Collection location: Jane C. Sween Research Library, Montgomery County Historical Society
Collection Overview: The Quaker community of Sandy Spring, in Montgomery County, had one of the highest concentrations of schools in the Maryland area during the 19th century. These facilities varied from private academies to public schools, from well-known establishments to tiny neighborhood classrooms. The reason for this proliferation lies in the Quaker belief that everyone, regardless of gender, race or class, is both deserving and capable of an education. Women were regarded as the intellectual equals of men, and the practice of slavery was frowned upon; as such, some of the earliest schools in the county both for women and for African Americans were founded in Sandy Spring.
Fair Hill Seminary, also known as the Fair Hill Boarding School for Girls, was one of the earliest schools in the county to include a program for girls. With the help of the Baltimore Yearly Meeting, Samuel Thomas and his wife Anna, both Quakers, opened a school for boys at Fair Hill in 1819. A year later, Margaret Judge added a girls' department. The Thomases' school closed in 1829; ten years later, Phineas Paxson bought Fair Hill, and turned it into a girls' boarding school.
In 1850, Richard and Mary Kirk took over the school, with William H. Farquhar as Principal. Mary Coffin, a young woman from New York state, taught at Fair Hill from 1854 to 1865, when the school closed. Her memoirs, published in 1916, provide a wealth of detail about the school during its last decade. According to her recollections, the school averaged 45 students a year, primarily drawing from Montgomery County. About a quarter of the students were Friends (Quakers), and some of these girls were from Quaker families in DC and Alexandria.
In the early days of the Civil War, nearly two-thirds of the students withdrew, because of the school’s proximity to the fighting in Baltimore. The school closed for good in 1865 (the building itself burned down in the 1970s), although the Fair Hill Fund continued to provide money for local education.
To view or obtain copies of the original letters, and for more information on Fair Hill, its students and teachers, and other schools in Montgomery County, please contact the Montgomery County Historical Society’s Jane C. Sween Research Library (Rockville, MD) at 301-340-2974.
Collection overview provided by the Montgomery County Historical Society.