Early 20th Century Letter Details M.I.T. Track Meet, Debating

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Background on Thomas Brown: Shortly after graduating from Amherst College in Massachusetts in June 1904, Thomas C. Brown joined Amherst College Prof. F.B. Loomis and senior Walter W. Palmer on a well-publicized expedition to the Bad Lands of Wyoming (Boston Daily Globe article included). With saddle horses, a team and a wagon loaded with camping material, the three men headed for Wyoming, where they located the ancestral horse, about the size of a fox, but with three or four toes, and a large collection of fossil vertebrates. They returned to Amherst in September where their find was put on exhibit.


Brown became a prominent and professionally recognized geologist. He was head of the manual arts department at Fitchburg High School. He was a professor of geology from 1909-1911 at Middlebury College and an associate professor at Penn State. From 1912-1915, he was professor at Bryn Mawr College. He was a member of the National Geological Society and contributed many scientific papers, one on the glacial formation of the Nashua Valley for which he received the coveted Walker Prize in 1932, which recognizes "meritorious published scientific investigation and discovery." Brown was also a noted debater, even in high school. While in highs school in May, 1900, he participated in a debate between Fitchburg and Leominster high schools regarding the annexation of the Philippines. Brown was against it.

Offered here is a letter of good content regarding, among other topics, an early 20th century track meet between Amherst College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. [Track had only a few years earlier become a game of the Olympics. The first collegiate races had only begun about 25 years earlier.] The letter was written by Brown to his mother, Mrs. James Brown of Fitchburg, a month before graduating from Amherst College. Eight pp, 6 ½” x 5 ¼”, May 15, 1904. Brown also discusses at length a college play he attended, his debating activities and winning a debating match.

“…In the afternoon, there was a dual track meet between Amherst and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology here…It was very interesting especially toward the end for the results were in doubt until the last instant and, as luck would have it, M.I.T. won out by only two points, the final score being 64 to 62. The last race was the decisive one. It was a 220 yard hurdle race. The hurdles are like wooden horses set across the track and, while running the men have to jump over them. To win the meet, our men had to win both first and second in the race. Till the last second, it looked as if we would do it. Our two men were ahead when they crossed the last hurdle but before they came to the string which marked the end of the race, a Tech (M.I.T.) man passed one of our men, giving us first and third instead of first and second and so loosing us the race.

“After the meet was over we had tea with Mr. Shores’ folks and then went to see the Senior Dramatics in the Town Hall. The play that they gave was Shindan’s School for Scandal. And they gave it very well indeed. Joe Lowe is one of the ladies in the play and took his part in very good style. They all did better than I expected. The play is a sort of serious comical affair. Among the characters is old Sir Peter, a member of Parliament, and an old bachelor who has just married a young wife. A friend of his has two nephews, one with a very good character and the other a spendthrift. There are also several other gentlemen and ladies who spend all their time in gossip and spreading scandal. Sir Peter has lots of trouble in his married life and these other spread stories about him. At the end, he and his young wife are reconciled; his friends’ nephew with a good reputation turns out to be a villain and the spendthrift is a true gentleman. All ends well when the curtain falls…

“I think I have already told you about the debates that all the seniors had to take part in during the fall and winter term. In each debate, the class votes for the two best speakers and at the end of the time, they elect the sixteen best from those who have been chosen two or three times. These sixteen have to debate before judges and the eight best are selected to debate at commencement time…

“During the term I was elected best speaker of each of the three times I debated. Then in the final election, I was also made one of the sixteen. Now I have to prepare a debate to give before the judges and see if I can make the finals.

“There is also a prize of $100 offered for the one who can write and deliver the best oration. This is called the Hyde Prize. The orations were written toward the end of the last term. I wrote one but did not think there was any chance of having mine accepted. There were nearly twenty-five in all. Of these, the fifteen best were picked out (mine was one of them). Now we have to…deliver them before the judges. The six best are then selected to speak at commencement and the best one of the six gets the hundred dollars.

“Although I have made the hardy sixteen and the Hyde fifteen, I fear that I will drop out on the next trials…

“There is a mystery developing about my future which I do not understand. Prof. Kimball and Dr. Thompson know more about it than I do but as yet have not seen fit to tell me the particulars. Several strange gentlemen have been around the laboratory while I have had charge of the classes and seemed to be interested in what I was doing…”

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