Meet the Hieronymus Family
On December 5, 1799, in Clark County, Kentucky, Pendleton and Mary “Polly” Hieronymus welcomed their first born child, Julia Ann Hieronymus, into the world. Kentucky had only been a state for 7 years, so it was very much frontier territory at the time. Due to this, Pendleton moved his small family to Washington D.C. when Julia was still a child. He was in search of better educational opportunities for his daughter and his growing family; Benjamin (1802), Emily (1804), Arabella (1812), and Lucy (1815).
Even though Pendleton struggled to find steady work, Julia received the highest level of education available to girls at the time. In 1820, tired of struggling to find a job, Julia’s father took a job in Missouri as an Indian agent. Julia, her mother, and her younger brothers and sisters stayed behind in D.C. Sadly, just a few months later, Pendleton passed away in Missouri.
A Move to Virginia
With the loss of their father, financial strain set in for the family. Julia, being the oldest child, took a teaching job in Wytheville, Virginia where she was able to support her mother and siblings with her teaching salary.
Shortly thereafter, she took another teaching job in Abington, Virginia. It was there that Julia met her future husband, Reverend John Tevis, a young Methodist minister originally from Kentucky. After proposing through a letter, John and Julia were married on March 9, 1824.
A Move to Kentucky with a Promise
Just after their wedding, John and Julia made a move to Kentucky where John would take on the role of minister at Louisville’s Methodist Church at the Falls of the Ohio. Their marriage and move did not come without a promise, a promise that Julia would still be allowed to teach, and that she could open her own school. So, when John and Julia stopped in Shelbyville, KY to visit with John’s family while traveling the frontier trail from Virginia to Louisville, Julia fell in love with a home there. She believed the home was the perfect place to open her school. She wanted her school to educate young women of the Kentucky Wilderness.
With support of the Methodist Church, John and Julia opened her boarding school in 1825. She planned to teach more than just “gentlelady’s education.” She planned to teach science (including chemistry and math), along with the typical reading, writing, and social graces of the time. The plan to teach science, combined with the home sitting atop a hill, naturally led Julia to name her school, Science Hill School.
Science Hill School Success
Teaching science to young ladies was completely unheard of in 1825 (there was nothing else like it in Kentucky), especially west of the Appalachians. It was clear, however, that young ladies desired that type of study because when the doors opened on March 25, 1825, twenty young women enrolled and by the end of the first year, Julia had educated 35 young women.
With the immediate success of the school, Julia’s husband asked to be transferred to the smaller and closer, Shelbyville Methodist chapel, so that he could help Julia manage the school. She was managing a very hectic schedule, after all. Not only was she teaching 35 young women, she was also the mother to a one year old, Benjamin Pendleton Tevis.
With John now closer to home, he was able to help Julia manage the facilities and the school’s enrollment continued to increase each year.
Growth and Changes
John facilitated a major expansion between the years of 1826 and 1846, which certainly was needed. In 1836, the school had grown to 65 young ladies boarding there. The school ran on a 10 month calendar, so in July and August, John and Julia would focus on expansion for the upcoming year.
According to the Filson Historical Society, “[Julia] Tevis developed a rigorous curriculum that included philosophy, theology, algebra, geology, botany, and astronomy. Later the curriculum expanded to include trigonometry, chemistry, physiology, geology and psychology. Tevis also supplied the students’ everyday needs, which she meticulously tracked.”
Due to the curriculum, the school’s immaculate reputation, and Julia’s inclusiveness during an exclusive time, Science Hill was extensively known throughout the South and the West, drawing in students from all over the nation. The majority of students did, however, hail from Kentucky along with other southern states; including, but not limited to: Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
By 1852, the school’s enrollment was up to 250 young ladies.
A Woman Ahead of her Time
Julia A. Tervis was very much a woman ahead of her time. From educating women in the sciences while raising a family of seven, to her views on slavery, Julia was a unique woman for sure. Julia was not a supporter of the Confederacy, she instead supported the emancipation of slaves. When the Civil War broke out, she housed Union soldiers in her school. Many of her supporters were shocked, but when questioned, she did not back down. According to KYKinFolk.org, Julia replied, “The state must hold together. … The Negroes must be freed.” Regardless of her opposing views, Science Hill School continued to grow.
The End of a Chapter
In 1861, just before the start of the war, Rev. John Tervis died from poor health. Even with the loss of her husband, Julia continued to run the school throughout the war.
In 1879, at the age of 80, Julia turned over the reins when she sold her school to Dr. Wiley Taul Poynter. It is believed that more than 3000 young ladies were under her care throughout her career at Science Hill.
Julia passed away on April 21, 1880 and is buried at Grove Hill Cemetery in Shelbyville.
The Next Chapter of Science Hill School
Under the ownership and administration of Dr. Poynter, Science Hill became a college preparatory school and “one of the preeminent girls’ preparatory institutions in America.” [WakefieldScrearce.com] The building was once again expanded and was included in the Lyceum Lecture Circuit, a movement “led by voluntary local associations that gave people an opportunity to hear debates and lectures on topics of current interest.” [Britannica.com] This brought hundreds of famous speakers, writers, and educators of the time to the school.
While the administration changed in 1896, to Mrs. Wiley Taul Poynter after Dr. Poynter’s death, the school continued to be successful. Leadership again changed in 1937, when Mrs. Poynter also passed away.
Dr. and Mrs. Poynter’s daughter, Juliet, then took over until the school’s closure in 1939 due to the hardship’s on the Great Depression. After 114 years, Science Hill School graduated its last class of women and closed its doors.
Edit to Original Post
A wonderful lady named Mary Nelson shared these photos from a newspaper article regarding Science Hill. Mary’s grandmother graduated from Science Hill School in 1900. She saved the clippings in a scrapbook that Mary inherited. With her permission, I am sharing these priceless images published around 1939.
From School to Inn
After the closure of the school, Juliet and her sisters moved into the western part of the building, originally the home section, and turned the remainder into a residential inn.
Several years later in 1947, two gentlemen named Wakefield and Scearce, rented out the space that had once been the school’s auditorium to sell English antiques. Three generations later, Wakefield-Scearce Galleries still exists and has become a nationally known gallery, “housing one of the largest collections of English antique furniture, silver, and accessories in the United States.”
In 1978, Ellen Gill McCarty, her family, and Tim Barnes opened a restaurant in what had been the school’s dining room. The restaurant would become known as The Science Hill Inn and is still running today.
As time passed, additional shops opened in the original home section, as well as in other parts of the school.
Today, Wakefield-Scearce Galleries, The Science Hill Inn, and several small shops continue to draw visitors to the historic building.
At some point, we started the tradition of having lunch at Science Hill with my mom the week before Christmas. I am not 100% sure when we started our Science Hill Inn Christmas tradition, but I was able to find pictures dating back to 2017. As you see from the photos below, my daughter loved to dress up for her special “fancy” lunch, where she had to be a lady. She looked forward to it each year. We would have lunch and then walk through the shops and the gallery, looking at all the beautifully decorated trees, sometimes picking out a new ornament. It was a wonderful way for us to kick off the holiday season.
As you can guess, COVID erased this tradition for 2020, and it threw off my timing for 2021. We didn’t make it the week before Christmas and instead we went the week after. My daughter no longer enjoys dressing up in pretty dresses, but we still had to create the same pose at the top of the stairs, just the same. She still looked forward to our lunch together with my mom.
It didn’t feel the same completing this tradition after Christmas though. While the building was still decorated for Christmas, the trees were largely bare, and the “hustle and bustle feel” was gone. In past years, we have enjoyed carolers in the courtyard. There were no carolers on our after-Christmas visit. While it was still enjoyable, it just didn’t have the same feel and we will certainly work to make it happen next year, before Christmas.
The menu at the restaurant had changed too. While they still had their classic fried chicken and Kentucky hot brown, it was missing the down home southern comfort food feel. Previously, there was a dish on the menu that was to die for; corn cake on the bottom, a big spoon of mashed potatoes, topped with thinly sliced, tender roast beef. Just describing it makes my mouth water. I was so looking forward to this dish when we arrived this year. It was not on the menu at all and the rest of the southern comfort food was missing from the menu too. I don’t know if the menu was different because it was after Christmas, or if the menu had changed since our visit in 2019, but I was disappointed. It is my hope that when I return in December of 2022, I will find my dish back on the menu!
I do highly recommend that you visit Science Hill if you never have. The history is incredible. When you visit the gallery, you enter into the massive space that was their auditorium. It is now filled with antique furniture and old English silver. You get to roam through the upstairs spaces that were the girls’ boarding rooms. On the original glass panes, you will find etched signatures from students’ of the past. Some etchings date back to the 1800s. The architecture is basically untouched. Fireplace mantels and door frames still adorn the different rooms. The interior courtyard has a few flanking classrooms that are open as shops, and the courtyard connects you to the original section of the home with the original staircase still intact.
I can’t say what the experience is like at any other time of year, but the history remains the same regardless, so it is well worth the visit! I am unsure of their days and times beyond the holidays, so make sure to look into that before visiting. I would recommend checking with the restaurant or the gallery for that information.
One thought on “Science Hill School”
Me and my family have lived in Shelbyville our entire 60+ years. We have visited Science Hill many times and especially love to visit during the holidays. The restaurant has excellent food and priced very appropriately…$$…I was amazed upon our very first visit to see the actual etchings in the glass panes upstairs where the young lady students years ago had inscribed their names. I’d recommend anyone to visit this Shelbyville Kentucky charm and see some actual photos that still hang in one of its hallways. We have bought a few items from the shops mostly during the Christmas holidays.