Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer photo

Eli Thayer, Class of 1840

A little more than a decade after the school’s founding, the Trustees hired alumnus Eli Thayer as the fourth principal. Thayer went on to be one of the Academy’s greatest alumni, but his lofty ambitions and ideals nearly put the school out of existence. The school survived through shrewd management of the trustees, but the impact of Thayer’s activity changed the school’s mission profoundly. Moreover, the relationship between Thayer and the leadership grew so poisonous that a bitter feud persisted for the rest of the Nineteenth century.

 

Born in Mendon, Massachusetts on June 11, 1819, Thayer was the scion of an old family being the seventh generation descendant of John and Priscilla Alden, who had arrived aboard the Mayflower in 1620. He attended the Worcester County Manual Labor High School for three years graduating in 1840 and then going on to Brown. Two years after college, Thayer was elected principal.

 

“It was said of Thayer in his years at Worcester Academy that he was invariably good tempered and patient with his pupils; condoning rather than condemning their short-comings; helpful to those needing assistance; direct, simple and clear in his method of instruction. He governed by a quiet confidence rather than by a show of power, but the transgressor soon found that offenses could not be repeated with impunity.” [1]

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Original campus of Worcester Academy

 

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Oread Institute

It was through his leadership, the school expanded facilities with construction of the brick dormitory, but Thayer was not satisfied with simply running a boys school. Because of his ideals, he formed a plan to educate women at the college level and he persuaded the Trustees to assist him in creating a women’s college modeled after Brown. He named it the Oread Institute and in 1848 it was among the first woman’s colleges in the country. To begin, Thayer purchased ten acres on the other side of Main Street overlooking the school on a barren eminence called Goat Hill. There he built a crenelated castle on the summit from rock quarried on the property. It soon became known as “Thayer’s folly.” As the castle was visible from great distances.

 

“Thayer and his wife constructed a preposterous castle-type building for

Oread Collegiate Institute, a women’s school under Thayer’s headship.

Like virtually all of Thayer’s projects, Oread was a curious admixture of

high idealism and canny Yankee opportunism. The school offered a far

more substantial curriculum than most contemporary “female academies”

while it also provided Thayer with a decent income.” [2]

 

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Tenements on Cambridge Street in Worcester built by Eli Thayer. These were demolished around the year 2000.

Because Thayer’s energies were split between the two institutions, the scholarship of the Worcester County Manual Labor High School declined; especially so when he left to oversee the women’s college full-time. The high school was nearing bankruptcy, so to survive the Trustees sold half of the acreage and used the proceeds to bolster the finances. At this point, campus was diminished to the point that it could no longer subsist as a farm. As a result, the Trustees petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature to enact a name change and in 1847, it was changed to The Worcester Academy by act of the Commonwealth. A few years later, after the Academy had moved to its second location near Worcester’s Lincoln Square, Thayer purchased the original campus a mile south of the Worcester town hall. He thereupon dismantled two of the buildings and rebuilt them as factory tenements in a nearby neighborhood. While at first successful, this acquisition lead to problems in later years.

 

Thayer left the Oread Institute in 1853 when he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Soon after taking office, the passage of the Kansas Nebraska Act spurred him to action. This Federal law fomented anger throughout the Northern states because it effectively replaced the Missouri Compromise, which for more than thirty years had prohibited the western territories into becoming slave states. In its stead, the Kansas Nebraska Act allowed the settlers to vote that their territory state be a slave state or a free state. This process became known as Popular Sovereignty.

 

Thayer formulated a plan to prevent western territories from becoming slave states, and in so doing, became a national figure. The plan was first publicly disclosed at a meeting in Worcester City Hall on March 11, 1854. Thayer attended the free soil rally, and was the last speaker. It was here that he disclosed his idea of what became known as the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company. Through an act of the Massachusetts Legislature, a corporation was formed which raised funds to send thousands of New Englanders to Kansas. The anti-slavery settlers helped secure the admission of Kansas as a free state. Thayer drew up the charter for the company, personally solicited incorporators, and secured passage of the bill in the Massachusetts legislature where he was a representative.” [3]A major investor was Amos Adams Lawrence, the owner of the cotton mills along the Merrimac River, and so Lawrence, Kansas was named in his honor. More financial assistance resulted from a visit with the crusading newspaper editor Horace Greeley, who called the plan, “the plan of freedom” and ultimately through the meeting $7000 was given. After this point, the name was changed to the New England Emigrant Aid Society.

 

Thayer was elected to Congress in 1856 and while in Washington, founded an antislavery colony on the western border of the state of Virginia. Named Ceredo after the goddess Ceres, it soon became a financial success. In addition, as a Congressman he was instrumental in Oregon becoming a free state. [4]After serving in Congress, Thayer became a special aid to Abraham Lincoln where he continued in his antislavery efforts.

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Isaac Davis

 

After the war, Thayer returned to Worcester where the ownership of the school’s original campus grew into a long, bitter feud with the Trustees. When he failed to make the payments, the trustees repossessed the property placing it under the management of Isaac Davis. Thayer disputed their taking in a series of lawsuits that spanned many years. In fact, five years after Isaac Davis’ death in 1883, there was yet another lawsuit. The Spy gave an account of the legal proceedings held in the Superior Court on September 19, 1888, “Oread Institute et al. vs. Worcester Academy et al.” was “a bill in equity, in which the plaintiffs allege that on June 1, 1854, Eli Thayer, who is one of the plaintiffs, being indebted to the trustees of the Worcester Academy in the sum of $45,823.71” [5] In 1892, the lawsuit appeared in the papers with a headline intimating how long it had dragged on, “Hearing before an auditor on old law suit- Oread Institute involved in a case against Worcester Academy.” The story ran, “There was a supplementary hearing yesterday, before George Swan as auditor, at the courthouse, on the old case of Eli Thayer vs. the Worcester Academy. The case has been heard several times.”. [6]

 

Thayer died on April 15, 1899 deeply disappointed that his anti-slavery and educational work was not widely known. [7]The Oread Institute stayed in business but by the 1890s had declined in stature with regular turnover in ownership. Thayer had made the critical mistake of not incorporating the college. As the sole owner it was known as a proprietary school, which typically goes out of business when the owner dies. The final years only prolonged the agony. In 1906, a Maryland man held the mortgage on Oread, “Equity of Late H. D. Perky’s Property at Worcester, Mass to be investigated.” [8]

 

“The old Oread Institute property devoted for years to the higher education of

women was sold at auction today for $26,000 to Joseph Fewls, of Philadelphia

the holder of a mortgage of $50,000 on the property. The Oread Institute was

founded in 1848 by the late Eli Thayer and continued as a female seminary

until seven or eight years ago”. [9]

 

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Oread Institute

Early in the next Century, the castle crumbled to ruins and by the 1930s the City of Worcester demolished it. The old Oread Institute then became public space called Castle Park.

 

Years later, the Oread fostered a serendipitous connection to Worcester Academy and the Civil Rights movement. In 1881, Oread faculty members Sophia Packard and Harriet Giles left the Institute to found the Atlanta Baptist Women’s College. A year later, they appealed to John D. Rockefeller, the husband of one of their former students, Laura Spelman. After graduating from Oread, Laura had returned to home to Cleveland to teach, but in 1864, she married Rockefeller, her former grammar school classmate. Laura’s parents had been active in the abolitionist movement. Her father Harry was a member of the Ohio Legislature and her mother Lucy was an active worker in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Moreover, Lucy took a deep interest in the welfare of Negro girls in the south. [10]When Packard and Giles approached Rockefeller, he agreed to make a large donation but made the stipulation that the college be named for his wife’s parents. They acceded, so the name was changed to Spelman College.   A few years later, John Hope, Worcester Academy Class of 1890, became the President of Atlanta University, the consortium of the Black colleges of which Spelman College is a member.

[1] Cloyd Small’s History of Worcester Academy

[2] Worcester Women’s Project, Assumption College website

 

[3] Boston Globe, Oct. 25, 1908

[4] Springfield Republican 4-16-1899

[5] Worcester Spy, 9-20-1888

[6] Worcester Spy, 6-14-1892

[7] Worcester Spy Apr. 27, 1899

[8] Baltimore American, 7-8-1906

 

[9] Philadelphia Inquirer, 12-4-1909

 

[10] Fort Worth Star-Telegram – 3-12-1915