Chickens and Moving Pictures

Chickens and Moving Pictures

Alumna transcribes the social history of Wilson College.

by Darrach Dolan

Joan McCulloh ’52 graduated with a major in English literature and a minor in history. After 39 years of teaching English to high schoolers, in retirement, McCulloh has indulged her passion for history, specifically local history. As a member and former president of the Mercersburg Historical Society, she has written numerous articles on local history and regularly leads historical tours. More recently, her passion led her to Wilson’s Hankey Center for Women’s History.

Since 2019 McCulloh has driven to campus every week to transcribe letters between former Wilson presidents Reaser, McKeag, and Warfield and staff members. The presidents’ letters are mostly typed copies of the originals; the letters from the staff are often handwritten and can be a challenge to read. Each staff correspondent has an individual physical file containing all the letters between them and the administration. As you can imagine, files vary in size depending on how long the person was at the College. For example, Librarian Mary Louise Erskine’s file is one of the thickest, as she worked under all three presidents.

She transcribes the letters onto her laptop, summarizes them, then uploads everything to the digital archives. It’s an enormous amount of work, but McCulloh loves it. She is reminded of a quote by novelist L.P. Hartley, “The past was a different country; they do things differently there.” The letters give insights into a different era and the personalities of those who worked at Wilson. She says, “It’s a social history of Wilson and of these young women who taught here — it shows what the times were like and what these people were like.” She hopes future scholars of the College or women’s history will find these archives insightful and informative.

The files cover the College’s history from the 1900s to the 1920s. She pulls out a large file box filled with manilla folders, each dedicated to a single correspondent she has yet to transcribe. She looks forward to discovering what these new files will reveal.

Of the presidents, Dr. Anna McKeag, Wilson’s first woman president, is her favorite. “I think McKeag must have been an extraordinary person.” She explains that McKeag was very supportive of her staff, even arranging teaching schedules around train schedules for a teacher from Carlisle and always supporting staff whose families suffered illness or death. When an incident, possibly unsavory (we have no details of the incident), occurred at the Chambersburg theater, McKeag arranged to have “moving pictures” shown on campus from then on.

Of the staff members, McCulloh has a soft spot for French teacher Clara Maude Syvret. She taught during the McKeag presidency, then “became a ‘Field Secretary.’ That meant this dear soul went by train and bus all over Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and a bit of Ohio, trying to encourage students to come to Wilson.” Her correspondence records the frustrations of a woman not always welcomed. “She tried her very best, and sometimes high schools were not very amenable to her coming into the school to talk.”

There are others who were not McCulloh’s favorites. “I wouldn’t have wanted to work with [German teacher] Virginia McComb. She was very demanding. President Reaser must have been a man of infinite patience. For a while, in addition to teaching German, she was raising money for the College. She told him exactly what to do and how to do it.” During World War I, Wilson stopped teaching German and let McComb go. However, she stayed in Chambersburg and, after the war, ran a successful company taking Americans on European tours.

And these letters are full of small details that McCulloh finds humorous. One teacher, who considered herself a serious scholar, was easily distracted and complained that she couldn’t concentrate because of “the monotonous sound of engines and beheading of seventy chickens” interrupting her work. Apparently, the College had a flock of chickens and, every week slaughtered a good number of them close to this scholar’s rooms. Another teacher who had never been further south than New York City before she arrived in Chambersburg reported that her family thought this was in a different country.

For the most part, the correspondence captures the “mutual respect” between the staff and administration. “Their personalities were different, but they were gracious and considerate in their letters,” she said. “It was a different country, and yet the teachers were interested in what teachers have always been interested in — the number of hours they were to teach, what was in the curriculum, what was good about the curriculum, and what they thought should be improved. That part hasn’t changed one iota.”

McCulloh is pleased to be able to give back to her alma mater. “I have great respect for Wilson College. It did a great deal for me.” There is a huge trove of materials at the Hankey Center yet to be digitalized. “It would be nice if someone else volunteered,” she said. “It takes time, but it’s worth it. I enjoy it and will do it as long as I can.”

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