Ann Harrison Ryder, information and referral coordinator for Howard County government, and Frances Mason, a retired society page writer, are two modern women with lives connected by a common thread. They both had ancestors who attended the Patapsco Female Institute, built on the highest hill in Ellicott City in 1837 as a school for well-to-do young women.
"The female academy was in existence from 1837 to 1891, and, therefore, experienced not only the growth and expansion of the new democracy, but the rise of controversy and sectional disputes, culminating in the Civil War," wrote M. Lee Preston Jr., president of Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute Inc.
When the school was founded, American women typically were busy sewing and cooking. But the school offered a liberal education that included mathematics, science, languages, painting, botany, philosophy and psychology.
Students numbered 139 during the school's heyday under Principal Almira Hart Phelps Lincoln, a botanical illustrator and author of many books on the subject, said Jacquelyn Galke, the director of the historic property, now owned and managed by Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks.
Through the school, women surmounted intellectual barriers even as they were prohibited from voting or owning property in their own names. They were sent to the institute by fathers who wanted a good education for their daughters as well as sons. But the sons went to Yale University, and the daughters went to finishing schools.
The school attracted students from the South at first, then the North and California as well, and finally other countries, including Spain, Italy, England, Canada and several South America countries, said Susana Burrell, assistant director of Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park. There were also students from the Cherokee Nation.
About 90 percent of the students came from wealthy families, including Southern plantation owners. The daughter of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, attended until the outbreak of the Civil War.
The mother of Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, attended the school, and Thomas Jefferson's great-granddaughter, Sally Randolph, was once headmistress.
The institute was one of the first in the country to provide scholarships in the form of state grants as well as private donations.
There is no list of women who attended the Patapsco Female Institute, but Mason and Ryder recall knowing or hearing about their pioneering ancestors. Mason's maternal great-grandfather owned a farm near Jessup, where Mason spent summers with her grandmother. Her great-aunt, Mrs. Henry Atterbury, and her maternal grandmother, Mrs. Edmund Myers, who lived in Richmond, Va., both attended the school.
"We called them 'the galloping grandmothers' behind their backs," Mason said with a laugh. She got to know them during summer picnics on the Patapsco Female Institute grounds, she said.
"They were stylish and sewed beautifully," she said. "They would travel to Spain and India."
She had a glimpse of the elegance of a bygone time, when roles were defined by marriage and social position.
"I know my grandmother had friends [from the institute] in Philadelphia and Savannah, and she would travel to see them on trains," she said.
"They got a whale of an education," Mason said. "They had a genteel disposition that enabled them, with the proper setting, to learn the arts as well as the sciences, especially botany." But, she added, "I think they had to go [to the bathroom] outside."
Mason was instrumental in getting the property listed in the National Register of Historic Places through the help of Mark Cathey, who came to speak of the significance of the site to indifferent residents at a time when the structure was falling down, she said.
The National Register of Historic Places and Maryland Register of Historic Properties placed Patapsco Female Institute on their lists in July 1978. The Maryland Historic Trust named Patapsco Female Institute an "Award-Winning Preservation Site" in 1996.
Mason, 89, who lives on a 50-acre farm, said she has no plans to slow down her work for various civic causes.
Ryder, whose great-great-great-aunt, Carrie MacMillan Kerr, attended the institute, played afternoon hostess recently at a Victorian tea and 19th-century fashion show, held in the big room at the Mount Ida Visitor Center, which houses the institute museum.
Models wore the dresses and fancy garb of the day: full skirts and bodices of satin in sage green, aqua and pink. Such fundraisers bring in money for educational programs at the historic park. Ryder said she likes to work behind the scenes. She participates out of altruistic habit, after working in all Howard County executive administrations - her current job is greeting the public. But she has a personal reason, too. Her father, Allen Hugh Harrison, always told her, "Live American history; don't just read about it."
She raised two sons: Rob, who has worked with Giant Food for more than 20 years, and Rick, a Broadway actor. Her career in Howard County government has included many activities, from starting the tradition of putting paintings of all the county executives on the walls of the government building to serving as president of the Howard County Historical Society, on the board of the Patapsco Female Institute and on the board of directors of Historic Ellicott City Inc.
Ryder credits her Mississippi-inspired hospitality to her parents and ancestors, but mostly to her mother, a descendant of John MacMillan, an Irishman who emigrated at age 6 with his family and who was "engaged in cotton business in cities of Columbia and Charleston, S.C.," according to documents she owns.
John MacMillan educated his children well - "his daughters in Patapsco and the best schools to be found, his boys in Princeton, N.J.," reads the document that Ryder found in family records. She will use that and other papers as she applies for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution.
"She was very well schooled," Ryder said of Kerr. After the school lost students in the post-Civil War era, Kerr attended schools in Germany, Paris, London and Scotland.
The school was designed by Robert Cary Long Jr. (1810-1849), a respected Maryland architect. It is a Greek Revival structure with two wings on 10 acres, built by the Ellicott family 17 years after they built the men's Rock Hill Academy in Ellicott Mills (the former name of Ellicott City). When they built the institute, the Elliott family created a sanctuary for women to study botany, languages, piano and painting. After the Civil War, housekeeping, sewing and cooking were added to the curriculum because the needs of the students from the South changed as a result of the war.
The last owner to live in the building was Manola Brennan, who bought it in the early 1940s and willed it to her daughter, who in turn sold it to James Whisman in 1958. Whisman wanted to use the building as a nursing home, but the county building inspector declared the place a fire hazard. Whisman sold the building's wooden interior pieces to a wrecking contractor, and the building was gutted.
Whisman willed the building to his alma mater, the University of Cincinnati, in 1965. The county bought it in 1966. In 1966, the Friends of Patapsco Female Institute incorporated, and the group was instrumental, through people such as Ryder and Mason, in keeping the county from clearing the ruins from the site.
About 8,000 people visited the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park during the 2006 season, Galke said. This summer, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company will perform at the Patapsco Female Institute park for the fifth season, she said.
While the steps will never be carpeted again as they were during the institute's heyday, Galke is hoping that "somebody will want to put a roof on the place."
The park will reopen for the season April 1 and will stay open for tours until Oct. 31. Tickets can be purchased at the Mount Ida Visitor Center, which houses a museum and gift shop at 3691 Sarah's Lane, Ellicott City 21043. Information: 410-465-8500.
New members are welcomed by the Friends of Patapsco Female Institute antebellum living history troupe, which portrays life in the 1850s.
For more information about the institute and about scheduled events, visit www.patapsco femaleinstitute.org.