Pingree’s Past

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Pingree’s Past

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The Pingree house was completed in 1933, but this history of Pingree goes back much further than that.  It began in 1641 when a man named Moses Pengry sailed from England with his brother Aaron and settled in Ipswich.  Moses was the first Pingree on record in the United States, though the spelling of the last name he passed down has changed multiple times since his arrival.  The name Pengry eventually became Pingry, and some time after that, it became and remained Pingree, the spelling everyone is so familiar with today.

Sumner Pingree, the man responsible for the building of the house that is now Pingree School, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts to Ernest Henry Pingree and Adelaine Blake Siders in 1833.  Sumner was a soldier in World War One and later a part of his stepfather’s sugarcane business in Cuba called Central Ermita.  While in Cuba, Sumner discovered he loved animals more than the sugar mill, and he ended up with 14,000 head of cattle when Castro expelled American interests in the island.  Sumner’s love of animals extended to the Pingree property, which was a working farm of over 500 acres with chickens, turkeys, and cattle.

However, Sumner did not build the Pingree house just for himself.  Married to Mary Weld, whose ancestors had journeyed from England to the New World in the late 1630’s, and the father of three boys, Sumner Pingree built the house for his family.  In fact, Sumner did not have the Pingree house built until Sumner Jr., Charles, and John, his three sons, had been born.  With three boys and a full staff of 11, the Pingree house was certainly bustling with activity, especially considering those boys could get into some mischief.  

The Pingree family owned a donkey, which became the donkey of Mary and Sumner’s son John.  John was quoted as saying, “I remember being very young and deciding that my donkey ought to see the house… so one day I brought him in the back door downstairs, then into the elevator.  We went upstairs, came down the hall so he could see my bedroom, and then as we were coming down the front stairs, my mother walked into the hall.  Of course I never tried that again.”  Surely no one ever expected that the Pingree house had had a donkey visitor once!

Of course, Sumner and Mary’s sons couldn’t remain boys forever, and as they grew up, the Pingree house began to feel too big.  Sumner and Mary decided to move back to Gale Avenue, where they had lived prior to the construction of the Pingree house.  The couple wanted to preserve their other property because, as stated by their son, John, “Both my mother and father agreed that the property was to be kept as is, because we’ve always believed that if you take care of the land it will take care of you.”  And so, after some careful consideration of all possible options, it was decided that the house would be converted into a school.  The property was offered to Brookwood School, but they were content at their current location.  Instead, the idea of a girls’ college preparatory school was presented to the Pingree family.  This idea was approved, and then the group in charge of converting the house into a school had to begin hiring staff.  

One interesting aspect of Pingree School that has remained the same is that a diversity of interests by the students has always been encouraged.  Richard Harte, Jr., a founder of Pingree school, remembered saying in an interview with a prospective headmaster, “There are some things which I believe, and I want to know if you agree with them.  First, I want each student in the school to be treated as an individual and that the teachers in the school take the time to know her and understand her background.  Second, I want each student to be respected for whatever talents she might possess.  Athletics are important, but so is music, photography, art and good citizenship.  Third new students ought to be welcomed, and a conscious effort must be made to help each student find her way until she feels at home.  Fourth, I want to have a faculty which is basically young enough to relate to the students, but with a backbone of senior teachers to add experience and stability.”  The man, Robin Rogers, agreed with these ideas and became the first Pingree headmaster.

Mrs. Taft was a student in the tenth graduating class of Pingree school.  She arrived as a sophomore in 1970, while Pingree was still an all girl’s school with a dress code that forced everyone had to wear dresses everyday.  In her junior year, however, Pingree began to drastically change.  The strict dress code was reformed, and boys began to be included in the lower grades of the school.  As a member of the last all-girl’s class of Pingree school, Mrs. Taft was able to discuss what she felt were the pros and cons of the system.  She described that the school was much smaller, with her grade being a class of 40 people.  Everyone knew everyone, the school was only really in one building, and it was incredibly close knit.  Also, because hers was an all-girl’s class and the times were rapidly changing, feminism was a significant topic.  She also said that no one was concerned about what boys might think, as there were no boys when she arrived at Pingree, so the girls may have been more open with what they were thinking.

The environment of the school wasn’t the only thing that has changed, however.  The lifestyle was also very different.  For example, Mrs. Taft stated, “For a while, when rules started being thrown out the window because rules were being changed, we had a smoking room in the basement down near where the technology room is. Unless you had a note from your parents saying you couldn’t smoke, you could.”  Nowadays, such thing as a smoking room seems preposterous, but as parents have a tendency to say when describing their childhoods, times have changed.

Many aspects of the school have remained generally the same, though.  There has always been a sports requirement, but the sports offered were different.  Mrs. Taft mentioned taking sports like badminton and archery because, as an arts major, she tried to avoid athletics.  She did, however, take art lessons after school.  She didn’t get any school credits for the work she did in the arts because art wasn’t an academic class, so she pursued it purely because she loved art.  Mrs. Taft also explained that there was a focus on art history, as there weren’t as many required science classes.  Mrs. Taft didn’t take chemistry or physics; she took only biology.  On the topic of the lack of science, she said, “I don’t know if that’s because it was a girls’ school.”

Mr. McCoy described some of the changes made to the house and property, which was modelled after an English country estate, since the building and grounds were remodelled into a school.  The pool area became our Hedge Garden, and the terrace became the Pond Room.  The building ended around the rotunda and the freshman locker area.  The school was much smaller than it is now, and yet, as Mr. McCoy stated, “The bedrooms became the classrooms and it all just kind of seamlessly transferred into a school.”  Not to mention, the fact that the building was an old house made the student body feel that much more like a family.

Although much has changed since Pingree was a girls’ college preparatory school, it is fascinating to know that the key values of the school stayed the same.  Despite the fact that the school transformed with the culture of the time, the core of the Pingree community remained unchanged, as it already encompassed what so much of the world strived to be: accepting and encouraging.