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History and education in those Highland County hills of yore, Part 11 

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Steve Roush

By Steve Roush
HCP columnist

Ladies and gentlemen, if you’ve been holding your breath waiting to read Part 11 of this series since Part 10 hit the press and the World Wide Web, well, you’re probably about as alive as the folks I’ve been writing about. 

Sorry about that. 

OK, can someone tell me what I was writing about? That’s right, we were chatting about the life and times of the Rev. Joseph McDowell Mathews, a pioneer of education in Highland County in the 1800s. The good Reverend founded the Oakland Female Seminary in Hillsborough in 1839 and was a stalwart in education for the next couple of decades. 

He left Oakland to take a position as president of the Hillsborough Female College. He spent roughly four years as the college’s president, but he wasn’t seeing the success he’d seen at Oakland. 

So in December of 1860, he penned an affectionate adios to the fine folks of Hillsboro, saying he was resigning to take a position in Kentucky. The Rev. Mathews cited that he was working for nothing and claimed he was losing money due to the institution’s “enormous debt,” plus was miffed that the trustees rejected some of his ideas for the new college, and announced he had accepted a position in Kentucky and would be leaving town.  

The Rev. Mathews also said he had taken personal items from Oakland to Hillsborough Female College when it was started in 1856, and now that he was headed to a school in Kentucky, he said it was only fair that he be allowed to take those items to his new position. The board of trustees, however, apparently disagreed. 

The Rev. McDowell continues his resignation notice by saying what he proposes to take with him to Kentucky, writing, “I will take only that part of the Library which I brought with me, and leave here all the books that have been bought since I came to the College, which is the most valuable part of the Library. The apparatus and the cabinet are my own private property, and I will of course take them. The telescope I will also take, though I would be willing, if I am properly treated, to return it when I am done with it. My Presbyterian friends contributed most of the money to buy it, and they allowed me to bring it here, and I believe they will allow me to take it with me. 

“The Trustees have not had it in their power to pay me a salary, but they can release me from obligations, for the debts of the College, and as honorable men I have no doubt they will. 

“I have paid more than a thousand dollars for the College, and taught without a salary, which is more than anyone else has done, or will have to do, even if the worst comes and the Trustees have to pay the debt. 

“If the house had filled up with boarders we could have got along even with the scholarships, but the debt, and the constant expectation that the house would be sold, prevented boarders from coming, and the scholarships swamped us. 

“I am aware that there are some who think they know much better than I do how a school ought to be managed, who attribute the failure to get boarders to my regulations. To such, my going will be a relief, and they will have an opportunity of trying their own plans. When the debt is paid, the house will no doubt fill with boarders, but until that is done, it will not, unless I am very much mistaken, under any management. Even the hope that was given last Christmas, that the debt would be paid, had the effect to increase the boarders. We have double as many now as we had then. But now a fresh announcement that the College must be sold will no doubt diminish them.  

“I hope the debt will be paid, and the school may fill up and flourish for long, long years to come. I have done too much for it and suffered too much for it, to wish it any harm. Stern necessity compels me to leave it, to provide for my family. I have many friends here and strong attachments, and it will be hard to leave. But I go to my relatives and friends, and I shall once more feel at home in Kentucky.” 

Signed, J. McD. Mathews. 

Let’s pause for now, and we’ll continue next time.

Steve Roush is chairman of the Highland County Historical Society Board of Trustees, a board member of the Highland District Hospital Foundation, a vice president of an international media company and a columnist and contributing writer for The Highland County Press. He can be reached by email at

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