Joseph S. Cilley: Honored 45 years after he left Williston

Joseph C. Cilley was principal of the Williston Academy from 1858 to 1868. (Photo courtesy of the Williston Historical Society).
Joseph C. Cilley was principal of the Williston Academy from 1858 to 1868. (Photo courtesy of the Williston Historical Society).

By Richard H. Allen

Special to the Observer

The 1913 community celebration of Williston’s 1763 charter included a “reunion of the alumni of J. S. Cilley’s school.” This was actually the Williston Academy, and Mr. Cilley had been a beloved principal there. Why would they hold such an event 45 years after he left town? What was it about Cilley that made people remember him so fondly?

The 1913 Williston school reunion started with literary exercises on the grounds of the Root homestead, probably a reference to the present 7979 Williston Road house (Slate Barn Antiques). The banquet, scheduled for 5 p.m., did not begin until 6 p.m., perhaps due to the logistics of getting the estimated 525 graduates and friends moved to the basement of the Federated Church for a seven-course dinner. The guest of honor was Mrs. Edmund Whitney (formerly Miss Seaton), one of Cilley’s assistants. She received a standing ovation.

Cilley was born in Hopkinton, N.H. in 1815. His family moved to Jericho, and he worked on the farm. He was self-educated, studying at night to tackle algebra, geometry, Latin and Greek. He taught in Ohio for a short time, then returned to Vermont.

His Vermont teaching career started in Underhill and in 1853 he moved to Underhill Center, where he was principal of the brand new Green Mountain Academy; the building still stands behind the St. Thomas Catholic Church.

Cilley’s years in Underhill were remembered in the Vermont Historical Gazetteer magazine. Cilley “…has done more for the educational interest of the town than any other man. Truly an earnest, devoted, successful teacher, and a noble man. In all the states from Maine to California, are his pupils to be found. Many thousands remember him with affectionate gratitude and esteem. [He] lately received an honorary degree of A. M. from UVM. With no aids save text books and his vigorous mind, he has excelled those with the greatest advantages.”

Cilley moved to Williston in 1858 to become principal of the Williston Academy that had just undergone repairs and refurbishment by townsfolk in an attempt to make it more attractive to students.

Had they also taken this on to draw in a rising educational star like Cilley? The Academy was located approximately where the armory stands today.

In November of 1858, a Burlington Free Press notice for the school set the tone for what Cilley expected from the students. “The conditions of membership in this School are correctness of deportment, diligence and thoroughness in study, and obedience to law,” it read.

In 1861, pupils could study common English, higher English, Latin, Greek and French. Music, with the use of a piano, was the most expensive course at $10 tuition per term. Board cost $1.50 a week. If fuel and washing were included the cost rose to $2.

Eventually, in 1862, Cilley purchased a house in Williston, now 8420 Williston Road, the present home of Ken and Ginger Morton. In February of 1869, after he had left Williston, Cilley was open to either renting or selling the house. He had some trouble moving the property, for later in 1870 it was still up for sale with this Burlington Free Press notice: “For Sale at a Bargain. One of the most desirable places in Williston Village, owned and formerly occupied by J. S. Cilley. Four acres of excellent land, good supply of shade and Fruit trees, good Barn, House pleasant and very convenient. Fences and Buildings all in good repair. Also a quantity of wood, four to five tons of hay, cutter, wagon, and a good covered carriage.” It was eventually sold in September of 1870.

After ten years of residing in Williston, Cilley once again moved on, this time to Brandon where the school there had been remodeled for $18,000 from three to two stories, resulting in rooms with high ceilings. Cilley was attracted by renovated facilities that proved a community’s commitment to education. He stayed there until 1880. A plaque placed in his honor in 1920 lauded his “profound scholarship, his high ideals, his unselfish service to the youth of Brandon.”

A Vermonter magazine article by E. S. Marsh depicted Cilley as a “strict disciplinarian, [who] insisted upon observance of the rules, and carried his oversight of his scholars beyond the school walls and the school hours. His interest in them never flagged, and his care for their mental and moral welfare was earnest and unceasing.”

Williston Academy, started in 1828 by Reverend Peter Chase, had pupils enrolled from other towns and neighboring states, as well as locals. The ten years under Cilley’s administration are often cited as the apex of its reputation. Besides the Academy, the village was advertised as a great place to live. An 1866 school catalog describes Williston as a “pleasant and quiet village…in regard to health, the place is very desirable…entirely free from haunts of idleness and dissipation, and the location is…favorable to good order, to mental improvement, and moral culture.”

Schools like the Williston Academy were not uncommon in Chittenden County in the 19th century. Underhill had two of them. There was also the Hinesburgh Academy, the Female Seminary in Charlotte and the Essex Classical Institute in Essex Center. The competition for students called for frequent advertising in the local newspapers, as well as laudatory articles. The standing of the school often hinged on the headmaster’s reputation as an inspiring educator. So it was a bold stroke for some of the citizens of Williston to improve the physical structure of the Academy and hire Cilley to oversee the transformation into a well-regarded institution.

Cilley established a solid reputation for Williston and the Academy as a place for a rigorous education under the guidance of an esteemed and admired educator. The Reverend A. D. Barber of Williston said of Cilley, upon his death in 1898, he “always used his teachership as a sacred trust, a high commission from Heaven.”

Richard Allen is a local historian and author. He has written a series of articles for Williston’s 250th anniversary. His research is supported by the Williston Historical Society.