The Folsom Institute

Hi, thank you for checking out our new blog, Folsom Unveiled. My name is Kaitlyn Scott and I’m Folsom Historical Society’s historian. Each week I will be highlighting a different topic related to Folsom’s history that not everyone knows about by diving deeper into a place, event, person or piece in our collection.

Gold Rush towns have the unfortunate reputation of being lawless places filled with scruffy men, tents and saloons. Folsom did have all these things but also was able to build itself up rather quickly. This was due in part to the Sacramento Valley Railroad which was completed in 1856 and ran from Folsom to Sacramento. The railroad allowed Folsom to be extremely accessible and brought new people, businesses and ideas.

Charles Palmer, proprietor of WF Assay Office

Folsom was further set aside from other Gold Rush towns because of the Folsom Institute. Reverend Samuel Valentine Blakeslee (sometimes Blakesley or Blakeslie in newspapers) came to Folsom with a vision for a place of higher learning and so began the Folsom Institute in 1857 while Folsom’s population was still below 800 people. Rev. Blakeslee was part of the American Missionary Association (AMA) which was founded on the East Coast in 1846. From here, Blakeslee, along with his wife Sarah and their children, was sent to Marysville and started a school there in 1850 before being moved to San Francisco in 1853 where he was instructed to teach English to Chinese residents. He created an English phonetic system to do this, but it later proved to be unsuccessful and so Blakeslee came to Folsom to start the institute along with Dr. Donaldson, A.P. Catlin, Charles Palmer and Dr. Bradley. The Folsom Institute was a private school for students not only in Folsom but all of California and the goal was to have a school that would continue to grow with the quickly growing community.

The Folsom Institute began as a small school in a couple of rented rooms above a saloon on Sutter Street, which sounds like an invitation for distraction. Classes were often interrupted by people mingling below and sometimes students were late for class because they were coerced into having a drink first. It was quickly made apparent that the institute could not continue without its own building. Funds were raised through various events and local donations amounting in $3,200 dollars and in 1858, 15 acres of land was secured, and a two-story brick building with a basement was built for the school. The school was made so large not only to accommodate students but also to house them. Girls attending The Folsom Institute lived at the school unless they were local, and boys were housed by different families throughout the community. Sources are very vague about the school’s actual location with phrases such as “the end of Sutter Street”, “the upper end of town” and “on a hill”.

Building in the upper left hand corner may be the Folsom Institute

I know, I's very blurry.

As a private school, the Folsom Institute had a cost. Each student, or rather their family, was charged a dollar a week per student for Greek, Latin, mathematics, science, law and English and advances courses of these topics were $1.25 a week with extra fees for coursework in French, Spanish, drawing and painting. Room and board was $5.50 a week or $6.00 furnished. Teachers included not only Rev. Blakeslee but also Ruth Donaldson, who later married A.P. Catlin, D.K. Bickford, Carrie E. Atwood and L. Wakefield. Known students at the institute included W.A. Anderson, later a well-known judge in Sacramento, Alex Donaldson, Libbie Haswell, later the wife of William H. Mills who owned the Record-Union newspaper, Lureka Turner, Eloise Trobridge, and Minerva Brinknell.

6The Folsom Institute was well known and respected for the short time it was open. Miners came across many petrified trees in Folsom and a fossilized oyster bed, which were immediately sent to the institute for study and care. Unfortunately, specimens no longer exist as they were plowed over, and any saved samples have been lost to time. Benefits for the institute were not uncommon but in 1860, after the first class of the Folsom Institute had graduated, the school was closed due to lack of enrollment.

Rev. Blakeslee and his family once again moved, this time to Oakland where he again started a school which stayed open until his death in 1883.

The Folsom Institute’s building was not left abandoned for long. Father Slattery of the Catholic church took over the building and opened a Catholic school that was also called Folsom Institute in 1863 and run by Mrs. A. W. Sanderson. Very little information is available on this endeavor other than many backers of the original school were involved and the school still boarded students but by 1889 the Folsom Institute’s building was abandoned and in disrepair, with the floors weakening and falling through in some areas. It was torn down soon after and the Enterprise Hotel made use of some of the bricks to cheapen building costs.