A few years ago, I had the opportunity to examine a magnificent hanging school map. The massive, brightly colored object is sixty inches long by fifty inches wide, and depicts all of Lorain County in the mid-nineteenth century. In the upper right corner is a tiny inset, just eight by eight inches at its widest points, showing the young village of Wellington. When I first saw this oversized map, my family owned a house on North Main Street, so my eye was drawn to that area of town. There, in the block just south of my future home, was written in letters less than one-quarter of an inch wide the notation “Semy.”
The first association that came to mind was of course the word “seminary.” But I had never heard of any sort of religious preparatory school in Wellington, no institution dedicated to training future priests, ministers or rabbis, which is the modern usage of that term. What was this mid-century seminary? Whom did it teach? Whom did it employee? What I have come to discover is that the story of the Wellington Seminary is the story of two Wellington women, who founded it and ran it for fifteen years.
Mary Ann Adams was born in Otis, Massachusetts in 1816. She was the youngest of thirteen children; her parents, Amos (1766-1836) and Huldah Wright Adams (1772-1840), celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary a few months after her birth. The Adams family left western Massachusetts around 1821, and by 1823 had settled in a wilderness area soon to be named Wellington, Ohio. Mary Ann was just seven years old as her father and older brothers set to felling trees and cultivating land for several family farms in what is now the northeast quadrant of the town.
A decade later and ten miles north, the Oberlin Collegiate Institute opened its doors. December 1833 saw the first classes held for what would eventually become Oberlin College. Mary Ann Adams was one of the first females in the new institute; her name appears on an 1834 list of students certifying their views regarding admitting people of color to the school. (Adams, as did more than half the student body, voted against admittance.)
Though Oberlin did accept both male and female students from its inception, initially only male students could pursue the “classics course” and receive a bachelor’s degree. In its earliest days, Oberlin’s female scholars were expected to follow the “ladies’ course” which did not result in a degree. Adams pursued the ladies’ course, which took five years of study (including preparatory work), and finished in 1839. It was not until 1841 that the first three female students elected to complete the more rigorous classics course, and were awarded bachelor’s degrees. By that time, Adams was serving as Assistant Principal of the Ladies’ Department. She would hold that position for three years, before being named Principal for seven more, beginning in 1842. All told, Mary Ann Adams would be a key figure in the Ladies’ Department of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute for its first, formative fifteen years.
In her history of coeducation at Oberlin, Father Shipherd’s Magna Charta (1937), Frances Juliette Hosford describes the Ladies’ Board, a small group of women who governed the actions of all females admitted to the institute in its earliest days. Hosford points out that there were no college-educated women in the country at that time. The Ladies’ Board was instead comprised of the wives of college officials and prominent Oberlin community members. The group was socially very conservative and operated independently of the faculty, reporting only to Oberlin’s trustees. As a result, Hosford argues, it became “a law unto itself” and operated in “a star chamber atmosphere” (pg. 27).
Adams seems to have come into conflict with the Ladies’ Board repeatedly over her tenure. The precise nature of the conflict is not always clear, but there are tantalizing clues left in letters from students that can still be read in the Oberlin College Archive today. Antoinette Brown, one of Oberlin’s most distinguished alumnae, thought very highly of Miss Adams, and mentioned her frequently in letters to friends. Only once did she ever describe discord between them, when in 1847 Adams arranged for Brown to earn extra money by teaching additional classes, but “the Ladies Board disarranged everything” because they disapproved of Brown wanting to study theology with male students and become a minister (quoted in Lasser, Soul Mates, pg. 22). Brown continued to admire Adams even after the trouble, noting her “firmness & dignity of charac[ter]” in another letter weeks later (ibid., pg. 29).
Years of conflict with the Ladies’ Board and ongoing poor health eventually caused Adams to resign in early 1849. Antoinette Brown opined, “I feel as though I had lost a good friend tried and true” (ibid., pg. 48). Adams returned to Wellington, moving into her older brother Gideon’s brick house on what is today North Main Street. Gideon (1809-1875) and wife Bertia Hull Slocum Adams (1812-1880) had seven children, the youngest of which were then a set of infant twins. Mary Ann Adams, nearing thirty-five years of age and used to an independent life, must have immediately concocted a plan of self-employment. In later published accounts–described in more detail below–1849 is universally agreed upon as the year that Mary Ann Adams, using land and a building belonging to her brother, opened the Wellington Seminary.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the term “seminary” referred to a private educational facility, often exclusively for women. They began to open across the Midwest in the 1830s, as educationally-minded New Englanders emigrated and settled there (Woody, Women’s Education in the United States, pg. 366-368). These were not schools focused solely on religious education, in the modern sense of the term. Adams did refer to the Oberlin Ladies’ Department as “our Seminary, a Literary & Religious association” (Fletcher Papers, B. 7, F. 3). Certainly in the nineteenth century, religion was a much more pervasive component of morally-focused education. But young women would not have attended the Wellington Seminary to prepare for a life of religious orders. And it is worth pointing out that while Adams was a devout Congregationalist, the woman to whom she eventually turned the seminary over was an equally devout Methodist.
It is curious that Adams’ name remains the one most strongly associated with the Wellington Seminary in all subsequent published histories. She did found the school sometime in 1849, but by September 1850 she relinquished it to marry an Oberlin student seven years her junior, Charles Conkling of Leroy, Illinois. There is evidence of love, or at least attraction. A female student wrote in 1848, “Mis Adams & Conklin are ingaged & they court strongly & act just like fools–they cant be married in less than two years for he is only [a] junior” (Oberlin File, 21/1, II: Letters by Students, F. 8). Indeed, they did wait two more years before marrying at Gideon Adams’ Wellington home “in a most elegant style” described in some detail in yet another student letter (AMA Archives #104941). But whatever happiness the pair found together during their courtship did not last.
Nine months almost to the day of the wedding, the couple’s first child was born. Alice Cowles Conkling was named in honor of Mary Ann’s predecessor as Principal of the Ladies’ Department, Alice Welch Cowles. Two more children, Charles Grandison (named for minister and Oberlin president Charles Grandison Finney) and Florence Perry, followed by 1859, when Mary Ann was forty-two years old. Husband Charles spent three more years studying theology at Oberlin, graduating in 1853. He began traveling out of state; for example, a newspaper notice directs correspondents to address him in western New York in 1854 (Oberlin Evangelist, 11-22-1854, pg. 7). It is unclear whether Mary Ann and the children accompanied him on these trips.
Then, in 1862, tragedy struck. In January, three-year-old Florence died. Ten weeks later, eight-year-old Charles also passed. Whether Mary Ann’s marriage was already beginning to unravel before this unimaginable loss, or the death of two of his children unhinged Charles Conkling, I do not know. But Mary Ann’s life became a nightmare. Two years later, the Congregational Church in Oberlin brought Conkling in to answer charges of cruelty, violence against his family, verbally abusive and violent actions against his boarders, and borrowing money with no intent to repay. Thirteen testimonies survive in the Oberlin College Archives describing a wife in feeble health, fearful for her surviving daughter’s safety, trying desperately to eke out a living and often “on the point of starving” (Records of the First and Second Congregational Church 31/4/1, B. 6). Conkling was characterized as a lazy ne’er do well who forced his wife to keep boarders, then stole her earnings and caused such regular unpleasantness that no one in Oberlin wanted to live in the household.
I do not know the immediate consequences of the church trial. The 1870 federal census shows only “Mary Conklin,” 55, living with daughter Alice, then nineteen and attending Oberlin College herself; she graduated in 1873. Mary Ann Adams Conkling died in 1871 and is buried in Oberlin’s Westwood Cemetery with her two younger children. Her oldest daughter seems to have left Ohio shortly after graduating, and later documents note her places of residence as including both Oklahoma and Texas. She does not seem to have ever married. Her abusive father, Charles Conkling, died in the Wayne County Infirmary, i.e. the Wooster poorhouse, in 1902. A newspaper report dismissed him as “a peripatetic lecturer and idler” (Western Christian Advocate, 6-4-1902, pg. 30).
I promised that this was the story of two Wellington women, and in fact, the history of the Wellington Seminary lies mostly with the second. When Mary Ann Adams married in 1850, she transferred management of her new school to Elizabeth “Eliza” Hamilton. Eliza was the daughter of Asa (1799-1866) and Lydia Deland Hamilton (1804-1881). Asa was born in Vermont, Lydia in Massachusetts. By the early 1820s, the young couple was living in Sheridan, New York, and it is there that Eliza was born in 1824. Shortly after her birth, the family moved again to recently settled Wellington, Ohio.
Asa Hamilton was an interesting character. He served as a Lorain County Commissioner, postmaster of Wellington, and was an active Mason. (His headstone in Greenwood Cemetery is topped with the symbol of the Royal Arch masons, a triangle with three T’s joined at the base.) The 1850 federal census shows twelve people living in the household, including a number of young men working for Asa’s carpentry and joinery business. Eliza Hamilton, then twenty-five, had no profession listed. But that was soon to change.
The Hamiltons and the Adams family were neighbors. Their properties in the northeast quadrant of the village abutted, precisely in the area where Adams and Hamilton Streets are today. Eliza and her mother, Lydia, are listed in Wellington Corporation tax records as owning multiple parcels of land, with multiple structures, in the block between what are now Hamilton and Clay Streets. When Mary Ann Adams decided (if the decision was hers) to relinquish control of the newly formed seminary, it may have seemed to Eliza Hamilton like an opportunity too good to be missed. In the 1860 federal census, her profession line was filled: “Supt [Superintendent] Wellington Seminary.”
It appears that Gideon Adams retained ownership of the land and building for some time. Only in 1860, a decade after she began running the school, do Eliza Hamilton’s taxes first include the half-acre in Lot 21 described as “C[orner] Mn & A[dams] St.” The parcel was valued for tax purposes at $260, confirming the presence of a structure. Hamilton owned the lot until 1864, when she sold it to the village to be incorporated into the public school system. It is struck through in her 1864 taxes and annotated “Wellington Union School Not Taxable.”
I have not been able to locate any primary documentation related to the school itself, whether a student roster or any materials related to the school’s curriculum. In every published instance save one that I have found, it is referred to as a seminary. (One 1861 notice, published in an Oberlin paper, called it the “Wellington Academy.”) It is noted as the “Female Seminary” and the “W.F. Seminary” (which I assume to be an abbreviation for “Wellington Female”) in two separate 1863 Lorain County News notices. However, I found a reference in a brief biographical sketch of Wellington resident Lucius E. Finch which noted that he left “the seminary taught by Miss Eliza Hamilton at Wellington” when he was sixteen, circa 1859. Another biographical sketch of Pittsfield resident Robert Merriam mentioned that he “received his education at the common schools and at the Wellington Seminary…” Since Merriam enrolled at Oberlin College in 1854, presumably his time at the Wellington school predated that year. There are newspaper references to another school, taught by Mary H. Ladd, called both the “select school” and once, the Wellington Seminary. But that school seems to post-date Merriam’s attendance by a decade, while Finch clearly indicates that he attended Hamilton’s school.
What are we to make of this? Was the Wellington Seminary exclusively for females under the guidance of Mary Ann Adams, coming as she was from a decade of female education? Did the school begin to accept young men when Hamilton took over? The evidence of the two male biographies would seem to support that theory. Why then was the school continually referred to as the Female Seminary, as late as 1863, shortly before it closed its doors? In the absence of further evidence, we may never know.
Wellington moved to reorganize its public school system during the Civil War. Asa Hamilton actually presented a remonstrance to the Ohio House of Representatives (via Sidney Warner) protesting the passage of a law authorizing the citizens of Wellington “to levy a tax to build a high school house in said village” (Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Ohio, Vol. 59, pg. 474-475). Whether Hamilton was working to protect his daughter’s economic interests, or just opposed taxation in general, is not clear. Regardless, his efforts failed, the tax levy was passed, and by 1867 the village had a modern, three-story brick Italianate housing its upper grades, the Union School. (Sadly, that very building is being demolished as I write this.)
The village purchased Eliza Hamilton’s land and building in 1864, and renamed it the North Primary School, i.e. what we might today call the elementary and middle school grade levels. (There was also a South Primary School on South Main Street, on the lot adjacent to my family’s current home.) That was the end of the fifteen-year history of the Wellington Seminary. Hamilton continued to teach, offering private classes in her own home. She remained in Wellington until nearly the end of her life, when she briefly moved closer to her brother in Pennsylvania. They died one month apart in 1877. Eliza’s remains were supposedly returned to Wellington and interred next to her father, Asa Hamilton, but there is no stone marking her grave.
Over the course of 1876 and 1877, The Wellington Enterprise published a series of short notices which, taken together, explain the fate of the 1849 seminary structure. Builder Hiram Allyn, who lived directly across from the school, purchased “the old North Primary School building” in April 1876. He moved it across the street onto a lot adjacent to his own house. He then renovated the structure and turned it into a residence. By May 1877, the paper noted, “The old seminary, now the new dwelling house, is further transformed by being painted a light drab, with dark brown trimmings; and blinds have been added. A new fence encloses the yard and lot…” (5-10-1877, pg. 3). I argued in a 2013 post, linked above, that the home which currently sits at 112 Adams Street is, at its core, the 1849 seminary. The village erected a small brick school house to replace the relocated wooden structure, which later became (old) St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, still standing on the lot today.
The opening of Mary Ann Adams’ school in 1849 was first recorded in a published history just three decades later. The History of Lorain County, Ohio (1879) credited Gideon Adams with erecting the building, and characterized the operation as “academical” without officially naming it. The passage noted that Adams had experience in female education, without specifying the gender(s) of her Wellington students. In 1896, Adams was heroine-worshipped in Memorial to the Pioneer Women of the Western Reserve, depicted traveling valiantly “back and forth from Wellington to Oberlin on horseback when the mud and water was [sic] up to the stirrups.” It is mentioned in passing that she “taught a private school for young ladies in Wellington” (vol. 2, pg. 310).
In 1922, Mrs. W.B. (Carrie) Vischer restored Eliza Hamilton to her rightful place in the seminary narrative in her lecture and subsequent publication, “History of Wellington.” Interestingly, Vischer referred to the school as “The Academy,” so subsequent modern authors have followed suit and used that inaccurate name. Vischer dated the school to 1849, but erroneously attributed construction of the building to Mary Ann Adams’ father, Deacon Amos Adams, who in fact died in 1836. She described the school as private, but open to “the youth of Wellington” apparently irrespective of gender. Carrie Vischer was born in 1861, so it is possible that she knew Eliza Hamilton, though she would have been a young girl when the latter left Ohio. That having been said, Vischer sketched a charming, albeit simple, portrait: “Miss Hamilton was a very intelligent woman, and to attend her school the road to success was assured. Miss Hamilton was assistant superintendent of the Methodist Sunday school for many years, her father being one of the first members of the Methodist church. Miss Hamilton was unique in appearance, always attired in bloomers. Her reason was ‘she could accomplish her work with more ease and comfort while thus attired'” (pg. 5). Later local history enthusiasts Robert Walden and Ernst Henes clearly borrowed liberally from Vischer’s text, and both highlighted Hamilton’s unorthodox fashion choices.
I find both educators fascinating. They had many similarities beyond the enterprise they shared. Each woman was born in another state but spent her entire life in Lorain County. Adams remained unmarried until much later than her contemporaries; Hamilton chose never to go down the path that ended so disastrously for her neighbor. Both women had a long history of chronic health problems, which they struggled against while working for their own financial support. There is evidence that each assisted other women in her community, providing money and even a place to live within her own household. Mary Ann Adams’ obituary noted, “Her scanty salary was often in great part devoted to assisting struggling young ladies in achieving their education. Many of her pupils will remember her with gratitude, and thank God that they ever came under her influence” (Lorain County News, 4-27-1871, pg. 3). Hamilton’s lengthy tribute in The Wellington Enterprise, very likely written by co-editor Mary Hayes Houghton, suggested that “her sympathy for the helpless and unfortunate prompted her to unreasoning self-sacrifice for those whose lives she sought to make better and brighter. How little she demanded for herself. How generously she planned and unremittingly toiled for others” (11-15-1877, pg. 3)!
As with so many of the topics I have researched, this one only leaves me wanting to know more. What was daily instruction like in the Wellington Seminary and what topics were the young people learning? Were the students, in fact, all females in certain periods of the school’s existence? Did they board in the school building, as Oberlin’s female students boarded and studied in Ladies’ Hall? Does the fact that the school was described as “private” suggest that only the wealthier citizens of the village could afford to have their children attend? And what of Adams and Hamilton–did each woman enjoy teaching, or did she do it simply because it was one of the only occupations open to unmarried women in the mid-nineteenth century? Curiosity is the blessing and curse of the lover of history.
UPDATE: Within one day of publishing this post, I discovered that the Lorain County News (1860-1873) was finally digitized and publicly available. Since this topic was uppermost in my mind, I began searching for additional information about Mary Ann Adams Conkling. I found four notices that furnish new details about the story of her life. The first, dated weeks after her young son Charles died–the second child she had lost that year–announced her opening a private school “at her residence on the corner of Pleasant and Lorain Streets” (6-11-1862, pg. 2). Even in her grief, Mary Ann had to support her surviving daughter. In 1864, the same year her husband was brought before the Congregational Church to answer for his abusive behavior, a “Chas. Conklin” was listed among Oberlin men who volunteered to join a new company of the 41st O.V.I. regiment (4-13-1864, pg. 3). Three years later, “Rev. C. Conkling” was again mentioned in the paper and described as “of Ashland formerly of Oberlin” (3-6-1867, pg. 3). Why was Conkling no longer living with his family? Because his wife was about to divorce him. The divorce was granted in late 1869, with Mary Ann receiving the Oberlin house and lot, as well as $1,000 alimony. Charles Conkling was also ordered to pay all court costs. (1-5-1870, pg. 2). Mary Ann Adams secured her marital freedom after two decades; whether she ever actually received her $1,000 is, though highly unlikely, lost to history.