The Pride and Joy of Po’keepsie: A Vassar College History
Matthew Vassar’s rise from immigrant brewer to founder of America’s preeminent female college
A portrait of Matthew Vassar painted in 1861
Photographs courtesy of Vassar College
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Matthew Vassar was an enormously successful businessman, a political force, a pioneer in women’s rights, a hobnobber with the stars and, of course, the founder — 150 years ago — of the college in Poughkeepsie that bears his name. But what he really wanted, when all was said and done, was a statue of himself. Arriving too late for him to enjoy, the statue is one of the few failures in his remarkable life.
Vassar was born April 29, 1792, in the village of East Dereham, England, the son of Ann Bennett and James Vassar, farmers and religious dissenters of the Church of England. When Matthew was four, his family left for America. “[My parents] were the first of the Family name that left their Fatherland and were induced to seek this new Western continent more for the love of civic and religious freedom than from any pecuniary consideration,” he later wrote.
Members of the 1896 basketball team
The family settled in Dutchess County, where acquaintances from England were living, and bought a farm on Wappingers Creek, near Manchester Bridge. Matthew’s uncle, a brewer named Thomas Vassar, also came along, “but he forgot to bring hops, so he sailed back to get them,” says Elizabeth Daniels, Ph.D., Vassar College historian and emeritus professor of English. In 1799, Thomas planted Dutchess County’s first-ever acre of barley and, in 1801, he and James began the family’s American brewing concern.
Ten years later, the brewery burned to the ground; Matthew’s older brother, John Guy Vassar, was killed by the fumes. Father James went back to farming; but Matthew, already running an oyster house in town, decided to start his own brewery. He sold beer by day and tended the restaurant at night. He also became, at age 19, the de-facto head of his family.
Driven to succeed — “he was ambitious and wanted to make money,” Dr. Daniels says — Matthew Vassar went on to buy the patent rights to a successful cloth-cutting machine, invest in real estate, help incorporate Poughkeepsie Savings Bank, become president of the Hudson River Railroad, dabble in the whaling industry, and develop an aqueduct (selfishly, to bring water to his brewery, which continued to thrive). At a time when Poughkeepsie was a powerful and established metropolis, “no one was more active than he was,” according to Dr. Johnson.
He was married in 1813 to Catherine Valentine (or Valantine; both spellings appear in the record). They had no children. In the ensuing decades Vassar was elected a trustee of the village of Poughkeepsie and, later, its president. He hosted the likes of the Marquis de Lafayette and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
And he did all this without the benefit of formal schooling, says Colton Johnson, Ph.D., professor emeritus of English and dean emeritus at Vassar. “He went to night school briefly, but was kicked out for throwing an ink stand at the school master,” Dr. Johnson says. Two specific events, however, brought education, specifically women’s education, to consume Vassar for the rest of his life.