A time of ferment: The rise and legacy of Poughkeepsie brewing tycoon Matthew Vassar

Engraving of the Vassar Brewery by Henry Whinfield (Vassar College Library | Special Collections)

Portrait of Matthew Vassar, brewer, philanthropist and founder of Vassar College, by Charles Loring Elliott (Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center | Vassar College)

And so you see, to old V. C.
Our love shall never fail.
Full well we know that all we owe
To Matthew Vassar’s ale.

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Thus did Vassar College students and alumnae sing reverently of their alma mater’s founder in days long past. Undeniably, much of the present glory of Poughkeepsie, the Queen City on the Hudson, was financed by the sale of brewed alcoholic beverages up and down the river, beginning early in the 19th century. Beer tycoon Matthew Vassar chartered the college that bears his name in 1861, and it opened its doors in 1865. His nephews John Guy Vassar, Jr. and Matthew Vassar, Jr. founded Vassar Brothers Hospital shortly thereafter. Indeed, the younger Vassar brothers had long lobbied their uncle to endow a hospital instead of a women’s college to cement his legacy as a philanthropist. But other influences prevailed.

The sojourn of Matthew Vassar (1792-1868) in Dutchess County began when the Norfolk, England native was only four years old. His parents, James and Ann Bennett Vassar, farmers of French Huguenot extraction (the family name was originally spelled Vasseur), were Baptists and decided to seek a more welcoming home in the New World. Emigrating in 1796, they settled on a farm along Wappingers Creek and began brewing ale in 1801, using barley that James’ brother Thomas shipped from England. Apparently no one was growing grain for that purpose in New York at that time, because the family quickly encountered enormous demand for their product. They sold the farm, bought property in the City of Poughkeepsie along what is now Vassar Street and built a brewery.

Young Matthew, we learn from his 1866 autobiography, had numerous near-death experiences in his youth, from being bucked off a horse into a pond while still a toddler to nearly being swept overboard by a wave during the Atlantic crossing to three bouts of typhus and near-asphyxiation from charcoal fumes. He barely acquired any formal education, being kicked out of night school after throwing a bottle of ink at the schoolmaster who had just smacked Matthew in the head with a ruler.

When at age 14 it came time for him to learn the family business, Matthew declared the idea of making a living by hawking alcohol “distasteful,” so his father decided to apprentice him to a worse trade: that of a tanner. The tanneries of the day were noxious, foul-smelling places, and Matthew – with some connivance from his mother – fled on foot to seek his fortune on the west side of the Hudson. He met another English expat in what is now Balmville, near Newburgh, and went to work in his general store. He proved to have a good head for business; by 1810 he had saved up enough money and acquired enough bookkeeping skills to come back to join the family brewing concern, which was already thriving – until a malt-dust explosion and fire leveled the brewery a year later. Matthew’s elder brother John Guy suffocated trying to retrieve hops from the wreckage, and their father was about to give up the business when Matthew decided to take over, continuing the manufacture of ale in his brother-in-law’s dyeing factory. He also opened an “oyster saloon” in the basement of the county courthouse.

“In the following summer 1812 began the world,” Matthew Vassar writes in his autobiography. He wooed and in 1813 married a Fishkill lass named Catherine Valentine. Exempted from the War of 1812 draft by his “alien” status, he found some investors and rebuilt the brewery at 12 Vassar Street, renaming it M. Vassar & Company. His orphaned nephews joined the operation in 1832. It soon became the largest brewery of its kind in the US, and Matthew expanded the operation with a larger building dubbed the Eagle built just above the waterfront in 1836, with a brewing capacity of 50 to 60,000 barrels annually. He acquired a fleet of sloops to transport the ale to markets north and south, and established distribution facilities in New York City and Troy.

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

This uneducated farm boy had become an extremely wealthy and influential man. He served as a Poughkeepsie village trustee in 1819, and in 1835 was elected president of the village on the Improvement ticket. He was among the party of dignitaries welcoming the Marquis de Lafayette to Poughkeepsie in 1824. He helped incorporate the Poughkeepsie Saving Bank, joined the board of the Farmers and Manufacturers National Bank, built a dock for the Poughkeepsie Whaling Company, bought out his brother Charles’ bankrupt brickyard. And despite his own lack of education, in the 1850s Matthew Vassar became a trustee at the University of Rochester, as well as president of the Poughkeepsie Lyceum of Literature, Science and the Mechanical Arts, hosting a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson. He took an interest in the Abolitionist movement and helped purchase the freedom of a tailor named John A. Bolding, a fugitive slave from South Carolina.

An early attempt at Prohibition, the Prohibitory Law of 1855, threatened the business, and the Vassar family was active in lobbying for its repeal in 1857. A newspaper editorial of the day lauded Matthew’s “high ideals” and termed beer “the safest beverage known,” crediting it with preventing crime, allowing children to go to school, lowering taxes and decreasing unemployment. But the notion that brewing was an unsavory way to make one’s living never stopped haunting him, apparently, and a visit to his homeland in 1845 inspired in him the desire to leave some sort of bricks-and-mortar legacy comparable to Guy’s Hospital in London, which had been founded by a relative in 1721.

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

By 1850 Matthew Vassar was planning the 50-acre estate called Springside, whose gardens – designed by the great landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing – he intended to open to the public. But he wanted to do something more. His nephews argued for a hospital; he left that project to them. A niece named Lydia Booth, who had begun her teaching career as a private tutor, had opened the Cottage Hill Seminary on Garden Street, and was the first to plant in Matthew’s mind the notion that a fully accredited college for women was direly needed. When Booth died in 1855, a clergyman and educator named Milo Parker Jewett, founder of the Judson Female Institute in Alabama, purchased the Seminary and soon became Matthew’s confidant. 

Jewett encouraged him to pursue his vision of founding the Vassar Female College. “Great hospitals are for great cities. To spend two or three millions of dollars in establishing a hospital in Poughkeepsie, seems to me an unwise use of money. I think you might as well throw it in the Hudson River,” he wrote to Matthew, urging him instead “to build and endow a college for young women, which shall be to them what Yale and Harvard are to young men…a monument more lasting than the pyramids; you will perpetuate your name to the latest generations; it will be the pride and glory of Poughkeepsie; and honor to the state, and a blessing to the world.”

Matthew recruited a Board of Trustees from among his Rochester colleagues. In January 1861, the New York State Legislature passed an act incorporating Vassar College, and a month later, Matthew presented the trustees with a tin box containing half of his fortune – $408,000 – and the deed for a 200-acre campus, the former Allen Farm. While construction was still in progress, he purchased the entire art collection of Elias Lyman Magoon, which became the basis of what is now the college’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.

Jewett was appointed Vassar College’s first president, but his tenure didn’t even last until opening day. Constantly at odds with the Vassar nephews, he eventually managed to alienate Matthew as well, calling him “fickle and childish” in a letter that fell into the hands of a trustee, and he was forced to resign in 1864. Among other issues, the two founders didn’t see eye-to-eye on policies for hiring professors. Matthew began an enthusiastic correspondence with Sarah Josepha Hale, a suffragist and the editor of the popular women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book. Hale urged him to employ female instructors wherever possible, and Matthew took up that crusade with enthusiasm; his very first hire was the great astronomer Maria Mitchell.

Strange as it may seem, Matthew’s wife Catherine, who died in 1863 after having apparently been an invalid for many years, was never documented as showing any interest whatsoever in educational opportunities for women. Matthew mentions his wife only once or twice in his diaries; she rarely traveled with her husband, but was well enough to accompany him on his 1845 voyage to England. In his memoirs, W. S. Cooper, the son of Matthew Vassar’s doctor, recalled meeting “Aunt Katie” at the Vassars’ city mansion at 9 Vassar Street when he was a small boy. He was told on one occasion that Aunt Katie was too ill to join them at dinner.  Cooper described Catherine Vassar as “ a good wife, model housekeeper of the old-fashioned type” who “kept to herself…If the Uplift of Woman and a Higher Education for her Sex had individualized itself and hit Aunt Katie a blow in the face, she would not have felt or given recognition.”

High-society gatherings at the Vassar home were presided over by one Amanda Germond, an educated woman who appears to have served as a personal assistant to Matthew as well as housekeeper. Matthew refers to her several times in his diaries, delegating to her such important duties as bringing boughs of magnolia down to the train station to decorate the coffin of President Lincoln when the funeral car stopped in Poughkeepsie, Matthew himself being too ill at the time to attend.

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

In his final years, Matthew Vassar is said to have delighted in visiting his new campus – daily, when his health permitted – and conversing with the students. At the behest of Sarah Hale, who thought it patronizing, the word “Female” was dropped from the college’s official title in 1867. Matthew made arrangements to have a bronze statue of himself sculpted for display on the campus, and at the same meeting on June 23, 1868 where the trustees were to vote to fund it, he died right in the midst of delivering his retirement speech, urging them to remain committed to “progress.” He was buried in the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery.

Matthew and Catherine Vassar had no offspring, so his nephews carried on the brewery business for a few years thereafter; but immigration trends had turned popular tastes away from English ales toward German lagers, and the Eagle was shut down in 1899. By 1880 John Guy, Jr. and Matthew, Jr. had already converted the 9 Vassar Street mansion into the Vassar Home for Aged Men; we know it today as the Cunneen-Hackett Building. They converted the original brewery building at 12 Vassar Street into the Vassar Institute. 

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