Class of 1931 faced floods, the Great Depression and prohibition

by Aaron Lisman | 6/9/96 5:00am

The Class of 1931, which is back in Hanover for its 65th reunion, may have been the brightest ever to attend Dartmouth at the time -- but they did not spend four years in the library.

Instead, members of the class spent time battling Prohibition, the Great Depression and one of the worst natural disasters in New England's history.

When they arrived as freshman in 1927, they were the College's smartest class ever, then-Director of Admission Gordon Bill wrote in a column in The Dartmouth.

"For many months [I have] felt that the material from which the Class of 1931 was chosen was much superior scholastically to that of any previous year," Bill wrote.

It was difficult to get a spot in the freshman class that year. More than 2,200 men applied for 626 spaces, the column states. Bill estimated that only 35 percent of applicants were accepted.

The Class of 1931 followed up on its promise of academic excellence, earning the highest grade point average ever recorded for a class its first semester, the column states.

But the smooth sailing did not last.

Two months into Fall term, the Class of 1931 faced a challenge for which no one could have been prepared.

"Devastating flood leaves huge losses of life and property swirling in wake," states the headline of the Nov. 4, 1927, issue of The Dartmouth. The flood was one of the worst natural disasters in New England's history.

Torrential rains and melting snow caused the Connecticut River to swell 30 feet above its normal level, the article states. The Red Cross organized a relief party of 1,000 Dartmouth students.

In an interview with The Dartmouth, Orodon Hobbs '31 said the flood was an unbelievable sight.

"Imagine the water flowing two feet over the bridge between West Lebanon and White River Junction," Hobbs said.

The Dartmouth reported, "As soon as the extent of the damage was partially understood, classes were cut, and study neglected ... students left town in the hope of bringing out news from Montpelier."

"Still others worked all night to remove furniture from homes thought to be in danger of dropping into the river."

Hobbs recalled the effort of his classmates who helped thousands of area residents whose homes were underwater or buried by mud.

More than 135 people were killed by the flood and millions of dollars worth of property were destroyed.

The heroic reaction to the call to arms dispelled a common stereotype of Dartmouth students as sophisticated idlers, The Dartmouth editorial board wrote.

Later in the year, when things calmed down, the class watched a famous boxer destroy his opponent.

Jack Sharkeley, the Turkish heavyweight boxing champion came to Hanover for a three-round bout, staying to cheer on Dartmouth's football team as it crushed Harvard 30-6 in front of 52,000 fans in Cambridge, Mass.

The Class of 1931 was on campus when the Trustees allocated $2 million for the construction of Carpenter Hall, Sanborn Hall and the Occom Pond field house.

The Dartmouth brought the world's obsession with trans-oceanic flight home to Hanover.

Reports came almost daily from South America, Labrador, California and Europe about attempts to "hop" the oceans by airplane.

The Class of 1931, in its own way, was also aspiring to greatness.

An Admissions Office survey revealed that 125 students planned to become businessmen, 77 planned to be lawyers, 58 planned to be doctors, and 22 planned to be engineers.

An even greater number of students were undecided, and one morbid student said he wanted to undertake the career of undertaking.

But some of those hopes crumbled when the Great Depression began in 1929, forcing people around the country from work.

In an interview with The Dartmouth last month, William Walsh '31 said, "The Depression really hit hardest about the last year we were there. It was creeping up the last two years."

Walsh said many of his classmates had to leave the College because of financial problems.

"We tried to save enough to eat on," Walsh said.

The prohibition of alcohol by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution also changed life at Dartmouth.

But it was not changed very much.

Despite the ban, most of the country's college students managed to stay "wet" according to a poll of nearly 24,000 students nationwide. Fifteen thousand reported they drank, while 8,569 said they abstained.

At Dartmouth, 64 percent said they drank, according to a poll taken by The Dartmouth.

During Prohibition, Dartmouth students upheld a common practice, relying on bootleggers to satisfy their thirst.

Walsh said a bootlegger named Joe Pulver kept Dartmouth students well-stocked.

Walsh said Dartmouth students also frequented a speakeasy across the river in Norwich, Vt.

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!