One of the best first-hand sources on life at Antioch College in its earliest days was the wife of its first president, Mary Peabody Mann. Her frequent letters home to her family in Boston, held by Antiochiana because of the tireless collecting efforts of Robert L. Straker (class of 1925), provide some of the greatest detail on the College’s opening day ceremonies, on the character and composition of its students, and of course its many trials and tribulations. Most of all, we learn from Mary’s letters what bothered her at any given time, which was much.
Here she writes to her father about the President’s House, a magnificent residence befitting any college president, and in this instance designed to the Manns’ specifications. A condition of her husband taking the job in the first place, it was supposed to be move-in ready when they arrived in Yellow Springs in late summer 1853. In fact nothing of Antioch was ready to be moved into by then, and work on the house had yet to begin. Over the next year, the Manns would long longingly for their home to be completed as evidenced by their correspondence. In a letter that November Horace wrote, “Ohio growths are rapid growths but this does not hold true of our house which has not yet grown up to the chamber [i.e. second] floor.” At the time, Mary wrote to Dr. Peabody, their house still did not have a roof.
There was a reason the Mann’s house wasn’t ready yet, though not an especially good one. The man in charge of building the original Antioch campus, one Alpheus Marshall Merrifield, didn’t particularly like the Manns. Trustee and Treasurer as well as chief builder, Merrifield and Mann had already clashed more than once on matters of College business in general and competing visions for Antioch in particular. Mann’s outlook, stated most explicitly in his “Demands of the Age On Colleges,” saw institutions of higher learning as having obligations beyond service to their constituencies. His immortal quote, “Be ashamed to die before you have won some victory for humanity,” might be seen as an abbreviation of that idea. By contrast, Merrifield saw Antioch’s role as advancing the founding denomination’s own versions of Christianity. The two men were never going to agree on that, and Merrifield’s not very mature way of arguing with Mann was to delay building the President’s House in any way he could, and it would take five more months before Horace and Mary finally had their own home.
March 10, 1854. Mrs. Mary Mann to Dr. Nathaniel Peabody. (RLS)
March 10th 1854
My dear father,
It seems to me a great while since I wrote to you, but I think it cannot be a fortnight. I was suffering from a bad earache then, but it is all well now. I am still a little deaf, but otherwise well & free even from cold. The weather is very mild – some of the days are not only spring-like but summer-like, & the grass on the slope is beginning to turn green. We were afraid there would not be any, but it is difficult to root out any growths from this soil. You will be still more glad to hear that our house is fairly growing at last. It is going to be a very pleasant one. The room corresponding to Mr Mann’s library in the other house will be our best parlour, & his study where our best parlour was – both larger rooms than those in the other house. These are connected by folding doors with no chimney between – the chimneys are on the south side, corresponding with the West Newton piazza (this house faces west). Our dining room will be opposite the front door as in the other house, but much larger. The room corresponding to the bed room below is a large sitting room – the one corresponding to the West Newton kitchen a room of closets & a place where I intend to have every body come in (through a door leading from the piazza) who has muddy shoes on, or wishes to deposit a hat or other garment. It is a room which will save the front entry very much.The sitting room on that side has a very beautiful view of the village, which is very picturesque standing on the skirts of a forest. Over that sitting room is my chamber, and over that waste room just mentioned a bathing room of goodly dimensions – the communication between them is through two large closets. Water closet in the corner of the house adjoining the bathing room. Over the best parlour is the best chamber where the nursery was in the old house. Miss Pennell will have her room while she remains in single blessedness. Over the dining room I shall put Benjie & Georgie. In the third story are five airy pleasant chambers, two of them quite large, with windows in the roof which slopes up from four sides to an observatory which will be accessible by a good pair of stairs – these rooms are also lighted by oblong windows which come down to the floor. There will be a piazza all round the house except behind, & windows cut down to it. The basement story which is high and can hardly be called a cellar on one side is floored by solid limestone – on the lowest side is the kitchen – on one side of the kitchen a large store room – on the other a wood-room – in the middle room a furnace in which we shall burn wood. Under the best parlour a vegetable room – under the study an apartment nicely finished off for a boy. This will be a very pretty room & all this story will be perfectly dry. To prevent the possibility of dampness a drain is dug which together with the drain for waste house water opens into a large reservoir in the garden, which will be thus irrigated. Water from the eaves is to be conducted into a cistern in the upper story from which it is to be conducted by pipes down into the bathing room and other chambers. A large cistern out of doors will bring water into the house for washing, & spring water for other purposes will also be brought in.
I have not another moment for I have been interrupted, but I will send this to assure you of our well being & with love to all to enquire after yours.
“Songs From the Stacks” is a regular selection from Antiochiana: the Antioch College archives by College Archivist Scott Sanders.