School's legacy lovingly preserved

Caretakers share history of Patapsco Female Institute

March 18, 2007|By Mary Ellen Graybill | Mary Ellen Graybill,Special to The Sun

Ann Harrison Ryder, information and referral coordinator for Howard County government, and Frances Mason, a retired society page writer, are two modern women with lives connected by a common thread. They both had ancestors who attended the Patapsco Female Institute, built on the highest hill in Ellicott City in 1837 as a school for well-to-do young women.

"The female academy was in existence from 1837 to 1891, and, therefore, experienced not only the growth and expansion of the new democracy, but the rise of controversy and sectional disputes, culminating in the Civil War," wrote M. Lee Preston Jr., president of Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute Inc.

When the school was founded, American women typically were busy sewing and cooking. But the school offered a liberal education that included mathematics, science, languages, painting, botany, philosophy and psychology.

Students numbered 139 during the school's heyday under Principal Almira Hart Phelps Lincoln, a botanical illustrator and author of many books on the subject, said Jacquelyn Galke, the director of the historic property, now owned and managed by Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks.

Through the school, women surmounted intellectual barriers even as they were prohibited from voting or owning property in their own names. They were sent to the institute by fathers who wanted a good education for their daughters as well as sons. But the sons went to Yale University, and the daughters went to finishing schools.

The school attracted students from the South at first, then the North and California as well, and finally other countries, including Spain, Italy, England, Canada and several South America countries, said Susana Burrell, assistant director of Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park. There were also students from the Cherokee Nation.

About 90 percent of the students came from wealthy families, including Southern plantation owners. The daughter of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, attended until the outbreak of the Civil War.

The mother of Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, attended the school, and Thomas Jefferson's great-granddaughter, Sally Randolph, was once headmistress.

The institute was one of the first in the country to provide scholarships in the form of state grants as well as private donations.

There is no list of women who attended the Patapsco Female Institute, but Mason and Ryder recall knowing or hearing about their pioneering ancestors. Mason's maternal great-grandfather owned a farm near Jessup, where Mason spent summers with her grandmother. Her great-aunt, Mrs. Henry Atterbury, and her maternal grandmother, Mrs. Edmund Myers, who lived in Richmond, Va., both attended the school.

"We called them `the galloping grandmothers' behind their backs," Mason said with a laugh. She got to know them during summer picnics on the Patapsco Female Institute grounds, she said.

"They were stylish and sewed beautifully," she said. "They would travel to Spain and India."

She had a glimpse of the elegance of a bygone time, when roles were defined by marriage and social position.

"I know my grandmother had friends [from the institute] in Philadelphia and Savannah, and she would travel to see them on trains," she said.

"They got a whale of an education," Mason said. "They had a genteel disposition that enabled them, with the proper setting, to learn the arts as well as the sciences, especially botany." But, she added, "I think they had to go [to the bathroom] outside."

Mason was instrumental in getting the property listed in the National Register of Historic Places through the help of Mark Cathey, who came to speak of the significance of the site to indifferent residents at a time when the structure was falling down, she said.

The National Register of Historic Places and Maryland Register of Historic Properties placed Patapsco Female Institute on their lists in July 1978. The Maryland Historic Trust named Patapsco Female Institute an "Award-Winning Preservation Site" in 1996.

Mason, 89, who lives on a 50-acre farm, said she has no plans to slow down her work for various civic causes.

Ryder, whose great-great-great-aunt, Carrie MacMillan Kerr, attended the institute, played afternoon hostess recently at a Victorian tea and 19th-century fashion show, held in the big room at the Mount Ida Visitor Center, which houses the institute museum.

Models wore the dresses and fancy garb of the day: full skirts and bodices of satin in sage green, aqua and pink. Such fundraisers bring in money for educational programs at the historic park. Ryder said she likes to work behind the scenes. She participates out of altruistic habit, after working in all Howard County executive administrations - her current job is greeting the public. But she has a personal reason, too. Her father, Allen Hugh Harrison, always told her, "Live American history; don't just read about it."

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