Minnie Cleghorn: Oberlin College

1906 NHS Girls Gym Cropped - Copy

Minnie Cleghorn – Norwalk High School Girls’ Gym Class (in center with white blouse)

In my last post, “Athletic Girl,” we learned that English teacher Minnie Cleghorn was responsible for starting a girls’ athletic program at Norwalk High School around the beginning of the twentieth century. In today’s post, we’ll learn more about her, and what might have inspired her to introduce physical education to her female students .

Minnie Cleghorn was born in Birmingham township, Erie County, Ohio to James and Mary Cleghorn in 1863, during the darkest days of the Civil War. Her mother had been born in Canada and immigrated to New York state sometime in the 1840s. James Cleghorn, a stone mason from Massachusetts, traced his ancestry to the Mayflower. His father was also named James, as was his grandfather, who had served in the Revolutionary War. James and Mary wed in Buffalo, New York in 1845, and shortly after that moved to Birmingham, Ohio. They had seven children, three of whom died in infancy. [1] Around 1870, they moved to Wellington in Lorain county where they resided the remainder of their lives. [2]

Although James and Mary were not affluent, they must have had a high regard for education. They enrolled Minnie at Oberlin College just up the road from Wellington for the 1883-1884 school year. As far as I can tell, she was the only of her family to attend college. [3] Did her experience at Oberlin College introduce Minnie to women’s physical education? I think so, and here is why.

Oberlin College 1880

Oberlin College 1880

Founded in 1833, Oberlin College, in 1837 became the first coed college in the U.S. and the second in the world. The college was a leader of the abolitionist movement. It was the first college to admit an African American student, and its students and faculty actively supported the town of Oberlin, which a historian called “the town that started the Civil War,” as a way station on the Underground Railroad. [4]

Women’s basketball began at Oberlin in 1896, six years before the men. This was long after Minnie had left the school, but she still must have been exposed to athletics during the year she spent there. Women’s athletics had a long tradition at Oberlin. [5] The college offered co-ed classes in croquet as early as 1860, [6] and the first gymnasium for women opened in 1881, two years before Minnie arrived. In 1885, a physical education instructor was hired for the women’s athletic program, the first in the nation. [7] Although by then Minnie had returned to Wellington to teach school, it is safe to say, I think, that she stayed in touch with her former classmates at Oberlin, and attended basketball games and other sports events over the years.

Minnie taught in Wellington schools until 1897, when she was hired by the Norwalk School System with a salary of $500 per year, making her one of the highest paid faculty in the system.

Appointed in June 1897 to teach in one of the four grammar schools in the city, [8] by the first day of classes, she had been bumped up to to teach English at the high school. [9]

Teaching mathematics at the Norwalk High School that year was Suzan Rose Benedict, who had received her undergraduate degree from Smith College two years previously. A great-granddaughter of Platt and Sarah Benedict, founders of the town of Norwalk, she lived in the Benedict mansion across the street from the high school with her parents and sisters. I believe that Suzan’s stories of her experiences at Smith may have inspired Minnie to introduce a girls’ athletic program at Nowalk High School. I’ll explain my reasoning for this assertion in my next post.


[1] Minnie Cleghorn Personal Page, WeRelate Wiki

[2] “Wellington,” The Norwalk Daily Reflector, February 10, 1899, page 4, column 2.

[3] “Students, 1833-1908,” General Catalogue of Oberlin College, 1830-1908; Oberlin, Ohio; April 1, 1909, page 194.

[4] “Oberlin College,” Wikipedia

[5] Marc Horger, “Basketball and Athletic Control at Oberlin College: 1896-1915,” Journal of Sport History; Volume 23, Number 3; Fall 1996; 258-9.

[6] Kenney, Karen, “The Realm of Sports and the Athletic Woman: 1850-1900,” ,” in Her Story in Sport: A Historical Anthology of Women in Sport, Ed. Reet Howell, PhD. (Leisure Press, West Point, NY: 1982), 123.

[7] Marc Horger, “Basketball and Athletic Control at Oberlin College: 1896-1915,” 271.

[8] “Teachers for the Next Year,” The Norwalk Daily Reflector, June 9, 1897, page 3, column 5

[9] “Public Schools,” The Norwalk Daily Reflector, September 4, 1897, page 3, column 5

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