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History and education in those Highland County hills of yore, Part 9 

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Steve Roush

By Steve Roush
HCP columnist

Ladies and gentlemen, after operating the Oakland Female Seminary in Hillsboro from 1839 until 1856, the Rev. Joseph McDowell Mathews, a pioneer of education in Highland County in the 1800s, was appointed president of the new Hillsborough Female College that was constructed between West Main and West Walnut at Oak Street.  

While Oakland Female Seminary was a success for the better part of two decades, the Rev. Mathews was president of the Hillsborough Female College for roughly four years before he resigned in December of 1860 and left town. 

The Rev. Mathews, who turned 56 on Dec. 8, 1860, cited the institution’s “enormous debt” and that he was teaching “for nothing” and actually incurred “a positive loss” for being president and teaching at the college as reasons for his resignation. 

Before leaving for his new job, the Rev. Mathews penned a letter “To the Citizens of Hillsborough” that appeared on Page 2 of the local newspaper on Dec. 6, 1860, and wrote the following: 

“Friends and fellow citizens: After living among you and teaching your children, for a third of a century, I am about to leave you. A brief statement of the causes of my removal I desire to make. 

“For 18 years, I lived in my own house and taught my own private school, called ‘Oakland Female Seminary.’ About that time, I was invited to another place, where a salary of a thousand dollars a year was offered me, besides what I could make from the boarding. Some of the citizens heard of it, and set about building a new house for the school, in order to detain me here, and they assured me that I would receive a thousand dollars a year and lose nothing by remaining. Unfortunately, a sectarian character was given to the institution, though it was not intended to make the school any more sectarian than it had always been. It was supposed that by putting it under denominational control, money to build the house could be more easily raised, and that it would make no difference to the citizens who raised the money, so that the house was built and the school made permanent.  

“Soon after the subscription was started, at my solicitation, a gentleman in Cincinnati, of very ample means, agreed to give ten thousand dollars to the institution if it were called by his name. Subsequent events have made it more than probable, if we had accepted his proposal, he would have given us a hundred thousand dollars at his death, and now we should have been out of all difficulties. This proposition was rejected, and I had the mortification to inform the gentleman of its rejection after soliciting him to make it.” 

Folks, before we move on, according to the CPI Inflation Calculator, $10,000 in 1856 is worth $355,101 today, and $100,000 in 1856 is (you guessed it!) worth $3,551,011 today. Oh, and the $1,000 annual salary that was promised to the Rev. Mathews was just $35,510 in today’s dollars – not a whole lot for the president and instructor at a college. 

The Rev. Mathews continues, “I then proposed that we should build a plain house, that would no cost more than fifteen thousand dollars. But this was also rejected, and my taste in architecture not highly complimented. The original plan was to build a house that would cost, including lot, furniture and all, not more than twenty-five thousand dollars, and then to collect twenty-five thousand more to put at interest for endowment. The endowment would then pay for the tuition of those coming on scholarships, and the institution could be sustained. But an enormous debt was unfortunately contracted, which has hitherto prevented the possibility of endowment. The finances of the institution have therefore been embarrassed; increasing claims for scholarships have been presented; instead of a thousand dollars a year, I have had to teach for nothing, and this session for less than nothing, incurring a positive loss. I have submitted to it because I knew it was out of the power of the Trustees to do better. 

“Providentially, in this posture of affairs, a situation was offered to me in Kentucky, promising to yield more than a thousand dollars a year; and I felt that justice to myself and my family required me to accept it. I have therefore resigned my situation here, and expect, if spared, to go to Kentucky immediately after Christmas.”  

Let’s pause for now, and we’ll continue with the Rev. Joseph McDowell Mathews’ resignation 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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