Finding Illinois in Vermont

This week finds me working at the Vermont Historical Society in Barre (pronounced Barry), VT. Illinois couldn’t feel more distant from this town, the granite capital of the U.S., nestled away in the Green Mountains. Yet it is here that the Jacksonville Female Academy came to life in an unexpected way.

When I arrived last week, librarians Paul Carnahan and Marjorie Marjorie Strong provided a warm welcome and showed me how to utilize the card catalog and finding aids. Hoping to gather context on how women’s academies operated in more remote, rural areas, I had already identified several collections in the VHS’s on-line catalog related to women’s education in New England. But then Paul explained that the card files were worth a look because many more collections were not yet in the on-line catalog. This is a good lesson for us all. Digital tools are awesome, but we still need to know how to use the old school tools. Here’s why: just for fun, he looked up “Jacksonville, Illinois.” Here’s what we found:

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That somewhat cryptic entry led us to the finding aids for the Celement Family Papers and the correspondence of Wallace Clement. Wallace, the son of a successful marble merchant, banker, and railroad magnate from Rutland, Vermont, went west in 1856 to peddle marble and try his hand at operating his own business. For a few months he clerked at a store in… Jacksonville, Illinois.

Wallace wrote silly, sappy love letters to his fianceé, Sarah Fish, wherein he richly described daily life in Jacksonville. He lived at a boarding house with two teachers, one of whom also came from Vermont. Wallace enjoyed talking to customers in the store and running around with male friends, but he rarely sought out social events. On November 11, 1856, he wrote about attending a “Mite Society,” or an event designed to raise money for a specific cause. He found it incredibly dull, having:

“…stood around all evening and talking with Ladies who were anxious to know why I did not go out more and attend all the Mites and much more nonsense. Well now to tell the truth about it I don’t take any interest atall in going out, somehow I would much rather stay in the store and read or write to you.”

A bit more exciting was an outdoor barbecue in an undated letter where he described a lively and violent scene in:

“such a place where they roast hogs Sheep and Oxen in a hole in the ground I don’t think the operation amounted to much, eating raw beef and cold bread and listening to a proxy oration concluded the amusements of the day. Except two fights which contributed somewhat to the amusements of the spectators but I should think from the bloody noses and black eyes not much to that of the combatants.”

The very next paragraph is where the educated women of Jacksonville suddenly came to life. He wrote:

“I see a great many young ladies every day. There are three female Colleges here the Methodist has three hundred students. The Berean fifty. Presbyterian about the same. Some of them quite good looking others decidedly green and unsophisticated. I have had two or three compliments form them. One of them said I had the handsomest eyes she ever saw. I know of one pair of eyes she never saw if she had she would have thought differently. I have not seen any as yet that I would be willing to exchange for a pair that someone is keeping for me. I wonder what hard questions there are to answer in that last letter of yours. I think I’ll get it and see.”

He was flirting with them. And the women… they were flirting right back.

It is just a few sentences, but Wallace provides a fascinating insight into the female students as scholars, as a notable presence in the town, and as young women publically, assertively expressing interest in pursuing young men. You might remember a few posts back I noted that the women learned nothing of sexuality and reproduction in their textbooks – but clearly that didn’t mean they weren’t interested.


Again, I owe Paul and Marjorie a debt of gratitude for their kindness. Not only have they been super sleuths, but last Friday they invited me to attend a meeting with Dan Cohen, the executive director of the Digital Public Library of America. The Vermont Historical Society is a member of the Green Mountain Digital Archive, a group with representatives from a various repositories around the state who are interested in partnering with the DPLA to make their digital collections more accessible. Their goal is to create a centralized, statewide “hub” from which the DPLA can pull images and information. Their metadata has to meet specific standards and requires a high level of cooperation. I tagged along because if we grow our digital collections at Illinois College through SharedShelf, it may be possible to share them through the DPLA. Or, if we decide in a few years to go in other directions, I now know all about DPLA “hubs” and how to jump on board the Illinois “hub.”

The best part, though, was the opportunity to ride along from Barre to the meeting at Middlebury College in Middlebury, VT. Cutting through the Green Mountains I learned about the geography and industry of the state (especially when we were diverted by an overturned milk truck). Once in Middlebury, we had the chance to see an important landmark in the history of women’s education. Before Emma Willard established the Troy Female Seminary in 1820, considered by many to be the first major institution of higher learning for women in the US, she established a school for women in Middlebury. So we’ll leave it here for today. I have ten days left in Vermont before heading home and am sure that more research adventures await.

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