Midway College, nestled atop “Mount Hope” in Midway, halfway between Lexington and Frankfort, originally was the Kentucky Female Orphan School.
The founding year was 1847, the year Stephen Foster wrote Oh Susannah. The first session of school opened in 1849, the year of the California Gold Rush.
In Kentucky, female orphan children, without family, without resources, with only their names and the ragged clothes on their backs, traveled mainly by train from eastern Kentucky, arrived in Lexington, then took the short line railroad to the Midway station.
There may have been a song in their hearts, but there was hardly a penny in their pockets. They’d been sponsored by churches, local government, or relatives.
According to the last known history of the Kentucky Female Orphan School, written by Harry Giovannoli and published in 1930: “…for a long period prior to 1850, when a well-planned common school system was inaugurated, and in fact for many years afterward in remote sections of the State, thousands of children capable of becoming part and parcel of the bone and sinew of the Commonwealth were denied the poorest educational advantages.”
Females were routinely excluded and orphan girls had virtually no hope of breaking through the social barriers until the arrival of Lewis Letig Pinkerton—“the young physician, evangelist, and educator, who had surrendered promises of a brilliant professional career in another State to come to Kentucky…to preach the unsearchable blessings of the gospel to rich and poor alike.”
Rev. Pinkerton, minister at Midway’s first Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), dared to dream a dream of reaching out to female orphans to prepare them mainly for careers as teachers, heretofore underpaid and all too often poorly prepared. Rev. Pinkerton and other residents of the little town of Midway and Woodford County successfully waged the campaign to raise the initial funds to meet a challenge that would inspire others for the next 157 years.
Large streams from little fountains flow,
Tall oaks from little acorns grow.
Today on the main campus of stately Midway College (and 17 satellite locations in Kentucky and West Virginia), President William Drake remembers and treasures the legacy left by Dr. Pinkerton. “The essence of Christianity is hospitality to the stranger. When we look at our faith in God, we all need handles to help orient us to the whirlwind of life.”
Enrollment at Midway College (a four-year undergraduate program began in 1989) has been small when compared with other higher education institutions, because the emphasis is on quality with a strategy that does not chase after high-profile academic or sports candidates for admission. All students are given an opportunity to develop in careers, including nursing, equine, paralegal, homeland security management and assessment, and general studies. Rev. Pinkerton would be amazed at how tall the oaks have grown at the college that began as an acorn for female orphans.
The newest enrollment goal is 2,000 within the next three years, up from 1,700 this year and 1,625 last year.
Students who walked from the Midway railroad station along the “Pathway to Opportunity” up to “Mount Hope,” those who learned valuable lessons and returned to become vital members of their communities, have a common bond with Midway College students today.
There’s a tradition at graduation, which connects the generations. Candles are lit and floated along Lee Branch, the little stream at the foot of Mount Hope. All those whose candles remain lighted and pass beneath the little bridge on the Pathway to Opportunity will have their wishes granted.
The symbolism is important, but the reality lies in hard work, inspired administration, and a Commonwealth that understands true value.
The Midway College tradition is as bright as a lighted candle for all those who strive for excellence, fountain for larger streams.