Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Betsy Was a Junior, Group Read, Part 4

I will get back to sororities shortly but last week when I was looking for pictures of University of Minnesota buildings that Julia and Betsy Ray would have known in the early 20th century, I came across the name of Ada Comstock, who was the first Dean of Women at the U from 1901 to 1912.  Ada’s name was already very familiar to me because she was the president of my alma mater, Radcliffe College, from 1923-43. 

I was ridiculously pleased to think there was a connection between Betsy and me, although obviously attenuated as I never met Ada (she retired before my mother arrived at Radcliffe in the 50s, then married a Yale History professor and moved to New Haven, where she was living at her death in 1973 at the age of 97).  I was excited when someone suggested that Ada Comstock might be the sister of Betsy’s much loved history teacher, Miss Clarke. The Betsy-Tacy Companion explains that Miss Clarke’s real name was Grace Comstock; she was from an old Mankato family and had attended the U herself.  However, after some investigation it turns out that while they might conceivably be related, Ada and Grace were not sisters.  Originally from Maine, Ada’s father, Solomon G. Comstock (1842-1933), became a prominent lawyer in Morehead, Minnesota.  He was a Republican politician and served a term in Congress.  He was committed to education and supported the school that became Concordia College and sponsored legislation that led to the establishment of the eventual Morehead State (its student union is named for him).   Solomon’s wife, Sarah (1845-1941) was also civic minded and was involved in establishing the first public library in Morehead. 
Ada sounds like Winona Root.  She told people she was the first white child in the Red River Valley in Moorhead, and she grew up loving the wide prairies and wheat fields of the West.  She graduated from high school at 15 and began college at the U but was encouraged by her father to go East to college so transferred to Smith College in Massachusetts for her last two years (for those who know Smith, she lived in Hubbard House).  There is a story that she received a case of champagne while at Smith, which her housemother thought she should give away but she carefully stored it with the building’s water supplies so she could share it with her friends.

After graduating from Smith in 1897, Ada returned home and obtained her teaching certificate at what was then known as Moorhead State Normal School.  She then earned a Master’s Degree in English at Columbia in 1899, and then returned to Minnesota as an English Instructor and in 1907 was named Dean of Women at the U ( she would have been about 12 years older than Julia Ray when Julia arrived in September 1908 – that is, if Julia were real).  Although Ada looks severe, she was considered witty and was known for her unusually rich and persuasive voice (and she must have had a sense of humor to cope with the way Harvard treated Radcliffe as a second-class citizen).  The U still has an “Ada Comstock Distinguished Women Scholars Award & Lecture.”  She left the U to return to Smith as its first dean in 1912, and is remembered there with prestigiousscholarships in her name (at one point, she was the acting president of Smith but when the job was filled it went to a man – perhaps that is when she updated her resume and applied for the job in Cambridge).  In 1923 she left Smith for Radcliffe to be its first full-time president. 

Ada’s sister was, alas, not Grace but Jessie May, born in 1879.  She attended Radcliffe and their brother George attended Harvard.   Both Jessie and George (born 1886) returned to Minnesota after college, and George eventually donated the family home to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1965.  It has been restored to its 1883 appearance and is open for tours.  Moorhead appear to be closer to Fargo, North Dakota than to Minneapolis or Mankato so I doubt I will visit any time soon but the Comstock home sounds lovely: it is described as a “stunning example of late Victorian architecture. The 11-room, two-story home features elements of both Queen Anne and Eastlake designs. On the first floor is the front hall which leads to the parlor, library and sitting room. At the back of the house is the dining room, pantry, kitchen and a bedroom and bath. The second floor contains four bedrooms and a maid's chamber. An oak balustrated staircase leads from the first to the second floor. Many rooms contain original furnishings and personal effects of the Comstock family” and “[t]he home is characterized by a profusion of spindle work porches, high patterned chimneys and poly-chromed siding and trim. Situated on one of the highest points in the city, the property included an ice house, tool room, food storage room, and a barn for the family’s three horses and three carriages.”

The Comstock family's contribution to the early history of higher education in America lives on in the buildings at four different institutions:  Morehead State, the University of Minnesota, Smith, and Radcliffe (it now appears to have been absorbed by Pforzheimer House).  Imagine if Ada had spent more than a year at Columbia!

I am grateful to the Minnesota Historical Society’s website for Comstock House, from which I have quoted.

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