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The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred and Thirty-Seven

October 11-18, 1917 

“Professor Swetland and a Baptist Cleric here asking for money for the Peddie School.” That was what was happening at Merdlemouth on this day in mid-October, 1917 at the Roosevelt household in Hightstown, New Jersey. Kate Roosevelt didn’t say if she gave a donation, but certainly made a point of recording the fact that two very important members of the faculty from the well-regarded boys’ boarding school were asking her for a hand-out.

Edgar and Edwin Haas, Peddie School Professors

Was financial trouble creeping up the ivy-covered halls of this prestigious prep school? If the Peddie School was having money problems back in 1917, according to their website, they certainly aren’t now. In 2014, their endowment was $325.7 million due in part to a large donation made by former Ambassador Walter Annenberg who graduated in 1927. In 1993, Annenberg gave the school a $100 million gift. At the time it was the largest ever presented to a United States secondary school.

The Peddie School’s 280-acre campus in Mercer County, New Jersey adjoins the property once owned by Kate Roosevelt, the farm called Merdlemouth. At the time of the fund-raising visit back in 1917, the school was already more than fifty years-old.  Founded in 1864 as an American Baptist school, it was originally called the Hightstown Female Seminary and soon after began enrolling boys. In 1872, philanthropist and politician, Thomas B. Peddie, gave the school $25,000. In 1908, due to social and economic concerns, only boys were admitted. Today it is co-educational.

Thomas Baldwin Peddie

Thomas Baldwin Peddie was a politician and manufacturer. Throughout his life the Scottish immigrant held many elected offices representing his adopted state of New Jersey. He served as congressman, assemblyman, mayor of Newark and governor of New Jersey (1866-1869). He also founded the Essex National Bank and the Newark First Baptist Church.

Arriving in America from Scotland, Peddie settled in Newark, New Jersey and from a basement on Broad Street began making trunks and valises. When he died in 1889 his factory and warehouses covered nearly a block in Newark and employed hundreds of workers.

Roger W. Swetland

Roger W. Swetland was head of the Peddie School for thirty-six years (1898-1934). His goal was to make the school similar to the elite New England boarding schools in terms of rigorous academic and lifestyle protocol, but different in the sense that it be affordable to middle-class boys.

Quite possible Mr. Swetland was knocking on Kate Roosevelt’s door to ask for money for scholarships for deserving boys with financial needs. Of course, that would not have been anything Kate Roosevelt’s grandsons would ever have to worry about. There was plenty of money to send Shippen and Langdon Geer to any school they chose. But that would be many years in the future. Langdon was only five and Shippen was two.

Shippen Geer

On October 11, 1917, Kate wrote, “Edward Shippen Geer’s birthday. He is two years-old.” She didn’t mention a birthday party or presents but did say that his mother, Dorothy Roosevelt Geer, and Emily, his governess were having lunch with her.

Dorothy Roosevelt Geer

When Shippen’s father, Langdon Geer died, several months before he was born, cousin Theodore Roosevelt sent his condolences. On May 21, 1915 he wrote, “My Dearest Dorothy:  You must be strong for the sake of the children born and unborn.”

Thanks to a brigade of baby nurses and governesses the young widow, Dorothy Geer was able to raise her boys in high style while never having to cramp her own.

Sharon Hazard’s Dowager’s Diary appears on Thursday.

Photo One:
Peddie School

Photo Two:
Edgar and Edwin Haas, Peddie School Professors

Photo Three:
Thomas Baldwin Peddie

Photo Four:
Professor Roger Swetland Headmaster at Peddie School 1898-1934

Photo Five:
Shippen Geer
Sam Chapin Photo

Photo Six:
Dorothy Roosevelt Geer
Noel Geer Seifert

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The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred and Thirty-Seven


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