By 1868, three years after he arrived in Virginia, Raphael Poindexter got the Hapsburg Iron Works up and running. He opened lines of supply, landed customers, set up accounts, hired workers, paid wages, and forged relations with the town. Tommy Cantrell ran errands and provided valuable information. Born and raised in Hapsburg, the skinny seventeen-year-old shared the local passion for gossip, and he laid it all at the feet of his boss.
Poindexter satisfied the expectations of his backers in Boston. He began to repay their capital investment. He was on the way to being not only the president and manager of the foundry, but also the owner.
During this time, he continued to live quietly with the Raeburns at Meadow Grange. As his fortune rose, however, the Raeburns' fell. Short of cash and manpower, the older couple resorted to leasing their fields to sharecroppers. Since Poindexter had no desire to move, Matthew Raeburn suggested he buy the estate. They reversed roles as owner and tenant, Mabel and her staff continued as before, and everyone was happy.
Poindexter's eligible condition stimulated interest among families with daughters. They invited him to receptions, balls, and amusements of every kind, some of which were not very amusing. As a leading citizen, he found it expedient to attend. Well-dressed maidens paraded before him, curtsied as they were taught, and tossed their pretty curls.
"Nobody knows what chases he may have led," one said with a hopeful inflection. "Even in Boston, a young man can stray."
"Mr. Poindexter's behavior is unfailingly correct," another said with a trace of annoyance.
In truth, he was susceptible. He had a keen eye for a shapely bodice, nicely molded arms, a pair of bright eyes, and a general air of health and hygiene. As a garden teems with roses, the county yielded young ladies in abundance.
"But the moment always comes when she opens her mouth," he said to his landlady Laetitia Raeburn.who had become a confidante, "What nonsense spills out! What empty heads they carry on those beautiful shoulders! They are nothing compared to Olivia—Dr. Raeburn, I should say."
"My daughter-in-law is exceptional, Mr. Poindexter. You cannot hold her as a measuring rod to the general run of girls."
"A pity she has no sister. Not even a cousin?"
"None that I know of. Should I make inquiries on your behalf?"
"I did not mean for you to become a matchmaker." Poindexter was embarrassed. "Surely, that is unnecessary."
"And beneath my dignity? I have my faults, but pride is not one of them."
Laetitia turned something over in her mind.
"Olivia's education was unlike anything these girls receive. Her father, Dr. Kearns, tutored her at home. Then she attended a French school in Philadelphia. From there, she went to Geneva Medical College in New York State. Without these advantages, she might not shine so brightly beside these rural belles. She outshines me too. Yes, Mr. Poindexter! Had we met forty years ago, you would have found me insipid."
"What do you suggest?"
"Hapsburg has only a primary school. What if we had a school for young women like the colleges for young men?"
"A female institute?"
"An academy that answers to the realities of Virginia."
"What a splendid idea! But who will start such an academy?"
Laetitia laughed. "You have shown yourself capable of anything. All that is required is a plan. Form a board of trustees and design a curriculum."
"A course of study?"
"Write a description of the woman you wish to marry."
In a few days, Poindexter came to her with a page of notes, a prospectus for an academy. She read through it and nodded.
"Who will teach this ideal school?"
"I did not get that far."
"What about your connections in Boston? They might know of someone willing to take up a position in Virginia."
"Excellent! It must sound like a real school, though, not a pipe dream. What shall we call it? The Hapsburg Ladies Seminary?"
"Too starched and pressed," Laetitia said.
They tried names including Shenandoah, Massanutten and Quidnunc, taken from the river, mountain, and county.
"None of them strikes the right note," Letitia said. "Let us bow to the inevitable. If the school is a success, regardless of where the money comes from, people will refer to you as the founder. It ought to take your name."
Poindexter sent a letter to Thomas Hill, a Unitarian minister and the president of Harvard University. As it summarizes his educational program, it is quoted here.
Dear Reverend Hill,
I write to ask if you might recommend a recent college graduate or an adventurous young professor. He is to teach in a school newly founded to promote the edification of young ladies, especially those in reduced circumstances from the recent Civil War. The tentative name for this school is the Poindexter Female Academy. Its location will be the town of Hapsburg, Virginia, where I serve as President of the Hapsburg Iron Works.
The aim is to provide a more literate and rational helpmeet to the unmarried men of this area, whether engaged in agriculture, trade, a profession, or as in my own case, industrial manufacturing. Accordingly, this school will bypass the traditional feminine accomplishments of French, music, light conversation, and dance. Instead, it will provide instruction in Mathematics, History, Physical Sciences, and the American Language. Latin may be included for the sake of intellectual rigor. At the same time, girls will learn the practical arts of home-making and the care of infants.
To counteract the baneful effects of too much sitting, students will exercise outdoors and take up sport, viz. to walk, run, ride, swim, climb, and tumble. In this respect, the prospectus harks back to the ancient Greeks, who advocated a sound mind in a sound body. I refer to the girls of Sparta, though I do not propose that students go nude.
As religion is often a bone of contention, there will be no chapel, no requirement of Christian observance, and no sectarian label. Each girl may attend Sunday service in town in whatever church she chooses. As for the emergencies that are apt to arise among young women, Mrs. Laetitia Raeburn will supervise the girls during their absence from home and her daughter-in-law will act as the school physician. Both are members of St. Giles Episcopal Church.
Please feel free to share this letter with learned acquaintances. I did not attend Harvard or any other college, but I heard you preach when I lived near Boston. You have my utmost respect.
After canvassing and further correspondence, a young Harvard graduate applied for the job. He wrote a letter to the board of trustees headed by Poindexter. In it, he outlined his own education and reviewed his brief history to date. Here is an excerpt:
Exempted from conscription in the Union Army by reason of impaired bowels due to excessive study, I completed the degree of Master of Arts, which includes ancient and modern languages, the natural sciences, and European history. In addition, I acquired the elements of music and drawing. My internal medical complaint lingered as I worked on a long, philosophical poem or treatise on poetics, a manuscript which frankly may be set aside with no harm to anyone, and little regret on the author's part.
In the autumn of 1868, Henry Aires arrived in Hapsburg by train with a trunk of clothes, a crate of books, a case in the shape of a violin, and boxes of scientific instruments, some of them new and bought for the purpose of instruction. He came to take up the position of headmaster of the new school, where he also comprised the entire faculty. He made a rapid recovery in the South, where the food was an improvement over Boston baked beans and cod. After allowing him a day to settle and unpack, Poindexter introduced Aires to the board of trustees in the parlor of Meadow Grange, and invited him to speak.
"A few remarks off the cuff," the businessman said. He wanted to put the young man at ease. As the company quickly learned, the young man was far from shy. The difficulty would lie not in persuading him to talk but in getting him to stop. As recorded by the secretary, here is the gist of Aires's remarks.
As a professor and school administrator, I may be green, but what I lack in experience I make up for in enthusiasm. Tall and lean as you see me stand before you, I am a race horse at the starting gate, champing at the bit. In academic matters, I confess to being a generalist, a jack of all trades, with interests that range through all compartments of human knowledge. Isn't that what you want? As the older brother of three sisters, I have first-hand experience in the education of girls.
In the context of your academy, I will be captive to no theory of education. I am not fettered by obsolete methods and shopworn curricula. As you know from experience, preconceived ideas are not ideas at all, but blinkers that obstruct a wider view. I will encourage your daughters to think, gentlemen. If you would have them remain unwitting dupes of tradition and fashion, instead of capable women who will thrive in the modern world, then dismiss me at once, and I will board the next train north.
Followed by applause, these remarks set the tone for the early days. With an initial enrollment of six, the Poindexter Female Academy occupied an overseer's house and a threshing barn on the Meadow Grange estate. In the course of years, the mansion would become Founders Hall, new buildings would be added, and the property would transform to a college campus. But all that lay in the future. In its makeshift quarters, the school was a dare.
Poindexter took great interest in the school but no part in its daily operation, occupied as he was in running the foundry. He returned each evening to the mansion, where he heard from the Raeburns how the day had gone. Laetitia worked as hard as she ever had, while Matthew was called upon for endless chores. They gave themselves the titles of Matron and Factotum.
Aires also lodged at Meadow Grange during his first year in Hapsburg. The outsiders shared an origin, but that did not mean they would make friends.
"With Yankees, you can't never tell," Mabel said.
The young man's interest in philosophy and poetry struck no chord in the plain businessman. Conversation at table skimmed over general topics, and floated serenely in the plane of reason. A twelve-year difference in age inhibited frankness and warmth, as did the relationship of employer and employee.
When Poindexter played his flute one Sunday, however, the young man listened with pleasure and surprise.
"I just remembered. My baggage included a violin."
"Why haven't you brought it out?"
"There hasn't been a free moment."
"Fetch it at once, and play whatever comes to mind."
Aires did so. After a prelude of tuning the gut strings and fussing over the horsehair bow, what came to mind was a lively jig. Poindexter jumped in, and a bond formed through music.
Choral singing was a tradition in the Shenandoah Valley, as it is today. Despite Poindexter's comment on music in the curriculum, the girls gathered informally to sing hymns and popular ballads. Irresistibly, they attracted the accompaniment of flute and violin.
Lucy Fox and Sarah Pike were among the first class of Poindexter Girls, as they came to be called. Lucy, a fair slip of a girl, was the daughter of a merchant in Staunton, while Sarah, a raven-haired beauty who was rumored to be part Indian, came from a farm near Luray. In the language of the time, these two became fast friends. Little is known of the other girls, so Lucy and Sarah will stand for all.
They possessed fine voices, soprano and alto. Both could read sheet music. A quartet formed including two men. The Mendelssohn Quintette of Boston, which toured the United States to acclaim at this time, was an inspiration. Without a piano, the amateurs exercised their ingenuity. Sarah beat a hand drum, and Lucy plucked a dulcimer. The four played together in the parlor of the mansion, to the delight of the Raeburns, the other girls, and guests.
The school attracted more students during the next two years, up to twenty. A diploma, the trustees decided, would be awarded after three years of study and a day-long examination. Aires had his hands full devising courses to meet the expectations of all concerned. He enlisted Dr. Olivia Raeburn to teach biology, and this course was wildly popular. True to the prospectus, he scanted literature in favor of basic reading and writing.
A theme assigned by Aires for writing practice was "A Comparison of Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant." Modeled on the familiar essay theme of Bonaparte and Wellington, and bearing a strong flavor of Emerson's essays, several papers survive. They yield no great historical insight, but they are a window to attitudes in Virginia at the time—the elevation of Lee to sainthood, and the whittling down of Grant.
A more telling survival is the letters exchanged between Lucy and Sarah during times they were apart, summer vacations and Christmas holidays. They are full of gossip, local events, weather, and the health of family and friends. Toward the end of their third year, they reveal a double love affair brought on by music-making. Henry Aires courted Sarah Pike, and Raphael Poindexter courted Lucy Fox. Here is Lucy writing to Sarah.
Mr. Poindexter asked me to meet him in the parlor just before we all left school for Easter. Alone! He was tongue-tied and nervous, not at all what you would expect from the Grand Panjandrum. From the tender looks and words of praise at our musical evenings, you will guess what came next.
"Miss Fox—Lucy—I have grown very fond of you in the past two years. Though I am now approaching the age of forty, nearly twice your age, I believe that I am still fit and vigorous. Do you think you could accept me as... a husband?"
Little does he know he is a constant topic among the girls along these lines. Half of them would swoon! After all, he is the richest man in town, or on his way to being so, and not unpleasing to the eye. Cool as a cucumber, I answered.
"Mr. Poindexter! What a surprise! It is flattering of you to ask. Everyone looks up to you, as an employer or a benefactor. But what do we know about you? Your history before you came to Virginia, I mean."
Would you believe it? Right then and there, he told me about his family, his boyhood, and his early years as a mill foreman.
"My mother was an art lover," he said. "That is why she named me for the Italian painter. We were not poor, but my father held that every boy had to earn his own way in life. I went to work from age seventeen."
"Like your assistant Tommy Cantrell?" This remark startled him.
"Yes, in fact. With perseverance I rose steadily."
"In all that time, you never sought to marry?"
"It was not from lack of interest. I wanted to offer more, to be a man of substance, such as a woman could be proud to accept."
If I was not already half in love, this speech would have won my heart.
"So long as my parents have no objection," I said, "I will be honored to marry you."
"I will go to Staunton at the earliest opportunity." His perspiring face wore a look of profound relief.
A letter from Sarah to Lucy lays out a similar conversation between herself and Aires. Here is part of that letter.
Mr. Aires was put out that I wanted to know something of his background, who were his family, and what expectations he had, if any. It was enough to be a Harvard Man, I suppose. His father is a businessman of some kind, and his ancestors were in shipping.
"I inherit nothing," he said "if that is what you mean by expectations. My fortune is myself, and my future lies here. I hope that future may be tied to you."
"My father owns a large farm," I said. "We are substantial people in this part of the world."
"You have brothers?"
"They will take over the farm in time. It is up to me to make the best match possible. I would like to be something more than an ordinary farm wife. That is why I wanted to attend the academy. My parents indulged this intellectual whim. Now see where it has led me! If they see fit to indulge me again, I will be happy to marry you, Mr. Aires."
"Henry—please call me that."
By this point, we were giddy. Soon enough, we will no longer be teacher and student but husband and wife, just as you and Mr. Poindexter will be. Best of all, you and I will not be separated. Unlike most friendships begun in school, ours will survive.
Which leads me to this: Do you think our prospective husbands would agree to a joint wedding? That is, if you agree. Let's rally our forces and devise a battle plan!
The four lovers held a conference. Matthew and Laetitia Raeburn were arbiters, sympathetic to all sides. They were also interested parties.
"When you bring your bride to Meadow Grange," Laetitia said to Poindexter, "the house will have a new mistress. Mr. Raeburn and I can find a house in town, near Nathaniel and Olivia."
"Instead of inmates and associates," Matthew said, "we will all be friends. Mrs. Raeburn and I are getting too old to help with the school. The occasion provides an excuse for us to retire."
"We will have to reorganize," Poindexter said to Aires. "A batch of new girls will arrive next fall. We must provide all the services that the Raeburns have so kindly done."
"Not to mention an education," Aires said. "I am stretched as on a rack. It is time to hire an assistant."
"Present a plan to the trustees. At the moment, we have more pressing business, in the persons of these two young ladies."
"Lucy and I had a talk of our own," Sarah said.
Gently but firmly, they made the point that their education should benefit themselves.
"We are not mere clay to be molded to men's purposes," Lucy said.
"Since the school has opened our eyes," Sarah said, "we see the world as it is. We have our own view of life, of what lies ahead."
"Mr. Aires, you have fulfilled your promise," Poindexter said.
"We submit this proposal," Lucy said, "a joint wedding at St. Giles Episcopal Church. Two couples, one ceremony. A quartet, if you like, or a true love knot."
Poindexter and Aires exchanged a puzzled look.
"A double knot that symbolizes marriage," Laetitia said, "or in this case, a four-way tie. It's a local expression."
"Why didn't I think of that?" Aires said.
"Who am I to object?" Poindexter said.
"Any further discussion?" Raeburn said.
In May 1871, the two couples married in the picturesque fieldstone church, still the oldest in Hapsburg in continuous use. Inside, it was packed with friends and relatives. Outside, the whole town watched in excitement. The weather was perfect, with fleecy clouds in a calm, blue sky.
These details are found in a letter Laetitia wrote to her older sister in Kentucky. The letter continues:
"Our prayers have been answered," I said as we walked to church.
"In May, the elements often cooperate," Mr. Raeburn countered. "Our orders for fine days are of no account in the ledger of heaven."
This remark was so alien to his usual expression that I started to protest. But I saw by a crinkle at the corner of his eye that he meant to provoke.
Mr. Raeburn and I, though not related to any of the family, were privileged to sit near the front. It was all we could do to see, however, in the crush of people. Surely, not all could be relatives of the couples at the altar. Mr. Poindexter extended an open invitation, and it appears that everyone accepted. Without question, this wedding will go down as the social event of the year.
The brides wore matching white gowns trimmed with lace at the sleeves and bodice. A young black seamstress in town did the sewing, I heard. She is a relative of Mabel, who seems to be connected to all the black people and knows everything they do. Each bride carried a bouquet of flowers picked that morning. Of this I am sure, as the flowers came from the garden of Meadow Grange. The grooms wore identical cutaway coats, which was only to be expected.
All four emerged on the stone steps in the noonday sun, as the waiting crowd cheered. The church bell rang like mad overhead. Sidewise, as we stood in the narthex, I saw a black boy attached to the bell rope bob up and down as if jumping for joy.
To the end of his extremely long life, though he seldom spoke two words together, James Pettigrew, the bell ringer of St. Giles, would recall that day with emotion.
Title image "Correspondence" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2017.