Many who attend the summer school make their own dresses.
Sewing was a necessary skill for the antebellum homemaker.
Learning to be ladies
Young women still come to the historic Athenaeum to learn how to be ladies.
“We get girls from all over the country: Washington state, California, Georgia. Even Canada,” says Anthony Staggs, director of the Athenaeum Rectory museum.
“They leave their cell phones and that world behind them for a week. They are treated as they would have been back then.”
Every July, two dozen or more girls 14 to 18 years old attend the Athenaeum Girls School.
“The girls wear 1861-style clothing,” Staggs says. “A lot of these girls are into re-enacting and make their own dresses. Some will hand-sew their dresses, or make them on machines. …
“The school teaches them to be proper young ladies and to help each other and make sure other people are comfortable and are taken care of. …
“These girls are up by 7 o’clock in the morning and are in classes and dance practice. …
“They do some French classes, and they have classes in prayers. Back then, they would have started the morning with a prayer service.
“The girls learn how to write letters, the content, what to say, what not to say.
“And they learn the language of the fan. Back in the 1860s girls were considered by our standards sheltered. They didn’t just go up and talk to boys, or boys go up and talk to them, without being properly introduced.
“That’s where the language of the fan came in. With a fan, you could communicate across the room at a dance without speaking. …
“We do ball room dancing every night.”
The school trains a few young men in etiquette and dance to be escorts for the girls when needed.
“They’re the Jackson cadets, named after a Jackson College that was here,” Staggs says. “They don’t get the extensive training that the girls do.”
In keeping with antebellum custom, the girls have little contact with young males.
“We have host families for the girls,” Staggs explains. “The families do not have teenage boys, so there are no distractions.
“The girls are broken up in to two or three to a home, and those families are responsible for taking them to class and picking them up. The girls don’t go anywhere unchaperoned by the host families or by someone from the Athenaeum.”
Athenaeum Girls School relies heavily on host families and volunteers.
Most of the instructors are teachers who use part of their vacation time to help with the school.
“This is volunteer driven. We just couldn’t do it without the volunteers,” Staggs says.
The summer school ends with a commencement in nearby St. Peter’s Episcopal churcn and a grand ball in the Memorial Building.
“Some of the girls form life-long friendships,” Staggs notes “Alumni come back for alumni events.”
You’re never too old
“We offer an abbreviated program for women over 18 on the first weekend in May,” Staggs says. “It’s made for working women who didn’t have the opportunity to go to the Girls School or just want the experience.”
The Athenaeum’s past
The rectory was the home of the Columbia Anthenaeum’s president. The rectory is often said to have been the location for a number of balls during the Civil War, but it was more likely used for smaller functions, like receptions. The school’s auditorium, which reportedly could seat a thousand people, was better suited to big events like balls.
Though Columbia Athenaeum’s president, the Rev. Franklin G. Smith, was from Vermont, he paid to outfit a company of troops, the Maury Rifles, for the Confederacy. When Federal troops occupied Columbia, the cottage behind the Athenauem Rectory was used as a headquarters by Gen. James S. Negley, and a number of Federal officers were quartered in the school buildings.
The Athenaeum is a striking mixture of Greek Revival, Gothic and Moorish design elements that give the building a look unlike any other in the Tennessee. Nathan Vaught began building what is known today as the Athenaeum Rectory in 1835 as a home for Samuel Polk Walker, who never lived in the house. He rented it to the Smith, rector of Columbia Female Institute. The cottage built behind the house was built for use as a kitchen and dining room, but Smith used it as a study because the family ate in the school dining hall. The last Smith to live in the Athenaeum made do with a hotplate for cooking rather than alter the home.
The rectory contained the principal parlor and reception rooms for the school, three bedrooms and three parlors. The upstairs bedroom was for the Smith boys. The only way to get to the stairs was to go out onto the back porch.
Smith started his own school, Columbia Athenaeum, in 1852. It was a finishing school for girls, and the Athenaeum, which he had purchased, became the new school’s rectory. Columbia Athenaeum continued until 1903, when the property was sold to the city for use as a public high school. Except for the rectory, the cottage and the carriage house, the school buildings were razed in 1915 and replaced by more modern structures. The rectory remained in the family until 1974, when it was given to the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities.
The Athenaeum Rectory is open to the public. Admission is charged.
A Guide to Points of Interest in Maury County, Tenn., by Jill K. Garrett and Virginia W. Alexander; 1969
Historic Maury, Vol. 1-3; 1965-67
Historic Maury County, Vol XIII, Oct. Dec. 1977, No. 4
Hither and Yon. The Best Writings of Jill K. Garrett, by Jill K. Garrett; 1986
Hither and Yon II, by Jill K. Garrett; 1992
Interview of Anthony Staggs, October 2011
Majestic Middle Tennessee, by Reid Smith; 1975 and 1990
Majestic Middle Tennessee Fall Tours 1986, tabloid published October 1986 by The Daily Herald in Columbia, Tenn.
Maury County, Tennessee, Historical Sketches, by Jill K. Garrett; 1967
“Place of Beauty, Old Homes, Good Living,” July 3, 1976, The Daily Herald in Columbia, Tenn.
“The Majesty of Maury County,” by Pauline Prosser; undated Tennessee Traveler article, Tennessee Department of Tourist Development
The Athenaeum, in Federal and Confederate hands
By Frank H. Smith, Athenaeum resident, in the Columbia, Tenn., The Daily Herald, Dec. 13, 1904.
“In the last of November, 1864, when Hood’s army invested Columbia, the Federals had been occupying Middle Tennessee for over sixteen months, except for occasional cavalry raids. … While the Confederate army was outside of Columbia, General Schofield had his headquarters at the Athenaeum, and we found him a courteous and affable officer and gentleman. He told mother in case the Federal forces retired from the outer to the inner line – extending from Fort Mizner to the Court House and ford – that probably the Athenaeum buildings and others would be burned as a military necessity, and advised her to have every thing of value ready for instant removal. Before that time I had already buried the silver and other valuables, so all the business papers and books were put in large baskets and set on the Rectory porch, where they were watched all night by the children and some of our faithful slaves.
“On the night the Federals were withdrawn, one of the buildings was twice set on fire, but the marauders were scared off and the flames extinguished before serious damage was done. The joy of the reunion of our family that morning was marred by the whole sale plunder of the buildings by the (Confederate) troops of Gen. Carter L. Stevenson’s command. These soldiers carried off bedding for which they might have had some need, but what on earth they wanted with philosophical apparatus, school desks, black boards and globes is hard to imagine. They left none of the eave gutters; these they cut into short sections which they punched full of holes like a nut meg grater, and used them for grinding ear corn into meal; they were called ‘Armstrong Mills.’ Within the hour or two that elapsed before guards could be placed, the Athenaeum suffered more than it had than in the entire war.”