for they came from town and city, and from every station in life.  

“Some of them had left home on the spur of the moment, without preparation for this ordeal, and had never before seen printed examination papers.”

Here are a few questions from the first entrance exam


All of the young men who showed up on the first day to enroll in what was to grow into the University of Massachusetts Amherst passed the examination.  Admission seemingly was “based on the looks or ‘hang’ of the boy, rather than on his attainments,” according to Bowker.  Levi Stockbridge, Farm Superintendent and the first faculty member hired by UMass, believed that all of “the boys” accepted on that day were ready to begin classes in geometry, chemistry, physiology and practical agriculture.


Thirty-four students moved into the South College Building, which had two classrooms, and a reading room on the lower level, and 24 rooms with parlor and two bedrooms each on the three upper floors.  This building (which burned down in 1885) stood at the site of the recently renovated South College Academic Facility.

The “Old” South College Residence Hall and Classroom Building

Classes begin the day after the entrance examination, October 2, 1867.  In a welcoming address to the first class, Levi Stockbridge said…

“Now for the first time there has assembled in our Commonwealth a School of Agriculture, and I assure you, young gentlemen, it gives me pleasure to welcome you to this institution and to all the pleasure, instruction and profit it may impart.”  

Levi Stockbridge; 1870

Lectures were presented by the famous “Faculty of Four”.  Professor Ebenezer Snell taught mathematics.  Henry Goodell taught modern languages, gymnastics and military tactics. The President of the College, William Clark, lectured on botany, and of course, Levi Stockbridge taught all things related to agriculture.  Levi Stockbridge was the only member of the faculty who did not hold a college degree, but was well-respected by the students and other members of the faculty for his experience and broad knowledge.

In addition to attending class, students were required to do field work for two hours in the morning on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  Those choosing to do more work were paid for the extra hours.  Caswell wrote about the first day in class…

“Members of the first class well remember the opening term at the college and their first meeting with Professor Stockbridge.  At this meeting the class was divided into squads of six or seven with one of their member as captain, and was sent out upon the farm to dig up old apple trees, husk and sort corn, pick apples, dig ditches for drainage, fork over manure heaps, etc. while the professor with his trousers tucked into his boots, superintended the work of the squads.”  

 While the value of experiential education is well understood today, this was new in 1867.  In an 1867 report to the Massachusetts Board of Agriculture, Stockbridge wrote…

“Then the question comes, ‘how do you make labor and study go together?’  If I should answer it in the off-hand way I sometimes do, I should say ‘first rate.'”


“…the best scholars in the school, those who regularly mark highest in their studies, are the very best men we have in our labor companies.  They take hold, and then all the rest, as it were by their influence, follow.”

There were no agricultural textbooks at the time nor a standard curriculum as there were no models in the U.S. for this experiment in practical education.  All the other colleges in Massachusetts, Harvard, Williams, and Amherst College for example, were organized to prepare young men for the ministry, law or finance.  Practical education was a new idea, so the “Faculty of Four” had to build the road while walking.

Stockbridge reported to the Massachusetts Board of Agricultural…

“Commencing with the soil, our course of instruction has been to give its origin; the manner in which it was prepared for the purposes of cropping; the material in the soil by which plant-food is formed; then the influences in the soil which go to make that raw material up into food for plants; then the manner in which the plants themselves take up and appropriate that food to their own uses; and form their bodies and roots from it….”

It was in this manner they taught soil formation and geology, chemistry, plant physiology and more in a manner that was practical yet based in the best science of the day.

At the close of the term in December, 46 young men had joined the pioneering class and 27 of them graduated four years later in 1871.


The first lecture ever given at the University of Massachusetts is believed to have been delivered by Levi Stockbridge.   An original handwritten copy of this address is preserved by the UMass Special Collections and University Archives.

Handwritten Address by Levi Stockbridge given to the first class at Mass Aggie in October, 1867

The following quotes were taken directly from the original copy of the address.

“The highest best interest of the State can only be secured by the universal education of its people…”


“While it is universally admitted that the young man designed for the legal or medical profession should go through a complete and thorough course of education, of mental discipline and training, and then should spend years in those special studies designed to fit him for his profession, it is by this system assumed and the assumption acted upon that the young man who chooses any industrial pursuit and especially if it be that of a tiller of the soil needs no training or education beyond that which is necessary to transact the simplest business operations.”

Yet according to Stockbridge….

“He who farms an acre of soil with full intelligence of all the processes that are going on under his hand and of all the principles involved, needs more knowledge of every known branch of natural science than all other pursuits and professions combined.

“In agriculture, no science is too high, abstract, or far reaching, if properly understood, to minister to its advancement. 

Stockbridge was convinced that…

“The men who a generation hence will manage and control the mercantile world, who will support and honor every interest of the community… and give direction to the great affairs of the country, will not be the sons of merchants, leaders and statesmen of today, but will be the sons of yeoman who have been schooled and disciplined, who have learned self-reliance, who have acquired energy and perseverance while engaged in agricultural pursuits.”

This address was made to the 34 freshmen who arrived on campus on October 2, presumably in one of the two buildings that held a classroom, either the South College or College Hall (which was also known as the Chemistry Building).  The original manuscript is titled “First address on agriculture to the first class of the Mass. Agr. College” and dated Sept. 1867, in Levi Stockbridge’s own handwriting.



The full address by Professor Stockbridge is in the process of being transcribed for publication since it represents the first lecture ever given at the University of Massachusetts.  The original is linked here:

Original 1867 Lecture by Levi Stockbridge


The legacy of those early days is carried forward by the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture.  Stockbridge is an academic department in the College of Natural Sciences and offers both online and residential degree programs.  For information, go to the Stockbridge School of Agriculture Webpage.


UMass Student Farmers Yesterday and Today


15th Annual Report of the Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Agriculture – 1867.  Statement by Levi Stockbridge Pertaining to the Massachusetts Agricultural College.  Pages 56-66.

Bowker, W.H. 1904.  A Tribute to Levi Stockbridge.  Read at the Memorial Exercises at Commencement, Amherst MA, June 15, 1904.

Bowker, W.H. 1907.  The Old Guard: the Famous “Faculty of Four:” the Mission and Future of the College; its Dept to Amherst College, Harvard College and other Institutions.  Read at the 40th anniversary of the Massachusetts Agricultural College, October 2, 1907.

Caswell, L.B. 1917.  Brief History of the Massachusetts Agricultural College, Semi-centennial.  

Stockbridge, L. 1867.  First Address on Agriculture to the First Class of Massachusetts Agricultural College. Handwritten notes. University of Massachusetts Archives.

2 thoughts on “What was it like for the first class at UMass Amherst?”

  1. Andrew Cowles (Andrews Greenhouse, So. Amherst) great great Grandfather Homer Cowles was in the first graduating class! Working the same farm. Some of the most interesting history were the 1840s discussions in the Valley about the need and concepts for an Ag. college


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