Biography of Joel Dorman Steele

The origins of today’s Chemung County Library System can be traced to rural 19th Century New York State and to a frail minister’s son’s strong passion for education. With his equally determined wife Esther, Dorman Steele demonstrated with words, deeds and personal fortune that books and learning are vital and essential to an individual’s – as well as a community’s – growth and success.

The son of an itinerant Methodist minister, Joel Dorman Steele was born May 14, 1836 in Lima, NY, a small community south of present day Rochester. In his first 12 years, Dorman, as he preferred to be called, lived in fourteen different homes, one being the Lockport town jail. Housing on what was then New York state’s frontier, was scarce and for a traveling preacher – who had to farm part-time to supplement his income – with two young boys (a younger brother, John, was born in 1842), the Rev. Steele was a creative, if not resourceful provider.

Young Dorman Steele might have followed his father into either the ministry or farming but that he developed an early passion for learning. Despite the constant changes in his life Dorman was an excellent student wherever he landed, an achievement that did not come easily. In later years he would write about attending Albany Boy’s Classical Institute which was “famous in those days for its strictness and thoroughness. I laid the foundation of my Latin most carefully and accurately, though every stone was watered with my tears.”

As was common in small rural communities in the 19th century, gifted students soon found themselves becoming teachers and Dorman, while only 17, and without any formal academic credentials, soon found himself teaching in a country school near Batavia, where his father had purchased a farm.

Rev. Steele’s reason for purchasing the farm was more than providing a better living for the family. Dorman had always been a frail child who would spend long hours reading and studying indoors. His father hoped that physical work on the farm would invigorate Dorman’s health. The change worked for a while but in 1851 typhoid fever swept through the community. While Dorman survived it, the disease left left a mark on his constitution. His mother died that year and shortly thereafter Rev. Steele abandoned farming when he was offered a pastorship of a small church near New York, and ripped up the family roots once again.

First Recognition

Family circumstances left gaps in his education and college was beyond the reach of a minister’s son. After an unhappy first job as a bookkeeper in New York City he went to work as a clerk at a Methodist magazine called The Advocate. The editors recognized the young man’s quick mind and he was soon writing book reviews.

This position brought him to the attention of a book publisher who persuaded him to continue his education and enroll in the Methodist supported Genesee College in 1854. (In later years the college went into decline as potential students were attracted by an emerging Methodist college in Syracuse. When Genesee folded, Syracuse extended alma mater status to Genesee graduates. Dorman Steele accepted and became a benefactor of Syracuse University. A building on the main campus is named after Esther Baker Steele, who continued to support the university after his death.)

After graduation, it was natural that a young man of Steele’s erudition and passion for learning would gravitate towards education and he took a teaching position in the Oswego county town of Mexico where he met a young music teacher, Esther Baker, whose father was also a Methodist minister. When the school principal died suddenly, Dorman took the top job. Perhaps feeling confident of his professional status for the first time, he asked Esther for her hand and they were married in July of 1859.

When the Civil War broke out Dorman enlisted as a commissioned officer in the 81st NY Volunteers and was wounded at Seven Pines during McClellan’s ill-fated Peninsula Campaign of 1862. In his autobiography Dorman describes a hellish week in which he commanded a small company that was cut off from the main force.

“We had lost all our camp equipage, our coats, blankets, cooking utensils, etc., and were stationed in the midst of swamps. It rained almost constantly, and we had no protection whatever. At night we cut down brush with our knives, placed it evenly in heaps, and thus made rude beds. Several men would lie together for the sake of warmth, but their weight would sink the pile, and we would frequently wake up to find ourselves in a puddle of water.”

Recovery and a return to teaching

Steele was eventually taken to a hospital and was able to make it back to Penn Yan where Esther was staying. It took him over a year to recover; for a while the only nutrition his body could absorb was “mutton broth and rice.”

With his naturally frail constitution weakened by his war wounds, he decided he was better able to serve the Union cause by using his pen and voice. He embarked on a vigorous campaign of essay writing and local oratory to encourage enlistment while resuming his teaching career as principal of Newark Union Free School.

In March of 1866, while at home recovering from yet another illness, there was a sharp rap on the door and in marched two prominent Elmirans, Orrin Robinson and Newton P. Fassett. They were the search committee looking for a new principal for Elmira Free Academy and had heard of Steele’s reputation for discipline and academic excellence. Apparently they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse and Dorman Steele made his final move to Elmira later that year.

While he found the Elmira school “demoralized beyond all anticipations” he quickly established his presence when he brought a large whip into the classroom and set it upon his desk, announcing that a flogging awaited “the first pupil, girl or boy, who speaks aloud or leaves his or her seat!”

But bringing a large and unruly school under control and up to his standard was not enough for Steele and his restless mind set out to correct other perceived inadequacies in the educational system. Nights and weekends, when he wasn’t correcting papers or preparing lesson plans, Steele, with his equally driven wife Esther, began to research and write the first of what would become over two dozen teaching guides and textbooks that would bear his name: “A Fourteen Week Course in Chemistry.”

Steele’s voice extends beyond Elmira

The success of this and subsequent educational publishing efforts grew such that by 1872 he resigned his teaching position at Elmira to devote himself to writing full time. The Steeles built a large house on the northwest corner of Clinton and Columbia Streets in Elmira (it still stands today but has been converted into an apartment building) and settled down to a routine of turning out scholarly works in history and science.

An article in the Elmira Sunday Telegram published May 23, 1886, told of a typical day in the life of Dorman Steele as being one in which he wrote ten to twelve hours, despite his doctors wishes that he cut it down to five or six. He rose early, and after breakfast, worked until one when he broke for lunch. He then took a brief carriage ride around Elmira before returning to write until supper. Nights were spent reading and researching. Even their vacation time was put to good use. In an article, Dorman Steele once casually mentioned that during a European tour he spent 14 straight months in the British Museum.

An accurate accounting of the sheer volume, let alone number of titles, Steele authored hasn’t ever been cataloged and, given the nature of his contract with publisher A.S. Barnes & Co. and its successor, The American Book Company, it is unlikely that it ever will. The guides and texts were revised many times, sometimes with new titles and not always with credit to Steele. (Although Dorman generously acknowledged Esther’s contribution publicly, and in personal correspondence, she was seldom credited in print.)

A major force in American education

It is possible to surmise, however, that in the later part of the 19th Century, a quiet, unassuming scholar from Elmira, New York, was one of the most influential forces in American public education. In April, 1886, Steele was informed that his Brief History of the United States had sold 200,000 copies that school year and was expected to sell another 50,000 by the end of the year. His Brief History of Medieval and Modern Peoples was in print until 1941 – 55 years after Dorman’s death, although the Steele name began disappearing from its title page in the 1920s.

The grueling regimen Steele set for himself, coupled with his historically poor health eventually took its toll and he died of a heart attack in his home in Elmira on May 25, 1886 at the age of 50. Esther survived him by 25 years living on in the W. Clinton St. house until she died, at 76, in 1911. Esther continued the work they had started in publishing by supervising the revisions to his texts and generally managing their literary properties. But she also brought to fruition a local literary effort that they had envisioned but never realized during Dorman’s lifetime.

In 1893 Esther Baker Steele joined with other prominent Elmirans to found an Association Library for the purpose of “founding, building, continuing and perpetuating a Free Public Library for the City of Elmira.” Two years later, on the ninth anniversary of Dorman’s death, the cornerstone of the library, in what came to be known as the Realty Building, on the corner of Market and Lake St. was laid. In 1899 the first Steele Memorial Library was opened to the public.

Steele Memorial Library
The interior of original Steele library showing alcoves and gallery.

Esther Steele wasn’t content just to build a building. Records indicate that a majority of the 6,779 volumes came from the Steele’s personal library on W. Clinton St. Further, she recognized the need for a professionally trained librarian to maintain it and recruited her niece, Kate Deane Andrew to be it – but not before asking the Chancellor of Syracuse University to design a training program for Kate and having her spend two years in it. Kate began work in the Steele library in 1900 and retired in 1940!

In her final years Esther Baker Steele gave most of her time and personal fortune to continuing the mission of improving the quality of education and intellectual achievement that she shared with her late husband. It is no wonder that when the official name of the library was written as the Steele Memorial Library, the board of trustees gave Esther Baker Steele an equal share of the credit for founding the public library that has served Elmira, and eventually Chemung County, for nearly a century.

The epitaphs on the Steele tombstones are remarkably appropriate. They express the sentiments and gratitude of all Elmirans, those who knew them, and the generations since that have profited by the Steeles’ vision and generosity. Esther’s reads:

“Life gave her the joy of love, the sorrow of bereavement, the spirit of service; Death had given her the immortal rewards of rest and reunion.”

And Dornan’s:

“His true monument stands in the hearts of thousands of American youth led by his teachings to look through nature up to nature’s god.”

James Sleeth
Former Library Director, Steele Memorial Library, 1994