Edwina Maud Whitney (1868 – 1970)

Historical Article Series May 10, 2020 > Edwina Maud Whitney (1868 – 1970)

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 54, No. 1, April 2018

This February marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Edwina Maud Whitney. A descendant of two of Mansfield’s early families, Edwina was born February 26, 1868, the daughter of Edwin Whitney and Minerva Barrows Whitney.

Edwina Maud Whitney
Edwina Maud Whitney

Her father was the founder of the Connecticut Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home and served as its first superintendent. In 1866 he had donated his nearly completed boarding school building and its associated 50-acre farm to the state for this purpose. He died in August of 1867 during an epidemic at the Orphan Home that also claimed his infant son and two of the orphans.  His wife was also sickened but survived, giving birth to Edwina six months later. She named her daughter after her late husband.  

After the Orphan Home closed in 1875, the property reverted to Minerva Whitney who later sold it to Augustus Storrs. In 1881, Augustus Storrs and his brother Charles, donated the property to the state, along with $5,000 in cash, to establish a state agricultural school. The former orphan home became the site of the Storrs Agricultural School, precursor of the University of Connecticut. Thus the Whitney family became forever entwined with the history of the university.

Edwina Whitney grew up in the colonial house next to Mirror Lake that last served as the University’s Rainbow House. [The lake however was not there until its creation in 1922.] She graduated from Oberlin College in 1894 and after a brief time teaching in Wisconsin, she returned to her native Mansfield where she remained for the rest of her life. 

Miss Whitney was appointed librarian of the Connecticut Agricultural College in 1900, a position she held for 34 years.  During part of her tenure at the college, she also taught German, English and American literature.  Active in church, women’s groups, college and community activities she was frequently asked to speak. Her remarks on local history, literature, church and missions, the College, and the importance of preserving landmarks were always enlightening, entertaining and enthusiastically received. 

Whitney Hall
Early photograph of Whitney Hall, Storrs Agricultural School. The former Connecticut Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home shows the addition made to the rear of the building in 1869. The section on the far right of the photograph is the original building. Note the fenced side yard that remains from the building’s days as an orphanage. Whitney Hall was demolished in 1932. Its front doorstep remains, marked by a commemorative plaque.

Later the University of Connecticut fittingly named a dormitory after her and a Campus road after her family. She was also honored by the Mansfield Historical Society and became their first honorary member.

Shortly after her appointment as librarian she began to keep a diary.  These diaries are important not only as a record of her life but as a chronicle of the changing scene in and around Mansfield from 1901 to 1951. The diaries were given to the Mansfield Historical Society by Miss Whitney in 1960.  Excerpts of them were transcribed by Betty Seaver of the University of Connecticut’s Oral History Project, completed in 1975.

Miss Whitney’s comments throughout her diaries are frequently shrewd observations and reflect the intellect and personality of a woman of strong opinions, outspoken, feisty, witty and mentally keen.  She remained thus throughout her long life. She died at the age of 102 on September 3, 1970.

In addition to her diaries, Edwina Whitney also presented the Mansfield Historical Society with the Superintendent’s Daily Record of the Connecticut Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home.  It was recently digitized by Archives & Special Collections at the University of Connecticut. A wonderful resource, it can be viewed and studied on their website: http://archives.lib.uconn.edu.  Search for it under Digital Collections.

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