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History and education in those Highland County hills of yore, Part 8 

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Steve Roush

By Steve Roush
HCP columnist

Ladies and gentlemen, from 1839-56, the Rev. Joseph McDowell Mathews, a pioneer of education in Highland County in the 1800s, operated the Oakland Female Seminary in Hillsboro.  

In 1856, a new Hillsborough Female College was constructed on the west end of Main Street. It was located between Main and West Walnut at Oak Street. The new campus opened in the fall of that year and Oakland’s undergraduates were transferred to the new facility. Local backers raised $50,000 in $25 shares to finance the new college and the Rev. Mathews was appointed as president and taught courses.  

The Rev. Mathews would have been 52 years old at the time. 

Promotional material for the college stated that “The Hillsborough Female College takes its place of the Oakland Seminary. The school had therefore been in operation under the same principal for more than 25 years.” 

It also laid out expectations for potential students. “That all may understand, before they come, what will be expected of them.” Rules were that students would “retire at 9 o’clock, rise at 5:30 a.m., all the year around. Half an hour is allowed to wash and dress, then all meet in the Hall to take exercises 15 minutes” in the open air when weather permitted.  

Parents were assured that the campus was “well-situated on a hill, with pure air and healthfully above swamp pestilence and fevers.” The dormitory stretched the full length of the three-story brick main building, which was 94 feet long by 112 feet deep, and was “comfortably warm at night before the ladies retire. The beds are single, each one furnished with a shuck mattress and a cotton mattress, with plenty of blankets and comforts.” 

However, boarders were required to furnish their own towels, napkins, sheets and pillow slips.  

After the morning exercise came morning prayers, breakfast and students then went and made their beds and reported for study hall and classes. When the dinner bell rung, “all are to assemble and good order is required, going and returning, and proper decorum at table, but conversation is allowed during meals … On Saturday, all are required to bathe, after which they write compositions and letters till dinner.” 

Now, these letters were restricted to correspondence “with their own family members and such others allowed by parents and guardians, but no others.” 

Especially boys. The Rev. Mathews discouraged “society with young gentlemen,” believing that “at school the ladies should concentrate on their books and postpone such society as it might lead to marriage till they return home.” No gentlemen callers would be allowed, “that rule had been the same for 20 years and, of course, will remain unaltered.”  

Following the dinner hour, “all ladies may sew or mend, but are expected to be in their family rooms when they are free from regular duties, unless they have permission from the teacher in charge to be elsewhere. We desire the teachers all to know at all times where the ladies are and how they are employed, just as their mothers would desire to know, if they were at home. … This is the Moravian system, which for three-fourths of a century has been successful at Bethlehem, Pa.”  

Yes, the Rev. Joseph McDowell Mathews certainly ran a tight ship.  

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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