Williamsport Women

Muncy Female Seminary and its famous teacher, Rose Elizabeth Cleveland

PHOTO PROVIDED Pictured, a pencil sketch of Rose Cleveland in 1869, when she was a teacher at the Muncy Female Seminary. Artist is unknown. Image courtesy of the Muncy Historical Society.

The Muncy Female Seminary was chartered in 1840 “for the education of Female Youth in arts, sciences, and useful literature.” The school attracted young women from Muncy and boarding students from as far away as Baltimore and New York state.

The Female Seminary, similar to a private high school today, was noted not only for its alumnae — young women from the Wallis, Petrikin, Montgomery, Ellis and Rankin families, among others — but also for its most famous faculty member, Rose Elizabeth Cleveland. The youngest sister of President Grover Cleveland, she was hired in 1869 to teach Greek and Latin. In 1885, she was chosen by her newly elected, but unmarried, brother to serve as his First Lady.

The seminary opened with about 25 students and grew quickly. At one time there were 200 students, according to Katherine Yurchak (“Where Wigwams Stood,” 1994). Prior to the opening of the school, young girls in Muncy were educated either at home or at church. The newly established school struggled for several years to attract and keep teachers. It changed locations and affiliations often. The first location was at the corner of Main and High streets.

FIRST TEACHERS

The first teacher was Gemella Lyons, a local woman who was described as “frail.” When the class of 25 scholars grew to over 40, she resigned. Susan Miller took over for several months, and then the school recruited Anna and Emily Wynkoop from Pottsville. The sisters taught Latin, Greek, French, painting and dramatics. However, the two sisters were soon engaged to local men, and both resigned in 1842.

During the times when the school was closed, various churches took on the responsibility of educating the young ladies of Muncy.

REV. WILLIAM AND SUSAN LIFE

In 1857, the struggling school was taken over by the new Presbyterian minister, Rev. William Life, and his wife, Susan Lamont Life. “With the design of giving a thorough education and elevating and refining the character, both mentally and morally, and fitting the pupils as far as possible with a high degree of usefulness,” they rented the seminary building at the corner of Main and Pepper Streets and recruited students and teachers (Now and Then, v. 5, 1936).

The Muncy Female Seminary prospered. Susan Life, the principal, was committed to giving young women a solid education. According to Eugene P. Bertin, “like other intellectual leaders of her sex, she was struggling against tradition in a effort to give women a more generous place in the sun” (“Now and Then,” v. 6, 1930). She hired the “highest type of teachers, to be had in music, art, elocution, literature and Latin, French, Italian, and German.” A French Mademoiselle conducted classes in French, and an Italian Signorina taught classes in voice (Now and Then, v. 5, 1936).

ROSE ELIZABETH CLEVELAND

Rose Cleveland was 23 years old when she was recruited to teach Greek and Latin. She stepped off the train in Muncy and immediately caused a sensation. Her hair was bobbed and her skirts were short, while stylish ladies in Muncy had long hair and wore long skirts. Historian and “Now and Then” editor J. M. M. Gernerd is quoted as saying, “She was hostile to fashion and publicly declared that corsets, cottons, French heels and the like had better go, rather than to sacrifice comfort.”

Cleveland had taught at the Houghton Seminary in Clinton, New York, where she had earlier been class valedictorian, and she had been principal of the Collegiate Institute in Lafayette, Indiana. She was considered brilliant and an excellent lecturer. Kenneth Wood, in his “Biographical Sketch of Jeremiah M. M. Gernard” (“Now and Then,” v. 5, 1936), noted that, in addition to her controversial hairstyle and dress, she “had advanced ideas on sex and social problems” and was a Democrat when Muncy was overwhelmingly Republican.

Cleveland left Muncy in 1879 to take care of her mother. Then, when brother Grover Cleveland took office in 1885, Rose Cleveland became his official hostess. She served in that capacity for 15 months, until he married.

According to all reports, she was an outstanding hostess, but never lost her “sassiness.” Columnist Frank Carpenter noted that Rose Cleveland was a rather “sharp-tongued young lady with a predisposition to Woman’s Rights.” She published several volumes of fiction and literary criticism.

Cleveland was rumored to have had a long affair with a married woman, Evangeline Mars Simpson. They traveled together, and after the death of Evangeline’s husband they lived together in Italy and were active in aid work in the war-torn country. They are buried together in Italy, where Cleveland died in 1918 and Simpson in 1930.

SCHOOL MOVES

In 1869, the Rev. William and Susan Lamont Life moved their school to Rye, New York, where it exists today as the Rye Country Day School. Shortly thereafter, Julia Ross reopened the Muncy Seminary, which she administered until 1878, when she left Williamsport for Asbury Park, New Jersey, and established a new school. By that time, the Lycoming County Normal School had relocated from Montoursville to Muncy, in a new building constructed at the corner of High and Market streets, and the Female Seminary was never reopened.

Sieminski is a retired librarian and manager of the Lycoming County Women’s History Collection. Hurlbert is a Professor Emeritus of Library Services at Lycoming College. Their column is published the second Sunday of each month and the author can be reached at lcwhcmanager@gmail.com.

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