1842: Rhoda (Taylor) Lee to Henry Barnes Curtis

This interesting letter was probably written in September 1842 by Rhoda (Taylor) Lee (1795-1848), the wife of Timothy Lee (1785-1862) — a Massachusetts native and War of 1812 veteran who purchased 670 acres of land along Big Walnut Creek in Blendon Township, Franklin County, Ohio, not long after settling there in 1807. Lee was an entrepreneur who established a grist mill, saw mill, and woolen factory on the creek, in addition to the Greek Revival homestead he built in 1824. His dream of turning Blendon Township into a center of higher learning resulted in him donating 35 acres and building a structure that was called the Blendon Institute in 1832. Rev. Ebenezer Washburn conducted the school during this period.

How Timothy and Rhoda Lee might have appeared.

In 1841, the Presbyterian Church promoted the idea of establishing a college in the vicinity and Lee offered to donate the necessary acreage and to erect the necessary college buildings if the church would sponsor the college at Blendon. From this letter we learn that a great celebration was held on the Fourth of July, 1842, at which time Timothy Lee delivered the deed to his property to the Trustees of the newly established “Central College” and laid the cornerstone of one of the college buildings.

Lee proceeded to build four college buildings for the new school: a three-story brick dormitory, a dwelling house, a recitation building, and a chapel. Rev. Leicester Ambrose Sawyer was the college’s first president, with Ebenezer Washburn relegated to assistant duties.

Central College Map in 1872

By the late 1840’s the school was in financial straits, however, and a portion of the unused property surrounding the school was divided into lots and sold, creating the village of “Amalthea” (though the small hamlet was always known as “Central College”). Despite the infusion of revenue from the land sales, the college closed its door in 1850 but was later reopened, not as a college, but as a preparatory school. The school finally closed in the 1890s.

Lee’s donation of his property and income towards the establishment of a college certainly must have seemed benevolent to the people of central Ohio who were struggling financially through the hard times of the 1840s. Sadly this letter reveals the drama that unfolded behind the closed doors of the Lee household at the time that Timothy Lee made the decision to give away his property.

Rhoda Taylor’s parents John Taylor and Permelia Yale, came to Newark, Ohio with their eight children in 1812 when Rhoda was seventeen years old. But the parents died soon after, leaving Rhoda “without a home, dependent, and a burden” to others. She and her siblings were divided among relatives; Rhoda taken in by the Hough family in Delaware County. Seeking the security she lacked, Rhoda married Timothy Lee in 1819 — a 33 year-old bachelor with property who was ten years her senior.

Rhoda (Taylor) Lee’s overgrown tombstone.

It was said of Lee, however, that “humility was not his strong suit. He claimed to his friends that ‘he could work harder, shoot straighter, swim deeper water and drink more whisky than anyone else in the township.’ He was later remembered as a man who was probably able to do all of those things — especially the part about the whisky — quite well. Apparently, Rhoda, the good wife, gloried in the good her husband did and tolerated his shortcomings. But she always hoped he might turn away from liquor and license and become more of a civil citizen. In 1829, Squire Timothy Lee joined the Presbyterian church ‘in answer to her prayers and a great change came over his life objective.’ [Source: Ed Lentz, Columnist for Community News; College Founder Reveled in Swagger, 31 July 2012]

Rhoda and Timothy had five children: Louisa Lee (1820-1872), Adelia Lee (1822-1850), Fanny Lee (1823-1852), Theron Lee (1825-1872), and Clarence Lee (1828-1849). Fanny must have been an invalid of some sort, based on the description of her in this letter; she died in 1852 at the age of 28.

We learn from the letter that Rhoda’s signature on the deed to the property gifted by her husband to the Trustees of the College was coerced by her “abusive” husband whom she though had recklessly endangered the welfare of their family for the sake of his own vanity. This caused her weeks of anxiety and ill health. She finally decided to seek the counsel of her cousin, Henry Barnes Curtis (1799-1885), a prominent Mount Vernon attorney residing in nearby Knox County. He was the son of Zarah Curtis (1761-1849) and Phalley Yale (1762-1839) of Newark, Licking County, Ohio. Phalley (Yale) Curtis was the sister of Rhoda’s mother, Permelia Yale, and it was probably with the Curtis family in Newark, Ohio that some of Rhoda’s siblings were raised following her parents deaths in 1812.

Stampless Letter

Addressed to Mr. Henry B. Curtis, Mt. Vernon, Ohio

Central College, [Blendon Township, Franklin County, Ohio]
September 22 [1842]

Permit me, my dear cousin, to write to you in a kind of family confidence and freedom such as I used to do in years long past. The reason why I write to you is I want your opinion and advice or I want to tell you how I am situated. You know Mr. Lee has been for a number of years building up a school and has built three houses, kept his family close, and at hard work to do even that. Before he had got through the expense of building these, the plan for a college was brought before the Synod of the New School Church and he must have it here and in order to do so, he must tell them what great things he would do and give. You know perhaps how they got it established.

And now I will tell you as far as I know what he has given. He told the trustees he would give them a hundred acres of land and build all the buildings as fast as they wanted them at his own expense. This was all I knew at the time. I said something against it and only got hard words. He said he should do what he pleased wit his own property (“You nor your children shall not have it to squander away when I am gone.”) I found he was carried away by flattery. People said it was a noble deed for Mr. Lee was doing great things for the public.

Well, he went on disregarding the entreaties and prayers of us all, commenced the building in the spring of last year, and on the Fourth of July laid the cornerstone. The morning of the Fourth was ushered in with the greatest stir ever witnessed in Blendon. Our house was crowded — all in high and happy spirits. My girls and I tired to death in cooking and making preparations without being allowed to have any help. In the midst of all this, Mr. Lee came in with a paper and says I want your name to this paper. I asked him what it was. He said it was the deed. I told him I had not time to read it; perhaps I should not be willing to sign it. He says you need not make any fuss. I want your name there. I had to write.

I felt very bad. I thought I would tell the magistrate [that] it was not a free and willing act. We then went up on to the ground. Esqr. Sherman came with the deed. There was so much noise I did not hear him. I did not acknowledge the deed. Mr. Lee never asked me if I was willing to give away the hundred acres. Soon after this, my boys told me their father had given away all his land. I told them he had not given the five hundred acres away that he would keep for the children. They were told I had signed it all away. I was alarmed. I could not believe he had deceived me in that way. I asked him what he had done that everybody was talking about and told him what I had heard.

He said he had given away all his property by a will to the trustees of the college, that they are to pay the four children after his death five hundred dollars each, and our little feeble Fanny and I am to be supported as long as we live if we outlive him. Yes, cousin, we are to be left to the mercy of strangers to deal out for my support what they think I need, and Fanny — if we’re taken taken away — what would become of her if Mr. Lee and I should die tomorrow. My children will have no right to a home here — no more than yours — and then the trustees must say who should take care of Fanny. Such thoughts like daggers go to my heart.

After he told me what he had done, I told him how the children felt and how wrong it was after I had labored so many years to get a home for my family to have him give it all away, and more than I could bear. I was taken right down with a fever and never sat up for six weeks. That will hung before me like a dark map or closed, it haunted me night and day. I never slept for an hour the whole time. If I speak about it, he abuses me. He says he would not alter it to save my life. He never was so unkind to us before. The wants and comforts of his family are the last thing to be considered. Some think I lay it to heart too much, but you cousin Henry know too well how I was left without a home, dependent and a burden to my friends. To think that our labors as long as we live must go to build up a college to gratify the ambition of one or two men is not to be bourn with patience.

Dear cousin, it has been a great effort to write these few lines. I am very weak, lost my ambition, and am very unhappy. I should not now have written if I had not felt anxious about my family. And now I want to know if the college goes on and all remains as it is when Mr. Lee and I are gone whether the children will have to abide by such an unjust will, what may I expect? Will you see him and talk with him about it. He will tell you more than I can and you can judge better. I was told the trustees were astonished. They only expected a hundred acres of land and said, “Is his family willing?” I have not told half what I wish to. Do call when you go to Columbus. I want to hear from all the friends.

My love to you and family. — Rhoda Lee

Ohio Historical Marker at Central College Presbyterian Church


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