Mrs. Shimer's Life and Work
|Mrs. Shimer's Life and Work (1901)
Mrs. Shimer's Life and Work.
“May I be to other souls
It is not the intent of a memorial to tell the whole of a life. That which is written is to show the foundation of success, to display the strong, essential elements of character, to trace to its source the power of influence, to demonstrate that achievement is the fruitage of endeavor, and that duty follows the law of sacrifice. The unrecorded, which transcends the written, is part of the surrounding atmosphere of good deeds from which all derive benefit, and which, like the air, common to all, sustains humanity. In this memorial of a life of service, self-sacrifice, and success, silence must represent the volumes that cannot be crystallized into printed words, but the inspiration of the life portrayed should help to carry on the work she loved.
At Milton, in Saratoga county, N. Y., August 21, 1826, a daughter was born to Rebecca Bryan and Jesse Wood. The father, son of Benjamin and grandson of David Wood, who made the first settlement in Milton, was a timid, reticent man. The mother, a daughter of Samuel Bryan and Martha Tallmadge, and one of thirteen children, all of whom died with consumption before middle age, was a “delicate, refined, ambitious woman, of superior intellectual ability, but frail withal.” The baby was named Frances Ann Wood, Frances being a favorite family name on the mother's side, because a relative named Frances Slocum, in Revolutionary times, was stolen by the Indians. From the birth of Frances, the mother failed in health. She, however, lived until Frances was ten years old. Caroline was twenty-one years older than her young sister, and gave her a mother's care. Frances was a “strong girl who matured young, and had a massive head and body as a child.” She began school when two and a half years old, and persisted in learning to read, the school being just across the green, and the teacher—Sarah Billings, afterward Mrs. Powell—an intimate friend of Caroline. In later years the Seminary never had more devoted friends or more welcome guests than Mr. and Mrs. Powell.
Being so much younger than her two brothers and sister, Frances, much petted and little restrained, was left to amuse herself with the animals about the home and farm. She had a fondness for fun, and a keen sense of the ludicrous. She was extremely fond of pets. Her cats were trained to perform surprising antics. In winter she harnessed calves as ponies to draw her handsled. Sometimes she had hairbreadth escapes, but never gave up. Her control over animals was remarkable. From childhood she was considered very skilful in managing spirited horses. She loved nature, and took great interest in everything with life. Her horticultural experiments commenced when “a very little girl.” A neglected lilac bush was a source of constant distress, and her delight was unbounded when her father gave her permission to trim it. She undertook by pruning to make it symmetrical, but each branch removed, revealed equal or greater deformities. Finally only one stalk remained, which the young horticulturist pronounced “more crooked than any other,” so she heroically cut that down and grew a bush to her liking.
Her love for books was early manifested. When six years old, a “book peddler” came to the house, and she was so enraptured with his books that she invested the whole of her first earnings in a volume entitled Watts on the Mind; of this she was very proud. At the age of seven, she was sent to a private school, boarding with her father's cousin, but was very homesick. Too proud to complain, though she suffered intensely, she plunged into study with the same energy which characterized her whole life. Her mother's death saddened the home, and the death of her favorite brother, Tallmadge, who was killed in California by Indians, left its impress on her mind, and made her more serious than children of her age. She thought and planned about her future far beyond her years. Soon after her mother's death, her sister, who had so faithfully been nurse, mother, and housekeeper, married Mr. Nash, a prosperous young farmer, who had waited several years for his bride. The home was changed, a housekeeper installed, and Frances now entered Stillwater Academy. The approval of her teachers was a source of pleasure, and she bent all her energies toward gaining highest scholarship. As a student, she was thorough, enthusiastic, and especially fond of the sciences. Her instinctive desire for information was so strong, that the mere consciousness of something unknown was sufficient incentive to arouse ambition to acquire. She could not overcome homesickness, and when twelve years old prevailed on her father to allow her to keep house for him. He was delighted with all her efforts, and not sparing of his praise. She made butter, cheese, raised chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese in large numbers, managed the garden and fruit, and all the proceeds she saved to complete her education. She took great pains to learn the best way to do everything, and enjoyed both the indoor and outdoor responsibility. Thus was the foundation laid for the versatility in labor which characterized her later life.
When fourteen, becoming proficient in household matters, she decided that she could teach, in addition to discharging her duties as housekeeper. With daily convincing proofs of her wonderful energy and perseverance, and knowledge of her excellent scholarship, she was engaged to teach in her home district. She continued these double duties until the homestead was sold and she, with her father, made her home with Mrs. Nash. The two sisters were like mother and daughter, and their devotion was always very beautiful. Her next teaching was in a neighboring district, and Miss Gregory taught in the home school, boarding with Mrs. Nash. Miss Wood, as she was then called, rode “Greg” back and forth to her school. “Greg” was a magnificent, high-spirited horse which she had broken as a colt. She continued teaching until she had sufficient money to pay her expenses through a course of study at Albany Normal School, New York, entering the senior year on examination, and graduating at the age of twenty-three in the same class with Miss Gregory. A desire to study medicine was accentuated by the illness and death of her mother, but, as none of the medical schools at that time admitted women students, she was forced to abandon the idea. The substitution of teaching as a profession did not extinguish the original intent, which was cherished as a possibility to be achieved when she should have opportunity and leisure; but it was the origin of the motives which led to her future investigation of the general status of women, especially the lack of advantages for higher education, and to the determination to use her influence for the establishment of schools which would afford women opportunities to prepare for professions or for any line of practical work.
After graduating from the Normal, she taught until symptoms of consumption made it necessary to seek a change of climate. An acquaintance, in correspondence, had alluded to the lack of educational facilities in the “New West.” This led to correspondence with Judge Wilson, an acquaintance of Mr. Nash, at Mt. Carroll, and to the decision that that young and promising village would be a desirable place for the proposed school. Nothing daunted by insecure health, the hardship, inconveniences, or privations of a sparsely settled country, or the sacrifices of pioneer life, Miss Wood and her friend Miss Gregory undertook the long journey to Illinois, found the right sphere for the activities of mind and heart, and became the founders of a school which for forty-three years was known as Mount Carroll Seminary.
The first term opened May 11, 1853, with eleven pupils, and closed with thirty. For the next term the demand for accommodations from non-resident pupils was sufficient to warrant plans for a permanent school, and this idea of permanency was one of the corner-stones in the original design of the founders. To some of the more progressive residents of the village the outlook was so promising that they were desirous of assuming some of the honors and sharing the emoluments of the enterprise; therefore a charter was obtained from the legislature, a stock company formed, $3,000 subscribed, five acres of ground purchased, and a building forty-four feet square—the present Center— commenced in the summer and occupied in October, 1854, with Miss Wood and Miss Gregory salaried teachers under the control of a board of trustees. Both sexes were admitted, and the new building was dedicated with twenty-five boarders and about twice as many day-pupils.
As only one-third of the subscriptions had been paid, money for the building was borrowed from an eastern capitalist. The furnishings were far more expensive than anticipated, and at the expiration of six months the stockholders were confronted with interest coupons instead of dividends. The trustees, unable to collect unpaid subscriptions, became discouraged, and offered the building and furnishings to the not-discouraged principals for the contract price of the building, the free use of the ground for five years, and permission to improve the grounds, if they would promise to continue the school for ten years. At the end of five years the trustees would either pay for the added improvements or sell the land at a reasonable price. The proposition was accepted. In order to obviate questions of title which might arise on account of the transfer, a new charter was secured, vesting all rights in the new proprietors, who gave a personal note for $4,500, with interest at 10 per cent. These notes were ultimately paid by by Miss Wood, who borrowed the money from her brother-in-law, Mr. Nash, after using the small inheritance which came to her from her father's estate. This was the beginning of the financial burden and management which Mrs. Shimer carried through all the years of her connection with the school. The debt for the furnishings was voluntarily liquidated by issuing scholarships to those trustees who had a assumed that portion of the original indebtedness.
Improvements were immediately commenced on the grounds, fences built, and the “five-acre field,” destitute of tree, shrub, or bush—except some hazel-brush—was dotted with evergreens and deciduous trees, whose towering tops and stalwart trunks are today landmarks and the pride of the campus. Fruit-bearing trees and bushes and vines were also planted with a lavish hand, although expensive and transported long distances; yet the members of the “Seminary family,” more than a quarter of a century afterward, were enjoying their fruitage. Flowers, walks, and drives attested woman's presence and intuition. Time lent its aid, and the work went on despite the oft-repeated prophecies of failure. Miss Wood knew every bush, tree, and vine, for all were planted under her oversight; and so successfully had she applied her knowledge of horticulture that at the end of five years the trustees declared that the permanent improvements on the five acres were too expensive for them to purchase, and, as the school had been equally prosperous, they signified their approbation by donating the land to the Seminary.
In 1857 an addition doubled the accommodations for boarders. In 1866 the crowded condition necessitated the exclusion of young men, and the school afterward continued a “seminary for young ladies.” In 1867 a second “L” was added. The old schoolroom was remodeled for the much-needed library, and the upper story of the new building given up to piano-rooms and a studio to meet the requirements of the rapidly increasing music and art departments. Accommodations were none too great, for the Seminary family that year numbered one hundred, besides a liberal patronage of day-pupils. In 1876 the third and last addition was completed, being the whole of the present “East Hall,” which again nearly doubled the number of rooms.
This remarkable prosperity and growth of the school was due partly to economic conditions, partly to the advantages offered and the character of the school, but more than all to the personality of the founders and the supervision of Mrs. Shimer. There were no supernatural gifts to make progress steady and success permanent, only the ability and willingness to make the best use of those powers with which they were endowed. Success was the natural consequence of steady, painstaking, unselfish devotion to a purpose, viz., to build up a school which should be a force and an uplifting power, and increase the chances for contentment and prosperity by making more capable teachers and home-makers. While the external development was due to one woman, the nature and character of the school was not exclusively the work of Mrs. Shimer, although every department was permeated with her influence and inspiration. Her enthusiasm spurred others on when they would have flagged. She was the counselor, the sustained ambition that never lost courage, that held on with quiet, resolute firmness, the source from which all associates drew strength and vigor. During the earliest years Miss Gregory was a most able co-worker, a superior instructor, and particularly qualified to drill prospective teachers in Normal methods. Later, Mrs. Hazzen, by building up the music department, and Miss Joy, by developing the broader policy of modern education, were valuable coadjutors.
When the school opened, and for years afterward, there were few if any high schools or normal schools to train teachers. Not only was there strenuous opposition, of a degree difficult to imagine in this age of co-education, to the admission of women to colleges and professional schools, but the pioneer population had little money to spend for artistic culture and higher education; hence, for the majority, the intermittent, ungraded district school was the only source for an education. The Seminary, by providing a “home school” affording opportunities for advancement and artistic culture, and in providing a way for those of limited means to secure these advantages, created and increasing demand for its line of work by answering a demand. The established reputation for thoroughness in academic work , the reflex influence of the success of graduates and undergraduates in practical life, fostered by judicious advertising, drew to it a patronage from many states, the territory widening with the lapse of years.
From 1869 to 1872 might be called the “transition period” of the Seminary, brought about by circumstances and demands. Mrs. Shimer was broad-minded enough to give reins to those who showed special fitness to hold them. Different departments took shape under the direction of teachers prepared for special lines of work; thus by “specializing,” a desire to reach higher standards and higher ideals was engendered and realized. A teacher said, after she left the school: “It is not so much what they do at Mount Carroll Seminary, as the high ideals they try to create.” The course of study has always been in advance of the demand, even in special and technical departments, dating from the time when Mrs. Shimer brought the first piano into the county.
The mere acquisition of knowledge was by no means the extent of its curriculum. Its underlying principle was that the training of intellect should be paralleled by the training of character. With love of books, music, and art should be instilled ideals of sincerity, thoroughness, direct purpose, and self-reliance. A comprehension of the wonders of nature should lead to the understanding of self in order to make the most and best of life. With the mysterious laws of science should be associated the inflexible laws of influence and example. Not cramming for examinations, but preparing for the real duties of life, was the standard of excellence. Though none were assured of attaining ideals, all were made confident of being better for the strife. If the standard sometimes demanded too much, it never erred by being satisfied with too little. The high standing of the school attracted teachers of the best talent. Mrs. Shimer had the faculty of making all connected with the school feel they were individually responsible fot its reputation and success. The loyalty of teachers and pupils has been the subject of general comment.
With no changes in management, personal interest, daily care and supervision supplied the essentials of home environment, health, habits, correct tastes, and morals. The discipline was uplifting and strengthening. Reproof was given in a manner which left the violator with a desire to reform, rather than humiliated and vindictive, but a pupil who, after trial and gentle admonition, was not in accord with the spirit of the school, and manifested no disposition to uphold the standard of required conduct, was sent home.
The manual labor department, obligatory on none, but open to those desirous of economizing in expenses, enabled scores of self-supporting young women to enjoy privileges from which they would otherwise have been financially debarred, and also brought to the school pupils of superior ability and determination. In Mrs. Shimer's estimation, one of the best credentials a pupil could furnish was proof of a desire for an education, a lack of money to meet expenses, and a willingness to help herself. Her sympathies were ever with this class, and the assistance rendered was such as would inspire self-reliance, not humiliate, weaken, or pauperize. To one applicant she wrote: “We labor ourselves, and honor the faithful laborer in every department of industry.” Many recipients of the favors of this department testify that the financial aid was secondary to the training given in the conscientious discharge of duties, and that the kindly words of encouragement and counsel, uttered by one whose practice exemplified her precepts, exceeded in value loans and discounts.
As most of the ministers in the West were “home missionaries,” special discounts were made to daughters of soldiers. Free tuition in the normal department was given to one teacher from each county. Other things being equal, the positions of matron, housekeeper, and laundress were given to widows having daughters to educate. Pupils of creditable scholarship were privileged to give personal notes, drawing no interest for the first year, for a portion of their expenses. The value and wisdom of these various forms of financial aid wee evidenced by the number and class of beneficiaries, and by the faithfulness and promptness with which such obligations were discharged.
How wisely Mrs. Shimer planned, and how well the school has fulfilled its fourfold purpose, is demonstrated by the long life of the institution, the material growth in realty and patronage, the large number of graduates and positions filled by them, and the hundreds of homes, from Maine to California, happier and better for the discipline and training which had their origin in the simple rules and regulations of the Alma Mater.
To those who have had experience in the building up and maintenance of private schools, it is a fact of considerable significance that, during the forty-three years that Mrs. Shimer was in charge of Mount Carroll Seminary, there was never an appeal to the public for financial aid, and not a dollar contributed to its support for which the giver did not receive a full equivalent, except the gift of the original five acres. While other schools of a similar nature were petitioning for endowments, employing agents to solicit funds, and, failing to receive, were obliged to close their doors, she, hampered by the underdeveloped condition and inconveniences of a new country, remote from supplies, with a large family to provide for, unaided by hearty co-operation of the community, premonished on every side with assurances of failure, not only established a good school, but maintained it, and made it a remunerative enterprise and a recognized force in educational circles. The material development, while of utmost importance and occupying so large a portion of her time, was not the soul of her work and ambition, nor her chief delight. The real thing was the school. Neither did her tastes lead her to select this business life from choice or preference. She knew that maintenance and perpetuity depended on the strictest economy and attention to details. The odds against her, because a woman, were not trifling. A public unaccustomed to the innovation of “a woman in business,” if not openly expressing its disapproval in words and actions, retired behind an attitude of cool indifference, and to succeed where men failed was a greater offense. She felt keenly the chill, yet hers was the true noblesse of character.
It required the most exact skill in finances to meet obligations. In the purchase of household supplies in large quantities a very trifling difference in price was a matter of so great importance that a single transaction might turn the scale for ultimate failure of success, and, to those who did not know the facts, might seem unnecessary economy. Purchases of land, or unimproved lands taken for school indebtedness, were utilized in raising fruits, grain, and stock for the school consumption. Mrs. Shimer valued money and possessions not for herself, but for what they would do for the school. She had no desire for extravagant or ostentatious display; her tastes, habits, dress were marked with rare simplicity.
Few of those who profited by the advantages of the school knew the cost in strenuous labor, personal sacrifice, planning, thought, and time (reserving daily a scant four hours for sleep) which were the magic forces used by Mrs. Shimer to win success. Work in the open air had apparently restored her health, enabling her to supervise every department of outdoor work, attending to her correspondence at night. This implied not only an expenditure of time and strength, but the sacrifice of time for study, reading, society, and recreation. Intense in whatever she undertook, her plans were always on a large scale, and with a view to the future. They were invariably revolved and re-revolved, viewed from all points, changed, and modified, until not only the best results should follow, but in such wise as to secure them with least expenditure of time and effort. On account of this careful deliberation, she was extremely reticent about conferring with others concerning her plans. She seldom worked for immediate or short-lived results; hence those who were ignorant of, or did not understand, her motives, and those who were less gifted in forecasting results, looked askance, or openly criticized projects which in the end proved to be the wisest thing which could have been done. She never rushed blindly or uninformed into any scheme.
Her ingenuity and resources were equal to emergencies. In 1857, in the midst of building, came the financial panic. Bills could not be collected, banks would not make loans, contractors failed to meet their agreements, laborers refused to work lest they should not be paid. Only the masonry and carpenter work was finished, rooms were engaged for the ensuing year, and the date for opening at hand. Mrs. Shimer—then Miss Wood—bought painting materials, glass, and paper at wholesale, and glazed all the windows, painted all of the new building except the cornice, and painted and repapered most of the rooms in the main building. All was ready for the opening of the term. This work was in addition to the correspondence, bookkeeping, employment of teachers, providing in advance for the year's food, fuel, and furnishings, supervision of the manual labor department, and the oversight of the grounds and garden. The chef d'œuvre of her executive skill was in 1876, when bids for the construction of the last building were so much in excess of th e money resources of the school, and the demand for room so urgent, as to tax to the utmost the ingenuity of the proprietor. The outcome was that the stone was quarried, timber cut, of lumber sawed, and brick manufactured from land which she owned or purchased, by machinery which she bought for the purpose, and by men in her employ. She was the architect, and superintendent of all the details of construction, heating, ventilation and lighting. The building completed cost considerably less than the lowest bid.
This glimpse of Mrs. Shimer's lifework speaks for itself. She was an extraordinary woman—extraordinary in the endowment of natural gifts—physical and mental vigor, unbounded enthusiasm, wonderful perseverance, fearless courage, cheerful optimism, generous impulses, excellent judgment, and good common-sense; extraordinary in acquired talents and the gift of knowing how to use natural gifts—skill and versatility in achievements, thorough equipment for all kinds of work, imperious mastery of circumstances, penetrating accuracy in reading human nature; extraordinary in personality—buoyancy of spirit blended with sternness of principle, extreme simplicity and singular modesty united with unreined ambition and indomitable will; extraordinary in business dealings—ability to undertake and consummate great enterprises, adroitness to probe a project for motives, cleverness to foresee the finality of a negotiation, punctiliousness in claiming deserts as in discharging obligations. With a well trained, logical mind, quick to comprehend and keen to grasp all sides of a question, she combined a feminine intensity and attention to details that gave fervor and force to all she did.
Few people really knew Mrs. Shimer. The multiplicity of demands upon her time developed a conciseness, brevity, and directness in speech and action which some interpreted as sternness and austerity. Others thought her cold and unapproachable. Greater mistakes were never made, and could arise only from ignorance, for she was the most genial, affable companion, the sincerest and warmest of friends.
Her many-sided character was too frequently judged from the standpoint of the observer. Those who met her in business relations recognized her efficiency, executive ability, tact to achieve results, courage to face opposition, faculty to comprehend advantages or disadvantages; but in such dealings they had no glimpse of the gentle woman, the motherly heart, the self-sacrificing, generous spirit which prompted every action. They saw the clear gray eye scan critically a business proposition, or flash with resentment at an infringement of fair dealing; but they did not see it when it beamed with kindness or melted with tenderness, when sickness or sorrow called for sympathy. They saw the firm mouth and lips, which in a few words could state and close a transaction; but they did not hear them when they whispered words which gladdened a heart bowed down, quickened a failing pulse, lifted a load of sorrow. They marked the alertness to profit by competition in trade, but did not know her earnest enjoyment in applying the profits to provide a way for deserving girls to obtain an education. The general public viewed her lifework as one watches a gallant vessel breasting the waves; but how few saw the pilot whose hand, nor night nor day, left the helm, but steered right onward in darkness and in storm, or the captain with chart, compass, and line, making soundings to find a path mid hidden rocks and treacherous whirlpools, or the one who fed the fires and controlled the machinery. Those in her employ knew that she exacted faithful service with the least waste of time and labor; but they did not realize that it was the conservation of these forces, and making one thing help another, which was the secret of her success. They knew that, when misfortune came, no time was wasted in regret or delay in restoration; but even though they saw the Phoenix rise, they did not know with what heart-agony the ashes of disappointed hopes were fanned into flame. Teachers knew and pupils felt that the atmosphere of the school was charged with her enthusiasm and earnestness; but they did not know to what extent the supply was kept up by the sacrifice of leisure, recreation, and intellectual pursuits. For fourteen years she performed her share of class-room duties, and as a teacher her influence was especially felt. An enthusiast herself in study, she possessed a gift of imparting and drawing out the best in others, an influence undoubtedly greater than pupils realized at the time.
It is not an easy thing to estimate her influence; for that which goes into character and home life is less likely to be made a matter of record than many less important impressions in education, for they touch silent and unobserved forces, and are too subtle to be traced. Mrs. Shimer knew that much of her influence was “far from the madding crowd,” that her returns were not sight drafts, that her books could not be balanced until succeeding generations should audit the accounts, but she was content to wait for the fuller recognition that time would bring.
Only those who knew her most intimately were cognizant of her extreme reticence in matters relating to herself. Her sister died with cancer, and for more than thirty years Mrs. Shimer watched the approach of what she supposed was the same disease. An abscess on her side increased the fear. In later years she told how she sat at her desk and transacted business when she would clinch her hands or wound her lips to stifle expressions of pain, and attended to correspondence when she could not rise unaided from her chair, and when every breath was like a dagger in her side. One needs to know her shrinking from and extreme dread of malignant disease to understand the mental as well as the physical agony of those years, a suffering no less acute because uncommunicated. Just before going south the last time, a microscopical examination revealed that her disease was tuberculosis. Her life in the open air, her abstemious habits, her winters in the south, had stayed the progress of a disease no less serious than the one she feared. Also it was only her intimate acquaintances who knew her timidity and dread of publicity. She would endure almost beyond endurance rather than be the cynosure of curious eyes. She often remarked that the publicity of commencement time was more of an ordeal than all the business of a year. On account of this sensitiveness, pressure of business was an excuse to shrink more and more from publicity. Even when a frank, open explanation of facts and existing conditions would have vindicated beyond question her wisdom and good judgment, she suffered in silence rather than volunteer the statements. Neither did her retiring disposition seek public recognition and honors, though she possessed gifts and acquirements which would have been an ample endowment for highest honors. It was enough that she knew how to make it possible for others to be happier, wiser, better.
To her companions only she unveiled the softer charms of refined womanhood, the graces of sociability, the delights of conversation, the flash of repartee and wit. Though great in the sterner duties of life, she was even greater in womanliness. She never forgot a kindness, yet never held a grudge of cherished a spite. She was quick to resent an imposition, and equally prompt to atone for error. Unkind words, flung by heedless tongues, which had no ”remedy at law,” deeply wounded her; still she knew how to forgive as well as endure. If she were conscious of unjust treatment, the offender, in future dealings, was met with distrust, not by antagonism. She did not assume a cordiality she could not feel, for she was too free from hypocrisy to mask her real opinions with a pretense of friendship. Those in trouble or in need of sympathy knew that no truer friend, no kindlier-hearted woman ever lived. Her life was not all sunshine, yet she never turned the shadow to the world. The public knew nothing of her sorrows, for, with too much true pride to air personal matters, she never resorted to personal explanations, deeming mere words puny weapons to vindicate from charges which the whole tenor of her life contradicted. Perhaps if sorrows had not come she would have been less a conqueror. Disappointment may have been the path to victories; as conflict roused her best and highest powers, so trials may have given them direction.
The acquaintance with Henry Shimer began in 1855. He was a stonemason, and assisted in building during the panic, but his ambition, his mental ability, his energy and enthusiasm, his interest in science, his efforts in self improvement, his zeal in church work, won more than a passing interest and approbation from his employer, and they were married in December, 1857. Although an instructor and lecturer in the school for several years, he was never a copartner in any of the responsibilities, burdens, or interests of the school. His tastes and predilections developed in directions opposite to hers, his ideals being egoistic, and his ambitions finding complete gratification in his own personal lines of work—his profession and scientific investigations. Another disappointment culminated in 1871, when the partnership with Miss Gregory was dissolved by her withdrawal. Notwithstanding Mrs. Shimer's great strength of character and apparent independence, being as intense in her attachments as in her work, she was particularly dependent on some one to love, some object of her affections who would reciprocate with sympathetic companionship. Therefore, to be left with the entire responsibility of the school, to undergo the ordeal of public comment and interpretation, with no one on whom she could rely for encouragement or counsel, or to whom she could turn with an assurance of sympathy and congenial companionship—this was the darkest hour of her life.
It was not toil or responsibility or doubt of success, but disappointment and the sense of isolation and utter loneliness which seemed greater than she could bear. She sought respite from a grief which tears could not assuage, in increased toil and a closer application to business. Outsiders may have thought that this diligence arose from a desire to accumulate, or from force of habit, but their vision did not pierce the veil which masked great sorrows.
It was at this time that Miss Ophelia Mason, a teacher of unusual graces of character, was seriously ill, requiring constant care. Mrs. Shimer's own suffering made her heart very tender for another in affliction. She assumed the duties of nurse, installing the invalid in her own room, and bestowing on her the sympathy and companionship for which her own heart was yearning. Their mutual love, like that between mother and daughter, was a great comfort to Mrs. Shimer, but she was deprived of this solace by the death of Miss Mason in January, 1870.
In the winter of 1883, Mrs. Shimer went to Florida to recuperate after an attack of pneumonia. The results were most satisfactory, but the ensuing winter pulmonary symptoms again compelled her to seek the milder climate. It was evident that she could never again endure the rigor of northern winters. This led to the establishment of a permanent winter home in De Land, the college town of the south. It was the time of awakening to the resources and advantages of the state for orange culture. Always a lover of trees and “things growing,” she saw both pleasure and possibilities of great financial returns in investments. She began more as an antidote for homesickness and loneliness than for financial results, for with her activity she could not be idle during the enforced absence of six months in each year. Investment followed investment, until Mrs. Shimer was considered one of the leading orange growers of the state, and her groves were unsurpassed in promise of large and permanent annuities.
Quantities of tropical fruits from her groves were consumed by the Seminary family. In January, 1895, when her orange crop was estimated by the thousands of boxes, came a frost—“a killing frost”—reaching a latitude affirmed by tradition to be frost-proof, and golden prospects were blighted with fruit which covered the ground like a carpet of gold. She did not know or realize the full extent of her loss until the next year, when, after arranging for the transfer of the Seminary, she went South, and learned that the trees were destroyed. It was a crushing disappointment, coming when future finances seemed assured, and after the prime of life, when recuperation is more irksome than first acquisition. It was more keenly felt, for this “purse of Fortunatus” was intended for the dower of her child—the Seminary—when she could no longer provide for its maintenance. With much of the vigor of more youthful days, she began to plan to retrieve losses, laboring, if possible, more assiduously than ever, asserting again and again that she had “no time to rest.” An accident from which she never recovered frustrated the execution of plans. Could she have had for active work the five years that were spent in helpless inactivity on her reclining chair, a larger part of the loss would have been recovered.
As Mrs. Shimer approached her seventieth year, conscious of waning activities, and feeling the weight of responsibilities which she had carried for nearly half a century, her anxiety for the future of the school increased. It was her lifework, and she felt for it the strong, deep, deathless solicitude of a mother for an only child. To secure its perpetuity, a transfer of the school property, with twenty-five acres, was made in 1896 to a board of trustees, and the name changed from Mount Carroll Seminary to “The Frances Shimer Academy of the University of Chicago.” It was her hope that, as her life waned, new energy and vigor would come to the school from its new environments, and it is a tribute to her that her passing away makes no break in the continuity of the school. Mrs. Shimer never revisited the school nor left her adopted state after she relinquished the title and management. A fall in February, 1897, injured her hip; and, though confined to her bed and chair, she continued a large part of her business correspondence, and directed extensive interests connected with property both north and south. But years of unremitting toil and anxieties had taxed and exhausted her nervous vitality. There was no manifested disease, only a gradual decline of nature's forces. It was inevitable that one who had given herself so generously should herself be spent. The nervous shock attending a second accident hastened the end.
With the change to the peacefulness and comparative freedom of private life, her intellectual and social gifts, which had been held in abeyance, were more prominent. The concise, decisive manner of speech became genial social conversation. Her helplessness made her more thoughtful for others, and augmented her desire to make every one around her happy. She was her old self, bright, interested, and interesting, but softened by life's experiences. From her chair she wrote: “I have become such a shirk, but I do not think I am leading an idle life altogether, you have no idea how busy I am and how the days fly by; I cannot accomplish one-third I want to day by day.” “It seems strange that my life should be always so full of work, and yet what I have accomplished so far short of what I had planned.” “I have made and enjoyed more acquaintances in this 'shut-in' period than I would have done in fifty years of my old manner of living.” “I have time to read, a luxury I have been so long time denied.”
The fourth day preceding her death she was unusually bright and cheerful. At dinner her geniality, her conversation, her bright repartee, surprised her companions. As twilight approached she appeared weary, and proposed retiring early. She did not fall asleep at once, but her mind wandered. She talked in a low voice to herself without completed sentences, and her smile indicated that her thoughts were of a pleasing nature. When she slept, it was a long slumber of two days and three nights, ending Sunday morning, November 10, 1901, at quarter before six o'clock, when she wakened in another world. The night was past, the day had come; at last there was “time to rest.”
Her will provides for personal bequests—among others to Mrs. Hazzen and Miss Joy, the former twenty-seven and the latter twenty-four years actively connected with the school, as evidence of her remembrance of their long service and valuable assistance. The residue of her estate constitutes a perpetual endowment for the Academy, being held in trust by her executors. Her interest in self-supporting girls is reaffirmed by the request that leniency shall be shown to those yet in arrears for school expenses, but she does not impair their self-respect by canceling debts of honor.
Dr. Shimer died in 1895, leaving his estate by devise to her for educational purposes. She followed his desires in the distribution of his personal bequests; but the remainder, which becomes a part of the endowment of the Academy, was lessened by the litigation which attended the settlement of his estate. In referring to her own life and work, Mrs. Shimer never overestimated or boasted of attainments. She frequently expressed regret that she had not been able to accomplish more, satisfaction in having been useful, and grief that she had been misunderstood and misjudged. The success of pupils was to her a never-ending source of pride; their expressions of gratitude and appreciation, the evidence that their Alma Mater was revered and remembered, were ample reward for her effort and sacrifice.
Her remains were interred amid the scenes of her work and achievements. They rest in the quiet cemetery which overlooks the Academy and the intervening town. A monument of granite marks the spot; but the real monument of her life is on the opposite eminence, where towers the creation of her hands, heart, and brain. She has yet another memorial, an invisible one, whose inscription is written in “minds made better by her presence.” What structure of stone or bronze, which seasons waste and time corrodes, can equal the imperishable monument of her influence! Of the thousands of young persons who were to any degree molded by the influence of the school, now dwelling in every state of the union, and some across the seas, each is a part of her memorial. Each in her own experience can trace the lines of light that connect her life with the shrine of her Alma Mater. Many, looking back over victories achieved because of contact with a strong, intense, helpful life, may say, as did Charles Kingsley when questioned how he was able to accomplish so much, “I had a friend.” One pupil, speaking for herself, yet speaking truthfully for scores of others, said: “I wish I were able to find expression for my gratitude to Mrs. Shimer. She will stand among a few others who have given me the highest view of human life and its possibilities.”
Her work was nobly done, an honor to the womanhood of our country. To a few only is a public memory vouchsafed; but so long as this school exists, Mrs. Shimer will live
“In minds made better by her influence,
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.
The author died in 1938, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.