On the Wiggin Street crosswalk there is a disc that says “Philander Chase’s Well 1826-1965.” Although Kenyon students have tread over it unknowingly many times, the story of the plaque and the hole it covers is fascinating: Philander Chase’s well has shaped the way the campus looks and even caused controversy.
In a letter to his wife in 1826, Philander Chase described excavating Kenyon’s first well in a spot near Old Kenyon as a “herculean task.” This effort was wasted, though; diggers discovered the hole was dry and abandoned it, filling it with rubble before leaving, according to George Smythe in Kenyon College, Its First Century. Chase succeeded on his second attempt, digging a well in the place now marked by the metal disc.
It’s no coincidence that the well sits in the middle of campus because it “drew to its neighborhood the large group of buildings which the Bishop soon erected,” Smythe wrote. One can imagine that Middle Path didn’t pass near the well, but led to it.
In 1896, running water was introduced in Old Kenyon, and by 1902 more productive wells, dug at the foot of the west side of the Hill, eclipsed Chase’s, according to Smythe. Chase’s well has since remained unused.
“But in the mid 1960’s, trouble loomed,” Edward Ormad ’64 recalls in his blog, recounting how, after State Route 229 was washed out in a storm, Wiggin Street was redesignated as the new Route 229. This meant the road was put under the control of the state of Ohio, which put a blank cover over the well. “The students tore up the patch,” Ormad wrote, so the state “sent in a road crew, patched the pothole, and set a state highway patrolman to guard the patch while it hardened. The students came out in force.”
As Thomas Hensley ’68 recalled, “Shortly after Philander’s Well was capped, there was a riot devoted to that sacrilege … [and] state police appeared, to no avail. Someone procured aqua regia from the chemistry lab and poured it onto the cap. Goodbye, cap.” Others, according to Dave Foote ’66, “went in search of a pickaxe.”
Although these accounts may be hyperbolic, an April 1965 Collegian article about the riots confirmed that approximately 300 students demonstrated, and had to be dispersed by law enforcement.
According to Phil Cerney ’67 in a letter to the editor published in the Collegian, the angry students were not demonstrating against just the well cover itself, but against “a general erosion of values in our society and in our college.” He concluded that, “Philander’s hole is the embodiment of traditional values, and its closing is but one more step in a relentless process which is undercutting our civilization.”
Cerney may have been overstating the importance of the riots, but the demonstration led to the well’s current cover. The plaque is a reminder of this moment in Kenyon’s history, although walking over it today, one wouldn’t guess it covers a deep hole and a controversial past.