Matthew Vassar is a familiar name to almost anyone living in the Hudson Valley. The Vassar Brewery and Vassar College float to the top of most people’s knowledge base. Yet, there were many more dimensions to this self-made man than beer and a college.
Let’s set the table and place Matthew Vassar in Poughkeepsie during the early to mid 19th century. No, Poughkeepsie was not a hayseed one dog town. It was the area hub for commerce, culture and politics, with both a social hierarchy and a social elite.
Ok, back to the facts on this complex man:
- Matthew Vassar was born in East Dereham, Norfolk, England, on April 29, 1792.
- Vassar Michigan is named after his cousin, John Ellison Vassar.
- His parents, James and Ann Bennett Vassar were farmers, brewers and brickmakers of French Huguenot ancestry.
- The original spelling of the family name was Vasseur.
- Young Matthew had typhus fever three times as a youth and was near death several times.
- The family first settled on a farm near Manchester Bridge in Dutchess County.
- Contrary to popular belief, Matthew Vassar did not start the family brewing business, his father did. In 1801, James Vassar (Matthew’s father) sold the farm and bought a lot between Main and Mill Streets in the village of Poughkeepsie, for purposes of building a brewery.
- When Vassar was 14 years old, his parents had him apprenticed to a tanner.
- A day before he was to begin his apprenticeship, he ran away and crossing the Hudson River on the ferry at High Point made his way to Balm Town (today’s Balmville), just north of Newburgh, New York. There he found a job at $300 a year in the store run by Mr. Butterwoth, assisting in the business while living in his employer’s house
- In 1810, he returned to Poughkeepsie and joined the family brewing business as a bookkeeper and collector.
- In 1811, a malt-dust explosion destroyed the family brewery on Vassar Street. His older brother John Guy died in the explosion. Matthew took over management of the business at the age of 18.
- After his brother’s death, Matthew considered it his responsibility to undertake the guardianship of his brother’s two sons, Matthew, Jr., and John Guy, Jr.
- During the War of 1812, Vassar joined the local fusilier’s company as a sergeant but saw no action.
- Vassar opened a saloon and restaurant in the basement of the county courthouse. He lived in a basement room in the county courthouse, under the sheriff’s office.
- In 1812 he bought a patent-right for machinery for shearing cloth from Peter Cooper (later founder of Cooper Union) for $300.
- In 1813 Matthew married Catharine Valentine of Fishkill, they lived in a small residence for $40 a year on what is now the corner of Noxon and Academy Streets, in the village of Poughkeepsie.
- In 1814, Vassar opened M. Vassar & Company and rebuilt the brewery on Vassar Street across the street from the family townhouse. At the time, it was the largest brewery of its kind in the United States.
- In 1823 Matthew became a member of Fire Company #3 of Poughkeepsie.
- 1824 the Dutchess County Colonization Society was formed for “colonizing the free people of colour with their consent and choice,” with Matthew Vassar designated as the secretary.
- In 1831, Vassar took an active part in the incorporation of the Poughkeepsie Saving Bank.
- In 1832 Matthew Vassar became a shareholder in the Poughkeepsie Whaling Company, for which he built a large dock.
- At the age of 27 Vassar was elected trustee of the Village of Poughkeepsie (now City of Poughkeepsie).
- In 1836, he built a larger brick brewery on the waterfront just above the Main Street Landing. The waterfront facility had a brewing capacity of 60,000 barrels annually. Both the malt and the hops were produced locally.
- The brewing company expanded to include two facilities in Poughkeepsie, one in New York City, and one in Lansingburgh, near Troy, New York.
- In 1837, he took over the bankrupt brickyard of his brother Charles, which made bricks at what later came to be known as Brickyard Hill on the east side of town.
- In the 1840’s Vassar’s focus from ale shifted slightly with the return of his step niece, Lydia Booth, as
successful schoolteacher and proprietor of a girl’s seminary in Virginia.
- In the 1840s the Baptist society built a church on Lafayette Place in Poughkeepsie at a cost of $20,000. Vassar donated the land and half of the construction cost.
- In 1842, Vassar was involved in the development of the Hudson River Railroad, which was strongly opposed by the river sloop owners.
- In 1847, Matthew Vassar was named president of the Hudson River Railroad. By 1849 regularly scheduled trains were traveling between New York City and Poughkeepsie in under two hours.
- In the 1850s, Vassar was president of the Poughkeepsie Lyceum of Literature, Science and the Mechanical Arts.
- In 1855 Poughkeepsie was incorporated as a city; Matthew Vassar became president of the Poughkeepsie Aqueduct and Hydraulic Company. The purpose of company was to supply Poughkeepsie (and the brewery) with good, clean water.
- Matthew Vassar was known to donate to causes aiding in abolition.
- For the first board of trustees of Vassar College, Matthew Vassar invited 28 men, half of them Baptist clergymen, to form a board of trustees
- Vassar’s lasting achievement is Vassar College which opened its doors for women’s education in 1865.
- Matthew Vassar died in his seventy-seventh year on June 23, 1868, while delivering his farewell address to the Vassar College Board of Trustees.