The South Barracks, Norwich University’s principal building at the original Norwich, Vermont campus, burned nearly to the ground on March 13th, 1866. No historical records mention deaths or injuries associated with the fire. In an April board meeting that year, the trustees resolved that they would endeavor to keep the university in Norwich if possible, but if not, they would seek accommodation in another town.
When the board convened again in August, it had been determined that a move was the prudent choice. The trustees heard a proposal from the citizens of Northfield, and within hours had voted to accept the proposal and go forward with the move. Many Northfield citizens made pledges toward covering the cost of the move and the building construction. The Norwich parade ground and bricks from the burned South Barracks were sold for $900 (some bricks survive and are set into the entryway floor of the Kreitzberg Library).
The move itself took place between August and October of 1866. A building committee was appointed and empowered to select and purchase land, prepare the site, and contract for construction materials and labor. Deeds were executed for the land the following month.
As far as we can tell, instruction continued in its regular course in spite of the lack of a permanent facility during this time. Degrees were granted to single-digit graduating classes in 1866, 1867, and 1868, and new faculty were recruited. A catalog printed in March 1867 indicates total enrollment of 40 cadets. The old Paine Block in downtown Northfield was used as an interim space for university operations.
The new building in Northfield–simply referred to as “the barracks” until it was christened Jackman Hall in 1907–was completed sometime in 1868 or 1869 (1868 is the usually cited date, but the evidence is mixed). The university would struggle to complete payment for the building for the remainder of the century, leading in one case to a humorous incident where a citizen who was owed a substantial sum “reclaimed” the parade ground and planted potatoes on it.
Norwich was under financial strain throughout this time period, struggling to assemble funds for the salaries of the president and the very small faculty. Thanks to the tenacity and goodwill of the faculty, trustees, townspeople, and students, the university persevered and put down deep roots in the town we now know as our home—Northfield, Vermont.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Northfield move, visit the Norwich Archives to look at Board of Trustees minutes, citizen pledge documents, course catalogs from the 1860s, and more.