|(Republished with permission of The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Ill.)
BLOOMINGTON — In the mid-19th century, at the dawn of the free public school era, teenage girls from area middle- and upper-class families often attended private boarding or finishing school. Locally, there were at least four in Bloomington, including Major’s Female College on the city’s northwest side.
Erected in 1856, the four-story brick “college” originally accommodated some 60 boarders and an even larger number of off-campus pupils. This preparatory (that is, pre-college) school later served as an early and important Illinois Wesleyan University female residence hall, making it a landmark in women’s education in the Twin Cities.
Bloomington’s first such school, the Bloomington Female Academy, dates to the mid-1830s. Its curriculum was quite similar to the other boarding schools that would follow — including Major’s College. In the 1850s, this academy offered a primary department of reading, spelling, penmanship, primary arithmetic, geography and English grammar, while the advanced department included geometry, philosophy, chemistry, astronomy, physiology, history, elocution, rhetoric, botany, natural history and composition.
Major’s Female College owes its existence (and name) to William Trabue Major, founder of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Bloomington, the city’s oldest continuing congregation now celebrating its 175th anniversary. Major once said he was struck by the language of the Second Epistle to Timothy in the New Testament, in which Paul writes that Timothy’s faith first dwelt in his grandmother and then mother. “That feeling, and knowing the influence of a Christian mother upon her children, he desired to do something towards educating the mothers of the future generation,” memorialized The Pantagraph upon William Major’s death on Jan. 11, 1867.
He also built Major’s Hall, a three-story commercial building in downtown Bloomington that hosted the May 29, 1856, organizing convention of the Illinois Republican Party, an event that culminated in Abraham Lincoln’s famous “Lost Speech.”
From 1857 to 1861, Major’s Hall also served as the first home for Normal University (now Illinois State).
Meanwhile, the “college” building was located on the city’s far north side, bordered by Seminary Avenue (formerly Beecher Street — the school bringing about the name change) on the north and Union Street on the south. Today, the old First United Brethren Church (later Evangelical United Methodist and now Child’s View Cooperative Preschool) occupies part of this block.
In the fall of 1857, Major’s College faculty included “teacher, minister, and Christian gentleman” William Hatch as “president,” as well as three instructors. Boarding at the college cost $2.50 a week, while tuition in the primary department was $12 per 20-week session. By 1866, H.O. Snow was principal and instructor in Latin, French and mathematics, while the faculty included T.V. Berry, who taught Greek, moral and intellectual philosophy and the subject “evidences of Christianity.”
Although Major’s College appeared to be a well-run concern, state adoption in 1855 of a free public school system marked the beginning of the end for many such academies, seminaries and pre-college colleges.
In 1865, William Major decided to get out of the education business and donate his building and grounds to a board of trustees connected to the Christian Church. “There was an attempt to carry out the instructions of Mr. Major in this respect, but on account of the rapid increase of public educational institutions, the attendance at the school was small,” noted a 1903 essay on education in McLean County. Not unexpectedly, the college then reverted back to the heirs of William Major, and it apparently became, at least for a brief time, a “water cure” sanatorium devoted to the quack therapy involving the immersion of patients in cold water.
The college then had a second life as an Illinois Wesleyan University dormitory. In 1875, the Woman’s Educational Association of IWU leased the old building as a boarding hall, and two years later purchased it and three surrounding acres. In 1884, Charles and Henrietta Cramp donated $4,000 to liquidate the indebtedness on the property, and the aging edifice was renamed Henrietta Hall.
Thus it came to pass that the former Major’s College building provided a safe harbor of sorts for many of Wesleyan’s women pioneers, not only students but also faculty. For example, Sue M.D. Fry, professor of belles letters and lone female faculty member, served as matron of the hall.
Yet in the end Major’s College proved too old and too far from the Wesleyan campus to serve as a viable, long-term dormitory. In 1895, the university’s trustees agreed to tear down the landmark, and the grounds were subsequently subdivided into residential lots.
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