The restored granite ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute sit high over Ellicott City, regal in their preserved history.
Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, who served as the school’s most famous headmistress, from 1841 to 1856, lived in a cottage on the property.
Before she arrived at Patapsco Female Institute, Phelps published textbooks on botany, chemistry, and geology. She also wrote moralistic novels that she read to her students at Patapsco at bedtime, and essays on girls’ education, including her opinion on corsets.
By 1872, nearly 300,000 copies of her Familiar Lectures on Botany were sold. Emily Dickinson, a poet and collector of garden specimens, used Phelps’s botanical textbook to learn plant classification.
Our Country, the book Phelps edited that includes this poem, was published in 1864, in the midst of a nation in civil war. Phelps wrote in the preface that she hoped this book “might induce the wavering or the indifferent to renew their fidelity to their Country, and soften that asperity of feeling which would condemn every attempt to win back our erring brethren of the South … .” In other words, the stalwart headmistress was attempting to hold the country together with her tremendous force of will, with poems about Antietam and rivers, and with essays on patriotism and the restoration of the union.
Phelps gave herself the last word in the book, a 28-page-long poem called “Historical Sketch,” which ranges from Chaldea through the American Revolution up to secession and Civil War battles. She includes in that history this excerpt about the Patapsco Female Institute, “massive its granite walls and pillars firm.”
In noting the school’s solidity, in the “common home” the institute offered to daughters of both the North and the South who became friends regardless of politics, Phelps seeks the firm ground of peace for “this Union dear,” as she calls America.
A year after the book’s publication, General Robert E. Lee surrendered in Virginia.
An Educational Home by Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps But come with us, up yonder steep ascent, Where crowning the hill’s crest a mansion stands, Massive its granite walls and pillars firm Support its Grecian portico. Around Hills rise o’er hills, while like a silvery thread, Patapsco’s waters add a varying charm. That granite temple was erected there By private liberality and zeal, For better education of the young. Let us approach the consecrated fane, And view its inmates fair, who represent The different parts of our republic vast— For here assembled, in one common home, Are daughters of the North and of the South; From snowy climes to where the fervid sun Kindles a deeper glow upon the cheek; From the sun-rising to the verge extreme Of Osage Mountains and Pacific’s shore.
This excerpt, “An Educational Home,” is from Phelps’ poem “A Historical Sketch,” in Our Country, 1864. This poem is in the public domain.