The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a garden once lost to history is being brought back into bloom

The ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City, Md., where headmistress Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps was a pioneer in women’s education, teaching science to girls in the 1800s by using the plots around the school as teaching gardens. (Scott Kramer)

Nearly 200 years ago, Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, the stout headmistress of the Patapsco Female Institute, would rise early and walk from her cottage toward the towering granite school at the top of the hill. Along the way, she would pluck deep purple columbine and yellow baptisia blossoms from her garden overlooking the town of Ellicott’s Mills far below. Later that day, her students would tear those silky petals from their stems, counting stamens and pistils to learn botany.

A. Phelps, as she was well known in the botany world, was a pioneer in women’s education who had the radical idea to teach science to girls in the 1800s, using the plots around the school as a teaching garden. Over the centuries, the school crumbled to ruins, and the headmistress’s garden was lost to history.

But in the town later known as Ellicott City, researchers never gave up on finding evidence to help resurrect her garden. Since 2005, when she started as a history intern on the property, Caitlin Chamberlain has envisioned the headmistress’s garden. Chamberlain is now the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks’ heritage program and historic resources manager, and she has directed the research on the grounds. Luckily for her, Phelps assigned homework.

In 2018, Riley Goodman, a researcher with the department, was scanning museum databases for anything connected to the Patapsco Female Institute. In the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, he spotted a listing for a journal owned by a woman whose name he recognized as one of the institute’s students.

The embossed, leather-bound notebook, stamped in gold with Mary Jerdone Coleman’s name, was preserved in the museum’s storeroom. Inside were pressed flowers and plants that survived from the 1840s, their brittle stems tucked into tiny slits in the sepia-toned pages, complete with the plant’s Latin and common names in Coleman’s script. With more than 90 desiccated species, the journal has become the foundation for reviving Phelps’s 19th-century garden.

Phelps’s plots will be replanted in the spring with a dozen of the species Coleman preserved. The garden opens formally on June 4 to coincide with celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Ellicott City’s founding, which include an original musical, concerts and a commemorative, locally made bourbon.

“It’s exciting to see something in history brought into a contemporary sense, to live again,” Goodman told me. “This journal was just waiting for a continuation of its own history.” Referencing the past — particularly the valley where the Patapsco River occasionally floods Ellicott City — Goodman went on: “It is this notion of ‘never entirely lost’ that drives the progression of history as a rippling entity, instead of a linear track, eager to bob to the surface whenever we choose to pay attention.”

Phelps taught chemistry, geology, physics and botany to the daughters of wealthy families — with patriarchs who were senators and judges and plantation owners — and to scholarship girls from the nearby area and from the Cherokee Nation. She was headmistress at Patapsco from 1841 to 1859, a time when rich girls were taught mostly drawing, elocution and how to be a wife, instead of the Linnaean plant classification system. Phelps was, Chamberlain told me, a fascinating dichotomy: She believed in educating girls, but not in giving women the right to vote.

Author of textbooks on physics, chemistry, geology and, most popular, botany, Phelps also wrote moralistic novels, which she read to her students in the evenings. Her book “Lectures to Young Ladies” rendered opinions on topics as varied as science, math, corsets and posture.

She wrote in one of her textbooks: “The female mind, enlarged by natural science, learns to read ‘sermons in stones’ and to find ‘good in everything’. ... Thus instructed, woman becomes fitted for the companion of enlightened man; without education, she is but his toy or his slave.”

The Civil War disrupted the nation’s educations, female or otherwise. Other principals struggled to keep the school open, and in 1891 the Patapsco Female Institute closed. The enormous building became a theater, a hotel, a private home, then a spooky wrecked shell where teens partied.

In the 1990s, the ruins were preserved. Walking through the site, Chamberlain points out the patterns on the wood decks, built to mimic the school’s original floor plan of grand parlors, classrooms and fireplaces. The ballroom, where dances and French soirees and piano recitals were held, is now an empty space, through which visitors can peer down into the brick ovens of the basement kitchen.

History still bobs to the surface on the school’s grounds. County archaeologists probing the ruins discovered one handmade seedling pot years ago and, recently, possible garden walls. In September, the parks department had to stop work on the first site planned for the garden because, while tilling the ground for the plants, they discovered rocks, glass and masonry.

“Maybe this was a garden wall or a fireplace foundation,” Chamberlain said, crouching to brush dirt from the arc of gray rocks peeping from the soil. “Almira had a cottage on the property. Where was it? I’d really love to answer some questions of what was here.”

One of the terraced areas that survived erosion, a grassy swath under black walnut and oak trees beside the chapel walls, is the new site for Phelps’s flower beds. The Howard County Garden Club and the county’s parks department are collaborating on the project. Landscape designer and garden club member Jennifer Evans combed wholesalers looking for species that match, as closely as modern plants can, the antique specimens from Coleman’s journal. Her design features the nodding petals of Campanula divaricata (bellflower), the white puffs of Ceanothus americanus (New Jersey tea), and the purple stars of Aquilegia vulgaris (columbine).

Goodman and Chamberlain are producing signs detailing the garden’s place in history. “We should consider it a teaching garden,” Chamberlain says, “to continue the legacy of education.”

Phelps was thoroughly scientific about education — her botany text explains inflorescence, the classification of trillium, and the theory of metamorphoses of the organs of plants — but nature also inspired her. As she once wrote: “Even the dry skeletons of the leaves, which the blasts of autumn strew around us, may not only afford a direct moral lesson, but, inducing you to examine their structure, lead you to admire and adore the power which formed them.”

Susan Thornton Hobby is a writer in Maryland.

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