Before Stonehill, Campus a Magical Place for Local Children
January 20, 2010
For four decades before Stonehill became a college, it was the 600-acre estate of industrialist Frederick Lothrop Ames.
It was the stomping grounds, too, of a group of young boys who lived a half-mile away in the Marshall's Corner neighborhood of nearby Brockton, and considered the estate a magical place during the Great Depression.
James V. Wyman, who grew up to become vice president and executive editor of the Providence (R.I.) Journal recounted those days in his book, "Bittersweet Beginnings: A Sketchbook of a Great Depression Boyhood," published in 2008 by Plaidswede Press. Wyman has donated copies to Stonehill and to the Brockton Public Library.
References to the estate in its pre-Stonehill days dot the book and include landmarks that would be recognizable to students today: King Philip's Cave on the grounds' eastern fringes, stately brick Donahue Hall atop the hill, Ames Pond, and the former airfield where Frederick Ames Jr. once kept his plane, and which years later gave the College's athletic teams their nickname, the Skyhawks.
During a recent interview, Wyman remembered the Ames mansion - now Donahue Hall -- as he glimpsed at it through the trees while walking along Belmont Street with his pals, bound for sodas, ice cream and penny candy at H.Y. Mitchell's store in South Easton.
"The Ames' Georgian-style red brick mansion, with its six marble columns across the front, was always an awesome sight," Wyman recounted. It "sat majestically on a green knoll, overlooking countless acres of sweeping fields to the estate stone walls that defined its Belmont Street border.
"We always found it staggeringly difficult to imagine ourselves living in that 50-room house, with a glass-roofed tennis court, marble swimming pool, squash court and private airstrip," Wyman said. "At the time, most of our parents were struggling to survive the Great Depression, to keep their modest homes and feed and clothe their families.
"We never could reconcile ourselves to lives lived out in that sprawling mansion on the hill," Wyman said. "But imagining the experience was ever intriguing and always fun."
Though high-spirited and full of mischief, the boys respected the privacy of the Ames family and did not venture far onto the grounds, Wyman said. They restricted their play to Stone House Hill, one of the highest points in the neighborhood and home to the rock formation known as "King Philip's Cave" because legend held that the Wampanoag chief hid there during King Philip's War in the late 1600s.
The hill was "heavily clad in towering, mature pines that whispered to us in all seasons and furnished a soft and aromatic carpet of pine needles," remembered Wyman. "The everlasting stillness of the place always gave it the sense and feel of a great cathedral."
True to his roots as a reporter, and much to his wife's consternation, Wyman, though 85 and wearing a pacemaker, conducted field research for his book, climbing Stone House Hill once again to confirm that it was as he remembered it.
In his boyhood, children found the hill's steep incline and zigzag course of trees and rocks challenging for sledding. Spring only began for real when "hundreds of pink-pouched lady's slippers began their annual march" up the hill, Wyman said.
In summer, tradition held that the older boys and young men from the neighborhood swam naked in Ames Pond from a beach area about midway up the pond's eastern side, Wyman said. Some of them told stories about how Frederick Ames Jr. "bombed" them with bars of soap as he climbed up over the pond in a private plane. Ames was killed in a plane crash in Randolph in 1932.
Wyman (left) decided to write the book about his boyhood memories because he was struck by how happy his childhood had been, though it took place during a time of great economic difficulty, and by how freely children organized their own fun, away from adult supervision and without organized sports leagues.
"It was the Great Depression, yet kids had fun," said Wyman. "No one starved to death. There was always help next door."
For more information, contact Communications and Media Relations at 508-565-1321.