The Old "Female Seminary"

From Greene County, 1803-1908

Xenia, Ohio: Aldine Publ House, 1908

by Helen Ekin Starrett

Surely one of the most interesting historic buildings in Xenia is the present dormitory of the Theological Seminary on Third Street, but known, prior to and in the sixties, as "Mrs. Hanna's Seminary." Built by that noble founder of the Washington Female Seminary in the then little town of Washington, Pa., in the days of the first beginnings of the "higher education for women," it had for some reason unknown to me proven so completely a financial failure that Mrs. Hanna had closed it; and in 1860 it stood, a fine, almost new building, with boarded-up doors and windows, a surprise to every stranger who visited Xenia.

The year of 1860 saw thousands of returning northerners flocking back from the South after the war had been — greatly to their astonishment — actually declared. Among those who left loved homes and occupations in the beautiful southern land, was the family of my father, Rev. John Ekin, D.D., who had gone to the South (originally for his health) as a pastor of a congregation in Louisiana. Three of his daughters were teachers in the South, and when it was suddenly found that all must return to the North, or share the fortunes of the Confederacy, it was regarded by my father as a special favoring Providence that his "old familiar friend," Rev. R. D. Harper, then pastor of the First United Presbyterian Church of Xenia, should write to him suggesting that the family take the vacant and boarded-up school building and open anew a "Female Seminary."

Suffice it to say the invitation was gladly accepted. Three daughters of us came first to open the building. It is illustrative of the simple, primitive customs of those days that we three without the aid of any servant, cleaned the building from top to bottom, washed the windows and scrubbed the floors, laid in provisions and prepared to receive the rest of the family, and felt that we had the approbation of all the citizens in so doing. In fact, I think it helped to give us the reputation that afterwards enabled us, jointly, to build up a successful school and provided us all with a lovely and comfortable home during the vicissitudes of war times. I may add as farther illustrating the financial and social conditions of those days that when our freight and traveling expenses were paid and we were settled in our new home, my father had left just $50 in gold. At the end of the school year we still had one $5 gold piece left of that money.

In those school-rooms were gathered, during the five or six years of our occupancy, a bevy of lovely, rosy-cheeked girls, some of whom are still with us, while many have answered the heavenly roll call. Their married names I do not know, but I remember them as Ella Harper, Jennie and Emma Millen, Julia Barr, Chessie Reid, Anna MacCracken, Chrissie Moody, Mattie Leaman, Rebecca Jacoby, Mattie Allison, Fanny Smart, Sallie McDowell, and the Paul sisters. Hettie Williamson, one of the pupils, was a beautiful girl, who created a great sensation in the school by her sudden marriage to Rev. W.C. McNary. It is a great distinction for a school girl to get married, especially to a preacher. Chessie Reid's distinguished brother, Whitelaw Reid, I remember as a tall sunburned youth, walking the streets of Xenia, who was pointed out to us as the "reporter" for the Xenia Gazette, of whom we had better stand a little in awe, as he was not afraid to make critical personal remarks in his paper. After we became better acquainted with "Miss Chessie," our fear of him was not so potent, as we felt sure of her kindly interest in our behalf. Anna MacCracken, too, had a brother, a preacher, which was quite a distinction for her, and very justly; for that brother has been for many years Chancellor MacCracken of the great New York University. I consider it quite a distinction myself to be able to say that I heard him preach in Dr. Findley's Church his first sermon after he was licensed to preach. I remember the text: "In the beginning was the Word," and to this day I remember well some of the excellent points of the sermon.

Next to our pupils our greatest interest was in the Theological Seminary. What a fine body of strong, vigorous, able young men gathered within those plain walls in the early sixties! We were all young together then, and as the "theologues" usually called each other by their first names, we learned to think of them as Joe and Will Clokey, Jack McMichael, Matt. Gibson, Pollock McNary, and others. Every one of these who remain with us is now a gray-haired Doctor of Divinity. However serious they might be in their studies during the daytime, they were certainly fond of fun in the evening. Dancing was not included in their modes of entertainment, but in those good old days of simplicity and good fellowship, we could all enjoy such games as "Going to Jerusalem," "The Stage Coach," "Twenty Questions," "Charades," etc. One of the innovations of the times then was "Tableaux," and I well remember how astonished and even scandalized some of the good old United Presbyterians were when, through the good offices of the theological students, the "Female Seminary" girls were allowed the use of their Hall for a public exhibition of a very fine set of living Tableaux — an entertainment that proved so popular that it was repeated two evenings with undiminished audiences.

Besides the Theological "set," there was another "set" of young people, and between them the distinction was sharply drawn although it was not a "class distinction," and each was very friendly to the other. The second set danced at parties, went off on summer excursions, drove good horses, dressed in the latest style, gave afternoon teas and evening receptions, and had a good time of their own generally. Of these I remember Sam Allison and Matt. Allison, his nephew (who afterwards became my brother-in-law); Sam Ewing, who with his dainty clothes and equally dainty manners was for us "the glass of fashion and the mould of form"; Mr. and Mrs. Merrick and Mrs. Merrick's sister; Mrs. Trotter and her daughter, Miss Lily Trotter, and her niece, Miss Julia Myers; the Allens, the Boyds, Daniel McMillan and family, Mary Alexander, the Drakes, the Ankeneys, all of whom belonged to this set. All were good church goers, and the moral and religious tone of society was distinctly high — as is always the case when the good old United Presbyterians are in the ascendant in the community, as they were in Xenia.

When it was fully realized that the War was a dread reality, — its scenes being especially brought home to us by the vivid and eloquent letters of the soon-to-be famous war correspondent of the Cincinnati Gazette, Whitelaw Reid, — the social life of the town began to center in the Soldiers' Aid Societies, which generally met in the churches. What stores of preserved and canned fruits, what gallons of grape juice and home-made wines, what bundles of lint and bandages, what dozens of hand-knit socks and mittens went from the hands of the good women of Xenia, the records of the Sanitary Commission will tell. And then, when some of our neighbors were wounded or taken prisoners, when some languished in Libbey Prison and even in Andersonville, every heart was touched and the people of Xenia were drawn together in a new bond of fellowship.

Xenia had a taste of the realities of war to the extent of being greatly alarmed by a report that Quantrell was planning a raid through that part of Ohio. The Home Guard was called out and practiced military maneuvers; many citizens hid their valuables, money and silver by burying them, putting them in wells, etc. In our home the bricks of the back parlor hearth were lifted, a deep hole excavated, and all the solid silver spoons, the five dollar gold pieces and the family daguerreotypes were safely buried. It was quite exciting and made us feel that we, too, were helping to save the country.

One incident of the war of the then young people will remember. A Division of the Army (of the Potomac, I think) was to be moved and the soldiers passed through Xenia, being transported mainly on freight cars. They were in command of Generals Hooker and Butterfield. The Xenians sent an invitation that they should stop for a good "square meal," and the invitation was accepted. Oh, the preparations that were made to give the soldier boys a royal breakfast, for they would arrive in the morning. The chickens and turkeys and fatted calves in the surrounding country were thinned out even more effectually than for a ministerial convocation. Cakes, pies, and delicious home-made bread arrived by wagon loads in great clothes baskets. In the old Female Seminary one of the younger daughters arose at four o'clock in the morning and by eight o'clock had baked one hundred and forty-four dozen of light baking powder biscuits, besides denuding the store room of the winter's supply of winesap apples. All were at the train in season, and every soldier had all he could possibly eat, besides carrying away with him one or two days' rations. A coterie of the Xenia girls aroused the envy of those who had not thought of doing so themselves, by giving away to the soldiers unnumbered dozens of handkerchiefs with the names of the donors in the corners.

So there were sad as well as glad days for the inmates of the Xenia Female Seminary during the war time, as there were for all the citizens of Xenia. I remember being deeply impressed once by hearing a gray-haried woman declare that the days of the war were the best days of my life, all because she had found a work worthy of her ambitions and her energies which had previously been expended on the every day duties of a farm not far from Xenia.

These are some of the memories and reminiscences that crowd upon my mind as I accept with pleasure the invitation of the Committee to furnish a short paper for the Home Coming of Nineteen Hundred and Eight.

The Starrett School for Girls, Chicago.