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History and education in those Highland County hills of yore, Part 10 

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Steve Roush


Ladies and gentlemen, more than 162 years ago, the Rev. Joseph McDowell Mathews, a pioneer of education in Highland County in the 1800s, announced he was resigning as president of the Hillsborough Female College in December of 1860. 

He had been president of the college for roughly four years after founding and leading the Oakland Female Seminary for nearly two decades before that. The Rev. Mathews cited that he was working for nothing and actually losing money due to the institution’s “enormous debt,” plus was irked 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 said he had taken personal items from Oakland, the seminary he founded in 1839, 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. 

In a letter “To the Citizens of Hillsborough,” the Rev. Mathews wrote, “This has brought the idea of packing up, and the question has arisen whether I ought to take with me the telescope, library and other things I brought with me from the Seminary. The school at the Seminary was my own private enterprise. There was, it is true, a Board of Trustees, and an act of incorporation was obtained four years after the school started, to enable me to confer Diplomas on the graduates. This was sole object of incorporation, and so it was always understood. 

“Before the act of incorporation, I had taken some of my own books and started a library. The girls paid a small fee for the use of the books, and the money was used to buy books. We had a Fair and gave a Supper, and applied for the proceeds to purchase books. In this way the library gradually increased, until the number of books was considerable. 

“About 13 years ago, I solicited my brother in Kentucky to make a donation to purchase a telescope for the use of the school. He agreed to give a hundred dollars, and other contributions were afterwards made, till a telescope was purchased for $700. Other apparatus I have purchased with my own money, and when I removed from the Seminary to the College I brought all with me, thinking that I had a right to do so. 

“Now, I am about to remove to another place, have I not the same right to take them with me? I think I have. The Trustees think not, and interpose their authority to detain me here. They say that the citizens will be dissatisfied if I take them. But I appeal to the citizens, whether after teaching a lifetime among them and educating most of their wives and daughters, they will not allow me the use of instruments which I have been so long collecting, and for which I have paid large sums of my own money? If I am not entitled to them, certainly the Trustees of the College have no right to them, and they should have remained at the Seminary.” 

The good reverend makes some good points. 

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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