August 1957: The dismantling of Sampsonville

At Bates in the early ’70s, newly relaxed parietal rules meant that male and female students could inhabit the same college dorm.

That was a huge deal, but history shows that coed student housing actually arrived at Bates, albeit for only a brief stay, a quarter-century earlier.

sampsonville construct for PP
One of the Sampsonville buildings is reassembled at Bates, probably in the summer of 1946. (Muskie Archives and Special Collections Library)

Near the end of World War II, to accommodate returning war veterans and their families, Bates and the federal government struck a deal: if Bates did the site work, the feds would install apartment houses on campus.

By fall 1946, three former naval barracks, dubbed “Sampsonville” after the benevolent Bates administrator/landlord, Charles Sampson, were situated where Olin Arts Center and Wentworth Adams Hall now stand.

The three barracks comprised 40 apartments, and rents for the one-, two- and three-bedroom units were $38.50, $45.50 and $52.50, respectively (including utilities). Cheap, perhaps, but veterans’ finances were tight. The GI Bill provided $500 annually for books and tuition at a time when the Bates tuition approached that figure, plus just $120 monthly in living expenses for married couples with a child. (And were there children: a May 1947 tally showed 26 young baby boomers in Sampsonville.)

sampsonville24-1 copy
After World War II, surplus Navy barracks from the airport in Auburn became Bates’ Sampsonville. PIctured here are two of the three buildings, Bardwell and Garcelon houses, as they looked around 1947. The buildings stood where today stand Adams Hall and Olin Arts Center (Muskie Archives and Special Collections Library)

“Money was tight, and movies or eating out were luxuries,” wrote Audrey and Bill Norris ’51 in “Sampsonville Revisited” in the Winter 1992 Bates Magazine.

“The men studied and the women worked,” often taking a part-time job in Lewiston. Not that the families were inclined to party or seek out traditional college fun. This was the Greatest Generation, eager to move on. “The people of Sampsonville were serious and dedicated in their pursuit of an education,” the Norrises wrote.

They recalled simple pleasures for the Sampsonvillers: “If the weather was good and the kids were sleeping well, a late-evening visit to Hector’s Pub would involve two 10-cent glasses of beer and a leisurely walk home.”

sampsonville mothers
With their children, some of the wives of war veterans who returned to study at Bates pose outside a Sampsonville building, circa 1947. (Muskie Archives and Special Collections Library)

Readers might wonder if that meant leaving the sleeping children unattended, but not to worry: Sampsonville’s wafer-thin walls meant everyone heard everything, and the residents looked out for each other.

Conversational voices passed easily from one apartment to the next, but to create the impression of privacy, it was customary to shout when intentionally communicating with a neighbor across the wall.

(Woe to those who didn’t know about the talking walls: Younger, unmarried Bates couples who babysat for Sampsonvillers could, the Norrises noted, “unwittingly provide an evening’s entertainment for the old married couple on the other side of the thin walls.”)

Charles Sampson had come to Bates in 1943 as a faculty member in the Navy’s V-12 officer-training program and stayed on after the war. A University of Maine engineering graduate and headmaster of the Huntington School for Boys in Boston before the war, he worked to integrate Sampsonville into Bates life.

sharp photo, Sampson
Charles Sampson

Sampson encouraged the families to form their own Bates club (known as the Ball and Chain Club), and the group put on an original play, Me and the Missus, in April 1947, at which Sampson received a gold key to Sampsonville. “Mr. Sampson doesn’t need a key,” noted the presenter. “For him the doors in Sampsonville are always open.”

Sampson wrote a mimeographed newsletter that could gently scold residents for not emptying refrigerator pans (they’d overflow and leak into the apartment below) while at the same time report on baby showers, new births and day-to-day events.

Sampson’s newsletters had “unhurried wisdom and humor,” in the words of the Bates College Bulletin. “Had a piece of Polly Tooker’s pie the other day. Good!” Sampson wrote in his newsletter. Another time he added, “I continue to marvel at the way you folks help each other…. Reminds me of the good old-fashioned neighborliness that used to be traditional in this country.”

The veterans and their families came and went in a few years, with another modest increase after the Korean conflict. The era of the married Bates student was soon over, and, in fact, the College would for years later actively discourage the enrollment of married students or the marriage of current students.

Sampson himself retired in 1953. Later in the ’50s, Sampsonville offered housing to faculty couples and single students (men only). Construction of Page Hall in 1957, as well as Sampsonville’s growing need for maintenance, made the barracks expendable, and removal of the buildings was under way by August 1957, a month after Sampson’s death at age 74.

At Reunion 1999, Sampsonville alumni gathered once again to dedicate a granite memorial in memory of their community and the man who helped them start, and in many cases re-start, their postwar lives.

Material for this story came from “Sampsonville Revisited,” by Audrey and Bill Norris ’51, Winter 1992 Bates Magazine, and “End of an Era,” by Arthur Griffiths ’50, in the September 1957 Bates College Bulletin.