Tyrconnel Farm is situated along the base of South Mountain roughly halfway between Burkittsville and Knoxville along MD Route 17. For nearly two decades, this farm became the campus of Saint John's Select Boarding School for Young Ladies, also known as Saint John's Female Seminary. Rev. George Lewis Staley [1823-1908] was the principal and owner of the school throughout its operation, and he was well known in the community long before the first students were welcomed to Saint John's School in 1866.
Born in Shepherdstown, Virginia (now West Virginia), George was the son of the Rev. Stephen Staley and Ann Mary Leiby Staley. He studied with his father and private tutors before attending Marshall College and the Theological Seminary at Mercersburg, graduating from the latter in 1845. Once ordained, Rev. Staley was assigned to the pastorate of the newly-formed Burkittsville Charge of the German Reformed Church. He remained in Burkittsville from 1846 until 1849 when he was called to serve a congregation in Philadelphia. In 1853, Rev. Staley resigned his charge and returned to the Burkittsville area and founded a school for boys. This school was first operated at a farm named "Linwood," but quickly outgrew this location and moved to Barleywood Farm at Petersville. The Barleywood Academy was short-lived, only operating for three years, but it set Rev. Staley on the course for the remainder of his career in education.
In 1856, Rev. Staley moved to Baltimore and opened the Mount Washington College for Young Ladies. The school was operated on the model of the female seminary, a course of higher learning which began in the United States in the 1830s and emphasized the importance of a classical education for women. Many women who attended female seminaries became teachers. Rev. Staley remained engaged in the activities of the German Reformed Church whose leaders believed in supporting female education. The Mount Washington College for Young Ladies closed during the Civil War, prompting Rev. Staley to once again return to the Burkittsville area.
On June 18, 1864, Hannah Garrott Staley, wife of Rev. George Lewis Staley, signed the deed to acquire Tyrconnel Farm from C. Oliver O'Donnell at a cost of $8,000.00. Within two years, Saint John's School was in operation and admitting young women to study and live at Tyrconnel. Rev. Staley placed advertisements for his school in The Baltimore Sun, proclaiming the institution to be "in one of the most beautiful and healthy districts of Western Maryland."
At the October 1866 meeting of the General Synod of the German Reformed Church, held in York, Pennsylvania, a committee appointed to inspect female seminaries reported on their visit to Tyrconnel. "This institution is more of the character of a private seminary, the building and grounds being in the possession of the principal [Rev. Staley]. The building and grounds are most beautifully situated, and are well adapted in every way for the purposes of a female seminary." The committee's only suggestion for improvement at Saint John's was "in order to meet the pressing wants in the case, its buildings need to be greatly enlarged." The committee resolved that "the select school for young ladies, known as Saint John's, under the care of the Rev. George Lewis Staley, and located at Tyrconnel, Frederick County, Md., as an institution true and faithful to the spirit and genius of our Church."
Rev. Staley took the recommendation of the committee and worked to expand the school's facilities over the next few years. The original Tyrconnel farmhouse was a nearly-square brick building of two full stories and an attic. In 1876, a wing was built onto the north side of the original house adding twelve rooms and expanding the school's enrollment capacity. Unlike the nearby Burkittsville Female Seminary which enrolled day and boarding students, Saint John's only enrolled students who lived at the seminary during their studies. The new addition provided a hall for assemblies as well as dormitory rooms for the students.
In the mid-1870s, the school's name changed to Saint John's Female College, though it never attained degree-granting status. An 1875 advertisement in The Baltimore Sun requested applicants for a music teacher who was fluent and able to teach French and German. The Daily Evening Express of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, published a description of the college's closing exercises on June 20, 1876. The writer described Tyrconnel thusly: "The buildings are of modern style and are complete in all their appointments, whilst the location itself is all that could be desired, commanding a beautiful view of the surrounding country." Of the ten students referenced by name in the article, nine were from Pennsylvania and one was from Virginia. The students gave a musical performance in the hall of the college before sitting down to dinner with their families. On the next morning, the diploma ceremony was held at St. Stephen's Reformed Church in Knoxville, which Rev. Staley had founded over twenty years earlier when he was serving as pastor of the Burkittsville Charge. The 1876 article describes Saint John's at the height of its operation.
The Staley's advertised Tyrconnel as a summer boarding house in 1877, offering accommodations for $8.00 to $10.00 per week during the months of July and August. By the early-1880s, the college was in decline. No date for the closure of the college has been identified, but it is likely that either the 1892 or 1893 graduating class was the last for the institution. A newspaper article from The News in Frederick on January 1, 1884 refers to Tyrconnel as "the delightful country home of Rev. Dr. George L. Staley." Later that year, Tyrconnel was sold to Oscar P. Crampton of Burkittsville.
In the same year, Rev. Staley accepted the appointment to become principal of the "Colored High School" in Baltimore. In this position, Rev. Staley advocated for an improved facility for the higher education of African American students, which resulted in the construction of a new school building on Saratoga Street in 1888. This school was the forerunner of today's Frederick Douglass High School. Rev. Staley retired from this last position in 1900. He died on February 15, 1908 at the home of his son Edward in Baltimore at the age of 84 years. His obituary referred to Rev. Staley as "one of the best-known ministers of the Reformed Church in this city, who was instrumental in founding the Colored High School in this city and of a female seminary at Mount Washington."
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