Cole Porter Chapter 2 Worcester versus Military School

“By 1905, when Cole was fourteen and had completed the eighth grade in Peru Grammar School, Kate had decide he would be sent to a fine Eastern prep school where he would get a classical education and mingle with wealthy boys possibly from the Easter social register. J. O. had other ideas; he felt his grandson was too weak and ‘sissified’, and wanted Cole to be sent to a military academy to toughen him up. But Kate would not consider such a proposal. J.O. then suggested a business school where he would learn to mange the family interests, or even that he be taken out of school to learn new ways of farming the thousands of acres his grandfather owned. Again he was overruled, and Worcester Academy in Massachusetts- an obvious springboard to matriculation in an Ivy League college- was chosen”. (Noel & Cole The Sophisticates, Stephen Citron, P. 13)



Culver Academy Inspection (Courtesy of the Culver Union Township Library)

It is likely that J.O. had the Culver Military Academy in mind. Founded in 1894, it was located fifty miles north of Peru on Lake Maxinkuckee, the second largest natural lake in Indiana, and starting in 1878, Peru families summered there. In Cole’s childhood, its lakefront shoreline was dotted with summer cottages, mansions, hotels, and clubhouses. The Peru families gathered at Peeple’s Point, high above the water on East Shore Drive. The center of their activities was the Peru Club “a handsome two-story building and in its earlier days was one of the most noted organizations on the lake”. Though his family did not own the house, Cole spent his summers in the “Bramfeld Cottage, also known as the Yellow House, at 1322 East Shore Drive.” (Mark Roeder, “A History of Culver and Lake Maxinkuckee)


According to its catalog, Culver Military Academy was “established for the purpose of preparing boys or young men for our best colleges or scientific schools, or for business” and featured the military system “to bring out the best in boys.”   It was a six-year course with tuition of $360 per year. There were two curriculums, classical and scientific, with Greek and Latin taught in the classical course. In 1907, there were 367 students, making it much larger than Worcester Academy at that time. There were eight buildings on the campus, one more than Worcester. Athletics was highlighted and by 1904, there was a gymnasium. The cadets were allowed to decorate their rooms and one vintage photo shows a room with lace curtains, pictures on walls, a ukulele, and a mandolin. There were also a dentist’s office and a barbershop. It was Christian, but sectarian and vespers were held at 4:30 on Sunday. The YMCA room had songfests, relaxed reading, and religious discussions.


Culver Academy Mess Hall (Courtesy Culver Union Township Library)


The original main barracks, a three-story gothic castle, included the dining room, chapel, and classrooms.   In the mess hall, the cadets sat at tables by themselves and the waiters were male. The superintendent ate at the far end of hall with the faculty.  Reveille was sounded at 6 a.m. and police inspection was at 6:45. Breakfast was served at 6:40; morning prayer was held at 7:45. Recitations were held from 8-12. The boys were drilled at 3 p.m., recreation at 4, and dress parade at 5:30. As in Worcester, Monday was free day.


Abercrombie maintained that military schools were more expensive because of the cost of uniforms and other incidentals. (17/247)   There were parade and cavalry grounds, which were graded for drills. With horses being a main part of school life, there was a riding hall. Shooting practice was held regularly, as were artillery practice and bayonet drills. Besides marching in parades, the cadets dug trenches.


Cole Porter bottom right with his friend Tommy Hendricks bottom left (Courtesy Culver Union Township Library)


Abercrombie had a low opinion of this curriculum, “We believe a great deal of energy on the part of the boy and school is wasted in the military drill….(at Worcester Academy) the day is filled with work and play in proportions which experience has taught to be the best for the all-round development of the boy.” (12/752, Sep 10 08). One of the Cole’s Shirk relatives attended Culver and Dr. A wrote his father that he was glad his son was returning, “I had heard you sent your sons to Culver and regretted it. We in the East do not have much confidence in such schools. They are not as a rule educational, and in general they are for boys who need serious restraint in their lives”. (12/481, July 15 08)


Parents did inquire about that type of discipline, “There is not military drilling at Worcester Academy. Sorry this does not meet your ideals- madam. Your son would gain through athletics and physical training”. (3/355, May 8 01) “You will find practically no military schools in New England. Military school fails to prepare boys for schools of higher learning and do not succeed in training for business. Discipline is the main feature rather than stimulating and fostering development of boy’s character deprives him of strength that comes from genuine individual growth. My examination of graduates of military schools is that they were again dependent on their parents to push them forward. Worcester Academy is, without being lenient, remarkably free from this weakness. We study boys to find their individual needs, by personal interest and attention strengthen each boy”. (13/816, S.F. H. July 27 08). Parents must have felt that military school gave discipline to troublemakers, and inquired if Worcester was such a school, “We do not take boys who are unruly. Our discipline is not as rigid as military academies but boys are under constant supervision of teachers”. (13/161, Sep 14 07)


Cole Porter at Lake Maxinkuckee circa 1912 (Courtesy Culver Union Township Library)


It is unlikely that Cole would have blossomed at Culver. While he might have benefited from discipline, he would have been unhappy at its severe regimentation. Moreover, he would not have had the personal contact that Worcester provided as its student body was fifty percent larger than the enrollment of Worcester. Culturally, Culver was more impersonal, so he would not have had as much attention. For instance, at Worcester he sat at the dining table with the master and his family, so it was a bit like being a member of the teacher’s family. There were even instances when he dined with Abercrombie and his wife, where he received special attention. That was not the case at Culver where he would have been separated from the faculty and superintendent in the dining hall. It is unlikely that he would have been allowed to have a piano in his room, and he certainly would not have had the opportunity to visit the local theaters as there were none in the small town of Culver, Indiana. At Worcester, the class day was longer, so his course load was more rigorous than at Culver.


More importantly, Culver was too close to home. All of the problems that Cole was dealing with – mental illness of his father, his overbearing grandfather, etc. – would have been only fifty miles away. Certainly, his grandfather would have visited him and so would his mother as she was accustomed to traveling to the town where she vacationed each summer. Worcester was a much better choice because it was more that 700 miles from Cole’s home.