Joel Dorman Steele 1836–1886

From– Cutter, William Richard, Genealogical and Family History of Central New York: A Record of the Achievements of Her People in the Making of a Commonwealth and the Building of a Nation, Volume III , 1912, p. 1499-1503.


Joel Dornan Steele

Joel Dorman Steele

[Joel Dorman Steele 1836–1886]
Joel Dorman, eldest son of the Rev Allyn (2) Steele, was born May 14, 1836. He was fifteen when his mother died. In November, 1851, he says,

“I experienced the first great sorrow of my life in the death of my mother. My father was called out of the pulpit in the midst of his sermon to come to my bedside to see me die.”

Powerful remedies administered by a daring physician proved successful and he was restored to health once more. He further says,

“I taught my first school, a common country district school, in the summer of 1853. My wages were twenty shillings per week and I boarded around in the good old fashion. I taught according to my knowledge and honestly tried to do my duty by my pupils and patrons. But I was only seventeen years old and never having come myself under the training of a great and true teacher, I had no conception of the dignity of my calling, or the weight of its responsibilities. No tired pupil or bedraggled ditch-digger ever watched more eagerly for the clock to mark the close of his day’s labor than I did in the master’s seat of that old red school house.”

Hedding M.E. Church, Elmyra, NY

Hedding M.E. Church, Elmira, NY

[Move to New York]
When the harvest time came he went to swing the cradle and bind the wheat in his father’s fields. In the spring of 1854 his father sold his farm and Joel D. joined him in New York where his father was pastor of the Heding Methodist Episcopal Church. After a thorough examination he became assistant bookkeeper in the Broadway Bank. He resigned this position to accept an offer of a clerkship in the Advocate office at the Methodist Book Concern. then 200 Mulberry street. He then began a four years’ course of study at Genesee College. He took an active part in the societies and soon became known as a leading spirit in the Lyceum– a debating organization in the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary, in which building he boarded. His father being unable to pay all his college bills, after the second year he spent his vacations in farm work. During one summer vacation he earned fifty dollars in the harvest field. In his junior year he taught a district school for three months.

After graduation from college he went to his father’s farm at West Barre, Orleans county, New York, and doffing the student, became the farmer. Accepting an invitation from Principal J.R. French, LL. D., offering him a place in the Mexico Academy, Mexico, Oswego county, New York, he succeeded Principal French at the end of the first year. Before he assumed his new responsibilities as principal he married Esther Baker, the teacher of music in the academy. He occupied the principalship of Mexico Academy until the autumn of 1861.

Illustration of Oxygen Machine

Oxy-Hydrogen Blowpipe

[Civil War Service]
At the breaking out of the civil war he resigned his place and offered his services to his country. He raised a company, was chosen captain and sent to the front. When the Eighty-first New York State Volunteers marched up Pennsylvania avenue at Washington he led Company K. On the field of Seven Pines he was badly wounded. Being the only commissioned officer present with the company, he remained in command for a week thereafter– a week of constant exposure and danger. They had lost all their camp equipage, and were stationed in the midst of swamps. Being seized with rheumatism consequent on the exposure he was finally taken to the hospital at City Point. Then he was sent on north from place to place until at Philadelphia he was furloughed to go home, as the hospitals en route were all filled to overflowing. In Penn Yan his wife was staying at the residence of her uncle, William S. Briggs. His life was, however, long in danger. Just as he was recovering an order from Washington was issued directing all furloughed convalescent officers to repair to a convalescent camp at Baltimore under pain of being held as deserters. He thereupon resigned and was honorably mustered out of the service.

[Educator, Again]
In the autumn of 1862 he accepted the principalship of the Newark Union Free School and resumed his pedagogic work. He spent four years at Newark, settling down unreservedly to the work of schoolmaster. From the first he had done his best teaching in the sciences, especially in physics, chemistry, geology, the branches he was required to take charge of in schools. In 1866 he became principal of the academy at Elmira. The academy during the six years he was at its head gave him the opportunity of his career. His favorite classes still continued to be those of science and he gave his whole time to them. He resolved to write a Chemistry for Academies and High Schools alone.

One of several in the series "14 Weeks in ----"

14 Weeks in Chemistry

[First Textbooks]
While engaged in this new work he received a call from Mr Knapp, an agent of Messrs. A.S. Barnes & Company, of New York. As he was an old acquaintance he told the representative what he was doing and he reported the fact to the firm. Not long after a correspondence was opened; then Mr. C.J. Barnes, a member of the house, called at his room, heard him read the chapter on oxygen, and took his manuscript to New York. Finally a contract was signed for its publication. The book appeared in the autumn of 1867. An edition of two thousand copies went at once and a second edition was printed immediately. His publishers proposed that he should prepare other works in science. This he did, but in 1871 he entered a new field. Hearing that his publishers were getting out a new history of the United States, he suggested to them some ideas derived from his experience in superintending history classes. Messrs. Barnes then proposed that he should write the book himself. The result was “Barnes’ Brief History of the United States,” a work in which he was greatly aided by his wife. The success of this history was almost immediate, and when it was concluded to complete this series, his wife gradually assumed more work, until in the “Popular History of the United States,” the “History of France,” and the “General History,” she prepared a definite portion of the manuscript. Every reader of the Barnes Series of Brief Histories may recognize her chapters on manners and customs as generic.

Hygenic Physiology

Hygenic Physiology

[Research for Textbooks]
In getting up these various books they spared neither labor nor expense. They visited Europe four times to gather material, attended lectures, and studied the newest methods, spending in all fourteen months in the shadow of the British Museum. He associated himself also with the best help he could find, Professor J.W.P. Jenks, A.M. of Brown University, who made zoology a lifelong study and who had achieved a phenomenal success in teaching the subject in academies, was prevailed upon to become jointly interested in preparing the text. In botany he procured the valuable services of Professor Alphonso Wood, A.M., the veteran author. In chemistry he was greatly aided by Edward J. Hallock, of Columbia College, whose lengthy studies in German laboratories had furnished him with a fund of experience. His physics manuscript was carefully read by Professor Thomas H. Core, A.M., of Owens College, Manchester, England, while many of his teacher friends, such as Professor Harper, of Maine, Dr. Armstrong, of New York, and Superintendent Jones, of Pennsylvania, rendered him excellent assistance. In July, 1884, Mr. Steele, at the Centennial Anniversary of the University of the State of New York, delivered before the university convocation his last public address.

Steele Memorial Library

Steele Memorial Library

[In Memorium]
He died in 1886. shortly after his return from a winter spent in Florida. On the fine New England granite which marks his resting place are these words, graven at the direction of Mrs Steele:

“His true monument stands in the hearts of thousands of American youth, led by him to ‘look through Nature up to Nature’s God.'”

He bequeathed fifty thousand dollars to Syracuse University to found a chair of Theistic Science. Syracuse University, as the development of Genesee College, was the alma mater of Dr. Steele. From 1870, the year of its transference to the time of his death, he was one of the trustees, and as such annually aided in making up its deficiencies, usually giving five hundred dollars, a large sum in the first years of his success. The cornerstone of “Steele Memorial Library Building,” in Elmira, was laid May 27, 1895, nine years to a day from the date of Dr. Steele’s burial. In August, 1899, the library was formally opened to the public. The gift when turned over to the people of the city represented the sum of sixty-five thousand dollars. curios and pictures included.


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