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Who was Benjamin E. Bates?

Bates College gains its name from the generosity and spirit of its earliest benefactor, Benjamin Bates.

Benjamin Edward Bates was born in Mansfield, Mass., on July 12, 1808, the third of Sarah and Elkanah Bates’ eight children.

Elkanah Bates was a town leader — a “merchant, cotton manufacturer, and farmer,” according to Oren Cheney, founder and first president of Bates College. The young Benjamin Bates was raised in a family that, in Cheney’s words, respected the “service of song, the discipline of kindness, and the teaching of truth-telling, honesty, integrity, temperance, industry, frugality, benevolence, and love of country.”

An entrepreneur, Benjamin Bates co-founded Davis, Bates & Turner (later Bates & Turner), a dry goods wholesale business in Boston. He also served as president and on the board of several corporations, including railroads.

Hearing of the Androscoggin River’s “magnificent falls” in Lewiston-Auburn, Benjamin Bates and a business partner visited in 1847. Oren Cheney imagined the young businessman’s first visit:

“I seem to see them at this moment, now walking the banks of our river, now stopping at the falls, and ending the day by an ascent of Mount David, to secure from its summit a better view of our natural surroundings!”

Benjamin Bates decided to invest in Lewiston, at the time just a small town. He became a co-founder of the Lewiston Water Power Co. and of the city’s first bank, and would be the largest investor in the Bates Mill, which opened in 1854. He also made several significant gifts to support a new educational institution in Lewiston founded in 1855 by Oren Cheney. Honoring his philanthropy, the school became Bates College in 1864.

Benjamin Bates died in 1878, and President Cheney offered the eulogy, saying this about the benefactor’s philanthropy and community involvement:

“…Mr. Bates wanted labor for our laborers, education for our children, places of worship for our worshipers, light for our streets, water for our houses, and a hospital for our sick and our dying.

“I have frequently heard him say that he would not knowingly do anything against the interest of this people; and that he would sooner invest 10 dollars in Lewiston than one dollar in any other place. ‘I love Lewiston. I love the College,’ he was accustomed to say. ‘Say to the Trustees that I love the College,’ was a special message he once sent by me to a meeting of the College Boards; and he once wrote to me, ‘I shall be with you in spirit.’…

“To the honor of human nature, be it said that men live as they interest themselves in improving the condition of their fellowmen. Things material perish with their using; and stores and cotton mills and banks are things material. Things spiritual never die; and thoughts employed and words uttered and gifts bestowed, with the object of making the world morally better, are things spiritual.”

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