As Laura described herself: “At home it was my one delight to get hold of a book or paper, both of which were limited in our family library. … A bachelor uncle lived in our family and took great interest in the education of the children and he had noticed my eagerness for books and said to my father one day ‘John, you ought to get some books for Laura to read. Don’t you see how she likes to read?’ [And her father replied] ‘Why, Thomas, there is “The Book of Martyrs” and “Josephus”. She has never read them. If she likes to read there is plenty of good reading in the Bible.’ The books at home slowly grew little by little and added fuel to Laura’s desire for learning.
Then, a new college was located a few miles distant from the Denman place and the “financial agents invaded the neighborhood in quest of signers for scholarships” which John Denman was persuaded to do. This was the Oberlin Collegiate Institute which actually opened in late 1833, with 29 men and 15 women beginning classes. These early students were expected to help build the institution with their own labor. Despite this, the Institute was in financial straits and fund-raising went on as Laura described.
The scholarship arrangement meant that John Denman could send his older children for further education. In 1907 Oberlin College made a concerted effort to locate all alumni so that accurate and compete information about them could be published in the about-to-be issued General Catalogue and Alumni Registry of Oberlin College 1833-1908. In that publication there were 23 Denmans listed; 11 of them were John and Marinda Denman’s children (all but the two oldest sons, Edward and William, and son Charles who had died at age ten).
As Laura wrote: “My eldest sister was the first to receive the benefit of this arrangement and after spending one year there she gave place to the next sister who, after spending one year in the college, decided to go another year. Then she with myself entered the college the next year.” Laura’s ambitions were being gratified. Laura and her sister “entered upon this year of study with great zest hoping to be able to complete the course and fit ourselves for the work of teaching school, which in those days, aside from housework, was the only occupation open to women. But, alas! after five months of study we were both stricken down with typhoid fever and sent home to be cared for by our family.” “This new school was of necessity very primitive in all its appointments. The buildings were of the cheapest material, the furnishings limited to the merest necessities and the board supplied nutrition, tho severely plain in all its details…”
In those early days of the college, the vacations were the three winter months, as Laura explained: “This was planned in the interest of the students who spent their vacations in teaching in neighborhoods of the surrounding country. Many young men who thus spent their vacations returned in the spring to resume their studies full of enthusiasm and well supplied with incidents of their experiences in their various locations.” The students also brought back amusing stories from their boarding around with the various families of the pupils they taught. Laura herself wrote of the differing treatment she got in boarding around, from bad and minimal food to “hospitality itself, nothing was too good and no effort too great that would add to the comfort and happiness to the weary one returning from the arduous duties of the schoolroom.”
Her older “sister having decided to enter the school of matrimony” Laura completed another year but then decided to leave school for a year or two and spend the time teaching. “Teachers, be it known, were not as numerous in those days as at the present writing and yet the salaries of teachers were not commensurate with the demands, six dollars a month being considered the limit, and even then, such unheard of extravagance being admissible only upon the recommendation of one of the school board”. Laura ended up taking a school for the winter that had been engaged for another who had become so discouraged that she gave it up after a few weeks. Although with misgivings, Laura took the school on and soon found the source of the trouble.
“On entering the school room the first day, I was surrounded by an eager group of youngsters each anxious to inform me of the faults and failings of others, and all insisting it would be my imperative duty to whip Almeron McKinney, Miss Linton did, he wouldn’t mind her and she had to whip him. And there, sitting quietly in his sear, this bad boy listened to the reports of his school mates, undoubtedly sizing up the new school teacher and deciding what course to pursue.” Laura described that his boy was abused and neglected at home by a mother who idolized her daughter, and the last teacher “resorted to the rod to enforce her rules.” She decided to try an entirely opposite course of action: to try to interest him in his studies, encouraging him to do his best. “To the surprise of the whole school Almeron became a faithful student and even surpassed some of the brighter ones in the final examinations.” Laura’s conclusion to this story was that in future years she heard of this boy as having become an energetic and useful citizen in the town where he resided, and she from that time forward “always had a warm place in my heart for boys, and even boys whose early lives are so unpromising it seems useless to attempt the making of true men and desirable citizens of them. The possibilities wrapped up in these youths are very great and only require right leading and right influences to cause them to develop into true genuine manhood.”
Laura was clearly very happy to head home to the farm at the end of that school year in the spring of 1850. She described her pleasures in all the delights that awaited her: maple trees tapped for sugar making; early vegetables and flower beds being prepared; the orchard trees already budded and full of promise. After spending a few months at home, Laura was the sister who was available to travel to southwestern Ohio where her sister Ann had a new son, was in ill-health, and her husband had gone to the gold mines of California. It was during this time that Laura’s letter writing created a very favorable impression on the man she later married. And that will introduce the next chapter of this memoir.