The Misses Clark's School for Girls
It was a pioneer in women's education.
by Patti Smith
From the October, 2019 issue
A July ranking by WalletHub.com declared Ann Arbor the most educated city in the United States. No wonder: Ann Arbor has valued education from its beginning.
A year after cofounding the village, John Allen built a school at the northwest corner of Ann and Main streets. The rough log cabin wasn't a public school (assessments were levied only on parents whose children attended), but by 1838 it provided education for about 40 percent of the village's school-aged children.
The following year, parents got another option when Mary Clark and her sister Chloe opened the "Misses Clark's Seminary for Young Ladies."
Mary Clark was born in Albany in 1813. At the time, very few schools offered postsecondary education for girls. But in 1821, women's rights activist and education advocate Emma Hart Willard opened a girls' "seminary" in Troy, NY. (In addition to a religious training institute, at the time "seminary" could also denote a private college for girls.) It still is open today. Reverend William Clark sent his daughters to this school, which Mary later used as a model for her own.
The Clark family moved to Brighton while Mary was in school. After completing her studies in 1837, she joined them there. She and her sister opened their school in Ann Arbor two years later. They moved several times over the years, including a three-year stop at the northeast corner of Fourth Ave. and Liberty and six years at Liberty and Main. Locations at Huron and Second Ave. (now Ashley St.) and Fourth Ave. and North St. (now Kingsley) followed.
The Clarks educated many local women, but also drew pupils from elsewhere. In 1849 the school had ninety-seven students, including thirty-six from outside Ann Arbor.
Chloe Clark taught the primary grades, while Mary taught college prep courses such as geometry and astronomy. Mary's passion, however, was botany. In the springtime, according to an article by James Tobin on heritage.umich.edu, she would take her students
to a "verdant little valley" that stretched from the Forest Hill Cemetery on Geddes Ave. down to the Huron River, along the edge of what is now the Nichols Arboretum, to collect and press wildflowers. This area later became known as Schoolgirls' Glen.
At the end of each term, Mary would publish the schedule of upcoming exams and recitations in the local paper and invite members of the public to attend. Subjects included readings from the school's semimonthly publication, The Wild Flower, and original compositions; musical performances; skits featuring historical characters; and demonstrations of students' facility in writing, composition, grammar, ancient and modern history, parsing (linguistics), philosophy, theology, geography, chemistry, mythology, "spelling with the defining of words," arithmetic, algebra, Euclid (geometry), and criticism.
The school upheld the moral attitudes of the day. Young ladies who lived at the school could not receive gentlemen callers except for Friday or Saturday events and then only with Mary Clark present. Students were only allowed to shop on Wednesday or Saturday afternoons--because the Clark sisters did not want to "promote ... undue love of society." A school report described it as a place where students' "health, minds, and morals" would be cared for.
Former Michigan governor Alpheus Felch remembered Mary Clark as "one of the most learned women I ever knew." More than an educator, she wrote for Godey's Lady's Book, a magazine focusing on women's fashion, engravings, and poetry written by prominent women of the era. Clark's essays on Ann Allen and Mary Ann Rumsey, the wives of founders Allen and Elisha Rumsey, were later repurposed in an essay about pioneer women by Elizabeth F. Ellet.
Clark also wrote an article on the naming of Ann Arbor, describing the bucolic burr oak clearings where Rumsey and Allen staked their claims. The clearings were known as arbors, but an engraving beneath the article showed a different sort of arbor: a delicate trellis under which two extravagantly dressed women sat, elegantly sipping tea. This perpetuated an urban legend--passed on in later histories and still memorialized by a plaque at the corner of Huron and First--that the town was named for an "arbor" where the founders' wives took respite. (In fact, it was named before they even arrived.)
Mary Clark had nothing but praise for Mary Ann Rumsey, calling her energetic, distinguished in appearance, cheerful, and a "true pioneer...who made the best of everything." She did not say much about Ann Allen, paying her respects in ambiguous terms. Some later theorized that she did not wish to say anything bad about Mrs. Allen, who was still alive when the Godey's article appeared.
Mary Clark was a lifetime member of the Ladies' Library Association, St. Andrew's church (along with her sister), the Ann Arbor Scientific Association, and the Rogers Art Association, which in 1861 paid $1,700 for Ann Arbor-born sculptor Randolph Rogers' Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii (it can still be seen at UMMA).
Friends and colleagues described Clark as an authority in botany, "without peer" regarding her knowledge of ecclesiastical history, and blessed with a memory so retentive that a friend said "no woman surviving her knew so much of the local history of Ann Arbor or Washtenaw County."
While Clark loved reading, she much preferred the companionship of friends. She was said to "know everybody in the community and was universally respected ... no gathering or social event was complete without her presence."
In July 1865, a fire ravaged the North St. school. No one was hurt, but the sisters lost everything, including their collection of 1,068 books (which was said to be second in size only to the U-M's library). According to her obituary, Clark was left with only "her resolute will ... excellent reputation of the school, good wishes of friends and ... affectionate remembrances of pupils and graduates."
That turned out to be more than enough. Offers of help poured in from generous and appreciative former students as well as community members. Within a month, the sisters were able to obtain lots at the northwest corner of North (Kingsley) and Division and begin building a new school. The Michigan Argus reported that in addition to classrooms, the three-story building would have museum rooms, family rooms, and a library.
Mary Clark did not enjoy her new school for long: she died suddenly in 1875. It was reported that she attended church on a Sunday, was "out and about" on Monday and Tuesday, visited a local judge on Wednesday morning, and was found dead that afternoon. She'd been stricken by an "attack ... of paralysis," possibly a stroke. She was buried in Brighton.
The Misses Clark's Seminary for Young Ladies died with her. Though still remembered fondly, its enrollment had fallen as public education improved. A co-ed public high school--which became Ann Arbor High--had opened in 1856, and the U-M began admitting women in 1870.
Chloe Clark moved to Detroit after her sister's death, where she spent her last years ministering to the sick and needy. She died at St. Luke's hospital there, reportedly after venturing out in waist-deep snow to pray with a dying woman. The Misses Clark's Seminary was converted to apartments, and remains that today.
In praising the school that educated young women for decades, the Michigan Argus wrote that the "beauty of Ann Arbor, its exceedingly healthy location, and the high characters of its education institutions, combine to make [the city] a desirable place as an education center." Though the Clark sisters' school passed from the scene long ago, that still rings true today.
[Originally published in October, 2019.]
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