Helen, the first child of Cyrus and Helen D. Richards, was born on June 13, 1837. She entered KUA in the fall of 1846 at the age of nine; her younger sister Abbie entered at 11. Although a few one-room schools existed in Plainfield, presumably their father felt they were well-equipped to enter KUA earlier than is normal today. During Helen’s last three years at KUA, she is listed in the catalogue as both a teacher of music and a student in the Ladies Department. She continued teaching music here through 1859-60 while, at the same time, she “pursued a thorough musical education in Boston and NYC.” The following year,1861, she married the Rev. George F. Herrick, class of 1852, in Marsailles, France, and from there, they became missionaries in Constantinople for 50 years. Helen died in NYC in 1920 at age 83.
We have a few pages from a journal Helen kept that begins in mid-sentence in October 1855, “…started me off safely for home. I reached old Meriden again Thursday P.M. October 11th at 3 o’clock, found all well and answered several questions, if not more, that night and several days to come…This long scratch must answer for all descriptions.
“Yes, it is true that 1856 has really dawned upon us. How fast the years do fly. Last year at this time I was far away from home in the city of B. surrounded by the bustle and noisy business of city life. Now I spend my ‘New Year’ very quietly at home. I have given three lessons today as usual…This evening I went to the levee with Mother, Father, Charley and Abbie. We had some very pretty tableaux for our entertainment, among them the Pleiades, a group of seven young girls dressed in pure white. That was really beautiful.” Helen describes other scenes performed by students including “… Wm. Tell shooting the apple from his boy’s head… We did not get home till nearly 11 o’clock. There ends our first day of Jan. 1856!”
At that time, there were two literary clubs at KUA: the Minervian Society for ladies and the Philadelphian Society for gentlemen. At their public meetings they would hold debates, give recitations and provide music. Helen wrote that she was invited to furnish music for the next meeting of the Minervians – “…One song was, What are the Wild Waves Saying, and the other, Rosalie the prairie flower.”
“Wednesday eve. Charley and I started this morning about 9 for Claremont, where I want to get my new silk coat made. We got there at 5 minutes of eleven. I had my dress cut, did some shopping for mother and then Charley had his ambrotype taken at a saloon there. We went to an oyster saloon for our dinner. Started for home about four, and got home just as the bell was ringing for public Philadelphian.” She described how the president of the society judging the debate “…gave his decision in the negative, which made Haley so vexed that after it was through, Charley said, he took his hat and walked off without speaking a word.” She goes on to describe a song ‘’…called The Old Granite State. …It was first rate and they sang it beautifully…I must just say that Charley composed most of the words…They were quite amusing.”
The following evening the Minervians met. She described one of the lady’s papers as “…first rate, far surpassing that of the Philadelphian last eve…We all wore wreaths of hemlock and large white beads and with the exception of 3, black dresses, silk, of course.”
“Saturday April 26. “I started in company…this morning…for ledges. We carried dinner–and though we found it very hard hot work to climb up and down enjoyed the excursion very much.”
Her journal states “…Tucker the Pres. had quite a good lecture.” [William Jewett Tucker, class of 1857, later President of Dartmouth College] And her brother Charley wrote a paper of a “humorous nature…quite witty, abounding with prodigious words.
The next night the Minervians “…presented themselves and their golden ideas to the criticizing and learned audience assembled in the Chapel of K.U. Academy…The poem by Miss Isora Wellington, I am unable to describe, as we could not hear it. The subject was ‘Silent Voices’, and she seemed to think it necessary to illustrate it practically, which she did with great effect.”
“May 12. This morning Abbie and I got up soon after 5 o’clock and went down to the woods… We were soon joined by Charles 1st (alias Carpenter). After spending some little time in arranging flowers and talking, we went to the pretty little arbor in the checkerberry pasture…Abbie strolled away and culled partridge berries…And as we happened to speak of old age we agreed that if we lived to be 40 years old we would ask each other this question, ‘How old do you feel’. If we live within 12 miles of each other Mr. C. is to visit me, unless sick, or if not within visiting distance, we are to write each other…Mr. Carpenter wrote the agreement upon a piece of paper and presented it to me, which we both signed, and I am to keep it till that time if possible.”
“1856, June 14th Wednesday. …I go to school and study Moral Science and Political Economy besides giving lessons…Abbie studies Algebra and Grammar, and Charles [brother] is reviewing Latin and Greek. How soon he will go away. I cannot bear the idea of having our home circle separated. –We have a school of about 140, rather small and very quiet. But at Washington and in Kansas especially, matters are not quite as quiet. The struggle has commenced apparently in earnest, between Slavery and freedom. Lawrence has been burned and other atrocities committed. Senator Sumner delivered a most eloquent and patriotic speech in Congress a few days since, and shortly after…was most brutally attacked by Col. Brooks, a member of the House…It was a most impious assault, the best way it can be construed.”
And shortly thereafter, what we have of her journal of life at KUA in the spring of1856, ends.
Photo: Main St., Meriden, 1890. The house on the right was the home of Principal Richards and family, now the site of Miller Bicentennial Hall. “We entertained the Seniors and Teachers at our house…For refreshments we had two kinds of nice cake, oranges, nuts and raisins and lemonade, simple, but good enough for poor folks.” – Helen M. Richards, May 1856.