In 1842, Kenyon’s grounds were a mess. Piles of building materials dotted the lawns. There was little, if any, landscaping. And, most noticeably, there was no Middle Path.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. The College had made attempts at beautifying the campus before, but “the investigating snouts of roving swine” dug up any tree, bush or flower before it could take root, according to historian George Franklin Smythe in his 1924 book Kenyon College, Its First Century.
When Kenyon’s third president, David Bates Douglass, arrived on campus in 1841, he sought to put an end to the disorder. Douglass was the landscaper of the famous Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y., that was specifically designed to mirror stately rural cemeteries — a landscape not unlike that of the college he would lead.
Soon after arriving on campus, Douglass cleared the debris and instituted rules for the fencing-in of livestock that had previously roamed free on campus. This reorganization allowed him to lay down the stretch of gravel whose foundations remain.
At the time, Middle Path only extended from Old Kenyon to the Gates of Hell. It was not until 1860 that President Gregory Burston Mattel extended the path past the Gates, into Gambier and all the way north to the Bexley Hall Seminary.
As Kenyon expanded, Middle Path became harder to maintain. Back then, the path was just gravel and would gradually widen each year under the trampling feet of hundreds of students, traffic that destroyed most of the surrounding lawn.
“It didn’t look awful back then, by any means,” College Historian and Keeper of Kenyoniana Thomas Stamp ’73 said. “It just wasn’t as golf course-like back then. People thought it could do with some cleaning up.”
That sentiment, combined with rumors that Middle Path would be paved to cut costs (Stamp insists plans were never made, although contemporary Collegian articles suggest many believed the rumors), led more than 600 students, faculty and community members to unite for Kenyon’s first annual Middle Path Day on April 3, 1971.
On that day, members of the Kenyon community planted over 400 saplings, raked Middle Path, cleaned up trash, cleared trails and laid stones in front of Farr Hall to create its patio space.
The community continued to meet over the next decade to start more projects that would make Kenyon greener and cleaner. Notable additions during Middle Path Day include laying the bricks along the path downtown in 1972 and the planting of some 1,000 perennials along Middle Path in a pattern designed by Columbus-based landscape architect Carolyn Marsh.
By the late 1980s, attendance at the annual spring cleaning event had dropped significantly; it faded into relative obscurity after sporadic celebration during the 1990s and early 2000s.
Despite increased publicity for the event from the administration in recent years, Middle Path Day still struggles with attendance, Stamp said. The annual day of campus stewardship, which usually takes place in April, only benefits from the efforts of a few dozen attendees — most of them faculty and village residents, rather than students.
While Stamp believes students can still take charge like they used to, he says that process will be inhibited by Kenyon’s bigger groundskeeping staff and more demanding student schedules.
When asked for final comment on whether any part of the original Middle Path improvements resulted in reactions similar to those surrounding the latest construction project, Stamp had only this to say:
“Well, somebody probably grumbled about something. It is Gambier, after all.”