Long Forgotten...Mercersburg Female Seminary

Mercersburg Female Seminary and Mercersburg Female Institute

 By Joan C. McCulloh


          In the nineteenth century many academies or seminaries for young girls were established.  Frequently these schools were established in towns in which a college or seminary already existed, and just as frequently the founders or teachers and administrators of these schools were connected with the already established institutions.  Mercersburg was no exception.  Marshall College, formerly a school in York, was chartered here in 1836, and the Theological Seminary of the German Reformed Church followed in 1853.    Unknown to most of us, the Mercersburg Female Seminary and later the Mercersburg Female Institute, established in the nineteenth century in Mercersburg on the site of what is now the MMPW Fire Company, offered an education of quality to girls whose parents were willing and able to pay the tuition.


          Established in the late 1830s or very early1840s in a large red brick house called Locust Gove, the Mercersburg Female Seminary, whose principal was Mrs. Sarah Young, widow of the Reverend Daniel Young, the first professor of Biblical Literature in the Theological Seminary of the German Reformed Church when it was located in York, was established.  In York Mrs. Young had run a school for girls.  After her husband’s death and the removal of the college from York to Mercersburg she came here and began the school.  Later Mrs. Young was joined by her sisters, Mrs. Rauch, the widow of the Reverend Frederick Rauch, the first president of Marshall College, and Mrs. Traill Green, whose husband, a physician, taught natural science at Marshall College.


          In April 1843 the following advertisement was placed in the Visitor, our town’s first newspaper, and continued weekly until after the beginning of the school term:


                                      LOCUST GROVE

                                      Boarding School

                             Mrs. Young and Mrs. Rauch

                   Will open the Summer Session of their Institution, on

                                      MONDAY, MAY 1st

          Having two distinct Departments in the School. Little

Girls may receive the first rudiments of learning.  And young Ladies may finish a thorough course of Study under the same roof.  They have a sufficient number of Teachers employed to give all the attention requisite to a larger number of Pupils than they have hitherto been willing to receive.  Those parents who reside in the neighborhood and wish to send their

daughters to board during the School days of the week, and still have them at home on Saturday and Sunday, can be accommodated for $33 per session.  And young ladies in this vicinity who may wish to take lessons either in DRAWING or PAINTING or in MUSIC, without attending to other studies, may be instructed according to their wishes.  Familiar Lectures on Botany delivered weekly during the summer by the Prof. of Natural Sciences of Marshall college.


                   Session of twenty-two weeks.

                   Tuition according to the studies promised from $5.00 to $24.00           per session.

                   Music  $16.00

                   Fine needle work $12.00

                    Mercersburg April 15


          In July of the following year, 1844, the following advertisement was placed in the Visitor:



                                      FEMALE  SEMINARY


          This institution is now conducted as formerly under the superintendence of Mrs. S. A. Young.  Parents who at this season are leaving our cities would find this a healthful retreat for their daughters in the midst of a country highly picturesque and beautiful and at a distance of one day’s ride by railroad and stage from Baltimore and Philadelphia.  Families in this vicinity who may have found it inconvenient to permit their daughters to leave home in the earlier part of the summer can send them now.  Pupils may enter this month for the coming year or apply for admission at any time previous to the first of October, if they would secure a place for the

winter session.  Those who wish to become acquainted with the course of instruction may gain the information desired by applying in person or by letter to the  Principal.     Mercersburg, July 20, 1844


          To  teach this curriculum, which, according to the Prospectus of the school, was solid, not ornamental, several teachers, many associated with the college and seminary in Mercersburg, including students, assisted in the instruction.  One of the students was the niece of James Buchanan, Harriet Rebecca Lane, who, according to Old Mercersburg, was “a merry, mischievous girl, never so happy as when ringleader of schoolgirl pranks.”


          Theodore Appel, a student in Marshall College in the 1840s, in his book, Recollections of College Life, wrote of the school:  “It was a prosperous and useful institution, and no one was better calculated to take charge of it than Mrs. Young.  She possessed many rare gifts, was well educated herself, cultivated and refined in her manners, and by her motherly character well adapted to direct in the formation of true female character in those placed under her charge….  She was accustomed to bring her flock of boarders with her to attend divine services in the college chapel on Sunday morning, where their presence was always felt, and seen in the better decorum and self-respect of the students.”


          How long Mrs. Young administered the school is unknown, but in 1848 the school, now the Mercersburg Female Institute, was under the direction of E. Dean Dow and Susanna L.H. Dow, who had come to Mercersburg from Port Chester, New York.  Published in Philadelphia, the Prospectus of sixteen pages for this school gives information about the town and the area, the curriculum, the standards of the school, and the expectations of the students and notes the living arrangements.  


            The Prospectus explains:  “The village of Mercersburg, by its retired location and interesting scenery, may be considered peculiarly suited for a seminary of this sort.  It is in the midst of a most fertile, cultivated region, surrounded in part, at proper distance, with a curve of mountains, whose bold contrast serves to set off to the utmost advantage the rich open country spread out below.  Strangers of taste are generally struck with the attractions of the place in the view now stated…. The pupils of this Institution are divided into Four Sections, in which they are classified according to their attainments.… The Fourth Section embodies the Juvenile and Primary classes introductory to the other sections…”


          The Prospectus lists textbooks used in the first three Sections and sets standards for the students.  Some textbooks noted are  Smith’s Grammar, Davies’ Algebra , Smellie’s Phi. Nat. His., Universal History, Wayland’ s Political Economy, Smith’s Grammar, Mrs. Lincoln’s Botany, Guernsey’s Hist. U. S., Jones’ Chemistry, Burritt’s Geog. Heavens, Mather’s Geology. Watts on the Mind,  Pinnock’s Goldsmith’s Hist.   In addition, French textbooks, The French Guide, Vie de Washington, Fleming and Tibbins’ Dictionary, were listed, and for study of Latin Andrews’ and Stoddard’s Grammar and readings in Sallust, Cicero, and Virgil. In setting expectations the Prospectus states:  “Perfect punctuality during session time, without interruption, is the standard presented to every pupil on entering the Institute.  Without a high standard of punctuality it is impossible to maintain a high standard of study and correct scholarship…. Daily marks of credit and discredit are registered of each young lady’s recitations and conduct, a copy of which is sent to the parent or guardian quarterly…. Boarders are expected to attend Divine Service on Sundays, at whatever Church their parents may request.  Also, a portion of the Sabbath is set apart especially for religious instruction.”


          The Prospectus also explains living arrangements : “The Teachers and Boarders constitute one family - all eat at the same table, and assemble morning and evening for family worship.  In a social relation, each young lady is regarded with watchfulness and attention, that she may form those habits of mind, of manners, and of heart, which may make her, in the highest sense of the words, intelligent, agreeable and accomplished…. All the Boarders are expected to furnish their own beds, bedding, and towels; if furnished at the Institute, an extra charge will be made of $5 per session.  Every article of clothing, including bedding, should be marked with the owner’s name.  Inattention to this regulation will expose the pupil to unavoidable losses….  The sleeping apartments are pleasant and healthful.  Each young lady will be required to preserve the utmost neatness in her sleeping apartment and wardrobe, which will be subject to inspection at any time.  Special attention is paid to the cultivation of health by encouraging active exercise every day, and frequent excursions  into the surrounding country.  In these excursions the pupils are accompanied by one or more of the Teachers.”   


          A music teacher in this school was Miss Marietta Kershner (1843-1920), a native of nearby Clear Spring, who began her teaching here in 1866.  She was the sister of Jacob Brewer Kershner, professor at Mercersburg College and the theological seminary, and Joseph H. Kershner, who taught mathematics, German, and the classics at Mercersburg College.



          Among the fifty-five students listed in the Prospectus are Mary Ellen McConnell and Matilda McConnell, daughters of the local potter Hugh McConnell (1799-1870) and Martha, Ellen, Alice, and Blanche Nevin, daughters of Dr. John Williamson Nevin, the second president of Marshall College (1841-1953) and one of the founders of the Mercersburg Theology.  Blanche Nevin became an accomplished sculptress, whose best known work is the statute of General Peter Muhlenberg that stands in the Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol.


          In 1848 the following advertisement was placed in the Visitor.


                             Mercersburg Female Institute

                      Mercersburg, Franklin County, Pa


          The Institute is pleasantly situated in a retired part of the village of Mercersburg.  The building is commodious, having been expressly arranged for a Young Ladies’ school…. It is the design of the Principals to maintain in every department the strictest discipline united with kindness, and not only to impart to those committed to their care a thorough knowledge of the branches to which they attend, but to cultivate gentleness and politeness of deportment, and to inculcate correct moral and religious principles.  The

school year is divided into two Terms of 22 weeks each.  The Spring Term commences the 1st Monday in May; the Fall Term the 1st Monday of November.  The Vacations are the months of April and October.  The expenses for Boarders are $130 per annum, or $65 per Term.  Weekly Boarders (from Monday till Friday) $90 per annum, or $45 per Term.  The above charges include Tuition in all the English branches, board, washing, fuel, and lights; except washing, which is not included in the charge of weekly boarders.  Pupils are admitting [sic] by paying in advance one half the sum of charges for a term, the other half at  the close of the term.  The Extras of Music, Piano, French, Drawing, Drawing and Painting, Latin & are taught - Circulars and general information concerning the school can be had by application to the Principals.  References. Rev. J.W. Nevin, Pres’t, Marshall College, Mercersburg, Rev. Thomas Creigh, Pastor of Presby’n Church, Rev. W. Phillips, Pastor of Ger. Ref. Church, James O. Carson, Esq., Mercersburg, Robert Dick, Esq.


          Exactly how long the school remained under the leadership of the Dows is unknown, but the next persons to administer it were A.F. Gilbert and Mrs. Eliza Gilbert.


          In contrast to what is known about these schools little is known about schools for less affluent families in Mercersburg in this era.  After Pennsylvania, despite opposition, had passed the Free School Act in 1834, the schools in Mercersburg were under the supervision of Montgomery Township.  Exactly what kind of schools then existed is unknown.  Also some day schools were established; for instance, a Mrs. Harris and her daughter set up a school in the basement of the Methodist Church in 1841.  Not until after 1865, in which people in Mercersburg petitioned the court of Franklin County for establishment of its own school district so that the Mercersburg Independent School District was formed, do we know much about local education for the less affluent.  What is known is that girls whose parents could pay were offered a solid curriculum combined with high expectations, moral teachings, supervision, and watchful eyes.  


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