Rev. Thomas McConnell Elder

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The grandfather of the well-known citizen of Dayton, whose name heads this sketch, Robert Elder, was a soldier through all of those seven long years of the revolutionary war, and, soon after the close of that great struggle for liberty, moved with his family from the vicinity of Harrisburg to Westmoreland county, where he was one of the earliest settlers. He took up an exceedingly fine tract of land near New Alexandria, known as "the Richlands,," which is still owned by his descendants. His son Thomas, father of the subject of this biography, who was two years old when the family settled in Westmoreland county, was born in or near Harrisburg. He was reared upon "the Richlands," and on arriving at manhood's estate married Mary McConnell, a native of Lancaster county.

Their son, Thomas McConnell Elder, was born March 24, 1826, near New Alexandria, Westmoreland county. After a good common school education he commenced a more advanced literary course under the tuition of the Rev. Dr. James Milligan, an old Scotsman of fine scholarship, who resided in the neighborhood. He was for some time engaged in school teaching at this period of his life. He was the first teacher of the female seminary at Northwood, Ohio, and principal of the Loyal Hanna Institute in Westmoreland country for two years. He then took a collegiate course at Geneva College, Logan county, Ohio, and finished in 1855. During the period he was in attendance at that college he exhibited something of the energy and influence which characterized him in after-life. He spent one summer in traveling in the western, eastern and middle states, and succeeded in raising for the college an endowment of $18,000.

After his course at the Ohio college, he spent four years at the theological seminary of the Reformed Presbyterian church at Allegheny City, graduating and being licensed to preach in 1858. He was ordained to the ministry May 11, 1859, previous to which time he had been regularly called to churches at Baltimore and Boston. He was then called to Rehoboth congregation in Armstrong county, a charge which also embraced territory in the counties of Clarion, Indiana and Jefferson, and in which two or three pastors now preach. Subsequently he received another call from Boston, one from Kossuth, Iowa, and a number from other congregations in various localities. Mr. Elder settled in Dayton about 1860. In 1862 he became principal of Dayton Union Male and Female Academy, a position which he held until 1866. In 1863 he was appointed by his church to take charge of mission schools among the freedmen at Fernandina, Florida, where he spent the summer of that year, serving also as chaplain of the 11th regt. Me. Vols., then stationed there. In 1864 he was appointed to take charge of missionary operations in Washington, District of Columbia, where he remained until the spring of 1865. During these absences from home his place in the academy was supplied by subordinates. Returning in the spring of 1865, he resigned his position as principal of the Academy in 1866, to take charge as principal of the Dayton Soldiers' Orphans' School, which he opened in the building now known as the Exchange Hotel. During the time he was principal, buildings were erected where those now in use stand, and the school was put upon a firm and sure basis, very largely owing to his efforts. He may be called in fact the successful originator of this valuable institution. During the second year of his connection with the school, in the fall of 1867, Mr. Elder met with a very serious accident. While watching a game of baseball among the children, he was struck with great force by a heavy bat which flew from the grasp of one of the larger boys who was striking at the ball. He was knocked senseless, and for a time it was thought could not recover from the effects of the terrific blow. Providentially his life was spared, but he had received permanent injury from the concussion. The shock was very severe upon his nervous system, and he found to his sorrow that it incapacitated him in a great measure for hard and protracted study. He was thus compelled reluctantly to give up active duty as a preacher, which he had always enjoyed, and to abstain from long-continued and hard study. Shortly after this accident, in the fall of 1868, Mr. Elder met with another great misfortune -- the loss of his second wife. In consequence of the combined effects of this bereavement and of the injury which he had received, he resigned the principalship of the Orphans' School, although strongly urged to remain, in 1871. Since that time he has resided in Dayton, leading a somewhat retired life, but giving his attention to business, and still taking a deep interest in all that pertains to the welfare of his fellow man. He is still a stockholder in and a member of the board of managers of the Soldiers' Orphans' School. In 1880 he was the principal organizer of the Dayton Agricultural and Mechanical Association, and was elected its first president, which office he held for two years. Subsequently he became vice-president and now holds that office. He is also editor of the Dayton News, a recently established but prosperous local journal, which he ably conducts.

In his chosen high calling, the ministry, Rev. Elder was very successful, his labors being attended with the best results. He combined the advantages of broad and thorough scholarship with great native ability, and his discourses were interesting, instructive and full of force, logical and lucid. He is said to have possessed marked eloquence. The genial qualities of nature and the earnestness which were valuable in the varied labors of the minister outside of the pulpit have been preserved , and with his other characteristics command for him the respect and esteem of the people among whom he has dwelt, as well as render him useful to all with whom he comes in contact.

He is a man looked up to in the community where he is best known, and has an influence for good which is exerted in many ways, among others in allaying local strife and obviating litigation between neighbors. As a teacher Mr. Elder has been almost or quite as successful as a preacher, and he is held in most respectful remembrance by many who have made the beginnings of their intellectual life under his guidance. He excels most men in executive ability.

Mr. Elder was united in marriage with Miss Tirzah Mason, of Westmoreland county, September 14, 1848. One son by this marriage, M. M. Elder, is a successful business man of New Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and has a most estimable wife in Miss Hannah Knox, granddaughter of Sheriff Chambers Orr. Mr. Elder's first wife died in 1851, and upon October 10, 1854, he was joined in wedlock with his second wife, Miss Mary P. Lindsay, of Philadelphia, whose death, hitherto referred to, occurred upon September 12, 1868. She left two children: Tirzah (wife of C. S. Marshall, of the firm of C. S. Marshall & Co., Dayton), a graduate of Union Academy, and a most esteemed lady in the community, and A. W. Elder, who is pursuing a medical education and has already spent two years at Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia.

Mr. Elder is still living in Dayton, and it is to be hoped may be spared for many years. And when the time comes that he must pass away, this at least will be said of him, he was a worker of more than ordinary ability in his day and generation.

Source: Page(s) 600-602, History of Armstrong County, Pennsylvania by Robert Walker Smith, Esq. Chicago: Waterman, Watkins & Co., 1883.
July 2000 by Linda Mockenhaupt and James R. Hindman for the Armstrong County Smith Project.
Contributed by
Linda Mockenhaupt and James R. Hindman for use by the Armstrong County Genealogy Project (

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