By Michael Williams
On a warm August night in 1901, the first six members of Beloit College’s first and only secret society were initiated. Each member heard the responsibilities about to be placed on their shoulders, their charge to the student body and the best interests of the college. The initiation took place on the symbol of Beloit College: the turtle mound, where all further initiations would take place. This ritual of initiation would give this secret society the name that has been mostly forgotten by students and faculty alike: The Turtle Mound Society.
If you ask around the Beloit College campus, you might be surprised by how few people know anything about Beloit College’s now extinct secret society. Even the old Beloit Student Congress President, Alex Catalan, had never heard of the Turtle Mound Society. When they first arrive on campus, freshmen are bombarded with information about the antiquity of Beloit College and its traditions of intensive education since the fall of 1847. It’s sad to think that the only remaining evidence of these times are the buildings, paintings, a few curious artifacts and the faculty. The Turtle Mound Society, one of the oldest Beloit College traditions, was abolished in 1975 under President Martha Peterson.
The Turtle Mound Society was a secret society of six senior students who would serve in the society for one year. At the end of their year, these students would choose six soon-to-be seniors to replace them. These six students were originally all-male because the meetings were held past midnight and until the late 1960s, female students had to be in the dorms by midnight.
The Turtle Mound Society’s function changed over time. In the beginning, it was tasked with working behind the scenes to steer the college in a direction the society felt best represented student-body opinion. They also functioned as a back channel of information to the current college president, allowing him a glimpse into the culture of Beloit College students, and their opinions on issues ranging from the institution of an honor code to the segregation of student dorms. Toward the end of the society’s reign, from 1953 to 1974, the group served largely as a way for President Miller Upton to get unfettered advice on the student body.
Jerry Gustafson, a Professor of Economics at Beloit College since 1967, served as president of the Turtle Mound Society with five other members from 1962 to 1963 under President Upton. Gustafson described President Upton as having been very interested in maintaining an anonymous channel of information from the students to his administration. It was important to keep the Society members anonymous so that they would have no constituents and act purely on what they felt was the popular opinion of the student body. “We all felt such a sense of responsibility to really try to accurately reflect what was going on in ways that would be constructive,” Gustafson said, remembering what he enjoyed most about the group. Gustafson described the secrecy of the group as well maintained. “No one knew who was in it from year to year. As a matter of fact, it used to be a big deal when the yearbook came out, because there’d be a picture of the Turtle Mound Society members.” Gustafson said. Upton would hold meetings in his house from midnight till 2:00 in the morning once every two weeks, allowing Gustafson and the rest of the Society members to discuss among themselves the student opinion on issues affecting the college at the time. “The meetings were organized by the President. I always had an agenda. We would sort of discuss matters that would be on our little agenda. Then, the president’s wife would serve us cocoa and brownies, and we’d break into more general discussions,” Gustafson said of the majority of their meetings. “Upton rarely asked us direct questions.” When asked how much influence the Turtle Mound Society had with Upton, Gustafson paused a moment, “That’s a very good question, and the answer is… we had some. But the President would explain to us and did so several times, ‘I want you involved in what’s going on. I won’t necessarily do what you tell me. All I want is the benefit of your opinions.”
The biggest issue that was discussed by Gustafson and his fellow Society members at the time was Upton’s idea of imposing an honor code for the college. “We had considerable discussion about the prospect of an honor code. He was very disappointed with us because we all thought that it was dishonorable. For some reason or another, we didn’t wind up getting an honor code,” Gustafson said. The code President Upton was suggesting is a system where every student who enters the college would pledge not to cheat and maintain academic honesty at all times. Gustafson believed that such a thing only encourages students to turn on each other for minor infractions that may not be infractions at all, but simple misunderstandings. Talk of an honor code is still going on today. “There’s been talk about raising a code here in just the last few years,” Gustafson said.
The lead up to the fall of the Turtle Mound Society in the 1970s began with an increase in the number of members. Gustafson came back to teach at Beloit College in 1967 and ended up attending some of the Turtle Mound Society meetings in the early 1970s. At that point, female students were allowed out of the dorms after midnight, and so the group was no longer only men. The group had grown to a dozen members, instead of the usual six. “When I did go as a faculty member a couple of times, the meetings were disasters. Whining sessions,” Gustafson said. “Nothing happened. Totally different experience than the one that I had in sixty-two.” The increased numbers and openness of the society impeded its usefulness and lead to its end in 1975 when President Martha Peterson assumed office.
With the election of a new president and the entrance into a new era for Beloit College, the question of whether something like the Turtle Mound Society could be a benefit to the school presently is an interesting question.
The most uncomfortable aspect of the revival of such a society, according to newly elected Beloit College President Scott Bierman, is the secrecy. A secret society composed of members anonymous to the student body is contrary to Beloit College’s culture of openness and anti-elitism. “I first heard about the Turtle Mound Society from a Trustee who was a member.” President Bierman said. “I’ve talked to a lot of people about it.” Bierman explained that he had heard a fair bit about the society from various old members as he prepared to assume his position as President. “My sense is that it had its ups and downs. In its best moments, it provided a nice opportunity for a President to hear a student voice that was less cluttered by political issues. In its worst moments, it was secretive and people were just sort of doing things in an underhanded way.” When asked about the possibility of bringing the Turtle Mound Society back, President Bierman was reluctant to give a clear answer. “I don’t know. It’s a different world that we’re in right now. I don’t know whether it’s a good time or not to think about a Turtle Mound Society. It’s probably a thing that’s past its time.”
The main argument against reviving the Turtle Mound Society revolves around the negative impact the secrecy might have on the student body. Both President Bierman and the current Dean of Students, Bill Flanagan, described the Turtle Mound Society as being outdated and not fit for the times we live in. The secrecy of the Society seems to be a contradiction to Beloit’s reputation as being progressive and forward thinking, but this is not necessarily true. An article written in Beloit Magazine by Fred Burwell, the Beloit College Library’s archivist, reveals the power of the Turtle Mound Society to effect progressive change in the college. Burwell details in his article how the Turtle Mound Society, in conjunction with dissatisfied members of the Beloit College Round Table, influenced the student body to pressure the Archaean Union, which was responsible for publishing the Round Table, into changing the Round Table from a weekly magazine publication to a news sheet.
Gustafson’s description of the Turtle Mound Society arguing against an honor code which they felt would negatively affect students is another example of the society working in the interest of the student body. The issue of secrecy may make students uncomfortable at first, but revealing the identities of members at the end of the school year keeps the society benign, especially since members are only members for a year and graduate after their term in the society is done. Beloit College has the maturity, sense of responsibility and humility to allow a group like the Turtle Mound Society to be a possible positive balance to other student groups and constituencies, without many of the negative effects secret societies usually bring.