Up and down the Kennebec Valley: Waterville Liberal Institute
by Mary Grow
In Waterville, in addition to the private and public schools already described, there was the Waterville Liberal Institute.
An online list of Universalists’ “higher education institutions” indicates that the Waterville Liberal Institute opened in 1835. It was the second such school in Maine; Westbrook Seminary opened in 1831 and operated until 1925 when the website says it became a non-sectarian school. These are the only two universalist high schools in Maine on the list.
Another online site contains the legislative charter of the Institute of February 28, 1835 (and its catalog of 1851). Lawmakers said they approved “an institution for the purpose of educating young people in the various branches usually taught in high schools and academies.” The charter listed the initial 10 directors and stated that the board should in future have at least seven and no more than 15 members.
Ernest Marriner, in his History of Colby College, said that the Liberal Institute attracted so many students that there were too few left for Waterville Academy, established in 1829 as Colby’s preparatory high school and later Coburn Classical Institute ( see The Town Line, July 29), so that the Academy closed from mid-1839 to the fall of 1841.
The catalog of the Liberal Institute of 1851 lists the maximum of 15 administrators. Ten were from Waterville, with one each from Augusta, Bangor, Dexter, Waterford and Winslow.
The principal in 1851 was the Rev. James P. Weston, AM. Seven other faculty members were on the list, although two apparently shared their work; Miss CL Fullam is registered as preceptor and Mrs. HC Henry as preceptor for the fall term.
That year there were 174 students, 91 boys and 83 girls. The majority came from Waterville. Nearby towns that were represented included Albion, Canaan, Clinton, Fairfield, Gardiner, Readfield, Sidney, Skowhegan, Smithfield, Winslow.
Other students came from towns further afield in Maine, including Bangor, Bingham, Calais, Cape Elizabeth, Dexter, Hiram, Plymouth, and Waldoboro. One girl was from Holliston, Massachusetts. One boy and four girls, three of the girls named Hill and presumably sisters or relatives, were from St. Stephen, New Brunswick; another boy’s house was simply listed in Canada.
Not all students attended all year. The spring term had the lowest number of registrations, with 51 students. It was not until the winter term that women outnumbered men, 41 to 38; during the popular autumn session, the 112 students were evenly distributed, 56 men and 56 women.
The catalog indicates that the Institute was “located in a practical and secluded part of the healthy and charming village of Waterville”.
In 1851, the leaders of the Institute enumerated four objectives: to give men and women “a good education in English”; “To prepare young people for college”; “To communicate a critical knowledge of modern languages”; and “in particular to qualify teachers for their calling”. Teachers’ classes were described as attracting the personal attention of the principal.
Facilities had been improved since the Institute opened 15 years earlier, including making the “Women’s Department” permanent and providing “superior accommodation” to women.
Students could embark with “good families” at prices ranging from $ 1 to $ 1.75 per week for men and $ 1.00 per week for women. The advice included “the room, the laundry, the accommodation and the lights”. (The difference between “room” and “lodgings” was not explained; the catalog explained that less “lodgings” reduced the price and indicated that “clubbing” could make the pension very cheap.)
The school offered ‘preparatory studies’, a mixture of subjects including the English language as well as introductions to mathematics, history and geography. This was followed by three years – Junior, Middle and Senior – with four terms each year, in which preparatory courses were extended and science and philosophy added.
The English department was considered central and students had to take three years of English. Most of the classes were open to everyone. Some were considered unsuitable for women and others were replaced; and apparently women looking for a “good academic education” had to attend classes in order, while men could drop out and drop out depending on their qualifications or schedule.
The language department offered Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian and Spanish.
Foreign language courses were the most expensive, at $ 5 per term. “High English” was $ 4 and “Common Studies” was $ 3. Two extras were offered, music for $ 6 per term and a drawing for only $ 1 per term.
Each day began with scripture reading, which all students were expected to attend. The catalog indicated that all students were also to attend the church of their family’s choice on Sunday.
Here is the paragraph on “Government” from the catalog of 1851:
“The school government, while strict, is designed to be kind; and obedience is assured, if possible, by awakening the scholar to a sense of his moral obligations and appealing to his best feelings. Those who cannot be induced by such means to correct their perverse habits and submit to sound discipline, will be removed from the Institution as unworthy of its privileges and harmful in their influence over others.
The previously referenced list of universalist high schools indicates that the Institute closed its doors in 1857.
In or about that same year, 1857, according to the Fairfield bicentennial story, a former public school teacher named Naomi Bunker opened Bunker’s Seminary.
The Bunker’s Seminary was a boarding school “in the old brick house on the corner of Newhall Street and Lawrence Avenue”. The main building had two wings, a gymnasium and the boarding house.
History does not say if the seminary was mixed. He calls it a college prep school that offered music and painting in addition to academics, and enrolled students from out of town as well as local students. No date is given for the closing of the seminar.
James Partelow Weston
In the fall of 1939, a 24-year-old Universalist pastor from New Hampshire, the Reverend Giles Bailey, traveled to central Maine and befriended James Partelow Weston, a high school student from Bowdoin College taking leave. to teach “in a private school in South Montville” to earn money to go back to college. Bailey was sufficiently impressed with Weston to follow his career and write an essay on his accomplishments for the January 1869 issue of the Ladies deposit.
Bailey stated that Weston was born in the section of Bristol which later became Bremen on July 14, 1815. Online genealogies add that he was one of 11 children of Eliphas or Eliphaz and Elizabeth Betsey (Longfellow ) Weston.
(For readers who collect unusual names, the genealogies indicate that her siblings included Arannah Weston, Arunah Weston, and Greene Longfellow Weston.)
The son of a farmer, Weston grew up with little formal education, but in a community that valued education and supported a library. Bailey called him a staunch universalist who preferred to teach in the ministry, and said he started teaching at the age of 16.
In 1832, continued Bailey, Weston entered Lincoln Academy in Newcastle. In 1834 he moved to Maine Wesleyan Seminary (a Methodist school), Kents Hill, to complete his college preparation. After two years at Waterville College, from August 1836 he transferred to Bowdoin, graduating in August 1840 and 1843.
Bailey wrote that after Weston had taught a fall term in 1840 at Readfield, he “took charge” of the Waterville Liberal Institute until April 1843, preaching his first sermons there. He also preached in West Waterville (later Oakland), Sidney, and other nearby towns. He was ordained at the June 1842 session of the Maine Convention of Universalists in Augusta.
Meanwhile, a genealogy says that on June 9, 1841, in an unknown location (to the genealogist), he married Eliza Elden Woodman (1816-1892). Bailey gave the date of the wedding as January 9, 1841, and wrote that Eliza was one of Weston’s students at Readfield.
On April 15, 1843, Weston became Augusta’s Universalist pastor, writes Bailey. He served there until May 1850, then returned to the Waterville Liberal Institute until the winter of 1853.
He went on to become the leader of Westbrook Seminary, which Bailey said he restored after a near collapse. His work there “caught the attention of administrators” at Lombard University in Galesburg, Illinois, which was also in need of rescue. He began working there on October 17, 1859 and was “officially inducted” as president on January 11, 1860.
(Lombard University began life in 1851 as the Liberal Institute of Illinois. It became Lombard University in 1857 and operated until 1900. A series of changes and mergers in the 20th century have established what is now Meadville Lombard Theological School, Chicago, described as a “Unitarian Universalist Seminary.”)
Weston was still alive when Bailey finished his article, even though he had nearly died of smallpox in the winter of 1866. Bailey had high praise for his work to improve Lombard and called him the “respected and honored president. ” from school.
The genealogies indicate that the Westons had two daughters, Caroline Eliza Weston, born in 1844, and Mary Emeline Weston Woodman, born in 1849. Bailey wrote in 1869 that Mary Emeline was the only surviving child; he believed she was a graduate of Lombard University.
Weston died on December 31, 1888, probably in Portland, Maine. His burial site is listed as Pine Grove Cemetery in Portland.
Fairfield Historical Society, Fairfield, Maine 1788-1988 (1988).
Marriner, Ernest Cummings, History of Colby College (1963).
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