Fettered and bound by the land
How Philander Chase's "great domain" nearly killed the College
I n The Kenyon Book, William B. Bodine lists fifteen Episcopal colleges founded in the nineteenth century. Eleven of them failed, in most cases closing their doors after only a few years. Kenyon survived, but the very fact that after a few decades it resembled any other college marked it as a failure in one sense: Bishop Philander Chase had tried to build in Gambier an institution such as no one had ever seen.
Chase's grand design had more in common with the estate of an English lord than with another college. In the beginning, the farming operations all around and the trades plied in the village were all in the service of the bishop. The entire population lived in housing provided by the Episcopal diocese. The children living in the "domain" were taught their letters at the Sunday school that Chase organized. Anyone who fell afoul of the bishop could be banished in a moment.
Feudal as this arrangement may seem, it had an admirable, democratic aim: to bring education to the common man of the West. In its own domain, the diocese could protect the students from "evils which no collegiate laws can cure." There would be no "gambling houses, dram shops, and other infamous dwellings, so detrimental to the morals of youth." Except for use in medicines, liquor would not be allowed on Gambier Hill.
All this was a far cry from the modest beginnings of the theological seminary in 1824 on Chase's farm in Worthington, Ohio. The early plan for the seminary specified a couple of professors, with a single grammar teacher to remedy any deficiencies in the educational backgrounds of the clerical candidates. A few of the trustees were convinced that this was all that was needed, all that the diocese should attempt. But during the first year of the seminary's operation, Chase decided that the Worthington location was undesirable, due to its proximity to a city. A site away from any city and its temptations, in pure country air: that was the sort of place for the institution. Woven into these ideas was the expectation that the diocese would be educating some rather young men, more immature than one might expect a clerical candidate to be.
Chase's plans for the seminary had indeed grown; he now wished to embrace a larger purpose. The bishop saw all around him a "lack of moral and spiritual food." Children were growing up in ignorance on the frontier. Since his arrival in Ohio, Chase had made his living by teaching; the Church had no funds to pay a missionary minister or bishop. From the poorly prepared students at Worthington Academy, Chase had learned firsthand what was passing for "education" in the state. By offering grammar and college education to the general public, the new seminary could train teachers and prepare students for professional schools. Surely the diocese would see what benefits it could bestow on the West!
The decision regarding the permanent site of the institution was to be made in June of 1825, at the diocesan convention. In the interim, a committee received various proposals, and each of the men who convened that June had probably decided, in his own mind, which site was most attractive. Nearly all the sites proposed were near towns, however, and when Chase declared in his opening address his strong preference for a country site, a certain parcel of land along Alum Creek, he ran into a wall of opposition. With many seeing the disappointment of their private hopes, and not a few horrified at the thought of "building from the stump" in an unpopulated area, Chase's proposal of the Alum Creek site was defeated. The convention closed in confusion, postponing the choice of a permanent site.
But Chase forged ahead, determined to have his country location. At last he found the perfect site, the only site in the whole state, where this undertaking could succeed, and he negotiated an excellent price. But here was another shock for the diocese; this land was in the remote interior of Ohio. Some had been quite happy to support Chase's idea for an extended institution, as long as each one could hope that the location chosen might benefit his particular region of the state. But this site in Knox County, so distant from any rising city, seemed a perverse choice; none of them could hope for any benefit. That, too, was part of the bishop's plan. If the institution was to bring prosperity to the area around it (and everyone expected it would), then the diocese itself should, by rights, enjoy the profit. To that end, Chase proposed the purchase of a second parcel. This land, a tract of equal size just to the north of the institution's 4,000-acre domain, would gradually increase in value and could then be sold off piece by piece, for a total sum that would meet or exceed the original purchase price of both sections.
Those who were set against anything but the simplest sort of institution could not be swayed, but Chase had hopes of winning over some in the diocese who had once been willing to vote for an extended institution. He would not consider any other location or shave off any corners of the plan to win another vote. It had to be the "great domain" in all its glory--or a simple theological seminary such as already existed in Worthington. "On any small scale it would be worse than idle to attempt to sustain the interests of a College for all professions: we should become the object of contempt," he wrote to trustee Intrepid Morse. "Far better would it be to confine our sphere of action solely to Theology." The bishop scolded the greedy souls who refused to support his plan, those "screech-owls of selfishness" hoping for personal gain. He warned them that "such selfish withholding . . . in a matter of so great consequence would be marked on the page of history by a stain which their children would blush to notice." He would shame them until they fell into line.
If only he were given the chance, Chase was sure, he could build a great institution that would be admired by the Christian world. "Thousands will give it aid and ten thousands will pray for its success. The living will exert themselves in its favor, and the departing saints will bequeath to it their substance." Using every gram of his formidable powers of persuasion, the bishop rallied sufficient support for the daring plan, and in June 1826, the diocese approved the purchase of the Knox County land. It was not a complete triumph for Chase. Two trustees resigned over the issue; the bishop had lost forever some influential friends.
Chase hoped the $30,000 he had raised in England would suffice for scholarships, books, apparatus, and endowment for the theological department. The money for the land and buildings for the theological department was being raised in America, and now all the costs associated with building and endowing a grammar school and college would have to be sought there as well. After the purchase of the 8,000 acres, there was no ready cash remaining. He could hope for more donations, and the land speculation might yield a steady trickle of funds, but Chase knew he would need to find other sources of income. He planned to lobby for a land grant for the college, a township that could be sold to fund the part of the institution devoted to the general public. But first he would begin to build.
With no money to hire help, Chase himself went to work clearing the grounds on the hilltop in the center of the south section. A few people from Episcopal congregations in the area volunteered their labor when they were able. Sometimes they brought gifts of food or a few dollars to the shanty in which Chase lived. By the end of the summer of 1826, the bishop was ready to let a steward take over so that he could travel east to raise funds.
By March of 1827, Chase had gathered pledges of support totaling $6,000. He had also met an Irishman, a Mr. West. "He came fresh from Old England, with letters from [Chase's] dearest, most esteemed friends, the object of which was, to have him immediately ordained in America, and then, as an Ohio clergyman, return to England, and there, and in his native island, make collections to promote emigration, and thus essentially benefit the grand design . . . ." Mr. West represented an association of "choice persons" who could afford to buy land from the diocese. His arrival seemed providential; it lifted the burden of finding settlers from the bishop's shoulders.
The cellar of the college edifice lay open to the sky in June 1827, and all was ready for the stones that had been quarried at the bottom of the hill. Students and faculty members traveled from Worthington to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone, and people came from all over the surrounding countryside to witness the event.
Now, it was time to build a force of skilled workers. For this, Chase had to advertise in city newspapers, for Knox County was sparsely populated and the bishop intended to be very picky about those he hired. One notice read as follows: "A few choice stonemasons are wanted in erecting Kenyon College. None need apply but good characters and faithful, competent workmen, who are willing to substitute plain, small beer for spirituous liquors." Banning liquor from the worksite was a radical departure from the norm; "whiskey breaks" were generally allowed several times per day. Despite the doomsayers, Chase could report that August, "The masons are pressing the carpenters, the carpenters the teamsters, and the teamsters the hewers. The whipsawyers are not able to keep up with the demand in their line. The blacksmiths, two in number, are driven very hard, to keep sharp the hammers and picks, and repair the chains, mend wagons and make new irons for them, and shoes for twenty-eight cattle in the teams." Most of these workers were boarded on the premises, where a domestic staff cooked for them and washed their linens. Gambier was already a bustling village.
Work on the great stone building progressed slowly, with Chase constantly devising ways to save money. He was not having much luck on another front. The Legislature of Ohio had endorsed his application for a land grant, and in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Senate had approved the request. But the House committee reported against the bill. After two months spent lobbying in Washington, the bishop had expected success. "I don't recollect ever to have received a greater shock," he wrote. It was a devastating blow to Kenyon College, already desperate for funds.
Students and faculty members moved from Worthington to Gambier in June 1828. The diocese intended to provide an inexpensive education for the common man, but the temporary buildings on Wiggin Street that housed the students spoke all too clearly of education at its cheapest. Lack of funds threatened progress on the permanent buildings, where so many hopes for a more comfortable future were vested.
Late in the winter of 1829, Philander Chase took up a new project. The only reference to it in the Reminiscences is so brief that it belies the time he spent in this effort. Little of the north section had been sold as yet, and Chase now worked out a plan to maximize the profits on the remaining land. In the northeast corner of the section, Schenck's Creek offered a good site for a mill and a village. The bishop had the area surveyed, and he drew a town plan, indicating the marketplace and the rise on which the church would be built. He named the streets. The village itself he would call Cornish, after his birthplace in New Hampshire. Next he composed a letter, describing the terms of sale for the lots and declaring that the future of Kenyon College depended on the success of this project. The development was so carefully and wisely designed, wrote Chase, that "the purchaser may be confident his money could not be more advantageously invested." Purchase of a lot would profit an institution "now struggling with difficulties in some degree equal to its vast importance; difficulties which have compelled [the writer] to involve by mortgage his little all to pay the debts of the college . . ." The bishop had the letter printed while he was in Philadelphia, and he immediately set about looking for buyers in that area. On one copy, which he sent to a friend in Virginia, he penned a pathetic note: "If I fail in this my last effort, the consequences will be most fatal."
West's plan to bring settlers from Britain had come to nought, and Chase was no more successful in finding settlers for his new village. Cornish, Ohio, would join other failed dreams as one of the frontier's "paper towns." Years later, the property was sold as farmland. The north section brought enough money to offset the original purchase price of both sections, so the speculation was not a failure. But the College was by that time deep in debt, and no amount of land was going to solve its problems.
Land was the problem, not the answer. The cost of improvements in the domain had made for tight times from the beginning, and the farms never brought the life of abundance that Chase forecast. On the Hill, "temporary" buildings decayed long before they could be replaced. In his autobiography, Records of an Active Life, Heman Dyer describes his arrival at Kenyon in April 1829. As a professor led him to his new quarters they spied two feet poking out from a hole in the wall of one of the boarding houses. They belonged to a young student, it turned out, who was sprawled on the floor, doing his lessons, while trying to warm his feet in the sun!
The tenants' homes in the village became run down, and the diocese had no funds to make repairs. Tradesmen chafed under the conditions of their leases, which channeled most of their profits into College coffers. The institution's edifice was a proud structure, to be sure, but it shone like a flake of mica in a weed patch. The outlying areas looked no more prosperous than the village. Tenant farmers reaped less and less from the fields each year. They had no interest in caring for land they didn't own, by fertilizing or rotating crops. Farmers with ability and ambition soon realized, like the tradesmen, that there were better opportunities elsewhere.
After Chase resigned in 1831, Bishop Charles Pettit McIlvaine, his successor, raised money to make improvements, and for a few years the College and the village had about them a more prosperous look. But the foundation was rotten, riddled with debt. Two decades after their purchase, the farmlands had increased in value nearly tenfold, but the great domain was in such a shabby state that a newspaper compared it to "the premises of some old broken-down Virginia farmer who has abundance of land and little help, and little energy, and is too proud to sell any portion of what has belonged to his family." Trustees who sought donations were advised, again and again, to sell the land. Finally, they had to consider the fearful question: "Is it wise then to leave this noble Institution with its schools and colleges thus fettered and bound . . . when by a change of investment of the monies that are in these lands, or even a small portion of them, all the incumbrances might be removed?" The solution, though obvious, was painful. It was the death of Chase's great dream.
Philander Chase had put a lot of trust in land. As endowment and commodity, it had disappointed him. As a moral guard--the moat around the domain that would protect the students from evil--it had also proved insufficient. Youth would find a way, as an old Kenyon story illustrates. It is said that Chase learned that several students were planning a secret evening outing to Mount Vernon, which was, of course, out of bounds. The bishop confronted the students and declared that if they went, it would be "over his backbone." But Mount Vernon's lures proved too great, and the students sneaked off over the ridge into the town. And that is how the ridge, known as "The Bishop's Backbone," got its name.
T he limits of Kenyon's original 4,000-acre domain can be easily explored today. A straight section of New Gambier Road, between Route 308 and Gaskin Avenue, marks the old north boundary. Travel south through the village and turn left on Wiggin Street to find the eastern boundary at the Monroe Mills Road intersection. Come back into the village, cross the river and continue on Laymon Road to its end at Baker Road, the old boundary to the south. Glide back down that hill and turn left onto Route 229 West. The western boundary was about three-tenths of a mile beyond the intersection of Lower Gambier Road.
Teresa Oden is a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group.
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