Between the 1830s and early 1900s private schools flourished in Elmira. One of those schools was Miss Clarissa Thurston’s Female Seminary. The school is one chapter in the long life of one of my favorite people from Chemung County history - Clarissa Thurston (1801-1884) or better known as Miss Clara.
Born on February 26, 1801 in Andover Massachusetts, Clarissa was one of six children. A confirmed spinster Clarissa believed educating young women was her true calling. Before coming to Elmira, she had taught in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Georgia, New Jersey, and western New York. In 1843 she moved to Elmira where her brother Judge Ariel Thurston had settled. Three years later she purchased a house at 413 North Main Street (where Weis is located today) and in 1847, with her sister Mary, she opened Miss Clarissa Thurston’s Female Seminary.
The overall goal of the seminary was to train young women to have high morals and sound religious principals. Day and boarding schools were accepted in four levels – preparatory, junior, middle and senior. For boarding students’ tuition was $130 a year plus expenses for light and fuel. Day students paid between $3 and $6 per quarter. Subjects included reading, penmanship, arithmetic (mental and written), grammar, geography, history (general, United States, ancient and modern), natural philosophy, botany, algebra, geometry, geology, logic, moral science, transposition and parsing, physiology, chemistry, astronomy, and trigonometry. For additional fees students could also take lessons in piano, organ, vocal music, drawing, painting and languages (choice of French, German, or Latin). Each student was asked to bring a Bible and English dictionary. Since students were expected to walk a half hour each day overshoes and umbrellas were also required. Though most students were from Elmira and upstate New York, students also came from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Maine, Missouri, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Washington, DC. Perhaps Clarissa’s most famous students were two sisters - Livy Clemens and Susan Crane.
The school closed in 1864 with Clarissa’s retirement. Upon retiring Clarissa began a new chapter in her life as a writer. In addition to writing articles for educational and religious magazines, like Christian Family Magazine and The Parlor Magazine, she wrote at least three books. Her books include Home Pleasures, Memoir of a Lady and Light from History or the Story of Fulfilled Prophecy. In the summer of 1871 Clarissa added one more item to her list of accomplishments – world traveler. At the age of seventy she traveled by herself to France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland.
Sadly, Clarissa’s life ended tragically. As she got older Clarissa became deaf and on her way to church on the morning of January 6, 1884 she did not hear the train’s bell or warning shouts. While crossing Second Street, Clarissa was hit by a train and killed instantly. She was 83 years old.