Sycamores: A Look Inside the Home of South Hadley’s Wealthiest Bachelor (in 1788)
Sycamores, located on Woodbridge Street north of the Mount Holyoke campus and named for the grand trees that once lined the building’s path, was built in 1788 by Colonel Benjamin Ruggles Woodbridge. South Hadley’s wealthiest resident and illustrious bachelor wore the hats of a physician, a mill-owner and still-owner, a shopkeeper, and a military man—he led a regiment at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Colonel Ruggles lived in the house for the remainder of his life, and with his death in 1819 the land passed to his nephews, who turned the house into a school for boys. For the next fifteen years, approximately forty young boys attended the Woodbridge Scientific and Practical School, until the building was given up to a succession of private owners.
Famed friend to the College and local businessman Joseph Skinner purchased the house in 1915, by which time so many wings had been added on to the original structure it was said the whole house would take flight at any moment. Skinner turned the building into a dormitory for Mount Holyoke students, and the College purchased the building in its centennial year, 1937.
A visit from Mary Lyon was noted in the May 15, 1938, Springfield Republican: “Mary Lyon, founder of the seminary, was entertained at the [Sycamore] house. . . . There is a tradition that she once slept in one of the bedrooms which is now a student room. It is certain, at least, that she shared meals with the family on several occasions, for Byron Smith, then a little boy, told of seeing Miss Lyon in the dining room and of being tremendously impressed with her starched cap.”
As a College residence Sycamores housed approximately fifteen students at a time, usually sophomores, accompanied by a cook, a maid, and a house mother. Tales of hauntings by a master purportedly killed by his cook and bumps in the night were popular in the old house, as was a murmur of a secret tunnel underneath that was once part of the Underground Railroad. (A tunnel was found with the removal of a tree in 1945, but its purpose was unclear.)
In 1959 the building was designated the campus religious center and residence of the dean of the College chapel. A few years later it became the quarters of participants in Mount Holyoke’s A Better Chance program for underprivileged local high-school girls, until it was declared a guest house for male visitors in 1985. For a five-dollar deposit, a student’s visiting boyfriend or brother could rent a bed for the night, relieving the “security risk posed by the presence of male guests in the dormitories,” according to a newspaper story published in October 1985. Sycamores served this purpose for about a decade before falling into disrepair.
In 1999, the Sycamores Restoration Committee—a group led by South Hadley Historical Society member and Mount Holyoke chemistry professor Kenneth L. Williamson and his wife, Louise—purchased the house and lot from the College. Over the past eighteen years, Sycamores has been restored to its former historical glory and can now be appreciated by visitors as a window into the rich history of South Hadley.
—By Rowan Collins ’18
This article appeared as “Sycamores” in the summer 2017 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.
July 14, 2017