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In New London County in the 1850s, you didn't have to travel to Boston to attend an opera-you could enjoy beautiful music in an elaborate local setting. You only needed to go as far as Salem, across from today's Music Vale Road, where it all started with a little boy who had a dream.
The whole family liked listening to Sally Whittlesey play the piano. Even the Reverend John Whittlesey, a no-nonsense, practical man, appreciated his wife's talent. Their son Oramel couldn't read yet, but he loved picking out little tunes on the spinet. When he grew up he wanted to make beautiful music just like Mother.
John was a strict father, but when he realized how gifted Oramel was, he bought a makeshift piano and installed it in a shed at the back of the house. It had just a few octaves and a hand-operated pedal, but it was good enough for beginners. John insisted that Oramel and his two brothers, who were also musical, could only practice after their farm chores were done, which meant working from sunrise to sunset and playing the piano at night.
The boys practiced for two-hour stints each, rotating the time slots so the same kid wasn't always stumbling into bed after midnight. Every Saturday night they made the three-hour trip to New London for formal piano lessons, getting back home just in time to start the next morning's chores.
As an adult Oramel's reputation for excellence grew, and he began giving music lessons. In 1835 he opened Music Vale Seminary, possibly the first normal school in America to confer music degrees. (Normal schools were the forerunners of teachers colleges.) Girls from all over the United States, Canada and even the West Indies came to learn the harp, piano, guitar, voice and music theory.
Discipline and rigor, Oramel's watchwords, were reflected in the school routine. The girls rose at 5 a.m.; before breakfast they were required to perform household chores, like dusting, followed by an hour at the piano. (I'm imagining invigorating scale exercises.) The day continued with hours of closely monitored practice sessions interspersed with lectures on music concepts. One daughter from a wealthy Kentucky family wrote home: "Strict! You have no idea what Yankee strictness is!"
Since the arts are meant to be shared, the school staged ambitious productions in a hall richly decorated with frescoes. Oramel produced Wagnerian operas, as well as his own compositions based on topical events. When the story line called for it, thunder and lightning were simulated backstage by rolling iron balls across the floor and igniting gunpowder in a pie pan.
Oramel was patriotic and high-spirited. During the Civil War he flew the American flag daily, discharged a cannon every time the Union won a battle, and offered reduced tuition to widows and daughters of fallen soldiers. But as the war dragged on, enrollment began to decline, with Southern belles no longer coming North. A fire in 1868, caused by an accident with gunpowder, destroyed much of the seminary. Oramel rebuilt, but the school's downward slide continued.
After his death, Oramel's daughters kept Music Vale going, but another fire forced its closing in 1897. Today most of the old school property is a wildlife habitat, part of the Eightmile River Watershed preservation.
In 1938 Iveagh Hunt Sperry, Oramel's great-granddaughter, co-authored a book about Connecticut, "They Found a Way." In the chapter about Music Vale she painted an evocative picture of former students who were still coming to Salem, often from considerable distances, to revisit the site of their girlhood school.
Sperry wrote, "Sometimes delicate old ladies walk slowly through the long grass to the moss-grown steps and stand a long time beside the lilac bushes and syringas … listening."