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Sunday, May 11, 2003

Young Ladies’ Seminary earned respect

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

Education has always been a major concern for parents. While only a small number of families with children settled in Solano County during or right after the Gold Rush years, their efforts to provide a quality education resulted in the establishment of several public schools.

As one of the earliest settlements and, temporarily, the state capital, Benicia was the main center of education. The first public school, run by the Reverend Sylvester Woodbridge, Jr., opened its doors in 1849 in the Presbyterian Church.

Besides several public schools, privately operated schools sprang into existence. One of the more famous ones was the Benicia Young Ladies Seminary, founded in 1852 by 12 prominent Benicia residents, including Dr. Woodbridge and the Reverend Samuel H. Willey. Situated on a lot bordered by First and Second, and I and J streets, it grew to become one of the most respected schools of its time.

A seminary catalog named the “need for opportunities for the higher education of daughters of the pioneer families of California, without the necessity of making the long ocean voyage to New York and severing family ties” as one of the reasons for its founding.

The school accepted both boarding students and day students. It took three to five years to finish the academic courses. In the early years, the high price of $150 per term for the boarding students, plus an extra $50 for fuel and laundry and additional charges for classes such as foreign languages and music instruction made it a rather exclusive institution.

Its first principal, Miss Susan A. Lord, and the Misses Georgia and Francis Allen, all freshly arrived from the East Coast, began teaching in August of 1852. Miss Lord quickly found herself engaged to be married to Judge Wells and had to be replaced by Miss Jemima N. Hudson in the spring of 1853. With women still being scarce in society, Miss Hudson, too, did not last long; she married the first superintendent of schools in San Francisco in 1854.

It was the third principal, Miss Mary Atkins, who would put her mark on the school during the next nine years. The school trustees dissolved their organization, allowing Miss Atkins to purchase the institution outright for $2,000.

Miss Atkins in turn sold the school in 1865 to Dr. and Mrs. C. T. Mills, who operated the school until 1871. The Mills then moved to Alameda County, where they opened a new school, which was the foundation for today’s Mills College.

After several years of living in England, Miss Atkins once again returned to run “her school” in 1878, this time as the wife of Judge John Lynch.

It was through the guidance of Miss Atkins that the Young Ladies Seminary developed its reputation as an exceptional boarding school. Students came from as far as the foothills and Southern California to receive an education at the Young Ladies Seminary.

One of the first female graduates of Oberlin College, Miss Atkins firmly believed in a curriculum that prepared her students for their role as strong, active, well-educated young women, able to take their place in the newly developing state of California. Besides a dictate that “all ladies should be able to spell correctly, to read naturally, to write legibly, and to converse intelligently,” reading, writing, grammar, United States history, French, music, physical education, painting and needlework formed part of the curriculum. A large library of more than 900 volumes covered a wide range of subjects.

In addition, older students were exposed to courses such as moral philosophy and elements of criticism. While female graduating students at other academies had to have their graduation thesis presented by a male person, Miss Atkins insisted that her students publicly present and defend their thesis in person.

With this progressive curriculum, it is no surprise to find the daughters of prominent local citizens, including Hanna Hastings, M.G. Wolfskill and Cynthia Julia Frisbie, among her students.

The Benicia New Era published an extensive description of the seminary on July 27, 1878, after the school had been remodeled and refurbished. For the second time in its history, Mrs. Atkins Lynch was at the helm.

“During the time which has elapsed since she severed her connection with the Seminary (in 1865), she has visited the best schools in Europe and America; has studied the systems under which they are organized, reflected much upon the results which they are achieving. She will bring to her aid, therefore, the exercise of a wide experience and a riper judgment, whereby she hopes to preserve whatever of excellence the Seminary may have had in former years and to make important improvements in those departments designed to fit young ladies for the practical duties of life.”

The school had been painted, wallpapered, new floors and new blinds installed, and in general remodeled top to bottom. Bedding, towels, napkins and other necessary items had been purchased and were provided free of charge.

“The school buildings are divided into about sixty rooms, thirty-eight of which are pleasant, comfortable apartments for pupils. On the first floor on the right hand side of the main building is the reception parlor, two extra sleeping rooms for guests and a study; the left side is entirely devoted to the young ladies parlor, making a room 36 x 24 feet.

“There are three music rooms, four recitation rooms, four bath rooms, and numerous store rooms. The main school room is situated in a building a short distance from the main structure, though connected by a covered walk; it is 36 x 44 feet and has desks for seventy pupils, which is about the number the establishment can accommodate.

“There are two grand pianos, four ordinary pianos and one organ for the use of the pupils.”

Safety obviously was a great concern, as wood structures burned easily.

“The place is supplied by water from Mr. Hastings’ water works and numerous hydrants give ample fire protection. The buildings are supplied with numerous exits, so that it is hardly possible for an accident to happen to life in case of fire. Besides the water works there is an elevated large iron tank holding 10,000 gallons of water.”

The school was surrounded by extensive property, providing the students with elaborate outdoor surroundings. “The buildings are magnificently situated, just a convenient distance from the water front, and the grounds, consisting of a small fraction of less than six acres, finely laid out in broad graveled walks, arbors, croquet grounds, play yards, gardens, vineyard, etc., having numerous large fruit and shade trees, and altogether making surroundings of a most cheerful and interesting character.”

Of great importance naturally were the teachers. It is fascinating to observe how much importance was given to musical education. “Mrs. Lynch will be the Principal,” the Benicia New Era continued, “Miss Martha Hathaway, a very excellent teacher, will be the leading assistant; Miss Susan Morgan, of Oakland, a most desirable acquisition to the establishment, will have charge of the scholars in vocal music; Mrs. L. Roger, wife of Pro. Roger of St. Augustine College, will give the instruction in French; Prof. Corbaz, a late arrival on the Coast with the very highest recommendations, will be the instructor of piano and instrumental music; Miss Hattie Riddell, of this place, a young lady whose attainments in the arts have given her more than a local reputation, will be the teacher in drawing and painting. These, with the valuable assistance of Judge Lynch, will make a most excellent corps of teachers. As the school fills up it is the intention to secure additional teachers.”

The school continued to flourish under the care of Mrs. Atkins Lynch until her death in September 1881. It was then sold one final time, to Paul Pioda, whose wife was herself a graduate of the Seminary. The couple ran the school until 1886, when it finally closed down forever.