Saturday, May 11, 2013

Futures past: remembering May 11, 1853

From the 1893 Oread:


On the morning of the eleventh of May, 1853, amid doubts and sad forebodings of failure, yet with hopes and prayers for future success, began the first term of Mt. Carroll Seminary.

In strange contrast was the room in which the school first opened, to the spacious and commodious buildings it now occupies, surrounded, as it is, with every comfort and convenience that combine to make a first-class institution of learning.

Our school began in an old church, which had been used, just before this time, for a small select school. The building was a "Grout" structure in a sad state of dilapidation. The furniture — what there was of it — was in a like condition.

That Monday morning did not dawn bright and clear without a cloud ; on the contrary, the sky was overcast, and a cold, drizzling rain fell, strangely in harmony with the general outlook of the school.

There were only eleven pupils on that dark May morning, forty years ago to-day. Their names were, as nearly as we can remember, Miss Mary E. White (now deceased), Miss Fannie E. Pierce, Lydia A. Orcutt (Mrs. Wm. Petty), Adaline Yontz, Eveline Yontz, Ellen Yontz (Mrs. Geo. Miles), Amanda Venalstine (Mrs. Swiggert), Celia A. Harris (Mrs. S. A. Tate). Sophia Neely (Mrs. Frazier), Mary Bartholomew (now deceased), and the writer, Fannie E. Bartholomew (Mrs. R. G. Bailey).

Misses Wood and Gregory had left their homes in New York and had come to this then "Far West," to found a school that should be as lasting as time ; and this small number of students on the first day caused a shade of disappointment on the brows of these two young women. It passed away in an instant, and Miss Wood, smiling cheerfully, remarked: "The rain kept some away, no doubt." At fifteen minutes of nine the bell tapped and we were in our seats. A chapter was read from the Bible, and Miss Gregory suggested singing "The Watcher," as all were familiar with that. Meanwhile, an old tin waterspout, that had become detached from the roof, blew back and forth, shrieking and creaking, as if to accompany the doleful music and the patter of rain upon the windows. The selection of that piece was not a favorable one, perhaps, and may have added somewhat to the gloom of the dismal day.

The morning exercises over, our teachers began assigning our lessons, introducing new studies and better text-books. The methods of teaching were also an improvement. When twelve o'clock came, each girl felt that she was proud to be among the first enrolled. At one o'clock the eleven were all in their seats promptly. Not one more name was added to the roll. Then was first displayed that perseverance and energy, that courage to combat difficulties, that has ever characterized the work of the Principal, Mrs. F. A.Wood Shimer; and many are the women scattered over our broad land, who are trying to emulate her example, who feel her influence constantly with them. But I digress — I would tell you of the afternoon of that opening day.

Our teachers told us cheerfully and hopefully, that in the near future we were to have a pleasanter school-room.

The afternoon song was more cheerful. Miss Gregory had a sweet voice, and sang that song beginning "Study low, study low."

Then our work commenced in earnest. The rain had ceased at four o'clock and the sun shone brightly. The girls of that day, now in the afternoon of life, as they near the sunset, love to look back upon that time and feel that it was well to have been there.

Fannie B. Bailey.

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Happy 160!

Happy birthday to Shimer!  If you donate this month, your donation will be matched.

Sixteen full decades have now passed since Frances Wood and Cindarella Gregory greeted their first eleven pupils in the back room of the Presbyterian Church in Mount Carroll. The local papers tell us that northern Illinois was then in its third full week of heavy rains -- explaining the endless mud through which Wood and Gregory had traveled to reach the town.

"The morning was cold and dismal," according to one account written 30 years later, "and all day long the rain fell drearily on the roof, penetrating the weather beaten boards and leaving long lines of wet upon the floor." The school that was to become Shimer College was open for business, and no minor detail like the lack of an adequate building was going to hold it up.

 Miss Wood's account in her journal is fairly brief:

Very rainy, rather a bad commencement, we however had 11 young ladies; we all remain together for the present yet Mr. Gray offers his rooms for our own use. One of our young ladies, Miss Pierce, has been at Rockford Seminary one & half year, wishes to take Arithmetic, Algebra & Latin.

(Worth noting that the history of students transferring to Shimer goes back to the very beginning.)

You, too, can help keep Shimer warm and dry.  Where was that link again?  Ah, here it is.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Founding of Shimer College: A Tale of Two Tales

Frances Wood Shimer and Cindarella Gregory in 1869
 To anyone who has been associated with Chicago's Shimer College, the story of its founding is probably familiar: in May 1853, two young teachers, Frances Wood and Cindarella Gregory, came out from upstate New York to the tiny frontier town of Mount Carroll, Illinois, to start a "seminary" (not entirely unlike a high school) that had been chartered by the state legislature the year before. Nominally governed by a Board of Trustees but effectively run by the two teachers, the school moved into its own building in 1854. A few months after that, the struggling school was given up for dead by its Trustees, and placed fully into the hands of Misses Wood and Gregory.

That is the well-worn tale of how this plucky little college got its start. It is not wrong, and can be verified by consulting contemporary newspaper accounts, as well as the letters and journal of Miss Wood herself. But it isn't the only story.

The second story of Shimer's founding varies a bit, but goes something like this: The overambitious townspeople of Mount Carroll started a seminary in 1852, but were unable to get it off the ground -- a common pattern across the Old Northwest at this time. In 1853, completely independently, Misses Wood and Gregory arrived in town and started a private school. Their school prospered, and observing the teachers' administrative prowess, the despairing Trustees asked them to take over the Trustees' stillborn school; the teachers graciously accepted the charge.

To be sure, this second story is wrong. Wood and Gregory were part of the Mount Carroll Seminary from the very day (May 11, 1853) when they taught their first class. Yet we can find this story as far back as 1857, signed by none other than John Wilson, who had chaired the Board of Trustees during the school's difficult first months of operation. And we find it again, in 1869, in a report submitted to the Illinois Superintendent of Public Instruction-if not directly from the pen of Mrs. Shimer (née Wood) herself, surely at least prepared under her close supervision.

So, why is this utterly nonfactual story coming from such reliable sources?

We may find the beginning of the answer in a key distinction in 19th-century private education: between "venture" or "select" schools (often little more than one or two teachers hanging out a shingle) and "proper" state-chartered institutions overseen by boards of trustees. (For discussions of this, see e.g. Tolley 2002, Katz 1975.) Agency and gender come into this distinction as well: a select school would naturally be governed by its teacher or teachers, often female; but a proper seminary or college was governed by its almost invariably male trustees.

Thus, when the Trustees relinquished control in 1855, the Mount Carroll Seminary found itself in a treacherous position. Abandoned by its Board, it could only move forward under the direct governance of its teachers. Yet if it was perceived as merely a teacher-run school, it would soon lose the prestige it needed to survive and grow. It needed to somehow be both things at once: a joint proprietorship and a "proper" school working to the highest standard.

Understanding this contradiction, we can understand the two contradictory stories of Shimer's founding: if the narrator wanted to emphasize the prestige of being a proper state-chartered institution, the simple factual narrative served just fine. But when emphasizing the agency and authority of Misses Wood and Gregory, the second narrative served better - and for good measure, captured the real power dynamics of the first years much more accurately.

It is thus unsurprising that the second narrative first emerges in 1857, when the town was wracked by scandalous accusations against Wood and Gregory, and the Seminary's supporters needed to shore up their moral authority (for more on this, see Malkmus 2003).

There is an underlying tension here, between Shimer as an institution (embodied by the first narrative) and Shimer as the work of its people (embodied by the second narrative), that can be traced through all of the school's 160 years. From time to time - as in 1967, or 2010 - when things have become a little bit unbalanced, a crisis has ensued. In the present day specifically, the Trustees' legal authority stands in tension with the "moral suasion" exercised by Shimer's radically democratic Assembly. And just as with the two contradictory tales of Shimer's founding, we could construct two entirely contradictory (but equally accurate) accounts of the college as it exists today.

This suggests that Shimer's ability to strategically balance between two contradictory identities has played a key role in this tiny school's improbable 16-decade run. This may also help to explain why Shimer has also remained so very small for all these years: this kind of ambiguity becomes harder to sustain when expanding beyond the human scale.

Works mentioned