Adapted from an article by Peter F. Young that first appeared in the Dog River Crier, the newsletter of the Northfield Historical Society, and which later appeared in Young’s book, Tales from the Dog (And More).
When a fire destroyed Norwich University’s South Barracks in March of 1866, the university lacked the resources to rebuild on the site. The citizens of Norwich, Vermont, likewise could not contribute to a rebuilding of the campus.
Norwich University put out the word: “If you build it, we will come.” Montpelier was interested and so was Northfield, whose leaders felt a college might jump-start the town’s economy. In April of 1866, a Northfield development committee, which included local steel foundry owner Perley Belknap, met with Norwich University trustees. They offered the school free land and a “commodious barracks” if it would move its campus to Northfield.
On October 18, 1866, Norwich University trustees met in Northfield and selected an 11-acre site situated at the south end of Central Street. Belknap, who had joined the board, was appointed superintendent of the project. His company paid the bills for labor and materials and was to be reimbursed by the building committee, which would raise the funds from alumni and other donors.
By the time the university moved into the barracks in September 1868, Belknap had paid $23,000 in construction bills but had been reimbursed only $20,000. He spent the next six years pursuing the collection of this $3,000 delinquency against the university, which had assumed the debt when it took possession of its new campus. Only a few payments were made. In dire financial straits, Belknap brought suit in 1874 and secured a judgment from the Washington County Court for $1,655.93.
The university still did not pay. In 1875, trying to buy time, the university granted Belknap a mortgage deed for most of the property, including the Upper Parade and Jackman Hall. But enrollment was dangerously low and the university was struggling to pay faculty salaries. With no means to pay the mortgage, they defaulted, and in September 1878, the property reverted to the possession of Perley Belknap.
He immediately began to assert his ownership rights in an unusual way. The period from 1878 through 1889 became known as the potato-war years as Belknap planted crops, notably tubers, on the Upper Parade and elsewhere. Each fall the returning students would dig up the crops and the war would begin anew. “The Hill” became known as “Potato Hill.” According to one report, the cadets once even burned Belknap in effigy.
Belknap died in 1889, bankrupt and still the legal owner of the Norwich campus. His estate, including the university’s property, was put up for auction. Through a series of machinations, a group of trustees was able to buy the land back for just $10. An outstanding mortgage that Belknap had taken out on the property was not paid in full until 1903, bringing an end to a nearly 40-year saga.