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Mountain Day

Mountain Day is a tradition at Colby-Sawyer College started in the 1850s, although the exact origin date is unknown. It takes place in the fall semester each year but the planned day is kept secret, selected by the college president and known only to a select few. At 10:05am on the chosen date, classes are cancelled and students, faculty, and staff take buses to Winslow State Park to climb Mt. Kearsarge as a community.

The Start of a Tradition: New London Seminary/Academy (1837-1853) and New London Literary & Scientific Institution (1854-1877)
Not much is known about the origins of the Mountain Day tradition. It is believed to have started during the 1850s, but no record has been found to indicate whether the tradition began when it was New London Academy or the New London Literary & Scientific Institution. The idea for a Mountain Day likely came to New London from Mount Holyoke College’s tradition of the same name, which they started in 1838. The Archives of Williams College claim that they began the first Mountain Day tradition in the early 1800s, but it was an outdoor day of activity on campus and civil service, not a day set aside to climb a specific mountain; Williams College began a Mountain Day similar to Colby-Sawyer’s in 1857 and there is likely a connection between Mt. Holyoke, Williams, and our traditions, especially given geographic vicinity.

Carry On: Colby Academy (1878-1927)
The Colby Academy Mountain Day was a full day event. In 1919, Mountain Day was held on October 22, and an article in The Colby Voice states that it took three horse drawn carriages to bring everyone to Mt. Kearsarge. Everyone ate lunch on arrival and then climbed the mountain, not getting back to the academy until around 6:00 PM. They brought mirrors to the peak and attempted to signal to the academy, who sent a similar signal back to them. In The Kearsarge Beacon of September 24, 1954 student writers interviewed Dr. H. Leslie Sawyer about Mountain Day at Colby Academy. He said that the carriage ride to Mt. Kearsarge took two hours to reach (four hours there and back) the mountain and that his first Mountain Day was back in 1922.

Food was provided at a halfway house, as an article in The Colby Academy Voice from October, 1910 states. This halfway house is perhaps the Winslow House, a hotel built on Mt. Kearsarge and named after Captain Winslow of the U.S.S. Kearsarge (he is also the namesake of Winslow State Park). This hotel burnt down twice and was not rebuilt after its last fire.

New College, New Traditions: Colby School for Girls (1928-1932) and Colby Junior College for Women (1933-1972)
Some additional activities became associated with Mountain Day during this period. For example, in 1942 there was a preliminary baseball game and a post-hike baseball game between faculty and students. There are also mentions of people getting injured during the Mountain Day hike, as well, though it is probable that hiking related injuries such as twisted ankles and broken bones are common throughout the entire Mountain Day tradition.

In 1939, a student and her date got lost on the mountain. There was a large-scale search but they were not found. The next day they reached safety and explained that they had survived the freezing cold by making a fire.

During these years, the Colby Recreation Association (CRA) began sponsoring Mountain Day. In 1960, the CRA changed its name to the Athletic Association. It and all of its future name iterations continued to sponsor the event.

Resurgence: Colby-Sawyer College (1975-Present Day)
During the 1990s Mountain Day was almost abandoned as a college tradition because of students’ alcohol abuse. The abuse stemmed from students drinking heavily throughout the day and hazing first-year students by forcing them to drink excessively. There were even reports of a first-year student who was locked in a closet with a full bottle of liquor and was not allowed to get out until the bottle was depleted. This hazing became a stigma that the college had to deal with for several years. This led to poorer attendance at Mountain Day and soon many students stayed on campus to party instead of hike.

There was also a time when faculty were not allowed to take the day off to hike the mountain. They could only drive over and eat, and then had to return to work. This policy was changed in 1994 when faculty were encouraged to climb the mountain to promote the tradition and, for a period of time, it became a requirement to participate in the Mountain Day events.

Hazing and drinking became less of a problem as the years went on. However, an opinion piece written in The Courier on October 8, 1999 laments loss of tradition during Mountain Day. It says that 100 less students participated in Mountain Day in 1999 than the previous year. The writer calls for greater participation from all in order to preserve Colby-Sawyer’s oldest tradition. Additionally, a custom called “matching,” where an upper-classman is paired with a lower-classman for Mountain Day, was stopped. Many students saw this as tarnishing Mountain Day Tradition. Eric Riedel, then Vice President of Student Development and Dean of Students, responded to this student opinion by pointing out that “matching” was a relatively new aspect of Mountain Day and thus not a tradition that required preservation. In fact, he believed it important that the students form natural bonds with other students rather than be forced upon one another through “matching.”

Sharon Williamson, former Director of Student Activities, changed many aspects of Mountain Day during her tenure. As part of a way to prevent students from drinking instead of taking part in activities, Williamson returned to the use of buses and shuttles to encourage student participation. She also started the very popular Mountain Day t-shirt tie-dying tradition, which continues to this day. The dying was originally done at the picnic area on Mt. Kearsarge on Mountain Day but, in 2013, it was changed to a select day beforehand in order to free up time for hiking and eating on Mountain Day as well as allow students to wear their shirts on the day of the event itself.

Williamson also started the Mountain Day Banner, a large sheet that all the students sign at the peak of Mt. Kearsarge as a testament to their participation that year. These banners are then hung in the Lethbridge Lodge and, when replaced with the following year’s banners, are permanently stored in the Cleveland Colby Colgate Archives.  Another banner is signed at the base of the mountain as well.

There used to be a tradition of making your own GORP (trail mix), but this practice ended in the 2010s and, instead, bags of premade GORP are handed out at the trail head before a hike.

Faculty used to put on skits, but this stopped sometime during the 1990s. A Candlelight ceremony also ended during Williamson’s tenure.

Mountain Day is still announced at 10:05am by the ringing of Colgate Hall’s bells and is designated by the current president of Colby-Sawyer College. The event is currently sponsored by Student Activities.

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