During the early days of Duke’s Woman’s College, housed on what is now East Campus, female students lived under strict social regulations that dictated what they could wear, the hours—and the company—they could keep, and how to occupy themselves when they weren’t in class.
Male students on West Campus fared little better. Students once complained to William R. Perkins, vice chairman of The Duke Endowment, that they were being “treated like children, not men” and that the administration had little respect for their opinions on university affairs.
As an antidote to this “dullness,” as he later termed it, Ernest Seeman, son of the founder of Durham’s Seeman’s Printery and manager of the Duke University Press, hatched a plan with Alice Mary Baldwin, then dean of the Woman’s College. In the mid-1920s, the pair invited a small group of faculty members and students to form a biweekly Walking Club, bringing “the teachers and the taught together in a natural and informal outdoor way,” as Seeman wrote in a brief memoir of the club for the spring 1976 issue of Eno. The club proved popular, drawing Durham community members and even a few University of North Carolina students and faculty members.
In October 1931, the club refashioned itself as the more adventurous-sounding “Explorers’ Club.” Students hiked North Carolina from the mountains to the sea (the Eno River was one popular destination) in the company of Dean Baldwin; Justin Miller, dean of the School of Law; and J. B. Rhine, professor of psychology and future director of Duke’s Parapsychology Laboratory. At the end of each hike, two “Peggys”—a gender-neutral designation—served coffee as everyone gathered around the campfire for singing and storytelling.
The club coordinated regular weekend trips, heading to the mountains in the fall and the coast in the spring—in spite of the 1930s Handbook of the Woman’s College prohibitions against “swimming or bathing in any public places, pools, or lakes, anywhere while . . . under College regulations.”
On their way to Nag’s Head in May 1933, the club organized a songwriting contest. To keep the mood around the campfire from becoming too sentimental, some members, like Frank Bennett, chief of the Durham Fire Department, turned in lighter compositions:
While the Explorers spree,
How the flies and mosquitoes ate on me.
They bit my toes, they bit my nose;
They even bit right through my clothes.
In the early years of World War II, as large numbers of male club members joined the service, the club’s outings came to an end. Today, student organizations like Project WILD keep exploration and adventure alive at Duke.