The Founding of William Smith College
William Smith College for women was founded in Geneva, NY in 1908. William Smith, its founder and namesake, had not initially intended to found a women’s college. The plan to establish a women’s institution in coordination with Hobart College had evolved after much study and discussion.
William Smith and his brothers had founded one of the largest and most prosperous nurseries, W. & T. Smith Company, in Geneva in 1846. Mr. Smith took great interest in the development of Geneva and the welfare of its people. He was active in several corporations and built the Smith Opera House where drama and music were made available to the townspeople. He also developed an interest in both spiritualism and astronomy. He built two successive observatories near his house on Castle Street and hired astronomer Dr. William R. Brooks to work there. Smith wished to use his accumulating capital to found a college under spiritualistic auspices. He had planned to situate it in a private park near his house, and had begun excavations for the foundations when it became apparent that the means at his disposal were insufficient for building and endowing a new college.
Around this time William Smith was good friends with two ardent suffragettes, Mrs. Elizabeth Smith Miller and her daughter Anne Fitzhugh Miller. The Millers were unusual members of Geneva society, often hosting parties where a variety of friends and visitors were welcomed, including leaders of women's suffrage movements, professors from Cornell, and cultists of all sorts. They wore "bloomers," did their own cooking, and Mrs. Miller even published a cookbook. Like Smith, they had a great interest in ideas and movements and improving human conditions.
It's possible William Smith had already thought of doing something for women before meeting the Millers. There is some indication he may have wanted women to be educated at his spiritualist institution. Still, the Millers with their suffragette interests certainly helped to encourage his interest in feminist affairs. They introduced him to Anna Botsford Comstock, one of Cornell University's early women graduates. She was married to a member of the Cornell faculty and taught there herself. Comstock became an invaluable advisor to Mr. Smith and he ultimately named her along with Miss Miller as two of the six trustees to whom he willed his property so that they could carry out his wishes in case he died before fulfilling them.
In early 1904 Miss Miller and Mrs. Comstock were urging a co-educational industrial school, however Smith still lacked the funds to build the school he envisioned. He was advised that it would be better to rent a lecture hall and hire good teachers than to sink all his money into building. The trustees agreed, and his plans were put on hold for a time.
By 1904-1905, President Langdon C. Stewardson of Hobart College had become aware of Smith's plans and the obstacles he was facing. He tried to interest Mr. Smith in doing something for Hobart College instead. The college at this time had less than 100 students and was desperately in need of funds. Though the academic standards were good and the faculty had a solid core of scholarly and able teachers, the college needed to expand its curriculum, particularly in the biological and social sciences, to meet the educational demands of the twentieth century.
William Smith was not enthusiastic about Stewardson's proposal, as he not only aspired to do something to benefit Geneva but at the same time to do something for women. Also, Hobart as a church college did not appeal to the spiritualistic Smith. Finally Stewardson came up with the solution of a women's college associated with Hobart College, sharing some of its equipment and staff. Such a compromise would be within the limits of the proposed Smith endowment and benefit Hobart's curriculum.
The trustees agreed and the deed of gift was signed on December 13, 1906. The advisory board debated whether the new college should be coeducational or coordinate with Hobart. Though Mrs. Comstock was in favor of coeducation, having herself been a co-ed at Cornell, she swayed the vote in favor of coordination. She felt that Hobart's tradition as a men's college would be violated by a sudden marriage with a new women's college. The board decided that the women would be taught in separate classes from the Hobart students, though the classes might be held in the same buildings.