Friday, July 16, 2010

Alpheus Spring Packard, A True Son of Bowdoin

Crayon portrait of Alpheus Spring Packard by M. Crawford, 1884.
From the Pejepscot Historical Society, acc# OH 2183.

Alpheus Spring Packard sets the bar for involvement in one’s alma mater. Named after his maternal grandfather, Packard was born on December 23, 1798 in Chelmsford, Massachusetts to Rev. Hezekiah Packard and Mary Spring. Alpheus certainly had much to live up to in his father, who was a 1787 graduate of Harvard and classmate and friend of the 6th president of the United States, John Quincy Adams. In a June 21, 1843 letter (now in the collection of the Pejepscot Historical Society, acc# OH 1767.1) from John Quincy Adams to Alpheus, Adams writes that “I should not hesitate to accept the invitation” to visit Brunswick “by the cheering promise of meeting once more, and under your hospitable roof, taking again by the hand by long honoured and ever cherished classmate and brother of the [Phi Beta Kappa] Society your venerable father.” Unfortunately, Adams’ health prevented him from making the journey. Hezekiah Packard was also a Revolutionary War veteran who fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill (you can read Hezekiah’s memoir, which was published by Alpheus and his siblings, here). In 1802 the family moved from Massachusetts to Wiscasset, Maine, where Hezekiah preached until 1830.

As a young man, Alpheus was reportedly no slacker. According to his father, at the age of 10 Alpheus only spent about 30 minutes a week playing. The rest of his time was spent studying and reading, especially the Classic languages of Greek and Latin. Bowdoin College historian Louis C. Hatch writes that not only was Alpheus’s father well-read, but that his mother, Mary, “used to put a copy of Pope’s Odyssey at the end of her wool-carding machine and read a line when she reached the book as she paced back and forth winding the wool” (51). Alpheus’s studious nature gained him easy admission to Bowdoin College, where he and all 5 of his brothers went to school. Undoubtedly, their father’s membership on the Bowdoin Governing Board had something to do with this.

Alpheus earned his Bachelor’s degree in 1816 and Master’s degree from Bowdoin in 1819, then spent the next 3 years teaching in several Maine towns using the skills he had picked up as a language and math tutor at Bowdoin. In 1824 he finally joined the faculty as a professor of Latin & Greek, but would go on to teach rhetoric & oratory, literature and religion. Apparently not content with just teaching at Bowdoin, Alpheus also served as the college librarian from 1869 to 1881 and as acting president from 1883-1884 after Joshua L. Chamberlain resigned and before William DeWitt Hyde was hired in 1885.

Packard's two leather fire buckets, used to carry sand to put out oil fires. Note that each are individually numbered and labeled with his name. From the Pejepscot Historical Society collection, acc# OH 1314 & 1315.

Alpheus did not limit himself to the college, however. He could boast involvement in Brunswick’s First Parish Church, the Brunswick School Committee, and the town’s temperance movement. He was also involved in Brunswick’s Washington Fire Club, a precursor to the fire department. In addition to his membership in the historical societies of England and New York, in 1828 Packard became a member of the then-6-year-old Maine Historical Society, later serving as the organization’s secretary. Alpheus also was involved in the anti-slavery movement, particularly the New England Emigrant Aid Company, an organization dedicated to ensuring the new state of Kansas would be a free one. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed the citizens of Kansas to vote for themselves whether or not to allow slavery within their borders. Thus, the New England Emigrant Aid Company was formed to relocate thousands of free-staters to Kansas, tipping the vote in their favor. Thanks in part to the efforts of Alpheus, 728 Mainers moved to Kansas by 1860 and it became a free state.

In 1827, Alpheus married Frances E. Appleton, the daughter of Bowdoin president Jesse Appleton. Later, Alpheus would publish two volumes of Jesse Appleton’s collected sermons and other works. Alpheus and his wife would have 4 sons and one daughter (including Alpheus Spring, Jr., a noted entomologist & paleontologist) before Frances died in 1839. In 1844 Alpheus married again, this time to the widow Mrs. Caroline W. McLellan of Portland. Together, they had one son. He was lifelong friend of fellow Bowdoin professor William Smyth, with whom he grew up with in Wiscasset. The pair, who were both married in 1827, built the Smyth-Packard house together at 6-8 College Street, living as neighbors for many years.

The Smyth-Packard House at 6-8 College St., now the Russwurm African-American Center. Form the Pejepscot Historical Society, acc# 1978.10a.

Despite his lasting legacy with many other interests and causes, Alpheus Spring Packard will forever be most strongly linked to his alma mater. In 1860 he received the honorary degree of D.D. from the college. Nine years later he celebrated his 50th year as a Bowdoin alumni with a dinner thrown by some of his famous students, including former U.S. President Franklin Pierce. At this dinner he was presented with a sum of $1,220, which is approximately $20,000 today. Many historians cite Packard as the longest-serving faculty member of Bowdoin, and possibly of any American college, with a total of 64 years. At the 1875 Bowdoin Commencement, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow mentioned Packard, Longfellow’s only living Bowdoin professor, in his famous poem “Morituri Salutamus”:

“Not so the teachers who in earlier days
Led our bewildered feet through learning's maze;
They answer us--alas! what have I said?
What greetings come there from the voiceless dead?
What salutation, welcome, or reply?
What pressure from the hands that lifeless lie?
They are no longer here; they all are gone
Into the land of shadows,--all save one.
Honor and reverence, and the good repute
That follows faithful service as its fruit,
Be unto him, whom living we salute.”

Packard's grave in Pine Grove Cemetery. The symbols next to the years of his birth & death are alpha and omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet.

Just one week after resigning his office as the college president, Alpheus traveled to Squirrel Island, Maine to hear a friend of his speak. He suffered a heart attack there on July 13, 1884 and died not long after. He was buried in Pine Grove Cemetery, just south of his father-in-law, Jesse Appleton. At his funeral, former student Joshua L. Chamberlain read a poem by Samuel V. Cole dedicated to Packard, which begins:

“Ah! But yesterday we saw him in the old familiar place
Where he welcomed all as children with his old-time country grace;
But we knew not it was Heaven that was shining on his face.

Light was nearer than we thought it, for today we come and find
He has passed beyond the shadow that had made our eyes so blind
And his more than fourscore summers are a golden trail behind.”

Adams, John Quincy letter to Alpheus S. Packard. 21 June 1843. Pejepscot Historical Society, acc# 1767.1.
Ashby, Thompson Eldridge. A History of the First Parish Church in Brunswick, Maine. Brunswick: J.H. French and Son, 1969.
Bowdoin College. Agency History/Biographical Note. George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives website.
Calhoun, Charles C. A Small College in Maine: Two Hundred Years of Bowdoin. Brunswick: Bowdoin College, 1993.
Cheetham, Mark. Facts and Legends Concerning the Underground Railroad in Topsham and Brunswick Maine website.
Cleaveland, Nehemiah. History of Bowdoin College, with Biographical Sketches of its Graduates. Boston: James Ripley Osgood & Company, 1882.
Cole, Samuel V. Poem read at Alpheus S. Packard’s funeral. Pejepscot Historical Society, acc# 2000.17a.
General Catalogue of Bowdoin College and the Medical School of Maine, 1794-1912. Brunswick: Bowdoin College, 1912.
Hatch, Louis C. The History of Bowdoin College. Portland, Maine: Loring, Short & Harmon, 1927.
“Hezekiah Packard”. Virtual American Biographies website.
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. “Morituri Salutamus”.
Wheeler, George Augustus & Henry Warren. History of Brunswick, Topsham, and Harpswell, Maine, Including the Ancient Territory Known as Pejepscot. Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1878.


  1. I checked the New York Times for 1881. I don't think it was the Professor who was the Packard sued for hazing. It was SAMUEL Packard who was accused. I am trying to track more for a hiztory of hazing prior to 1900. Any help would be appreciated. Hank Nuwer

  2. Nice catch, Hank! You are absolutely right. I rechecked by source and found that no first name was mentioned, I had simply assumed it was Alpheus Spring who had been implicated in the "crime." For more about the Bowdoin hazing problem from the 1880s, check out Hatch's History of Bowdoin College.