Songs from the Stacks

By Scott Sanders, Archivist

Rev. Eli Fay and the Founding of Antioch College

Among the many founders of Antioch College, none had more far reaching impact on its subsequent history than the Reverend Eli Fay (1822–1899). Fay came from Cazenovia, New York, near Syracuse, appears to have been largely self-educated, and joined the Christian denomination in the 1840s. A leading delegate to the Marion Convention of 1850 where the idea of Antioch College was formally put to paper, Fay advanced the twin founding principles of nonsectarianism and coeducation that made the College famous even before ground was broken for its campus. Subsequently he became an increasingly influential voice in the composition of Antioch College, best documented in a three-part dispatch that appeared in the April and May 1852 issues of The Christian Palladium called “Our College Faculty.” Here he laid out the need for a prominent, scholarly, and upright President that could “carry our College to the mountain height of Literary renown” whose reputation would “at once convince the world that we are truly doing a great work.” The person he had already concluded to do that heavy lifting was Horace Mann, then on an extensive lecture tour of New York. The two met for the first time on that tour at the coeducational Genesee College in Lima (which became part of Syracuse University in the 1870s) as Mann reported to his wife Mary in a letter dated 9 March: “A man came to see me this morning who is one of a company engaged in gathering up a similar college, tho’ perhaps somewhat of a less Unitarian stamp, at Yellow Springs, in Ohio.” This meeting probably led Fay to the conclusions set forth in his serialized letter in the first place.

Fay had probably already submitted the final installment of his missive to the Palladium when he wrote Mann the following letter from his church in Honeyoye Falls near Rochester, the earliest hard copy in Antiochiana of an offer to him for the presidency of Antioch College. It seems that the “favor of the 13th inst,” which resides in the Horace Mann Papers of the Massachusetts Historical Society and which Fay quotes liberally, was Mann’s first reaction to the proposition he had received dated April 13 through the Reverend Austin Craig, who would later join the Antioch College faculty himself, serving briefly as its president during the Civil War. Apart from his “desire [for] a little further time for reflection” Mann must have had some conditions in his response.

The masthead of the Christian Palladium
Fay’s discussion of Antioch College in the Christian Palladium.

As corresponding secretary of the Sub-Committee on Antioch College, the job of addressing Mann’s conditions and concerns would certainly have fallen to Fay. For instance, Mann had likely already picked out the “female Professor” alluded to in the second paragraph, his niece Rebecca Pennell, but it appears that he merely offered that Fay and his friends should consider having a woman join their faculty. Mann must have desired a loyal as well as an accomplished faculty, hence the reference to men “who would be sure to break down any institution with which they might be connected.” If this was one of Mann’s fears about taking the job, it would be sadly and wholly realized in the person of Professor Ira W. Allen, author of The Rise, Difficulty, and Suspension of Antioch College in 1858 which he wrote in support of attempt by a faction of founders to turn the College into a seminary. Fay would prove Mann’s champion in that struggle, both arguing to maintain Antioch as a “literary institution” and answering Allen’s book with one of his own, Rejoinder to I. W. Allen’s Pseudo-History of Antioch College, published in 1859.

In his very brief discussion of the College buildings, not yet begun in April 1852 and their location decided just 3 months earlier, Fay describes them as “all you would desire.” The campus, unfinished though it would be for the first half of Mann’s presidency, was certainly magnificent in scale and appearance, but thanks to poor planning and even poorer money management coupled with a builder’s grandiose vision, it would also prove to be the main source of the myriad “pecuniary embarrassments” the College would suffer throughout his term.

Having little to report on the facilities Mann had inquired about, Fay waxes poetic by comparison on their location in Yellow Springs. The two conditions at the top of the Christians’ list for the town to get their College were access to transportation and healthful climate, the term for the latter often used at the time being “salubrity,” and so not surprisingly he leads off with them. Not yet in service ten years, the railroad through Yellow Springs was already fueling its economic boom, making a local limestone industry possible and contributing to dramatic increases in construction and population. And as long as people had been in the area it had enjoyed its healthful reputation, which was prodigiously advertised by a string of resort owners as far back as the first decade of the century. The passage probably speaks to a general cultural hypochondria of the time; many if not most of the historic letters and journals in Antiochiana contain abundant details of and inquiries about the correspondent’s health, or lack thereof.

Fay seems to consider the subject untoward, and even pardons himself before dealing with it, but even at that time salary should have been a perfectly legitimate discussion topic for a prospective college president. Anyone who has applied for a position with a less than commensurate rate of pay (in this case $3,000/year adjusts to around $80,000 in 2012 dollars, certainly on the low end for what college presidents make these days) has probably also heard from the potential employer that their money will go further in their new home than it did in their old one.

We can probably assume safely that the “interposition” of Rev. Rufus Phineas Stebbins referred to in Fay’s postscript does not mean the asserted right of states to declare federal law unconstitutional, but rather his willingness to serve as an advisor to the planners. Stebbins was president of Meadville Theological School, then still in Meadville, Pennsylvania, but part of the University of Chicago since 1930. A joint venture of the Christian Church and the Unitarian Association established in 1844, Meadville also helped found Antioch College, but in perhaps a less than obvious way. An argument on the Board of Trustees between these two ostensibly liked minded denominations in 1848 over whether or not the Christians might themselves make good Unitarians someday provoked the founders to withdraw from Meadville and strike out on their own with their own college: Antioch College.

Fay converted to Unitarianism in 1859 and held pastorates in Woburn, Newton, and Taunton, Massachusetts before a five year stint in the pulpit in Sheffield England, beginning in 1878. He returned to the US in 1883 for the more healthful climate of Southern California, where he continued to preach at a Unitarian church he built at Seventh Ave and Broadway, the historic main intersection of Los Angeles, on the site of the Loew’s State Theater building where Judy Garland sang when she was still known as Frances Gumm.

A photo of the beginning of Fay's letter
A photo of the salutation of Fay’s letter to Mann.

Honeoye Falls April 24 1852

Hon Mr. Mann

Dear Sir

Your favor of the 13th inst came duly to hand, I was truly glad to receive such a testimonial of deep interest in our educational movement from such a source, and assure you that we are not “disposed to consider the whole matter at an end” because you “desire a little further time for reflection”. The multitude of Letters received since I saw you, give unmistakable evidence of an all-prevalent anxiety to secure Your services, if it can be done by the utmost extent of our means. So far as I know there is but one mind upon the subject.

Your suggestion with regard to a “female Professor” though new, meets with universal approbation, and we have a member who are admirably qualified for such a station. Our friends, without doubt will be glad of your counsel in the appointment of our Faculty, but we think a majority of the Professors should be selected from our own people as the college is the fruit of our munificence. And as its character will wholly depend upon the Faculty it is certainly for our interest to select none but the right kind of men. We have already secured the services of two or three, whose connection with the college will be an abundant pledge for the popularity of their departments. We know there are many educated men “who would be sure to break down any institution with which they might be connected” But if our powers of discrimination are sufficiently acute no man of that stamp will find a place as instructor in our college. As we had our eye upon Mr. Mann for president, we have labored to secure such men for coworkers as would procure as little incongruity as possible when brought together. We are proud of our success thus far.

With regard, to our buildings I will only say that they will be all that you would desire as it respects style, capacity, commodiousness, ventilation, etc. etc.

Yellow Springs is in Green Co. Ohio about 70 miles north of Cincinnati, lying upon the Sandusky and Cin R Road. Numerous testimonials of its unparalleled salubrity, have recently been published in the prominent papers of Southern Ohio from the most eminent physicians of the State. They agree in saying that it is far-famed as one of the most healthful localities in the entire country. No malarious disease was ever known here. It has now only about 400 inhabitants, but I have been credibly informed that the location of our College in its very heart, together with the salubrity and picturesqueness of the place, are inducing a very astonishing increase, - 100 new dwellings are being erected there this season.

And besides two triangular parks, forever to be preserved as such, around which the present, beautiful little village is built, the College has 20, acres upon which nothing but its own buildings are ever to be erected, the whole to be arranged and ornamented according to modern & approved taste.

Pardon me for making an explanation with regard to salary. Probably the amount we offer per annum would go further in defraying the expenses of a family there than $3000 would in N.E. Fuel, provisions, rents etc. etc., are plenty at less than one half the N.E. prices. This fact is worthy of consideration.

As we are to have a meeting on the 20th of may next for the election of a Faculty I now enquire if we may place your name at its head. Your services will not be wanted before the Autumn of 1853, perhaps not before 1854. But your name will aid us materially, in accomplishing a great work, and no effort within our means shall be wanting on our part to make all things satisfactory to you.

As I must make out my Report by the 10th of May please answer at your earliest convenience.

I have the honor to subscribe myself, dear Sir,

Your ob’t. servt

E. Fay cor. Secty

PS We have expected the favorable interposition of Rev Dr Stebbins of Meadville as he is a warm friend of ours, Has he written you upon the subject.

E. Fay

A photo of the closing of Fay's letter
A photo of the closing and signature of Fay’s letter, with a portion of the postscript visible.