Colby Peace Pipe: a curious, forgotten tradition

Colby has many forgotten traditions that once held a great deal of meaning for students, the records of which can be found in the Echo’s archives. Among these is the tradition of smoking a literal peace pipe. Though an important tradition for many early Colby graduates, the peace pipe was an appropriation of Native American culture that was popular during the 19th century.

First used by the Class of 1862, the pipe has a long and tumultuous history. Originally, the pipe was smoked by each class member following the class dinner held during graduation week. The idea was that each graduating senior would take a puff from the pipe and pass it on, although it seems that this may not have always worked out well. In 1884, 22 years after the pipe’s first use, a writer for the Echo stated, “The smoking of the pipe of peace was for the first time in history a success, a good flame being kept up in the capacious bowl until every member of the class had been able if not willing to get a liberal whiff.” After the ceremony was completed, the class year was carved onto the bowl. The first inscription is notable considering  the College’s history, as it reads “Waterville College,” predating the adoption of “Colby College” in 1867.

During its use, the peace pipe was a popular item to steal; it disappeared no less than three times in 85 years, which is detailed in a 1948 edition of the Echo. The first disappearance was due to several seniors who graduated in the class of 1903. After its return in 1909, the perpetrators claimed they had taken it out of nostalgia and forgotten to return it. When they discovered their mistake, they put it in a package that was being sent home, and let it sit there until some alumni tracked it down.

The length of the second disappearance is debatable. A 1948 article states that it was only missing for four or five years, while a 1941 article claims it was instead missing nine years, from 1931 to 1941. What’s particularly interesting about this occurrence is that the pipe wasn’t stolen—it was just lost in the library. The pipe was found in “a back corner of the library” in 1941, where it was assumed to have sat for the duration of its disappearance. When it was found, the pipe was sent in for repairs and brought back to Colby for use in the graduation ceremonies.

The third disappearance occurred in 1948. which is what the formerly mentioned article addresses. This event sets a very different scene than the first. While in the first the alumni worked to get the pipe back, in the second its absence wasn’t even noticed. The article states that a painter who was working at the college stole the pipe from the library, but no one realized the pipe was missing until it was found by the police in the painter’s home, along with other stolen objects.

There are other instances where the pipe was missed and its whereabouts were less certain. In 1962, students were interested in bringing back the peace pipe tradition, but were having trouble finding the pipe itself. The last mention of the peace pipe in the Echo archives reads,  “The old Colby tradition of smoking a peace pipe at commencement should be reinstated. Where is the peace pipe?” Perhaps, like the 1931 case, it remained in the library undetected.

The pipe itself is a formidable object. Over three feet long and carved out of wood, the pipe’s bowl is able to hold “two ordinary ten-cent packages of tobacco,” as described by a writer for the Echo in 1941. The writer goes on to describe the pipe’s features, which include the years of each graduating class that smoked it and the human faces that are engraved on the bowl. For those who are interested in seeing the pipe in person, the pipe is on display in Special Collections, which is open from Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 P.M.

Though the pipe is no longer in use, it was an important part of Colby’s graduation ceremonies from before the school was called “Colby” until the mid-20th century. Students wrote songs about the pipe, hailing it as a symbol of remembrance for the many memories and friendships formed during their time at Colby (for full lyrics, see “Pipe Ode” by Bertram C. Richardson, class of 1908). While its active time is over, the pipe still serves as an important reminder of Colby’s past and the strong traditions associated with the College.

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