HOLDERNESS SCHOOL • A BRIEF EARLY HISTORY
By Rick Carey. Reprinted from Holderness.org
In 1876 the Rt. Reverend W.W. Niles, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, knew that a no-frills Episcopal boarding school was needed in the state. He just didn't know if such a school could succeed.
"The value to our youth and to the state of a plain, honest, inexpensive school... will be incalculable, if it can, with the divine blessing that we seek, be begun and carried forward," he said to the Diocese's General Convention that year. "We shall have to begin quietly and to be contented for some years with small things. Then the seed will grow, if it be the Lord's planting."
The seed was quietly planted two years later with the purchase of 115 acres of property in Plymouth and Holderness from the widow of the Rev. D.D. Balch for the nominal sum of $4,000. The property, located on Joy Hill overlooking Plymouth, included the former mansion and barns of Samuel Livermore, chief justice of New Hampshire. The Holderness School was founded primarily for the benefit of clergymen's sons and was charged by the Diocese "to combine the highest degree of excellence in instruction and care-taking with the lowest possible charge for tuition and board."
Fifteen boys enrolled in September, 1879, under the rectorship of the Rev. Frederick Moreland Gray. The average annual tuition was $225, and in his blessing the rector of Holderness's Trinity Church urged, "Let not the heedless hand destroy, nor malice devour and rage. Let not the fire or axe come near it."
Over the years the Holderness School has been mostly spared heedlessness, malice, and the axe, but fire has come too near on two occasions. In 1882 Judge Livermore's house, which supplied both classrooms and residence space for the little school, burned to the ground in less than two hours. The mansion was replaced by the wooden Schoolhouse, still in use today, and Knowlton Hall, a building designed to accommodate 63 students, the rector and his family, and also the schoolmasters.
The first few decades of the twentieth century were marked by wildly fluctuating enrollments, from a lonely 35 to an overcrowded 81, and an unrelenting struggle to make ends meet. During the thirty-year rectorship of the Rev. Lorin Webster, however, the Holderness School began to make a name for itself, thanks largely to the brilliant choirs that Webster led, and also to the success of its athletic teams.
The cash-strapped school struggled mightily following Webster's retirement in 1922, and in 1931 fire struck again, destroying Knowlton Hall. Students were boarded at Plymouth's Pemigewasset House for the winter, and in the spring trustees considered shutting the school down for good. The new rector, The Rev. Edric Weld, along with his wife Gertrude, convinced them otherwise, and then began an innovative campus jobs program (still in effect today) that involved every student in the upkeep of the school.
The Welds found other ways to cut costs, recruited a core of outstanding faculty, and made every boy feel like a member of their family in the new school building, Livermore Hall. They began a modest ski program, and quietly paid many of the school's scholarship commitments and other expenses out of their own pockets.
The first layperson to head the school was Don Hagerman, who came to Holderness in 1951. A protoge of Deerfield headmaster Frank Boyden, Hagerman oversaw the development of a landmark student leadership program still observed today, one that rewards character, rather than popularity. Meanwhile Don Henderson, long-time Holderness history teacher and also coach of the US National Ski Team, built the ski program into an incubator of Olympic and NCAA Division I competitors.
The year 1969 was notable in several respects at Holderness. That was the year that Hannah Roberts, the daughter of a faculty member, became the first girl to attend the now fully co-ed school. It was also the inaugural year for two signature special programs: Senior Project and Out Back.
The Rev. B.W. "Pete" Woodward succeeded Hagerman in 1977, and in the next two decades Holderness climbed into the top echelon of independent schools in New England. Thanks to two successful capital campaigns and frugal business practices, the school was able - on a debt-free basis - to add several new facilities to its now 600-acre campus, and renovate a number of others. The Alfond Library, the Hagerman Center, the Gallop Athletic Center, the Edwards Art Gallery, and the Connell Dormitory are all fruits of this effort, as are renovations to the Schoolhouse, the Carpenter Arts Center, Weld Hall, and Niles and Webster dormitories.
Another innovation of the Woodward years was to dovetail the special programs begun in 1969 into a two-week period of experiential education programs for the entire enrollment: Artward Bound for 9th graders, Habitat for Humanity for sophomores, Out Back for juniors, and either Senior Project or Senior Colloquium for seniors. In addition, the scope of the school's commitment to financial aid for its students and professional development programs for its faculty was considerably enhanced, as was its embrace of electronic information technologies.
Pete Woodward retired in 2001, but confidence is high in his successor: Phil Peck, a Holderness history teacher since 1984, and also former Dean of Faculty, a Klingenstein Scholar, and one-time coach of the US Olympic nordic ski team.
Today Holderness boasts a $29 million endowment, a faculty that has produced headmasters at six other independent schools, and an array of nationally recognized programs in experiential learning, the arts, the outdoors, and winter sports. The trustees have limited enrollment in order to preserve Holderness's intimacy and small-school character. The school retains its association with the Episcopal Church, though its services are ecumenical, and all faiths are represented in its community. While no longer a low-cost alternative to other independent schools, the school still lives within its means, combining excellent instruction with "the lowest possible charge for tuition and board."
Holderness remains an honest and unpretentious school, one with alumni that include such notables as Bollingen Prize-winning poet Robert Creeley, US Representative Charlie Bass, Colby College president Bro Adams, Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry, professional cyclist Tyler Hamilton, world-champion extreme skier Alison Gannett, and famed expedition leader Ned Gillette. Looking back over nearly 125 years of Holderness history, Bishop Niles would no doubt conclude that the seed was indeed of the Lord's planting.