Walking by history © Oct. 27, 2007 Norwich University Office of Communications
Kelly Gonzalez, ’07 is a detective. Every day students, faculty, staff and researchers come to Norwich University’s Kreitzberg Library seeking information about the nation’s oldest private military college. As the University’s historical collection specialist, Gonzalez is often the person who ferrets out the information for them.
“There are many places to look for answers, so each question is like a treasure hunt,” Gonzalez said. “It’s what makes my job fun, exciting and different every day.”
Although Norwich showcases numerous historical items in its library and museum, many others are part of the campus landscape. Each day as students and faculty traverse the campus, they pass by historical items that have seen the deserts of Africa, the open seas from an early twentieth century gunship, and places and events too varied to list.
Brian Anthony ’08 knows several of those objects’ stories very well. As part of the Norwich History senior seminar taught by Charles A. Dana Professor, Gary Lord, Anthony has chosen to research some of these artifacts over the course of the semester. Included in his research are a WWII Sherman tank parked on Sabine Field, a Spanish naval war gun located behind the Wise Campus Center, and a pair of mortars that sit atop the University’s southern gate.
Anthony said he picked his subjects “…because they were esoteric and their exact history was shrouded.” Fortunately for Anthony, he’s had Gonzalez’s help poring over the mountains of primary source documents he’s needed to learn the stories of his chosen artifacts. Despite this, Anthony noted that finding out about Norwich history is no easy task. And Lord echoed that sentiment.
“Researching items like these can be challenging as there is no one indexed place to look,” said Lord, Norwich’s official historian. “You could work for years on a project like that.”
In researching the Sherman tank, Anthony used the presidential papers of retired Army Maj. Gen. Ernest Harmon, Norwich’s president from 1950-1965. During that time, Harmon transformed the campus and the acquisition of “Sabine Sally,” an M4 WWII model manufactured between 1942 and 1943, was one example of this transformation.
At the time, Norwich was on a list of colleges unable to receive gifts directly from the government. Protesting this in a letter to the secretary of defense, Harmon noted that during WWII, Norwich had “…16 generals and some 1,600 officers of several grades…” serve in the war, a number he described as “…quite a contribution…” for a school the size of Norwich.
In the end, the town of Northfield officially requested and received the Sherman tank as a gift from the government and in turn Sabine Sally was then gifted it to Norwich. Arriving from Camp Dunn, N.J., in April of 1957, the tank was placed on Sabine Field where it remains today.
Gonzalez noted in her job she helps others “…do original research with primary documents, photographs and objects. To be able to do that at a university with such a long, rich history is wonderful.”
Gonzalez’s help was enlisted in the writing of this story to help uncover the history of one of Norwich’s lesser-known historical oddities. Passed daily by numerous faculty, staff and students on their way to class or the Computer Services’ help desk, a brass bell merely 12–inches tall rests demurely on a pedestal in the hallway of Partridge Hall. A small plaque underneath the bell tells of a commemoration ceremony held in honor of Gen. Grenville Mellen Dodge, Class of 1851. Dodge, a prominent engineer and a key figure behind the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, played a major role in shaping the course of United States history. As such, to celebrate the centennial of his departure from Norwich, the University and the town of Northfield threw a railroad–themed ceremony to honor the alum and the man for whom Dodge City is named.
At the celebration, representatives from The Central Vermont Railroad honored Dodge and the University by naming their number 700 train, one of a fleet of ten large, steam–propelled freight locomotives, the Norwich University. The train remains the only locomotive ever to be named after an institution of higher learning. After 26 years of service and more than two million miles of rail traveled, the Norwich University was retired from service. The bell, however, remains in service in Partridge Hall as a constant reminder of Norwich’s and Dodge’s roles in shaping the nation.
Along with Sabine Sally and the Norwich’s bell, there are numerous other living pieces of history on campus. And that, Gonzalez says, is part of what separates Norwich from other schools.
“I feel lucky to be at a university where students know quite a bit about the history of their university, it's very unusual,” she said. “I think it's in part because so many historical objects are visible and accessible around campus. The Norwich community has an amazing amount of access to very rare, very old items from its history; it's one thing that makes the University unique.”