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Elmira College: Quiet Pioneer


Where Gumbo Was #390

Elmira College, in Elmira, New York is a small liberal arts college on an astonishingly beautiful campus in New York's Southern Tier. With only 800 students, it's not one of the nation's best-known, but aside from its campus, it has two distinctions that make it worth noting.


First, and perhaps most significant, is that it was founded in 1855 as the first school for women that granted college degrees that were the equal of those earned by men. At the time, schools for young women, often called 'female seminaries' were considered, with some justification, barely more than glorified high schools.


And in fact, for most of its first twenty or so years, Elmira, which opened as Elmira Female College, offered that kind of courses as well as the more advanced program. A number of well-known colleges, including Mount Holyoke, are older, but didn't offer real degrees until much later. When Matthew Vassar founded the college that bears his name in 1861, Elmira was his model.

P1070653P1070656The first clue to our Where in the World this week was this entry into Tompkins Hall, identified by George G.


And yet, Elmira almost didn't happen. The plan to create a real college for women was started, perhaps ironically, by a group of six men, calling themselves the "Friends of Education," met in Albany and adopted resolutions in favor of equal education for women, and to start a school to do it. Carmel, New York was their first choice, but that didn't work out. Auburn invited them to come; a school for women there had burned down—but fundraising didn't work out.


Then, Simeon Benjamin of Elmira (at right) got the ball rolling with a $5,000 donation, worth about $150,000 today and with a purchasing power well beyond that. More funds began to roll in, land was bought, and construction started on Elmira's first building, Cowles Hall, with its unusual octagonal center section. It's still in use today, but in 1855 it was used for classrooms, dormitory, dining, everything. It's named for Augustus Cowles, the first president. A suitable house for the President was built, too; today it is the Admissions Office.
                                          (Photo: Kenneth C. Zirkel / Wikimedia)

Cowles Hall detail; lower views, inside the President's House.

The school got off to a shaky start, with the building not quite finished as students moved in, and that may have been an omen for the school's future. By the time the first class received its degrees in 1859, the nation was on the verge of the Civil War, and funding was tight. Simeon Benjamin stepped in again, this time with $25,000, and a requirement that the college's board be affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. 


It wasn't the college's last financial crisis; in the 1880s, and early 1900s and again in the 1930s the school came close to closing, only to eke out a solution. Eventually, it broke its ties with churches, and between its crises it managed to grow a number of new buildings, some in Victorian styles, some in Collegiate Gothic, and lately a few in less interesting modes. In 1969, stepping away from its origins, the school became co-ed.

No way to hit beauty every time, but failure can be pretty grim...

Elmira's other big distinction is its connection with Mark Twain, and the Mark Twain Center on the campus is one of the major centers for Twain studies. There's also an extensive exhibit, which unfortunately is closed for now.


Twain's wife, Olivia Langdon, was an early graduate of the College and her family was involved with it. Olivia's family were prominent in the area, and she and Twain spent a number of summers there at Quarry Farm, home of Olivia's sister, Susan Crane.


Twain was apparently a bit difficult as a houseguest;  he was an earnest and busy writer who liked a bit of solitude, and he was a constant smoker of cigars. Susan solved both problems by designing an octagonal study for her brother-in-law's visits, and had it built at the edge of a hill overlooking the Chemung River.


Among the works Twain produced there were Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, The Prince and the Pauper and Life on the Mississippi. He wrote to a friend that "Susan Crane has built the loveliest study for me you ever saw. It is octagonal, with a peaked roof, each octagon filled with a spacious window, and sits perched in complete isolation on top of an elevation that commands leagues of valley and city and retreating ranges of distant blue hills."


By 1952, the study had become both a pilgrimage site for Twain enthusiasts and therefore something of an annoyance for the Langdon descendants who still lived at the farm. The solution: move it to the Elmira campus, where Twain's niece Ida Langdon was a professor and the family connection was strong.

390-11 Sun

In 1983, the Langdon descendants gave Quarry Farm itself to the College, with the provision that it remain closed to the public, but used to host conferences of Twain scholars.

A masked Mark Twain, in bronze, awaits his turn at the Admissions Office.

The campus is not Elmira's only attraction, of course. It has several significant small museums, including art, local history and Abolitionist history. Thomas K. Beecher, the pastor who married the Twains, is remembered with a statue at his church; he was the brother of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. A sign in the window at the church recalls the area's history.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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