Matthew Vassar: Beer and Loathing in Poughkeepsie, NY

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Rarely do we associate the college campus with the business of selling beer. Just kidding. We always make that association.

But when it comes to Vassar College, that connection is more than just recreational in nature. In fact, the school’s founder built some portion of his considerable fortune as an early American brewmaster.

Born to a family of farmers in Norfolk, England in 1792, Matthew Vassar was still a child when his parents took him to America in 1796. Settling into a farmhouse in Dutchess County, New York, Vassar’s father brewed a batch of ale on a lark in 1801. So popular was his brew that he sold his farm and established a brewery in Poughkeepsie.

Still too young to participate in the family business, fourteen-year-old Matthew was set to begin an apprenticeship with a tanner. Clearly disenchanted by the tanning trade, Matthew fled his home and family, finding employment in Balm Town (though you would know it today as Balmville). After four years on his own, Matthew returned home to Poughkeepsie. By this time, his family had basically cornered the local beer market so he joined the business and, in the following year, became its manager.

Though Vassar would also serve as a sergeant during the War of 1812, he saw no action. Instead, he worked by day in his brewery and by night in an oyster saloon he had established in the basement of the county courthouse (because apparently you could build an oyster saloon in the basement of a county courthouse back then). By the middle of that decade, Matthew had established M. Vassar & Company, which by then presided over the single largest brewery of its kind in the US

By the mid-1830s, Vassar’s expanding empire included a brickyard, a fleet of delivery sloops, and a waterfront brewery that moved roughly sixty thousand barrels of beer annually. The former runaway parlayed this success into some political influence, winning the 1835 Poughkeepsie presidential election (which we imagine was a pretty big deal at the time).

In addition to his business acumen and electoral success, Vassar proved a man of largesse. In 1851, a fugitive slave from South Carolina named John A. Bolding worked as a tailor nearby Vassar’s brewery. When Bolding was seized by US Marshals, the Underground Railroad fell short of the necessary funds to purchase his freedom. Vassar stepped in to make up the difference.

Then, in 1861, at the urging of his niece, he created a women’s college in Poughkeepsie. Following the incorporation of Vassar College, its namesake handed the Board of Trustees a tin box containing no less than half of his fortune (an estimated $408,000).

Thereafter, Vassar dedicated his life and energy to getting the college off the ground, and at a great personal toll. In truth, Vassar came to loathe the college business. The endeavor of building the school sapped the industrious man of his dwindling energy, so much so that, at seventy-seven years, he literally passed away while delivering a farewell address to the college board of trustees in 1868.

In spite of his toils, Vassar would no doubt be proud of his legacy. Today, Vassar is highly regarded among the so-called Seven Sisters and enjoys a close historical affiliation with Yale University. Though Vassar has been coeducational since 1969, it made its mark on history by becoming the first institution of higher education in America to grant degrees to women.

Part of the Legends of College History Series

Learn more about the lesser-known heroes and legends
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Campus Characters: Legends of College History

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