Matthew Vassar was born on April 29, 1792, in East Dereham, England, and came to America with his family at 4 years old. His parents, James and Ann Bennett Vassar, bought a farm on Wappingers Creek in Dutchess County and built a successful beer brewing business. At 19, Matthew started his own brewery, and went on to create an empire that included real estate, banking, railroads, and whaling. He became a trustee and, later, president of the village of Poughkeepsie. Most remarkably, he did it all with no formal schooling.
Yet Vassar was passionate about education. When his niece, Lydia Booth, built a girl’s seminary in a Poughkeepsie building he owned, she spoke to him of the need for more educational opportunities for women. After Booth died, her school was taken over by Milo P. Jewett, who later claimed, in an unpublished manuscript titled “Origin of Vassar College,” that he inspired Vassar to build a college for women: “If you will establish a real College for girls and endow it, you will build a monument for yourself more lasting than the Pyramids; it will be the pride and joy of Po’keepsie, an honor to the state and a blessing to the world.”
In 1860, Vassar bought land two miles east of Poughkeepsie and a year later incorporated Vassar Female College. He donated securities worth $408,000 (about $14 million today) and a deed for 200 acres of land. “It occurred to me, that woman, having received from her Creator the same intellectual constitution as man, has the same right as man to intellectual culture and development,” Vassar told his new board of trustees.
On June 4, 1861, Vassar himself put the first shovel in the ground to begin construction of Main Building, designed by the esteemed architect James Renwick, Jr. It was completed in 1864, but Vassar waited until the Civil War ended to enroll the first class—353 women paying $350 each in tuition and residence fees. Vassar died just four years later on June 23, 1868, in the middle of a speech to the board of trustees.
Vassar College may not be “more lasting than the Pyramids,” and it is no longer a college just for “girls,” but it remains a pride and joy of Po’keepsie and the entire Hudson Valley.