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MAURY COUNTY TENNESSEE

THE COLUMBIA FEMALE INSTITUTE & THE STEPHENS SCHOOL 

In 1828 the first activity toward building this school occurred when Reverend Daniel Stephens established in Columbia a school for girls known as the Stephens School. The  site  would later become the Columbia Institute for females. He was in charge until 1834. The erection of the  Columbia Institute building was begun and completed in 1838.

This famous school had its origin in the early days of Columbia. Rev. James H. Otey at first came from Franklin occasionally to preach in the old Masonic Hall to the few Episcopalians in this section. In connection with his early missionary work, he organized a school which was taught for several years by Mrs. Shaw. Dr. Daniel Stephens, first rector, also taught in these early schools. Their success made it necessary to form larger and better plans. For many years Mr. James White lived in a log house where the Institute now stands, and the roads leading out of town were through an open woods lot on the south side of the house, and down by the field where James K. Polk for many years had a large garden where Mercer Hall, (E. H. Griggs Place, now stands). To meet growing needs, Leonidas Polk, later Bishop of Louisiana, and James H. Otey, Bishop of Tennessee, founded the Institute in 1835. The main building, owned and controlled by the Episcopal Church of Tennessee, was erected on the lot on West 7th Street acquired from James White and was completed in 1838. Drummond and Letterlok designed the building in the beautiful pattern of an English castle and it has at all times been greatly admired. With a front of 120 feet, three stories high and with impressive turrets and windows, it still stands (1950s) among fine forest trees on a four-acre elevated lot, an ornament to the whole city. The Rt. Reverend Leonidas Polk, D.D., was its first president and Evans Young, S. D. Frierson, James Walker, G. S. Skipwith, Hilliary Langtry, Patrick Maguire, Lucius J. Polk, Adlai 0. Harris and P. R. Booker were trustees and Rt. Rev. James H. Otey, visitor. Bishop Quintard and Bishop Gailor later became presidents. Rector Franklin G. Smith was principal from 1838 to 1852. He was succeeded by William H. Hardin, who continued in charge until the school was suspended by the Civil War in 1862. Rev. George H. Beckett, D.D., revived the school in 1866. The buildings were greatly damaged while it was being used during the war as a Federal hospital. Beckett was succeeded in 1892 by Rev. F. A. Shoup, D.D., a former teacher at the University of the South at Sewanee. He died in 1895 and his widow continued in charge until 1899. Miss Mary A. Bryant, a native of Kentucky, who was educated in Boston and Leipzig University, came to Columbia in 1875 and was a teacher in the Institute for fifteen years. She became principal in 1899 and continued in charge until Rev. Walter B. Capers became principal. He served from about 1905 to 1918. Prof. Thompson then took charge for about two years. He was followed by Mr. Cruickshank for two years and then Mrs. Cruickshank until 1932 when the Institute was closed. At the St. Louis Exposition in 1904 this Institute was awarded the medal for the best educational work done by pupils. The Institute had a large enrollment from its beginning until a few years before it closed. While President Polk was on his last visit to Columbia to visit his mother in 1849, he wrote in his diary that Rector Smith of the Female Institute with one of his teachers and nearly 200 young ladies and little girls made a call on him and his wife and that Miss Brown, a daughter of Ex. Governor A. V. Brown, delivered a beautiful complimentary address to Mrs. Polk to which she and Ex-President Polk responded and shook hands with each caller. An event of those early days as related in Mrs. Mary Polk Branch’s family history, was a reception, about 1840, on the Institute grounds for President Andrew Jackson. He was on his way to visit Mrs. Jackson’s niece, Mrs. Lucius Polk, at Hamilton place, on the Mt. Pleasant Highway. He was accompanied by the novelist Paulding. Two little girls were selected to give them flowers. Kitty Puryear gave hers to Jackson and “I (later Mrs. Mary Polk Branch) gave mine to Mr. Paulding.” James K. Polk, who lived a short distance down the street, entertained at different times, Jackson and other presidents. Mrs. Branch was the mother of Lucia Howard, who was the mother of Gerald and Lawrence Howard. Lawrence was a prominent lawyer in Nashville. Many distinguished young ladies from all over the country were pupils there. In 1878, Miss Margeretta Bowles, an international traveler, who taught in the school for 13 years, donated a museum to the Institution which added very much to its equipment in the way of fine paintings, statues, cabinets of minerals, zoological and botanical specimens, and many other things of value. She also bequeathed the school $11,000. It also had a library of 1,100 volumes of rare and valuable books. While it maintained a primary department for local pupils, it was equipped to board about fifty students in the main building. The good influence of this school has been and will be felt in the town and country for many more years. The beautiful building itself will be an inspiration to future generations. For a hundred years this Institution inspired the citizens of our Columbia and pleasant is the memory of the days when hundreds of young ladies, beautifully dressed, led by their teachers, marched along the streets to church or for exercise. Such illustrious men as Polk, Otey, Smith, Beckett, Shoup, Capers, and their coworkers made famous this beautiful building and left behind a continuing influence for good. May it stand for years as the beauty spot of Columbia, and a monument to the heroic efforts of a past generation to bring Christian education to a prosperous and happy people. Sadly, it was sold to the City of Columbia, December 2, 1944. Bishop James H. Otey also organized and opened Harpeth Academy near Franklin, December 19, 1821. He graduated from the University of North Carolina and taught in that Institution for several years. After teaching he preached and taught in Columbia.   I was told by a former student Mary (Webster) Sowell lumber was stored in the aging building for several years and a fire caught on to that and burned the facility to the ground in the 1950s. Much of this material was from the book Maury County History by William Turner.   [WA 12/08/2001}]

 

An image from an old picture postcard of the Columbia Institute Facility which stood in all its grandeur from 1852 for about one hundred years. The Postcard was published by the Curt Teich & Co., of Chicago Illinois prior to the closing of the school in 1932. Picture postcard among (2001) the collection owned by Mary (Webster) Sowell a graduate, Maury County native and family historian. Red Highlights were added by a post Card graphic artist to enhance the image. [WA 1/02/02]

Regarding the above Columbia Institute Postcard Photo, Bill Bostick writes: I was viewing the Maury Co. school project, and saw the entry for Columbia Institute. Thought you might like another postcard image. It was given to me by my Aunt Ella Cathey Finley (1887-1988). On the back she wrote: "Columbia Institute, Columbia Tenn, School for Girls. My grandmother Tennessee Ella Smith Cathey (1838-1923) went to school here as a young girl. It's a super market now. I (Aunt Ella) buy my groceries there." Regards, Bill Bostick Oak Ridge, TN, March, 26 2002  WD Bostick@AOL.COM

Wayne Austin writes: Was there any hint of the occasion on the back of the card as to what the large gathering of uniformed soldiers or men in the photo dressed & looking very military might be? This was a female school. Was it; (1)W.W.I soldiers? (2) Soldier friends of the ladies from the Columbia Military Academy at a graduation class at Columbia? (3) Or a group of grads at the Branham & Hughes Military Academy from up in Spring Hill? The latter would have been after about 1918 when that school was converted into a Military Academy. [WA 3/26/2002]

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