Return Mail

Return Mail

By Diane Ballard

Few would disagree that letter writing seems destined to go the way of dance cards and dollar-a-gallon gas. But a letter can still pique our interest—especially if it’s 175 years old and written by a former president of UT.

Dr. Joseph Estabrook, president of what was then East Tennessee College in Knoxville, penned the letter to his cousin in New Hampshire on Christmas Day in 1835. The antique missive, which includes Estabrook’s description of the college that later became UT Knoxville, is back in Tennessee thanks to serendipity and a bit of cash.

Tom Broadhead, a director in the UT Knoxville admissions office, recently purchased the letter from a Tennessee graduate who had had it so long he didn’t remember how or when he acquired it. Broadhead donated the letter to university archives for safekeeping.

The unexpected transaction occurred in South Carolina, at a stamp show in Charleston. Broadhead, a collector since childhood, was scouting for the rare French stamps that are his specialty. While at the show, he saw longtime acquaintance Webster Stickney, a postal history dealer from Colorado, who earned a master’s in geology from UT Knoxville in 1955. Broadhead is a former geology professor, and he and Stickney had struck up an acquaintance after encountering each other at shows over the years.

At the Charleston show in early 2011, Stickney told Broadhead he had something special to offer.

“Web showed me a Xerox copy of the letter and said he thought it was ‘time for it to go back home,’?” Broadhead recalls. “When it was obvious I was interested, he reached under the table and pulled out the original.”

Though Broadhead had never been a university history devotee, he quickly became one. “My checkbook magically found its way out of my pocket,” and he owned a piece of history. “I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for the rest of the day,” he says.

Back in Knoxville, he hurried to the campus office of Betsey Creekmore, unofficial university historian, who was as flabbergasted by the find as Broadhead. “Betsey offered to buy the letter, but I said ‘no, I’m going to donate it to the archives.’

“Betsey said that’s what she would do with it too.”

The paper is a “folded letter,” meaning there was no envelope. The letter was written on one side of an 11-by-17-inch sheet, which was then folded in upon itself and addressed. There is no postage stamp—the first U.S. stamps weren’t issued until 12 years later. The letter is stamped PAID, showing that Estabrook paid for its delivery.

In the letter, the former president, a graduate of Dartmouth and former professor at Amherst College, tells his cousin that he is president of a “college on a hill about a half a mile from town” and describes some of his responsibilities and accomplishments.

Estabrook, who served from 1834 to 1850, is credited by historians as a strong president. During his tenure, the state legislature changed the name of East Tennessee College to East Tennessee University, conferring additional prestige and responsibility.

For more information, visit UT library’s special collection.

Excerpt from Estabrook’s letter

“The College over which I preside is on a hill like that of Amherst about half a mile from town where I spend each day Saturday excepted. The Office of President here is no sinecure. If I have more salary than the professors I have all the responsibility—everything to oversee and attend to.

“East Ten. College was as low as it possible [sic] could be when I accepted my appointment. It is now more flourishing than I ever expected to see it. We have good advantages as it respects apparatus and library, and have reduced the price of boarding by erecting a boarding house which I think the main cause of our prosperity. Should providence continue to bless our exertions we look forward to a large and highly respectable college.

“We have now about 80. Our requirements and course of study is the same with Amherst and Yale.”