A concert by Common. A Ferris wheel. Fireworks. And President Martin on horseback?!

“I waited 200 years for this!” So joked Lisa Zheutlin ’22 at The Bicentennial Party on Friday. A big animated crowd of students, faculty and staff played and chatted behind her on this mild October day, the sky a keep-you-guessing blue-gray-blue, the air full of carnival and party sounds: the pop of the Balloon Bust carnival game and the whoosh of the basketball toss on the First-Year quad, the clop of horse hooves (more on that shortly) and the rising din of friends greeting friends, just emerged from cramming for midterms.

As Hiram Smith ’22 said: “It’s so good to see so many cheerful faces.”

Amherst celebrated its history at a vivid historical moment, in the second year of the pandemic. Partygoers may have been reveling in the present (especially since low rates of transmission had allowed for mask-free outdoor experiences). But visions of the past lent gravitas: archival photos had been blown up for the occasion, for instance, and strung strategically on campus.

While you ate cotton candy, you could contemplate students boxing and fencing outside Barrett gymnasium in 1860. After you rode the Ferris wheel, you could stop by a photo of the newly dedicated War Memorial of 1946. Most uncannily, there was a shot of a “Lawn Fete” from 1910, in which the early 20th century College community gathered in twilight under strings of lights—just like the early 21st century community did tonight, faces lit by neon and moonlight.

Students tried the games, sampled autumnal and carnival foods (one tent was even devoted to 1821-themed cuisine), took horse-drawn wagon rides and spontaneously sang “Happy Birthday” to Amherst when they saw a cake sculpted to look like South College, the oldest structure on campus.

But wait—there was President Biddy Martin, riding on a dappled horse past Johnson Chapel, puckishly reenacting Zephaniah Swift Moore’s infamous defection from Williams College. Several students trailed her, also on horseback, symbolically carrying books (not stolen from the Williams library!), just as 15 Williams renegade classmates did in 1821 when they followed Moore to Amherst, where he became the College’s first president. The 2021 crowd flocked to get close and laughed at the outlandishness of it all, lifting cellphones to capture the moment.

The evening crested to a performance from Common, the Grammy and Academy Award-winning rapper, who brought Joy Hall ’24 up onstage and pulled off an impressive “freestyle verse / at Amherst,” as students bobbed and danced. The night ended with a fireworks show, as the finale crackled with incandescent cascades of purple and white.

Common has us thinking in rhyme, so please check out our slide show in which you’ll spy plentiful more / Bicentennial lore.

Fireworks at the bicentennial party on the Amherst College campus

Pyrotechnics, oh so epic. “I hold with those who favor fire,” Robert Frost wrote in his poem “Fire and Ice.” Easy to agree with him, while this 12-minute fireworks show rocketed forth as the big ending to The Bicentennial Party. The ignition site was shortstop on the baseball field, as students watched from Memorial Hill. Atlas PyroVision has also done fireworks above Fenway Park and Boston Harbor.

Students sample a variety of food options at the bicentennial party

Food tents? Dude, yes. “One of the only times I can have caramel apples has been Fall Festivals in the past,” said Aly Fleisher ’22, who lit up at seeing the Bicentennial Party’s apple-themed food tent (so core to the event). The Party teemed with themes, actually. One tent, right by the Ferris wheel, bandied about candy, while others were jumpin’ with pumpkins (as in pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin fries and pumpkin grilled cheese). A special tent offered an 1821-of-a-kind New England menu: corned beef, cabbage, root vegetables and baked beans. In the evening, the First-Year quad went full-on carnival, and students made a run on the kettle corn, corn dogs and cotton candy. Pictured, sitting: Paul Jackson ’22, Hiram Smith ’22 and Nicole Chung ’22. What food really spoke to them? “I ran to get on the line for the fried dough,” said Smith, who is a linebacker on the football team.

student had fun recreating historic photos

Strike a pose? Psych your clothes. “Boon companions assemble! Don spirited apparel! Avert gaze!” Such were the tongue-in-cheek instructions for today’s students to emulate the stylized athletic photos of yesteryear, like this vintage shot of the 1892 track team. And so the stage was set. A photo of Johnson Chapel and South College served as backdrop, the hay bales were brought in from the local North Hadley Sugar Shack and the props (hats, canes, etc.) were supplied by Carla Froeberg, costume shop supervisor in the department of theater and dance. Top right: “I chose the top hat and umbrella because I thought they were classy,” said Ahanu Youngblood ’25.

Pumpkin carving and riding the ferris wheel were two activities at the bicentennial party

Ferris Wheel: Spirits Reel. “I’m a big fan of rides and get very emotional about the changing seasons,” said Phoebe Nielsen ’25 (top left) who wanted to check out the aerial view and here practices her queen’s wave. Langston Prince ’25 (in NASA shirt) is not a big fan of rides but joked that he “trusted the process of the Ferris wheel.” Prince is pictured with Soliyana Gebremedhin ’25, who captured the topmost vantage of the Holyoke range. Over at the pumpkin carving station, Elise Farley ’25 was three-fifths done with carving BIDDY in this pumpkin, having already molded a mammoth in another pumpkin. Both images “just felt right” for The Bicentennial Party, she explained. Meanwhile Brittney Nguyen ’25 consulted Pinterest, found an image she liked and sculpted her pumpkin into “a fierce face, with fangs, because I’m going scary.”

sack races, slides, horse-drawn wagon rides, and a giant 1821 sculpture

Big Slide. Rig Ride. They posed, they hopped, they rode and they slid. Clockwise from top left: Students pose on the 1821 sign; The Guinness World Record for the Sack Race (100 meters) is 25.96 seconds—and none of these students were a threat to beat it. But Amherst A for effort; East Drive, near the tennis courts, provided the venue for a horse-drawn wagon driven by Barry Roberts, of nearby Muddy Book farm. Meanwhile, the Belgian draft horses Chet and Chief hosted their very own plodcast. Students said the ride was all upside, old-timey and full of rolling russet scenery. But the road held less charm. “Yes, you could still feel the speed bump,” admitted Tina Sun ’25; The sliders are, left to right, Navie Kim ’23, Tina Sun ’23 and Nancy Hoang ’23. Hoang said she gave this super slide a go because “I was nostalgic for the inflatable slide from Fall Festival my first year.” 

Amherst College staff prepping the academic quad for the bicentennial party

Facilities Agilities. Down on the soccer field, staffers made it to the potato sack finish line, but just barely. Supervisor of Event Support Services Heidi Kellogg, in sunglasses in golf cart, enjoyed this most of all. The racers—essential workers, all—are, left to right, custodians James Harrison, Narong Sieng and Cassandra Healy. What was their race strategy? “I went from a hop to a jog,” said Healy. “Foul!” said Harrison, mock seriously.

Amherst College staff moving the 1821 sculpture across campus for the bicentennial party

1821 and Done. David White, building trades supervisor, and his team built this movable Bicentennial display out of four compressed layers of particle board and painted it “Mammoth Purple” (that’s Pantone 267 to civilians). This founding-year sculpture has been rolled out in various smaller Bicentennial-era gatherings—with students posing amid the numbers—and of course made an appearance at this event, the biggest of all. The whole thing weighs 800 pounds.

President Biddy Martin riding on horesback in the academic quad

Biddy as Zephaniah, dressed in his giddy attire. Here, President Martin, dressed in a costume from Kirby Theater’s costume shop, reenacted Zephaniah Swift Moore’s 1821 horseride from That Other College to Amherst, where he became the first president, thus setting in motion two centuries of intercollegiate sniping. Here, Martin rides Lyra, on loan from Muddy Brook Farm, with Cate Zolkos, dean of admission, alongside. To represent the 15 students who hightailed it out of Williamstown, Mass., with Moore, three members of Amherst’s equestrian club rode behind, carrying books just as Moore’s students did. They are Sydney Scanlon ’21, Bea Kiggen ’23 and Ayodele Lewis ’21, part of the College’s equestrian club. Mike Kelly, college archivist, narrated the circumstances of the escape.

Attendees gather to hear President Martin's  remarks at the bicentennial party

President Sets Precedent at Press Event. As Martin crested the hill and came into view, the news galloped among the onlookers, and they stopped what they were doing to catch the spectacle. “It was a really cute and wholesome moment,” said Supriya Chang ’25. “Everyone appreciates a light moment,” added Ally Degan ’24.

Guests gather for the cutting of the bicentennial cake

He Takes the Cake. Carl Charrette, first cook and baker, got a round of applause for this elaborate cake, a facsimile of South College, the oldest building on campus. The staunch brick building was made possible by the funds, labor and donated bricks and mortar of 275 19th century townspeople.

Visitors gather at an outdoor tent for cupcakes

Cupcake Uptake. Swirled in Mammoth Purple frosting, these cupcakes were made by Pete’s Sweets in Easthampton, Mass. This writer preferred the vanilla version, this photographer the chocolate. They agreed to disagree for the sake of harmonious Amherst Bicentennial Party coverage, but ate several more cupcakes to be sure.

Two photos of the same place on the academic, a historic black and white image, and one taken during the bicentennial party

Whereon we met at the Lawn Fete. At left: The Lawn Fete used to celebrate graduating seniors and alumni. Established in 1909, the event was held in one form or another almost every year until the early 1960s. You can see Stearns Steeple high in the sky. A huge photo of the 1910 Lawn Fete appeared on the First-Year quad during The Bicentennial Party. At right: today's students have a fete of their own.

Students recreate poses from historic Amherst College photos

Home in the Gloaming. Students lingered on campus as dusk fell. At left, they sat by an archival photo of College Grove (what the First-Year quad was once called), which boasted a beautiful canopy of trees before the Hurricane of 1938 blew them all down.

President Martin poses with some students attending the bicentennial party

Meet and Greet. President Martin invited a number of students who are involved in causes close to Common’s heart to meet the man himself. They are, left to right, on either side of Martin: Lilliana DeLise ’24, Zaki Alaoui ’24, Joelle Crichlow ’22, Shikha Jha ’22, Jonatan Ortega ’24, Omisha Purohit ’23, Sage Innerarity ’22, Jade DuVal ’22, Yvette Kiptoo ’23

The musician Common performing at Amherst College

A night with Common is a night unforgotten. Students headed to the slope of Memorial Hill to watch this Grammy and Academy Award-winning rapper, who gave a warm, personal performance, rapping out his thoughts on what the night felt like: “This is like a dream / Yo we on the scene / we rocking at Amherst October 15 / The one and the five / And it’s all live.”

The musician Common performing at Amherst College

Nonstop hip hop. At one point, Common offered an homage to the history of hip-hop, giving nods to everyone from MC Hammer to the Wu-Tang Clan to Salt-N-Pepa.

The musician Common performing at Amherst College

Joy Deployed. A highlight came when Common brought up onstage Joy Hall ’24, as he launched into a freestyle rap that rhymed Bicentennial with Arsenio, Robert Frost with “at any cost” and lots more to the delight of the crowd. “He freestyled so well and was really funny,” said Diego Carias ’23.

Fireworks display at Amherst College

Fireworks display at Amherst College

Brighten the fans. Enlighten the lands. These shots were taken by student photographers. The top one is by Haoran Tong ’23, and the bottom one is by Harufumi Nakazawa ’24. The fireworks color scheme favored Amherst purple and white and even a little retro mauve—which, if you didn’t know, was the College’s color from 1866 to 1868. As The Bicentennial Party came to a luminous close it seemed like Common had voiced what all had, indeed, in common: “As we celebrate 200 years, it’s so good to be here.”