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19th Century Female Seminary Once Educated Michigan's Girls

Michigan Female Seminary postcard from the archives of Kalamazoo Valley Museum
courtesy of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum

The Michigan Female Seminary has been closed for more than a century, but at one time, it was one of the few places to send your daughter to continue her education in the 1800's. 

“Those who do hear of it often times think that it’s a school of divinity where perhaps women were trained for ministry. That’s not the case. That’s a 19th century terminology for a school, a seminary.” says Tom Deitz, the Curator of Research at Kalamazoo Valley Museum.

In 1871, 14-year-old Ella Merriman left the Jackson, Michigan train station bound for Kalamazoo. Her trunks were packed with her new wardrobe sewn by the seamstress. As the Michigan Female Seminary catalogue had requested, she was taking two silver tea spoons for afternoon teas.

High on a 31 acre bluff overlooking what is now Riverview Drive, the school had been established by the Presbyterian Synod of Michigan. Fundraising for the school was delayed by the Civil War, but it finally opened in 1867 and operated another 40 years until 1907. It was a high school with college preparatory classes. 

Young Ella Merriman’s mother had been sent away to a women’s seminary in 1835.

“I think she felt really committed to the fact her daughter should have the opportunity,” says Lynn Loftis, a retired director of the Ella Sharp Museum in Jackson, Michigan.

“Not many women were offered that opportunity to go do anything beyond eight grade. It was usually families that had some means to offer their daughter education.”

Most of the students at the Michigan Female Seminary would have been there Monday through Friday, with the trains that ran frequently taking them home for the weekends. Ella Merriman went to the school for three years, interrupted by a trip to Europe with her mother. 

“One of the teachers was a woman by the name of Mary Cram,” says Loftis. “Mary Cram had attended Mount Holyoke in the East, of course. That was where a lot of women were getting their education and then, bringing that love of education out to the West, which Michigan was at that time.”

But because it was a school for the daughters of upper-middle class families, social graces were taught such as home décor, flower arranging, and piano playing. These are the skills an upper-middle class man would looked for in a wife.

Up on the same hill, St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Kalamazoo used some of the bricks from the seminary in their building. The Ella Sharp Museum has a brick from the school in their collection. The alumni of the seminary, including Ella, who had married and became Ella Sharp, tried to raise funds to keep it going. 

“Ella loved the school so much that she not only went there herself but then, she helped support other young women going there,” says Loftis.

When Ella Merriman Sharp died in 1912, she left her farm and home to the city of Jackson for use as a park and a museum. While there is nothing left of the Michigan Female Seminary in Kalamazoo, you can visit the Ella’s home at Ella Sharp Museum in Jackson. Kalamazoo Valley Museum has archived material about the Michigan Female Seminary.

Music: The Parlour Grand: 18 Favorites From a Bygone Era by Robert Silverman.

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