A Very Fine Beginning
Long after her death in 1888, the great mystery surrounding the legacy of Tabor’s founder was the source of her wealth. Elizabeth Sprague Pitcher was born into a prominent Marion family in 1791. Her father Theophilus was a sailor and ship owner. Her mother Sarah gave birth to five sons, all of whom followed their father to the sea or made their living from its trade.
“The future founder of Tabor Academy lived in a household of men and mariners,” wrote school historian Joseph Smart in The School and the Sea, his 1964 book about Tabor’s history.
Elizabeth grew up as the only girl in the family’s Main Street home. She had a younger sister, Mary, who died within days of being born. Loss would be a powerful force throughout her life. Despite knowing grief early, Elizabeth’s childhood was full of happy memories. She attended Sippican Seminary, a private school on Front Street that is now St. Gabriel’s Church, where she developed a lifelong zest for learning. When she was 14, she became a teacher.
“Elizabeth Pitcher made a reputation as a popular school mistress,” Smart wrote. “Encouraged by her reputed success and by the number of children in the village, Miss Pitcher had built in 1819 her own school, probably a ‘Dame’s School,’ on the site of the present post office.”
The school did not stay open for long, however, as Elizabeth left Marion in 1822. It would be over a half century before she moved back to the village. She would return a much wealthier woman than she left, but her passion for education never dimmed.
Much of the speculation about Elizabeth’s money assumed that she must have inherited it from one (or several) of her successful male relatives. By examining court documents and other public records pertaining to the Pitcher family, Smart debunked these theories.
“To the persons who searched for the sources of the wealth of Elizabeth Taber in the ‘fortunes’ left her by her brothers, it evidently never occurred to look to the fortunate woman herself or to the quiet man whom she had married,” Smart wrote. “A simple reading of wills absolves her brothers, however, of any deep complicity in their sister’s crime of having left home poor and of having returned rich.”
In 1822, Elizabeth moved to Acushnet, a nearby town named for the river that empties into New Bedford’s harbor. (A few years later, Herman Melville would join the crew of a whaling ship named Acushnet, the chapter of his life that inspired Moby Dick.) Shortly after arriving, Elizabeth met Stephen Taber, an industrious and successful clockmaker. They married in 1824 and moved into a house at the head of the river where they planned to start their family.
Between 1825 and 1831, the couple endured a string of heart-wrenching tragedies. Elizabeth gave birth to three children, all of whom died by the age of five. In 1838, seeking a change of scenery, they moved to New Bedford. It was the heyday of the whaling industry and they bought a home on County Street, which Smart described as “the finest residential street” in the city. Stephen’s clock and timepiece business flourished and he started investing his profits in whaling ships. Independent of her husband, Elizabeth proved to be a savvy investor. Railroad companies were leading the country’s westward expansion, and she purchased stock in some of the most successful lines.
By the time Stephen died in 1862, Elizabeth had amassed her own small fortune. Compounded with her inheritance from Stephen—an estimated $200,000 in addition to his clockshop, their home, and his stake in a whaling ship—she became a person of considerable means. “All these things,” Smart observed, “were probably of small comfort to an elderly woman now a childless widow in an empty house.”
Seeking comfort or purpose, or perhaps both, Elizabeth found herself drawn back to Marion. It was no longer the vibrant seaside town of her childhood. Like the rest of the country, its population and economy were reeling in the wake of the Civil War. Many sons and fathers never returned home and shipping was in decline. The discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania sounded the death knell for New Bedford’s booming whaling industry and the smaller harbor towns that supported it.
“By 1875 the wharves of little Marion, never a deepwater port in its busiest years, were deserted and grass-grown,” Smart wrote. “Salt-evaporating and summer visitors were the new businesses, even if disdained by the numerous aging captains who ran the town and still gave it the savor of the sea.”
Elizabeth started visiting Marion with greater frequency around 1870. Her closest living relative, a cousin named John Foster, would pick her up in New Bedford in a horse-drawn carriage. Clad in mourning black and smoking the occasional pipe, Elizabeth would arrive in Marion a few hours later. She surveyed the town from her dignified perch, disillusioned by its current state but determined to, in her words, “put some snap” back into it.
“Commencing in 1871, Mrs. Taber began to spend money,” Smart wrote. “Not on herself, but on the town which was to fill the void in her life recently created by the end of her family life.”
Elizabeth started buying property from Henry Allen, a retired captain who owned a large parcel on a narrow lane that paralleled the waterfront. The land was wooded and rock-strewn. It was deemed “useless” by some contemporary surveyors, but Elizabeth saw potential. On this site, present day Spring Street, she built the town’s library, a two-story Victorian with Corinthian columns. After the library opened in 1872, she turned her attention to other projects that fueled Marion’s renaissance.
“Everything seemed to move faster because of the advent of a strong personality in the village,” wrote Alice Ryder 1890 in her 1934 book Lands of Sippican on Buzzards Bay. “Elizabeth Taber had come home!”
For funding many revitalizing projects, including the construction of the town’s Music Hall and the First Congregational Church Chapel, Elizabeth became known as “Marion’s fairy godmother.” The most significant and enduring institution she created, of course, was the school that she built next to the new library.
Tabor Academy was founded in 1876, but it opened in the fall of 1877. In an effort to divert attention from her name, it is believed that Elizabeth named it after the biblical Mt. Tabor. A vivacious octogenarian, she poured her energy and resources into building the campus and articulating a clear vision for its students and faculty. Her primary goal, which she later stated in her will, was “to provide better and more complete facilities than had heretofore existed or were likely to exist for the thorough education and training of the youth.”
To ensure the new facilities met her expectations, she was actively involved throughout the planning and building. She continued to commute from New Bedford by carriage, but once the Tabor Hall dormitory was completed next to the library, she moved into an apartment on the second floor. Working closely with Clark Howland, the sharp 28-year-old she had recruited from Yale to serve as Tabor’s first principal, Elizabeth drafted the school’s curriculum and code of conduct ahead of the inaugural school year. She also helped write the first admissions catalog to attract potential students.
“Marion is a town of nine hundred inhabitants on Buzzards Bay,” the catalog began. “The location is a very desirable one for a school of this kind, as it offers an abundance of genuine sport in its facilities for boating, bathing, and fishing, while no intoxicating liquors are sold and few evil associations can be found.”
Tabor opened on September 13, 1877, with 21 students whose families paid a tuition of $8 per term. A short ceremony marked the historic moment. Elizabeth spoke near the end. She took stock of the students and the campus before offering a simple summation of what she saw. “This is considered a very fine beginning,” she said.
Elizabeth guided the school’s tiller with an active hand until her death in 1888 at the age of 97. In a final act of philanthropy, she used her will to secure Tabor’s future. She appointed a board of trustees to serve as stewards, and she seeded an endowment of $60,000 along with various properties, railroad stocks, and other assets. In total, she bequeathed over $200,000 to Tabor, the equivalent of roughly $6.5 million today.
To guide Tabor’s trustees, Elizabeth included this now oft-quoted passage in her will: “It is my will and desire that not only the nature of the branches and the character of the instruction given shall from time to time be modified so as reasonably to meet the wants of all classes of the community amid which it is located, but that the character of the school itself shall also be gradually elevated and its scope enlarged, till, to the extent of its accommodations and means, it shall afford facilities for the acquisition of a liberal education to the youth of all portions of the country."
In her will, Elizabeth placed the onus on Tabor’s trustees and faculty to guide the school’s evolution. But she also left an explicit directive for Tabor’s students to make the most of the education they were fortunate enough to receive.
“I would here express my earnest desire and hope that they will zealously avail themselves of the opportunities thus placed in their power,” she wrote. “Ever bearing in mind that without earnest personal effort, all educational advantages and all facilities are to no avail.”
As Tabor’s 150th anniversary approaches in school year 2025-26, one can only assume that Elizabeth would be proud of the impressive record of her school and its students.