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Luther Sampson and the early history of Kents Hill School

Luther Sampson and the early history of Kents Hill School

By Dale Potter-Clark '66

Luther Sampson was a devout Methodist, so his first priority when he moved to Kents Hill in 1799 was to see that an unfinished house of worship was completed there. He also saw to it that dedicated housing became available to the resident preachers and the missionaries who held religious services in town. Both of his goals had been accomplished by 1812. 

Over the next few years Sampson came to realize that clergy who preached in the Kents Hill Meeting House were not as knowledgeable about the scriptures as he thought they should be. In his own words: 

“…It lay with weight on my mind that those who should be called to fill so important an office to call sinners to repentance for whom Christ has suffered and died, should have a decent education. Some young men who labored here could not read a hymn well...” 

So his next big endeavor was to start a school where men could be properly educated for the ministry, but he could not find a clergy or educator right away who would support him in the effort. 

Sampson’s own formal schooling had been limited but he did have sound common sense, a strong Christian faith and values, some personal wealth and land that he could contribute. He was also successful as a farmer, a skilled craftsman and there is no doubt that he had a good head for business. 

He was 61 yrs of age in 1821 when he started a public charity and he chose six men, including himself, as its representatives - all members of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The five men Sampson chose were Dr. John Hubbard of East Readfield (father of Gov. John Hubbard); Rev. Zachariah Gibson of Winthrop; Charles Kent of Kents Hill; Abraham Morrill, Esq. of Monmouth, and John Morrison of Wayne (a son-in-law of Kents Hill resident, Charles Kent). 

In 1821 the six men presented a request to the Maine State Legislature, at its very first session as a new State, to be incorporated as the “Readfield Religious and Charitable Organization”. The bill passed on February 26, 1821 and was signed by William S. Williamson, Speaker of the House; approved by Gov. William King on February 28, 1821; and attested by Arthur Ware, Secretary of State on March 5, 1821. The board of directors was organized in June 1821 with Hubbard as president; Gibson, secretary; and Sampson, treasurer. He chose his son David Sampson to also serve on the board of directors and stipulated that his family should be represented on the board forever by his next of kin or someone chosen by them as their representative. The trustees were authorized in the Act of Incorporation to hold property, real estate and monetary, the income not to exceed $3,000 annually. Sampson later wrote about his contributions to the Readfield Religious and Charitable Organization in his memoir: 

“I deeded 140 acres of good land on Kents Hill in good order, well fenced with a new house well furnished and painted in and out. Also two barns, two sheds, a woodshed, hogsty and about 50 acres for a pasture (in Wayne), well stocked with cattle and sheep. Also farming tools and heavy household furniture, all cost $4,500 and in good notes of hand on interest in to the amount of $5,500 so the whole sum was $10,000.” 

Inspection of the detailed, seven page deed that he presented to the board of directors in April, 1822 reveals more.i He also conveyed three tenements suitable for rent at different locations than on the 140 acres; 200 sheep and lambs; 1 yoke of oxen; 3 cows and calves; 2 hogs; 18 bushels of corn; 12 of wheat; seed corn, wheat and rye; peas and oats; potatoes; grass seed; carts and cart wheels; plows, harrows, chains and iron, harnesses, shovels, hoes, scythes, sleds; cord wood, hay, other farm improvements, provisions and sundries. Also mentioned are house furnishings; beds and bed linens; and a blacksmith shop. He also included a Bible, hymnals, communion set, blank book, stove and other furniture for the Kents Hill Meeting House. For a library he gave Clarke’s Commentaries and other books. 

The 4th schedule in the lengthy deed is especially touching: “Furniture and furnishings in the west part of the new (1821) house for my daughters.” They were his only daughters Charlotte and Silvia who had gone to live with the Shakers in Sabbathday Lake, New Gloucester, Maine six years before. They would be welcomed back and have a home waiting for them on Kents Hill should they ever decide to return, which they never did. 

Still Sampson did not receive encouragement from his board of directors, to get a successful school off the ground as he had hoped. He confessed in his memoir that it became harder to go on further, saying the trustees instead rented the real estate and livestock to a man who improved the land for a year. Those and future trustees tried to persuade Sampson to give them the power to dispose of the property as they saw fit, instead of only having the power to improve the real estate and spend the income. He refused and in spite of resistance did not give up his hope for a lucrative school. But he needed to find a partner who could teach religious education and mechanical skills as well as traditional courses. By 1823 his dream of a school was fading and the “Readfield Religious and Charitable Society” was in danger of failure when Sampson heard about a schoolmaster in Augusta named Elihu Robinson. 

Like Sampson, Robinson was a carpenter but he was already educating young men. In 1818 he and his wife had started a school in their Augusta home and their philosophy and format matched Sampson’s vision. The couple’s school was successful in the five years since they had started it, so by the time Sampson met them they had an eye towards purchasing land for expansion. Had that materialized the Maine State Capital complex would be elsewhere today, for that is the location the Robinsons had set their hopes on. But unlike Sampson they had limited finances. Sampson visited Elihu Robinson several times and was very impressed by him. Before long Sampson concluded that he had made a mistake by giving his property for charitable purposes, realizing he could have accomplished more good by taking a different direction. He thought about how he might reverse the deed he had given to his board of directors. A new arrangement was needed which, he recognized, could be accomplished by combining efforts with Robinson. One had resources and a philanthropic nature while the other had experience in running a school and a passion for teaching. Sampson convinced Robinson to move his school to Kents Hill and then set about convincing his board of directors to agree to this new direction. After some resistance from them Sampson took the bull by the horns and wrote a new conveyance that essentially dissolved the original charter of the “Readfield Religious and Charitable Organization.” He made sweeping changes in regard to charities by reducing some and eliminating others. He further stated that when certain conditions were met the remainder of the property he had conveyed would be appropriated for the establishment and benefit of a school to be located on the premises. The school would provide instruction in experiential Christian religion, theology, literature and in the practical knowledge of agriculture and mechanical arts. The new instrument was accepted by the trustees and they appointed a committee to arrange the establishment of the school. Luther Sampson resigned from the board, it is said he did so modestly, and Robinson was elected in his place plus he was appointed as the chair of the superintending committee. The first classes were held in the little Cape Cod house that Sampson had built for his daughters Charlotte and Silvia, should they ever wish to return home from the Shaker village in New Gloucester. Today that building is known as the “1821 House” and used as faculty housing. 

Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s student ministers from Maine Wesleyan Seminary were assigned to churches in central Maine where they learned experientially. This benefited the Seminary, the students, and the churches they served. The new school also educated women in practical courses and the arts at the secondary school level which was unusual for the times. Pupils whose families could not afford the tuition were offered the chance to work their way through school in Sampson’s cabinet shop or on the farm. The directors wisely chose college graduates for the school’s teachers and administrators who developed a curriculum that expanded the school beyond Sampson’s fondest dreams. Instruction eventually came to include business, music, theater, composition and languages as well as the traditional subjects of math, literature and science. 

Knowing the school was in good hands Sampson had stepped down from active participation in 1823 but remained keenly interested in the school throughout his life. Some referred to him as “the power behind the throne”. On December 29, 1824 a name for the school was proposed and approved by the board of directors. In January, 1826 the new name and articles of incorporation were approved by the Maine State Legislature at which time Luther Sampson and Elihu Robinson’s new school became “Maine Wesleyan Seminary.” ii 

The well equipped farm that Sampson had given provided the student body and faculty with food and the livestock with feed, under the management of hired live-in farmers. Homeowners boarded students from small Maine towns that had no high schools. Boarding students enrolled from throughout Maine from the start, then from throughout the U.S. Baseball was introduced in 1863 – one of the first schools in the country to offer the sport. In 1860 a college curriculum for women was added and the school became the “Maine Wesleyan Seminary and Female College”. The Female College at Kents Hill predated Vassar, Smith and other prestigious colleges for women and is thought to be the secondiii female college established in the country. 

Many accomplished and well known people have graduated from what is now known as Kents Hill School. It is thought to be the oldest co-educational private secondary school in the country and is celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2024. 

i Kennebec County Registry of Deeds book 44, page 460-467; dated April 29, 1822; recorded June 25, 1823 
ii The history of Maine Wesleyan Seminary / Kents Hill School was drawn from: 1) Kents Hill and its Makers 1824-1947 by J.O. Newton and Oscar Young; pub.1947; 2) History of Maine Wesleyan Seminary by E. R. French; pub.1909. 
iii Oberlin College in Ohio was founded in 1833 and admitted four women to their bachelor's degree program in 1837. Three of them received degrees in 1841.