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Brownell Hall

Historical Sketch of Brownell Hall



THE FIFTY YEARS of the life of Brownell Hall divides itself naturally into four periods: first, the Pioneer Stage; second, the period when Bishop Clarkson was the actual head and guiding spirit; third, Dr. Doherty's incumbency; fourth, the Modern School.

Like joys that attend birth, or sorrows that attend death, Pioneer Life is not to be understood save by those who have had personal experience, but in recalling the surroundings and conditions of Omaha fifty years ago, one may get an idea of the nature and fiber of those first citizens, heroes and heroines all of them, and of the difficulties attending the conducting of a Girls' Boarding School.

When in 1860 Rev. Joseph O. Talbot was consecrated Bishop of the Northwest, he chose Nebraska City for his residence. He found three parishes and three clergy in Nebraska Territory. Nebraska City was a point where the Government had maintained a ferry and a fort. The former was now in private hands and the latter (Fort Kearney) had been moved farther west on the Platte river, but still there was a


large amount of freighting going on and Nebraska City was a thriving town. Instead of being a few square blocks of buildings set down on a prairie without a tree, as is the case with many a Nebraska town, it was a settlement of well-built houses, situated on a heavily wooded bench of land on the west bank of the Missouri River, a really beautiful and attractive town. The little church, still in use, was there, built on part of the site of old Fort Kearney, and the Bishop found delightful people and pleasant surroundings awaiting him and he maintained his home in Nebraska City as long as he remained in the District.

Bishop Talbot saw at once that next to the ministrations of the Church, his new Diocese, or District, as it was then, needed Christian education, and he found almost immediately an ideal opening for a Girls' Boarding School at Saratoga Springs, three miles north of Omaha.

In the old Exposition grounds there is a mineral spring, also one in Miller Park, and at the foot of the bluffs east of these points are three or four, possibly more. The sulphur spring at the foot of Spencer Street is the one best known to old Omahans, and the one at the foot of Grand Avenue, now in Mr. Rome Miller's grounds, is the one most frequented by old Brownell Hall girls, it being the one nearest the school.

In 1859 an enterprising group of men thought that there might be built in this neighborhood a



second "Saratoga Springs." They accordingly formed a company, bought the land, planned and organized the town of "Saratoga Springs," and built a hotel on the main street, now 24th. The hotel was located at 24th Street and Grand Avenue, and was conducted by Mr. George Stevens, landlord. But as a summer resort this was not a paying investment, and after one season the hotel was closed, and in 1861 Bishop Talbot bought the property for $3500 for his school.

As a large part of the purchase money came from Connecticut, the school was named in honor of its Bishop "Brownell" Hall. It was two years after the purchase before the Bishop could finance the undertaking, so the school was not opened until September 17, 1863, Omaha then only six years old.

At this time Nebraska was still a Territory, Omaha its Capital. There were no graded schools, no high school, no railroads, no telegraphs, no telephones. Mail was carried by coach, buckboard or horseback. There were no pavements, no sidewalks, no electricity, no gas, no coal, no water system, no sewer system, no sewing machines, no washing machines, no laundries and no servants. We were in the midst of a terrible civil war and had hostile Indians all around us. Truly great faith and courage were required to shape and build in the midst of so much danger and inconvenience. Settlers in their mutual dependence upon each other were


brought very close together, and friendships that were formed then have been deep and lifelong, and pioneers, both men and women, tell us that they have never been happier than they were in those first years.

At the school the young ladies were not allowed to go down to the Springs excepting in groups, for fear of Indians, the foot of the bluffs being their favorite camping ground, and after a murderer had been hanged on a tree near one of the springs the young ladies decided for themselves that they preferred not to go there at all.

No pupil was allowed to go away from the yard alone on account of the Indians. Once when a couple of little girls wanted to do something very daring, they slipped off to the west two or three blocks, without permission, to gather wild strawberries. They could not go to the kitchen for spoons and sauce-dishes for fear of being found out in their disobedience, so passed the berries around in soap dishes, but when the older girls reminded them that the snakes were plentiful out in that tall grass, the naughty little girls wandered away no more.

With apples $15 per barrel, none being grown in Nebraska yet, and oranges and bananas and peaches and pears unknown, one can imagine how precious the wild fruit, strawberries, raspberries and plums, were. Dried apple sauce, dried cherries, stewed currants, prunes and dried peaches were luxuries, and one could only


get a supply when boats came up the river. Sugar was bought by the barrel, coffee in gunnysacks, tea in large chests, dried fruit by the barrel. There was plenty of fresh meat, plenty of chickens, quail, prairie chickens, venison wild duck and some wild turkeys, and plenty of butter and eggs. The Hall had its own cows for milk and cream. The tuition, $200, was sometimes paid in wood and "country produce."

Wood stoves supplied heat and candles and coal-oil lamps provided light. When the school was illuminated at the "taking of Richmond," a half candle was used for every pane of glass, bonfires were made of all the timber the girls could carry from the ravine nearby. Girls who sympathized with the South promenaded in their white dresses and red sashes (no blue) up and down the road as far as possible from sight and sound of the celebration. This was June, 1865.

We copy from the Weekly Nebraskian of September 18, 1863:


"We witnessed yesterday the opening exercises of Brownell Hall, the new Episcopal Seminary, about three miles north of the city of Omaha.

"The Institution, we are happy to state, commences under the most favorable auspices. It has an able faculty, consisting of the following


named persons: Rev. O. C. Dake, A. M., Principal; Miss Helen M. Liddiard, Miss M. Louise Gillmore, assistant; Miss Sarah J. Miser, Music Teacher, and is placed, we believe, upon a sound financial basis. The present buildings have thirty-four rooms and can accommodate thirty boarders. There is every prospect that this number will be obtained in a few weeks. The following young ladies came up from Nebraska City on the "Emilie" to attend the seminary: Misses Taylor, Cleveland, Boulware, Robb and Stephenson. The number from the city, attending, will, of course, be large."

The school then opened September 17, 1863, with pupils from Nebraska City and vicinity, Bellevue, Omaha, Florence, Fontanelle and Decatur, forty in all. In the pupils' rooms double beds accommodating two pupils, a little wood stove, bureau and washstand and two chairs completed the furnishings. The Bishop's wife, Mrs. Talbot, and the Omaha ladies had spent much time and care in providing the linen and arranging the furniture of the school. Nothing was thought of having to break a thick coating of ice in the water pitcher in the morning, to get water to perform the morning ablutions.

Little girls wore circle combs with the hair "bobbed." The older girls wore braids either coiled at the back or around the head. Hoopskirts, full dresses, undersleeves and lace collars, turbans and nubias were in style. Sometimes pupils came from Nebraska City by boat.



Pupils came from other towns either in private carriages, lumber wagons or in stage coaches, and only went home vacations, but many from Omaha were day pupils, or weekly boarders, and went back and forth to and from home, school and church in an omnibus, though later the school owned its own "hack," nicknamed "Black Maria."

The school year lasted ten months, giving two short months' vacation in summer and two short weeks at Christmas time in winter, and the long terms of faithful drill and study resulted in thorough work.

Rev. O. C. Dake, then Rector of Trinity Parish, was the first Principal and Rector. His head teacher was Miss M. Louise Gillmore, who was especially interested because of the advantages the school afforded for her young sister, Mrs. Hattie Gilimore Hough, the first boarder entered. Miss Miser was the first music teacher, and Miss Root the second. Look at the well-known picture of Evangeline and you will see Miss Root perfectly. Miss Helen Liddiard, a member of the Bishop's family in Nebraska City, was the matron. Thus was Brownell Hall launched amidst the hopes and prayers of all the best people in Nebraska.

At Christmas Rev. Mr. Dake resigned and Bishop Talbot sent Rev. Isaac Hagar, then in Nebraska City, to take the Rectorship. He and Miss Liddiard, having been engaged, were immediately married, but Mrs. Hagar became ill

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