By Barbara Haller
Whodah thunk it? The very first college for women was built in Worcester and opened in 1849, at the now Oread-Castle Park. It is true and the neighborhood around Castle Park in Main South is celebrating it. We want the whole City to celebrate it with us. The story is stunning.
Here it is in a snapshot: Eli Thayer, a man of very modest means (his father’s country store in Mendon, MA was a failure) worked hard to get the best education he could. He attended and worked at the future Worcester Academy when it was located on large acreage around Benefit Street (before there was a Benefit Street). Then onto Brown University in Providence where he worked his way though by doing carpentry, landscaping, forestry.
After graduating from Brown he came back to Worcester Academy as a teacher and then headmaster. He envisioned a school solely for women that gave the same kind of rigorous college level education as he had received at Brown. He had only to look out from the Worcester Academy, across Main Street to see Goat Hill – an undeveloped 10 acres of land – and realize that this was the place for his first-in-the- nation collegiate institute of higher learning for women.
At the age of 29, Eli Thayer designed and oversaw the building of the Oread Collegiate Institute, which quickly became known as the Castle. The Castle had both boarding and day students and was quite popular. Eli Thayer taught and led the school for its first several years and he lived in the North Tower with his wife and ultimately 7 children. Many of the Castle’s graduates and attendees went on to great lives as community leaders, social benefactors, educators, artists, supporting wives, and inspiring mothers.
The Castle closed in 1881, 32 years after opening. During those 32 years other women’s colleges opened with large financial support and Eli Thayer had become heavily involved in other pursuits. Pieces of the 10 acres were sold for development – the Castle Street row houses remain today. The Castle and the 3 acres around it was sold in 1898 and reinvented into the Oread Institute School for Domestic Science. That didn’t last past 1904 due to it’s founder, Dr. Henry Perky’s unexpected death. Eventually the Castle fell into disrepair and was demolished in the mid-1930s. The City took the land in tax title and converted the site to the Oread Castle Park, known as Castle Park to most.
Eli Thayer’s most exciting effort, after the Castle, was the “Free Kansas” movement. Eli Thayer led the organizing and fund-raising effort that resulted in the 1861 vote of the citizens of the Kansas territory to enter the union as a free state, one where slavery was banned. Bleeding Kansas, as it was called, acted as a precursor of the Civil War which started 3 months after the Kansas vote. The Kansas State House has a bust of Eli Thayer where he is recognized as the father of Kansas.
There is so much more rich and proud history around Eli Thayer. After moving to 10 Hawthorne Street in 1898, he died in 1899 at the age of 80. He is buried, as is his wife and several of their children, in our own Hope Cemetary.
Every neighborhood has a park that is important to quality of lives: beauty and recreational opportunities. Castle Park is this asset for the neighbors around King, Castle, Queen, Ely, Alden, Oread Place: trees, green space, walking paths, rock climbing, basketball, handball, swings, and soccer. But Castle Park is also the site of one of the first women’s college in the nation and the home to the abolishionist who changed the course of US history. In this way, Castle Park has special status for us all. The Castle Park Task Force is working hard to share this important history with Worcester residents and to build a shared sense of pride in our City around the work of Eli Thayer.