Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Diary of Frederick Riebel: Life At Otterbein College, 1865


[This piece was written based on many hours spent with the Hathaway-Riebel-Henry papers at the Archives of Otterbein College. It was submitted to the Otterbein alumni magazine Towers but never ran.]

The Diary of Frederick Riebel: Life At Otterbein, 1865
By Alan Borer

Like many figures from the past, our knowledge of Frederick Riebel (1842-1929, Class of 1870) might be limited to dates and achievements. He graduated from Otterbein in 1870, after attending sporadically over the span of at least five years. He did not attend in 1867-68 and 1868-69. He was licensed to preach in 1868, and ordained in 1871. He was active in the ministry until 1884, and was also a farmer and orchardist.

Yet Riebel did leave one personal item for us to look deeper into the man. He left a diary to record a small part of his life. The diary, which was recently donated to the Courtright Memorial Library by his descendants, covers only about three months of his time at Otterbein. Yet his is one of the oldest surviving student diaries, and the only male diary from the first twenty five years of the history of the Otterbein.

We cannot presume that Frederick Riebel was a “typical” student. Typical students did not keep diaries. The very fact that he kept a diary suggests an introspective turn. Three topics predominate in Riebel’s diary entries: the Daily Routine of a college student, with its “recitations”, lectures, reading, and church attendance; Everyday Life, with its chores, socializing, and neighboring, which segues into a third topic, what I will call Riebel’s Inner Life or Psychology. Riebel, a ministerial student, constantly evaluated the depth of his faith and his commitment to his calling.

Modern college students might be taken aback at how much and how often their predecessor occupied his time with self-flagellation or viewed God as a stern judge quick to take offense. But that may be the most telling reason for re-examining Frederick Riebel’s diary: to show, or reinforce, the fact that “the past is a foreign country.” Our experience of Otterbein today and that of Riebel in the middle of the nineteenth century may have as common ground only the few acres of Westerville that both occupy.


Frederick Riebel: The Facts

Riebel was born on March 6, 1842 in Strasburg, France. In 1843, the Riebel family emigrated to the area around Erie, Pennsylvania, then to Canada. There he lived in Ontario, in a farming area located roughly halfway between Stratford and Kitchener. Riebel gave his hometown as Bright in 1867, and Plattsville in 1864-66, the two towns being neighboring communities. In 1859, Frederick Riebel underwent a religious experience which resulted in his conversion to Christianity. Sometime afterward, he felt the call to ministry, and prepared by attending schools in Michigan and Illinois. The first record of Riebel attending Otterbein is the 1864-65 school year. .

On June 27, 1867, Frederick Riebel married an Otterbein graduate named Mary Elizabeth Hathaway. “Lizzie” Hathaway was a native Ohioan, born October 6, 1842 in Shelby County, Perry Township. She was a granddaughter of David Henry (1770-1834), the first European to settle in the area. Lizzie taught school, and attended Ohio Wesleyan College before graduating from Otterbein in 1866, having attended the college’s “Academy” division. A devout United Brethren member, she taught Sunday School all her life and “expressed a desire to become a missionary had the church emphasized that when she was a child.” Her marriage to “Riebel,” her (presumably) good-natured way of referring to her husband, lasted sixty years.

After his marriage, Frederick Riebel left Otterbein for two years, which he spent in Illinois. He returned to Otterbein for his senior year. In the 1869-70 catalog, he listed his home as Rosewood, Illinois. In the 1880 Census he lived in Bureau County, Illinois with his wife, his mother-in-law, and four children all born in Illinois: Lavillia, 12; John D, 10; Wallin E., 3; and a four month old baby, Iva. Another child, named Otterbein, died in infancy. Sometime in the 1880s, Riebel’s health declined, and the family returned to a farm in Galloway, Ohio, in what is now the suburbs of Columbus. By 1900, Frederick and his family had retuned to his wife’s home in Perry Township, Shelby County. Riebel served on the Otterbein Executive Committee from 1903 to 1905, and several other church committees on publishing and education. Eventually, the Riebels made their home in Franklin County in Prairie Township, where they lived with their son John and his wife Helen. When Mary Hathaway Riebel died in 1928 at 85, Frederick Riebel survived her briefly. He died August 21, 1929 in New Plymouth, Idaho, while visiting his youngest daughter.

These are the bare outlines of the life of Frederick Riebel. It is obviously not complete. We also may wish to know what sort of husband and father he was, whether he was a good preacher, whether he lived with regrets. His wife noted in a letter that he suffered from ill health, but did not give specifics. It may no longer possible to retrieve that information. But Riebel’s diary does offer some of these more personal insights for a few dreary months around his 23rd birthday in 1865.

Daily Routine of an Otterbein College Student, 1865

Otterbein College (or University, as it was then called) was affiliated with the Evangelical United Brethren Church in the nineteenth century. Thus it is not surprising that as a student Frederick Riebel went to church frequently as part of his collegiate experience. On Sundays he often went to church in the morning and evening, making a note of sermon texts, such as the “ten virgins” [February 19] and “the night cometh when no man can work “[March 26]. Riebel rarely reported where he went to church, but often noted who preached. He attended many services during which the sermon was preached by “Brother” Weaver, probably Jut Weaver a 41-year-old United Brethren minister.

On weekdays, Riebel attended class, where he both wrote and read essays. On February 3, he read one of his own essays, titled “All is not gold that glittereth.” Riebel notes that after reading this essay aloud, it was roundly criticized, in part because Riebel used too much “slang.” Writing essays was interspersed with “lessons,” probably conventional lectures, and “recitations.” Recitations were presumably an oral exercise, perhaps of students reading material aloud on which a lecture had been previously given. In a day of fewer copies of fewer books, recitations were important for inculcating received knowledge.

An extracurricular activity still tied very much to the academic life was Riebel’s participation in Otterbein’s literary society, the Philomathean Society. Founded in 1853, the Philomathean maintained a library for student perusal. The society urged students to become literate, not merely in the sense of being able to complete lessons, but able to appreciate, enjoy, and share the material they read. Riebel, for example, attended “society” meetings frequently, and on the evening of February 10 made a presentation before the members of which only the title survives: “Summer.”

College life was both intense and arduous at midcentury. Riebel, who was classified as being in the “Junior Preparatory” program in 1865, had to take Latin, Greek, English, “Higher Arithmetic,” and “Classical Mythology.’ It is no wonder that he commented on February 23, “I am somewhat worn down with hard study.” Although a common student complaint through the ages, Riebel must be taken at his word.

Everyday Life

Although Riebel had some free time, much of it was relegated to the numerous chores that nineteenth century life demanded. For example, Riebel spent many hours sawing wood. On January 27th, he noted, “sawing college wood,” while on January 24th, he “sawed wood for Mr. Custer.” Riebel appears to have sawed wood for pay, as well as cutting wood at Otterbein’s behest. Many frontier colleges, including Otterbein, mandated a “manual labor” requirement for students, both to build moral character and to help students offset tuition. While there is no evidence of whether Riebel formally participated in the manual labor program, this diary entry suggests that he did work of some sort for the college.

A good chunk of Riebel’s “free” time was taken up with such things as mopping, cleaning, and such tasks as curtain-hanging. During at least some of this time at Otterbein, Riebel lived in the “chapel,” perhaps in rooms in the chapel building. In 1865 he complained that the “weather was dreary and my stove smoked all day.” Riebel does not appear to have done his own cooking. He took his meals at a common table, although on at least one occasion he does not seem to have enjoyed this: “The Ladies talked too much at every meal. It took all the strength of my nervous system to keep sober while eating.”

Riebel appears to have had an eye for the ladies. There is no evidence that he dated or “kept company” with any females during the period covered by the diary.
But Riebel carefully recorded any meetings with females, as when he “Talked with some Ladies about a sleigh ride” on January 23rd, “talked to a Lady at noon,” on the 24th, noticed that “The Ladies in the hall seem to enjoy each others society very much,” on the 30th, and that “The ladies in general were very genial at the table today” on February 20.

We can scarcely imagine how strictly the sexes were separated in Frederick Riebel’s time. We cannot infer with certainty that our young divinity student was starved for female companionship. But it is interesting how often and how specifically he mentions “Ladies” in a diary otherwise devoted to introspection.

The Inner Life of Frederick Riebel

On February 1, 1865, Riebel wrote, “I felt somewhat solemn and serious during the day.” Riebel speculated often and at length (as far as the diary format allowed him) about how important his faith was to him, and how that faith did not paint a very cheerful picture about the state of mankind and his own failings in the religious sphere. Following are a few of the basic themes of Riebel’s internal theology.

Like many evangelical believers then and now, Riebel believed that humanity was inherently sinful. On February 13, he wrote, “I felt very much cast down during the day on account of my sins and folly which lead me so often astray.” On March 3, his words were even more adamant: “My mind feels depressed because of so many besetting sins.” At other times, Riebel‘s thoughts, while following the same reasoning, were less emphatic, as on January 28: “Was somewhat perplexed with the cares of this life.”

But whether “depressed” or just “perplexed,” Riebel found considerable solace in his relationship with his God. At times he was very specific about this. On February 15, he wrote, “I am still reaching forth for higher attainment in the divine life. It is the earnest desire of my heart to be a better Christian.” The entire entry for March 17 speaks of his desire to stand aright before the deity: “Clouds of darkness still seem to cover my sky. But it is all on account of my sins and the wandering away from the God whom I wish to love and serve with all my heart in the present world.”

While Riebel believed in the loving God of the Christian tradition, he also had the evangelical fear of being judged harshly for a misstep. “The day was spent very pleasantly as far as it pertains to this life But my struggle for that higher life is hard and my way dark,” he wrote on April 7. Riebel blamed himself for his theologically sorry state: “my religion is still in low condition. But it is all my own fault. Had I lived nearer my Savior it would not be so” he mused on April 3. But while he worried about sin, a few rays of optimism came out on occasion, as on March 15: “It looks in these days as though all the powers of hell were surrounding me Everything looks dark and dreary as it were for time and eternity. My resolution to fight on just as strong as ever.”

Frederick Riebel was, perhaps, not a very cheerful man. Words like “solemn,” “perplexed,” “serious,” and “cast down” pepper his diary. And of course, we cannot judge Riebel on the flashes a four month old diary during the wet late winter of one year offer. Riebel lived 86 years. He may have cheered up as wife, children, and ministry came to him. These are but the impressions of one student at one time in Otterbein’s long history. Whether Riebel’s diary is a cautionary tale or not is up to the reader.

[Editorial Notes:
The diary of Frederick Riebel is part of the Hathaway-Riebel-Henry papers at the Otterbein Archives of Courtright Memorial Library. Despite his education, Riebel often used nonstandard spelling and punctuation. These have been corrected for the modern reader. The entries in the diary also suffer from the bleeding of the ink through the pages, making the diary increasingly difficult to read as one progresses through the entries. A typed transcript is available at the Archives. The data on Frederick Riebel was obtained through letters in the Hathaway collection, United States Census records, the Ohio Department of Vital Statistics, and the Minutes of the Executive Committee of Otterbein College.]

1 comment:

  1. I am a great grandson of Frederick Riebel (the son of Elisabeth, the only child of John David Riebel and Helen Abbot.) This is fascinating information about the life of my great grandparents.

    Their oldest child's name was Lutetia, not Lavillia. Frederick and Mary are buried in Galloway, Ohio.

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