This year, the educational institution now known as Colby-Sawyer College will celebrate the 180th anniversary of welcoming its first students. While founded as New London Academy and officially established through a charter from the state of New Hampshire on July 4, 1837, the first class of 26 girls and a 10-year-old boy didn’t matriculate until May 1838.
In the 1830s, families interested in continuing their children’s educations past elementary school would send them to private academies; the New Hampton Institution, founded in 1825, was the closest and a popular choice for New London students. A movement grew to establish an all-girls academy in New London and in 1837, New Hampshire granted the charter to eleven incorporators: Anthony and Joseph Colby, Captain Perley Burpee, Jonathan Greeley, John Brown, Captain Jonathan Herrick, Deacon David Everett, Captain Samuel Carr, Walter P. Flanders, Jonathan R. Addison and Captain Marshall Trayne.
Joseph Colby, Burpee, Brown and Flanders purchased land along Main Street from Seamans Road to the Four Corners for $3,000. With funds raised from New London citizens, they built a simple, two-story wood building adorned with a belfry. In 1840, the landowners turned over five acres of the land to the academy in perpetuity in exchange for $1,400 to accommodate its expected growth. Susan F. Colby, Anthony Colby’s 20-year-old daughter, who was educated at the New Hampton Institution, became the first principal; Martha E. Greenwood, also 20, was her assistant. Despite the intent to admit only female students, Nahum T. Greenwood, Martha’s younger brother, was allowed to attend. He went on to serve as Colby Academy’s treasurer for 32 years.
The plan for women’s-only education seems to have been scrapped after the first term; in its second year, the school was organized into the Male Department, which enrolled 54 students, and the Female Department, which signed up 65, dramatically increasing the academy’s student body.
The academy structured its first-year curriculum so as not to overwhelm the local schoolchildren. Students primarily studied English grammar, arithmetic, drawing and U.S. history but were also introduced to Wayland’s Elements of Moral Science, natural philosophy and Isaac Watts’s The Improvement of the Mind. In the following years, the curriculum included algebra, ancient history, chemistry, astronomy, botany, rhetoric, Latin, French and more — all introduced by just the two teachers.
The earliest students emerged into the world as teachers and ministers, physicians and businessmen. In The First Century of Colby, Henry K. Rowe writes:
The opening of the academy at New London was an event second to none in the history of the town. It provided better education for the boys and girls of the community. It brought to them a new appreciation of what people thought about who were interested in something besides their daily occupations. It linked the town up with the movement in education which was creating academies, normal schools, and the colleges both East and West. It gave a tone to the community which it has not lost, and a reputation among the towns of the state.
Those words, published in 1937, are still true today.