WATERVILLE — Alice Dickinson, 97, sat admiring the works of Maine artist Marsden Hartley on Saturday at the Colby College Museum of Art – a museum that might not exist had it not been for the gift her relative, Gardner Colby, made to the college in 1864.

Then known as Waterville College, the institution was struggling financially and facing closure, and Colby offered an endowment of $50,000 if the school could raise $100,000 on its own, which it did, within two years.

Colby, a successful wool manufacturer from Massachusetts and formerly of Waterville, would become a member of the college’s board of trustees after that, giving the school a total of about $200,000 by his death in 1879 – but not before the college was renamed Colby College in his honor.

Dickinson, of New Hampshire, was attending the Colby family’s 64th annual reunion, held for the first time at Colby College. While her family has held reunions for about 100 years, it was celebrating its 64th as part of the Colby Clan Association, incorporated in 1954. Family members arrived Friday and will stay in Waterville through Sunday.

“It’s pretty nice,” Dickinson, a retired English teacher and Bates College graduate, said. “I’ve been coming to Colby reunions ever since they started.”

Dickinson was one of about 20 Colby descendants from all over the country to attend the reunion, which included a tour of the art museum with docent Pam Gemery, and lunch Saturday at Best Western Waterville Grand Hotel. A presentation, annual awards and business meeting and reports also were on the weekend agenda.

Barbara Zdravesky of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, has been the association’s secretary for 15 years and said the group has met several times in New Hampshire, but the last time it met in Maine was in 2006, in South Portland. In 2002, the reunion was in Wiscasset, she said.

It was Zdravesky’s first visit to Colby. Asked how it felt to be on the campus of a College her ancestor helped save, she said it was a good feeling.

“Definitely for the Colby name there’s a lot of pride and there are many stories because there are many, many Colbys all over,” she said.

The reunion designates a different host every year and each year, the host determines the location, Zdravesky said. Laura Harris, 56, and her husband, Tommy, 58, of Ripley are this weekend’s hosts.

“We all belong to Anthony Colby,” Laura Harris said of Gardner Colby’s grandfather. “My grandmother was a Colby.”

She said it was special to have the first family reunion at Colby, since Gardner Colby contributed to its survival long ago.

“I’m glad, because to me, education is one of the most important things,” she said.

Glenn Poulin, 53, of Bath was attending his first Colby family reunion. An electrician at Bath Iron Works and a 1981 Messalonskee High School graduate, he said he rode the school bus in his youth along Washington Street near Colby but never knew the story of his ancestor, Gardner Colby.

“I only know a small portion of my Colby family, through the family association,” he said. “My mother was a Colby. She grew up in Jackman and now is Frances St. Armand and lives in North Carolina.”

Other attendees came from Texas, Minnesota and Massachusetts.

Dorothy Greene, a cousin of Gardner Colby who lives in Amesbury, Massachusetts, in the summer and Austin, Texas, in the winter, said she was attending her third family reunion and had never been to the college.

“I’ve never been this far north in Maine,” she said.

Anthony Colby and his family lived in a house in Amesbury that was built in 1654 and now is owned by the town and is open to the public by appointment, family members said.

Vicki Gutenkauf of St. Paul, Minnesota, said she has attended reunions for several years and they always are held in New England.

“There are several famous Colby descendants that we know of – Joseph Smith, the father of the Mormons, President Chester Arthur and the Pillsbury family – and Laura Ingalls Wilder,” she said. “Her mother and my great-grandmother were second cousins.”

Colby College Communications Director Kate Carlisle welcomed the reunion members and took a photograph of them in the museum that she said she would post to the college’s Facebook page.

“We are delighted to welcome the descendants of our namesake, Gardner Colby,” Carlisle said. “This is the first time the family has actually met on Mayflower Hill and we’re tickled that they chose a museum tour as their significant activity this year.”

Gardner Colby was born in 1810 in Bowdoinham to Josiah C. and Sara Davidson Colby. Josiah, a shipbuilder and successful businessman, lost his fortune after the shipping embargo during the War of 1812, according to family literature. Gardner Colby spent part of his childhood in Waterville with help from then-Waterville College President Jeremiah Chaplin. Sara eventually went to Boston and Gardner eventually joined her there and became a successful merchant and businessman who dealt in manufacturing, shipping and railroads.

“Mayflower Hill, a History of Colby College,” written by Earl Smith, a former Colby dean, details Gardner’s role in helping to save the college and documents Gardner’s being a guest speaker at the Waterville College commencement dinner in the town hall in 1864 where he announced his $50,000 endowment.

“The audience sat in stunned silence and then erupted into wild cheering and stomping,” Smith writes on page 23 of his book. “Waterville College was not going to perish after all. Matching money was raised in two years.”

Amy Calder can be contacted at 861-9247 or at:

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