Philanthropy in disguise

How New York banker Samuel Ward saved Kenyon College

S amuel Ward, eponymous partner of the New York firm Prime, Ward, and King, had a gift for land speculation. When he bought farmland on Manhattan Island in 1826, his friends wondered at his plan to build a house out of town, but within a few years Ward's neighborhood was on its way to becoming the most fashionable one in New York. And Ward had land to spare. He made a good profit selling neighboring lots and then built an even finer home down the street.

In that same year, 1826, the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio also bought land--two sections, or 8,000 acres--in the center of the state. The diocese planned to build an educational institution, in its own self-sufficient domain, in the south section and to resell the north section. Bishop Chase hoped that the resale would bring in as much money as the two sections together had originally cost, thanks to the discounted price he had negotiated and the natural tendency of land values to rise as an area was developed. However, when the diocese badly needed income from the land a few years after its purchase, no buyers could be found; this investment wasn't panning out as well as Ward's.

Ward had one terrific advantage: acreage on Manhattan Island was nicely limited. From Ohio, though, one could look west on an unfathomable expanse of undeveloped land, with ever more acres available at an attractive price. Ohio was becoming a way stop instead of a destination.

By 1832, development costs had sunk Kenyon College deep in red ink, and the campus was a sorry sight. From the windows of the edifice we now call "Old Kenyon," students looked out on a landscape of tree stumps, ash heaps, piles of dirt and wood, discarded boots, and broken crockery. There were numerous log and frame buildings, but many had been thrown up quickly and cheaply, and they were already deteriorating. Because of lack of funds, the wings designed for Old Kenyon had not yet been built, and construction of Rosse Chapel had been halted. The trustees had calculated that $15,000--over $200,000 today--was needed to pay off the accumulated debts. We will never know if, or how, Philander Chase might have solved the problem, because he had resigned as bishop and as president. The institution and the diocese were temporarily without a head.

Chase had left Gambier in 1831, but he continued to follow the development of his grand scheme in Ohio. When he learned that land in the north section was to be sold to pay off debts, he circulated a notice warning potential buyers that the sale was illegal. In the past, the board had authorized him to sell the land, and that authority had never been revoked. Chase had resigned some months before, but since no bishop had ever before resigned his post, a committee had to study the matter. Legally, he was still the bishop of Ohio. He did not trust those who were temporarily managing affairs in Gambier to stick to the original plans for the institution, but perhaps the new bishop, once consecrated, would carry on with the great design. Chase hoped his ploy might serve to keep the land intact until his successor could consider the sale.

The circular caused a great deal of confusion in the weeks before the scheduled sale, but the trustees went ahead anyway. The results were, not surprisingly, a disappointment. Few buyers showed up, and those who did expected to get a bargain. When the land failed to bring in the needed funds, the trustees decided they must seek a loan to pay creditors, using the remaining north-section land as security. They dispatched Rev. William Preston to New York City to find a lender. Preston, however, left the city empty-handed. No one would risk the large sum that was needed.

As the situation deteriorated and creditors became more pressing, the trustees authorized the Prudential Committee to sell or mortgage the land and buildings in the "sacred South Section" (the phrase Kenyon historian George Franklin Smythe used for the 4,000 acres Chase had not planned to sell). If necessary, Old Kenyon itself would be mortgaged! There was no way Philander Chase could interfere with this action, even though it was a much more serious threat to his great dream.

Much to their consternation the trustees found that even these more attractive, more developed acres in the south section could not generate any funds; no one was willing to take a chance on the College. When at last Charles Pettit McIlvaine was consecrated as the bishop of Ohio, he spent only a week in Gambier before he headed back east to raise funds. McIlvaine was known and respected in Washington and New York. In a rather short time, he gathered nearly $30,000, but none of this was to pay off debts; it was mostly designated for building improvements on the Hill. Given the financial picture, it may seem remarkable that McIlvaine's first effort was to fund construction and repairs, but he thought he had no choice. Unless he could improve student and faculty housing, all would truly be lost. No one would want to put up with the conditions in Gambier. Furthermore, the debts and the clamoring creditors were considered a great embarrassment, to be handled as quietly as possible. Those who funded McIlvaine's "improvements" probably had little knowledge of the shaky foundation on which he planned to build.

While gathering donations, McIlvaine himself searched for someone to loan the institution the $15,000 needed to pay the debts. At last he found a man who was willing to consider such a transaction: Samuel Ward. It seems likely that Rev. Mr. Preston had already asked Ward, or his firm, Prime, Ward, and King, for a loan. The firm had served the institution ten years before, when it received and held the funds Philander Chase had raised in England. Both Nathaniel Prime and Samuel Ward had made donations to the institution, and the third partner, James Gore King, had a brother on the board of trustees and a nephew attending Kenyon. All these connections were apparently of no avail the year before, but now McIlvaine succeeded. The funds were at last secured "through the great attention and affectionate interest of Samuel Ward, Esq., of New York," as the bishop reported. The interest rate was reasonable, despite the fact that Ward must have recognized that the money would be at great risk. What made him decide to take such a chance on Kenyon?

The facile answer, that Ward had great respect for McIlvaine, may be only a small part of the truth. More important may have been the willingness the second bishop showed to carry on the work of the first. As W.J. Rorabaugh writes in his book The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition, the country had for some decades been on a "veritable national binge." Heavy consumption of alcohol was especially a problem in two sorts of environments that otherwise had little in common: the most urban and the most rural. Many cities, such as New York, did not have a safe public supply of water, and residents believed, rightly in many cases, that water was not good for them. On the frontier, there might be an abundance of pure water, but there were, as yet, few social restraints. Philander Chase had built moral safeguards into the design for his Ohio institution: by owning all the land for some distance around, the diocese could "keep from the premises all gambling houses, dram shops, and other infamous dwellings." No liquor would ever be allowed on the College grounds, except for medicinal purposes. As an early leader of the New York City Temperance Society, Ward was trying to do what he could to fight the drunkenness and dissipation he saw around him. He must have approved of the project the Diocese of Ohio had undertaken, even though he doubtless recognized that everyone was badly underestimating the possible expense.

Part of the explanation for Ward's change of heart may lie in a coincidence of timing. He had recently been involved in the founding of the University of the City of New York. Samuel Ward had left school at fourteen to go to work, and he always regretted his lack of a proper education. The new "citizens' university" was founded to educate young men such as Ward had been thirty years before; it would offer a less expensive, and more pragmatic, education than that offered by colleges such as Columbia. But at the end of 1832, Ward broke with the new institution. The immediate reason was the proposed purchase of a site in trendy Washington Square, at a time when the coffers didn't hold enough to pay for the land, much less the expensive and impressive building plans most of the board seemed to favor. Those who wanted a utilitarian curriculum were now outnumbered by those favoring a classical curriculum, and tuition was not going to be all that cheap, in fact only 9 percent less than that at Columbia. There was no hope that Ward's vision for the New York institution would be implemented; perhaps the banker could help another institution that was trying, against huge odds, to realize its goal of "bringing learning within the reach of others besides the rich."

Freed from the pressure of Kenyon's creditors, Bishop McIlvaine and the trustees looked forward to a new era in which income would meet expenses and no new debt would be incurred. The finances would at last be as solid as the rock on which the College was built. But financial troubles plagued the new bishop, just as they had plagued Bishop Chase. Hard times all over the country cut the numbers of students enrolling at Kenyon, and those taking courses sometimes left bad debts behind. Building costs outran, again and again, the funds that had been raised to pay them. The farmlands seemed to produce less and less each year. The trustees' hopes to earn a profit on sheep and cattle were dashed when a drought forced them to sell at a loss or see the animals die.

In the days before annual fund drives became a ritual at most institutions, the near-constant need to ask for operating funds was a great embarrassment to Bishop McIlvaine. "It is too delicate a matter to be spread before the public, lest the reputation of the Institution suffer," he wrote in a letter of 1840, a form letter he sent only to those who "may be supposed not to need a more particular explanation" than that the crops were poor that year. One bad year followed another, and the unpaid bills mounted up, even as the date to repay Samuel Ward loomed ever closer. By the autumn of 1842, the financial crisis could no longer be hidden from public view: the managers of the College store had sued the trustees for nonpayment.

Any creditors who might have held off--feeling, perhaps, that it was not nice to sue a Christian institution--must have panicked when they heard that Kenyon had been summoned to court by one of its own. The flood gates opened, and by July 1843, the College had been sued more than a dozen times. Each time, the trustees "made default," and each time judgment was awarded to the plaintiff. New York lenders who had refused, ten years earlier, to risk their funds on Kenyon could now congratulate themselves for having made a wise decision.

Samuel Ward would have been distressed by the College's humiliation; perhaps he would have done what he could to prevent it. But he didn't live long enough to hear of the crisis in Gambier in 1842. He had ruined his health during the Panic of 1837, with selfless efforts to keep New York banks and the State of New York from dishonor. Respect for Ward's integrity led the Bank of England to loan gold worth $5 million to help his firm and others in New York resume specie payments in 1838. But in 1839, Philadelphia banks suspended specie payments, and in New York, banks threatened to follow suit. "He threw himself at once into the conflict, sustained, encouraged, and convinced the timid and the doubting," Charles King wrote of Ward. When he saw that the city's honor would be maintained, "he went home to die. It was literally so: the bed which received him after the accomplishment of this, his last labor, he never left alive."

After his death, some of Samuel Ward's acts of generosity became known for the first time. Besides supporting the Episcopal Church and its missions, Ward had given away $15,000 each year to the poor in New York, paid for the education of penniless young men, and commissioned paintings from struggling young artists to help their careers. It does not seem too far-fetched to suggest that the banker, had he lived to learn of Kenyon's financial straits, might have forgiven the $20,000 that was his due. But the administrator of Ward's estate, though he had kindly allowed some interest payments to be missed, was bound to press the College for payment. Bishop McIlvaine begged the institution's creditors in Ohio to be patient while he sought donations. How it must have pained him to write the appeal for funds, laying out the details of the disastrous situation! He reported that some personal property had already been seized, and the most valuable library "may be seized at any moment." Land prices were currently so low that the whole property, buildings and all, might not bring enough to pay the debt--and, if it were sold, the institution would, of course, be lost. Fortunately, the hard times were coming to an end. People responded generously to McIlvaine's "Earnest Word," and enough money was collected to pay back all that was owed, to Ward's estate and the local creditors as well. Kenyon College would survive.

What exactly did Ward's loan do for Kenyon? In short, it gave the institution a ten-year lease on life, a decade during which the feasibility of Philander Chase's dream could be tested. In those years, the outlines of the campus as we know it today took shape: Bexley Hall was built and Marriott Park, with its beloved Middle Path, was laid out. Between 1833 and 1843 men who would later leave their marks on the nation studied at Gambier. Among these were Edwin M. Stanton, Stanley Matthews, and Rutherford B. Hayes. There was also Henry W. Davis, who would serve as U.S. Congressman from Maryland before and during the Civil War. Referring to Davis, Speaker of the House James G. Blaine pointed out that "the most accomplished parliamentary orator of this century" had been educated at a certain western college for a total yearly expenditure of less than a hundred dollars.

Ward never wanted any recognition. Those words in Bishop McIlvaine's report--"through the great attention and affectionate interest of Samuel Ward, Esq."--may be the only public acknowledgment of the banker's help. In The Kenyon Book, William B. Bodine gives the impression that Ward's firm was the lender, and that Samuel Ward was only an intermediary. The loan was faceless, and it became a scapegoat. Trustees and administrators fell into the habit of moaning about it, when interest payments offset what little profit the farms yielded each year. No one seemed to remember how hard it had been to find a willing lender. In his history of the College, Smythe writes that the loan "afforded great immediate relief, and great future trouble." There is no kind word for Samuel Ward; he is not even mentioned by name.

Readers familiar with Kenyon's campus may be wondering whether Ward Street was named as a tribute to Samuel Ward. Like most of the others in the center of the village, the street is named for an English benefactor, in this case Rt. Rev. William Ward. But the next time you find yourself on Ward Street, pause for just a moment to reflect on the generosity of New York banker Samuel Ward. Kenyon no longer owes him money, but a little gratitude is long overdue.

Teresa Oden is a regular contributor to the Bulletin and a member of its Contributing Writers Group.

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