'Stepping back in time' five generations

A tiny footnote in a family-tree document inexorably linked Ann Harrison Ryder's volunteer work with Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute to her family, five generations back: "He educated his children, his daughters in Patapsco ... Patapsco Institute, near Baltimore, Maryland."

Ryder was stunned to discover the uncanny connection while going through papers with her brother after the deaths of their parents.


"Not too many schools at the time were academic - and the family wanted academic training for their young ladies, as well as their men," Ryder said.

Ryder's ancestor, Carry MacMillan Kerr, traveled from Mississippi - where Ryder lived until she was 6 - to attend Patapsco Female Institute. "It was like stepping back in time," she said of her discovery of Kerr's education.


Ryder, now corresponding secretary on the board of directors of Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute, regularly steps back in time. She was the afternoon hostess Sunday at the Victorian Tea and Fashion Show at the Mount Ida Visitor Center.

Two elegantly appointed rooms were filled with tables of women who came to savor a civilized afternoon of tea and treats - as well as historical tidbits in the form of a 19th-century fashion show.

The models and servers volunteered their time to help defray the cost of educational programs at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park - an "open-air stabilized school ruin, unique in the nation," according to a M. Lee Preston Jr., president of Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute Inc. board of directors. The ruins on a hilltop in Historic Ellicott City are what remain of the elite school that educated girls between the ages of 12 and 16 from 1837 to 1890.

Eric Schwartz of Ellicott City said he has been volunteering with his wife with Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute for seven or eight years. Both have an interest in costuming. Eric, who sews, knits and has done needlework, said people are often surprised that he has made or embellished his Victorian garments, the design of which has been thoroughly researched.

Schwartz said that photography, books and magazines help Almira's Polite Society - the living history troupe program of Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute - know about what people wore during the 1850s in Ellicott City.

"Photography was invented, so we can see what people actually wore; a portrait might be idealized," Schwartz said.

Schwartz was in full period dress as he served tea and scones, finger sandwiches, fruit, biscotti, cookies and cakes to the guests.

After a brief introduction by Ryder, Beale Warfield Cockey of Lutherville strolled in, a cape covering her 1930s evening gown, which would be presented later in the fashion show timeline. Cockey is a descendant of Sallie Ann Warfield of Bushy Park - also a Patapsco Female Institute student.


Cockey framed a fascinating account of the history of Ellicott Mills with that of the school, pausing to introduce each model as the timeline advanced. The first was a working milltown woman, circa 1770, played by Ellicott City's Cindy Hirshberg.

Hirshberg suddenly made sense of the nursery rhyme "Lucy Locket lost her pocket" when she indicated her "pocket," a garment draped over a lady's belt.

As Ellicott Mills became prosperous, Cockey explained, the idea of an academic school for girls took hold. Cockey introduced Clark Wagner of Ellicott City, who wore the attire of a successful 1830s businessman.

In 1829, the Ellicotts set aside 7 acres for the school. More land was donated, and construction began in October 1834. Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps was the school's first headmistress, and Cockey talked about her while Marti Sears of Severn modeled a versatile "day dress" appropriate for a schoolteacher.

Phelps "was a truly remarkable woman," Cockey said. Phelps wrote a botany textbook that was used in schools for men and women across the nation and translated into several languages.

"Mrs. Phelps believed women should be educated the way men were, and be able to earn a living," Cockey said. The state supported this concept, funding eight full-tuition scholarships each year at the school.


The school remained open during the Civil War, but with a curtailed program.

In 1891, the school closed because of declining enrollment.

Cockey said the facility went through several permutations: as a hotel, a World War I veterans convalescent hospital and a professional summer theater.

Illustrating the turn-of-the-century dress, model Amy Evseeff of Columbia glided in, wearing a simple white "lawn dress" circa 1910.

Cockey then revealed her authentic handmade velvet gown from the 1930s, and talked about how the school fell into disrepair until 1965, when the Friends group was organized with the aim of saving it. "It enjoyed a rich reputation as a teen hangout," she said.

Annette Veillette, formerly of Woodstock, verified Cockey's account.


"I'm very familiar with all of this," said Veillette. "It was called 'creepy college' - it was supposedly haunted."

The guests topped off their tea with a spirited question-and-answer session and left satiated with knowledge, as well as scones. Betsy Szkil of Ellicott City, who is a docent at several of Ellicott City's historic sites, explained why she volunteered on a Sunday afternoon.

"This is so important," she said. "It's a way to bring people in who may not do the walking tour. You learn county history, world history."

"When you dress up [as a historical re-enactor], you feel like you step back in time," said Amy Evseeff. "In this environment, you feel it even more so."

Information on programs sponsored by Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park: www., or Director Jacquelyn Galke, 410 465-8500.



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