Cultural Heritage of UNH's "Bonfire Hill"
Moving through our daily schedules, we often overlook the history of our environment. As a public university, our campus has hosted many government events, but did you know that we housed military trainees in the last year of World War I? Hundreds of young men who had been drafted arrived on campus in late spring of 1918 to uphold their patriotic duty. The men arrived at UNH to learn a skilled trade. Instead of becoming a front-line soldier, they would train to become an engineer, electrician, carpenter, cook, blacksmith, machinist or topographer. These men occupied campus for eight months before the war ended in November of 1918.
UNH was among many universities throughout the nation where military camps were erected. Most officers lived in dorms or fraternity houses, including the now closed Alpha Tau Omega building on Main Street, however, the University did not have enough housing to accommodate all the men. Two military barracks were built on what is now the hill leading up to the MUB and campus bookstore, west of Quad Way. Although the structures were built to be temporary housing units for these drafted young men, the University kept the buildings as dorms for nearly 50 years, until they were demolished in 1971. After their demolition, students worked to have the area recognized as “East-West Park”. A plaque still sits on a rock identifying this designation, but the area does not resemble a park. Today, sidewalks and concrete steps blanket the area, sub-dividing what was intended to be green space and forgetting the small plaque on the boulder. This speaks to the issue of respecting conservation designations of the past. Admittedly, the walkways make the Memorial Union Building very accessible, but is this what the area was intended to develop into? The area does not resemble a park at all.
Recognizing the area’s history, a group of undergraduates conducted an archaeological dig in the summer of 2012 to search for military artifacts. They found pieces of the building, broken glass, concrete, and pieces of a sewer pipe. You can read the full article of the undergraduate archaeological dig here: http://scholars.unh.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1145&context=honors. I found it very interesting to learn of the activities the young men participated in during their time on campus. They offered their services to the community through building chicken coops for local farms, fixing automobiles, and even building University buildings, which still stand today. Under the leadership of Professor Eric Huddleston, the military carpentry students constructed the “commons building”, which today is Huddleston Hall. Students also constructed the entrance to Thompson Hall. These efforts were done using war funds. This created a good image for the military and made the community feel less like an occupied space. The community valued the work of the military students and kept their patriotism alive though a renewed focus on national pride. The legacy left by this brief stint in our University’s history should not be forgotten. Next time you walk through “East-West Park”, acknowledge why that area was created and what it used to hold. Acknowledge the structure of Huddleston Hall and the meaning it holds from its construction. We must not forget UNH’s cultural heritage and how our environment has developed into what it is today.
Ann Steeves, '14, Culture and Sustainability Task Force Manager