January 13th marks Stephen Collins Foster Memorial Day. Stephen was born on July 4, 1826 in a white cottage on a knoll, two-and-a-half miles above Pittsburgh.
On the day he was born, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died. Some thought the baby boy should be named after one or both of them. Stephen’s mother did not agree. She had a friend who had lost a son named Stephen Collins and in honor of him, the new baby was named.
Stephen wasn’t much interested in school as a young boy, but it was said he never forgot any music he heard. At age 9, he and neighbor boys fitted up a theater in the carriage house. The other boys advanced money for a curtain and some benches and for printing tickets. Stephen, however advanced no money, he was paid money for singing traditional African American songs. The troupe held three entertainments a week.
Stephen Foster’s family didn’t want him to be a musician. When Stephen was 14, he was sent to live with his brother, William, in Towanda. William was the chief engineer working on the North Branch Canal. It was agreed Stephen could obtain a good education there.
As nearly as can be determined, he stayed with his brother about a year-and-a-half, from January 1840 until late spring 1841. It is assumed he attended school in Towanda for the first term of 1840 and Athens Academy after. He boarded with the Herrick family who lived across the street from the Academy and paid $2/week board.
On the eve of April 1, 1841, Stephen Foster was probably happier than he had ever been in his life. The commencement of Athens Academy was being held in the Presbyterian Church. He was 14. He was not graduating, but had a part in the program. There were no pre-printed programs, so Stephen’s contribution came as a surprise.
Stephen and his two friends rose and walked forward, he in the middle. They played The Tioga Waltz, composed specifically for the flute by Stephen. When they finished, there was a pause, then wild hand clapping.
In 1941, during a Foster Centennial Program, E.E. Crediford, supervising principal at Athens School, spoke these words: “Remembering the 14-year-old boy, who moved 300 miles from home, braved out a year-and-a-half of separation from his parents, the boy who asked for more studies to be added to his schedule, and though no one perhaps, suspected the genius we were entertaining unaware, produced an original composition for school entertainment a hundred years ago.”
From a newspaper article dated August 1st, 1974, people gathered to celebrate the third annual Stephen Foster Festival. Some men and women were in period dress on the lawn of the Tioga Point Museum and Spalding Memorial Library, who sponsored the event.
There were antique cars to view, including two fire engines from Dr. King’s collection. Benches and chairs were loaned by local businesses and members of the library and museum association were busy selling tickets for ice cream, while Athens Rotary manned the soda stand. Homemade cake and ice cream was served to over 500 visitors, who then listened to bands playing Foster songs. It was said Stephen Foster would have been proud to hear his songs played that day. Some of his familiar works include: Oh, Susannah! My Old Kentucky Home and Camptown Races.
There is much information housed in the archives of the Tioga Point museum about Stephen Foster. To learn more, please visit!
The Tioga Point Museum is open from 12-8p on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the year. You are invited to come and explore!