Heading for the Hills on Mountain Day: It's Been a Mount Holyoke Tradition Since 1838

<<< From 1838 at least through this 1940 jaunt, students were driven from campus to local mountains by horse-drawn carriages to begin their Mountain Day hikes.

While you were celebrating Mountain Day this week, did you think about how long Mount Holyoke women have done so? The fall holiday dates back to 1838, only one year after Mount Holyoke Seminary opened! The tradition, believed to be unique to Mount Holyoke and Smith College (which adopted it in the 1870s), was interrupted only by the Civil War and an on-campus fire. Even during World War II, students took to the great outdoors during Mountain Day, though in those years many picked apples or potatoes to help farmers cope with the wartime shortage of laborers.

Mountain Day may have originated in Mary Lyon's enthusiasm for the health benefits of walking. She mandated that each student walk at least one mile every day, and probably supported the notion of canceling classes in favor of an outdoor foray. Until 1893 Mountain Day was held in June (classes ran November through July then) rather than early fall, and for a while there were separate Mountain Day festivities for seniors and freshmen.

Over the years, students have climbed every nearby mountain and hillock, picnicked at the Summit House atop Mount Holyoke, and biked leaf-dappled lanes down to the Quabbin Reservoir and all over the Holyoke Range. In the college archives is an 1838 notebook entry by student Lucy Goodale, describing the first Mountain Day hike: "The sun had just merged above the eastern hills, tingeing their tops with his ruddy rays while every blade of grass glistened with tears of dew as if overjoyed at his approach, when ten or twelve carriages stopped before the door." Soon, the vehicles were "filled and a large party set out on a long anticipated ride to Mount Holyoke." Leaving the carriages near the base, "the party ascended on foot. The path was steep and rugged, in some places almost perpendicular and [in] others like a winding flight of stairs ... When we had gained the summit, a cooling breeze swept over the mountain, and fanned our heated brows ... " Rest, and enjoyment of "the lofty ranges of Tom and Holyoke capped with clouds of gold and azure" followed. The women viewed Amherst through a telescope, sang songs, and returned to the seminary "about noon, somewhat fatigued by excessive exercise but amply compensated with a rich fund of knowledge gained by the observation of the morning."

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