This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on August 31, 1996
COOPER FEMALE ACADEMY
19TH-CENTURY SCHOOL FLOURISHED
by Roz Young
It was truly a red-letter day in the story of the educational development of Dayton,' wrote Charlotte Reeve Conover in the Memoirs of the Miami Valley, `when the doors of the Cooper Female Academy opened its doors for the first time to the daughters of its residents.'
The private school began in 1845 in a building on the corner of First and Wilkinson streets, where the Westminster Presbyterian Church now stands.
Mrs. Letitia Backus, widow of David Zeigler Cooper, son of Daniel C. Cooper, gave the land for the school.
E.E. Barney was the first principal, and he brought with him as staff members his brother Elijah G. Barney, his sister Harriet Barney Stevens and her husband, A.E. Stevens. The school opened with nine pupils, but soon grew to 85 daughters of Dayton citizens and girls from other parts of the state.
After a few years, Barney resigned to go into commercial business. The school flourished for many years under a succession of principals.
The last one was Professor James M. Robert, a man `of unquestioned scholarship, in tune with all modern methods of instruction, a music and art lover, always presenting the highest ideals of life and purpose to his pupils. Cooper Female seminary, under his administration, became a center of high thinking and lofty ideals. The influence of Professor Robert was not confined to his work as instructor of Dayton's young womanhood,' Mrs. Conover wrote, `but was expressed and felt along all lines of civic development.
`To Professor Robert is due the reclaiming of much of the wasteland in the river bottom for building purposes, and he not only suggested a titanic plan for the work, but met out of his own pocket nearly all the expense connected with the undertaking. ... It is eminently fitting that the attractive river way should throughout all future years be known as `Robert Boulevard.''
Dayton women who attended Cooper Female seminary included: historian Mary Davies Steele, daughter of Robert W. Steele; Julia Shaw Carnell, founder of the Dayton Art Institute; philanthropist Anna Barney Gorman; Katherine Houk Talbott; historian Charlotte Reeve Conover; artist Alice Pike Barney and Electra C. Doren, Dayton's pioneer librarian.
The school closed in 1886, when Professor Robert resigned. Among the possessions of Florence Steineke, collector of curios, are two autograph albums, one belonging to Katie Bigger and the other to her sister, Minnie. Both were students at Cooper Female seminary during Professor Robert's years.
Girls in those days passed around the elaborately bound notebooks, many with covers embossed in gold leaf, to schoolmates and relatives for their autographs. Sometimes those who signed the books added sentiments or good wishes for the owner of the book.
The pages, read more than a century later, paint vivid pictures of those long-ago girls and what they thought about as they wrote.
Most of the sentiments in Katie's album are dated in May, 1880.
`May just enough clouds cross your pathway to form a glorious sunset,' was the sentiment of Lutie M. McKee.
Grace E. Gebhart simply signed her name on May 19, 1880, and you can tell by her handwriting that she was a teacher.
The same day, Mary H. Bruen wrote, `As ripples follow the boat at sea, So my good wishes follow thee.'
It took two pages for Mrs. E.M. Blair to write her thoughts. `Thou art young in years, fair maiden, And thy brow is wreathed in smiles, All is fresh and bright before thee; Friendship, Earth and all her wiles. And I'd wish for thee all brightness, Joy, not sorrow be thy theme, That this fleeting world its brightness
`Make no impress on thy mind, But a share of all Life's jays, All her sweets, without alloys, All her roses without thorns, All her sunlight without storms, All her smiles without her tears, This fair maiden, young in years, Is the wish I'd twine for thee, With a bright eternity.'
Faded autographs in Minnie's book, written in the neat penmanship of the day, are dated 1881 through 1886. `Life is a leaf of paper white,' wrote Agnes Shaw, `Whereon each one of us may write His word or two, and then come night. Greatly begin, though thou hast time, But for a line, Be that sublime, Not failure but low aim is crime.'
Mattie Bradford wanted to be remembered. She wrote, `When on these lines in later years, You cast your smiles, perhaps your tears, Let thought of me your mind engage, And think of her, who writes this page.'
Lizzie Bradford wrote, `Upon this page so pure and white, May none but friends presume to write, And may each line by friendship given, Direct the reader straight to heaven. Centerville, 1885.'
On March 16, 1886, just a few weeks before Cooper closed forever, a Greenville classmate of Minnie, Luella Shuffleton, wrote, `The issues of the life to be, We weave with colors all our own, And in the fields of destiny, We reap as we have sown.'
Perhaps life was more serious then.