We are fortunate today that the first Kimball Union Academy General Catalogue, 1815-1880, compiled and published by Principal Richards, recorded the names and short biographies of all the women known, at that time, to have attended the Academy; a great deal of important Academy history of the first 35 years would have otherwise been lost to us. Other names are probably unknown as some of our earliest Annual Catalogues are missing or were never compiled and printed. These early students not only had to, as the Reverend Charles Richards, class of 1854, said, “stop short” of college, none of them received a Kimball Union diploma. That was soon to change through the efforts of Madam or Widow Kimball, as she was known to the villagers.
After her husband Daniel’s death in February 1817, Hannah lived on in their home across the green from the Academy for another thirty years always keeping a “careful eye” on the Academy and watching “over the interests of the school as long as she lived, with a lively and motherly interest.” During her long widowhood, she harbored a goal for young women beyond what the Academy founders had set in motion in 1813. In Charles Richards’ centenary speech at KUA’s celebrations in 1913, he recalled Hannah’s desire to establish a female seminary in Meriden, what he called, “her pet plan.”
To realize her goal, or plan, Hannah asked the Meriden townspeople to collectively equal her gift of $1,250 for her seminary; they agreed and soon the project was underway. Bricks and other material had been delivered to the chosen site, less than a quarter mile west of the Academy on nearby Duncan property when the KUA trustees and Principal Cyrus Richards met with Hannah and persuaded her that for the good of the two schools, they should be combined into one Academy under the same Trustees and Principal, with two equal, but separate, male and female departments. Charles Richards continued, “Those in charge of the school believed in it. They were convinced that women were capable of receiving as high an education as men, and were as much entitled to it, and were sure that the effect on each of studying the same subjects, in the same classes would be salutary and inspiring.”
Because the Second Academy was already too small for the increase in enrollment under the new leadership of Charles’ father, Principal Cyrus Richards (1835-1871), an agreement was reached to add an addition onto that building and so the cornerstone for what became known as the Third Academy building was laid on May 8, 1839. In the fall of 1840, according to Principal Richards, women entered Kimball Union on equal terms with men in a “distinct classical, literary and classical, and English courses of study, each requiring three years, beyond a given preparatory course.” Although Richards remained head principal, Miss Martha Mehitable Green was appointed the first principal of the Female Department, 1840-1843; seven more women followed as principals until around 1908 when the two departments became one with one principal, later called headmaster, who, so far, have always been men.
With her goal of equality in education for all students now in motion, Hannah of whom “tradition says … advised him [Daniel Kimball], in making the institution his residuary legatee,” and with no children of her own, bequeathed the remainder of her own estate to the Academy, “… as a permanent fund … towards the expense of instructing females exclusively … It being my expectation that all females of good moral character will be admitted to said institution and my desire is that all such may be equally entitled to the benefit of this donation without regard to their pecuniary circumstances or religious opinions …”
From a distance of 200 years although with little written to confirm it, I think it is safe to say that as the wife and then widow of a wealthy and influential man and as an opinionated and strong woman in her own right, if not for Madam Kimball and people who thought as she did, it may have been many, many years before young women entered Kimball Union or perhaps, not at all. Imagine the future of the Academy if Daniel and Hannah Kimball had decided, with others, that “Learning will spoil her loveliness … Too much education will rob her of her skill as cook and housemother …”?