Summer has drawn to a close and with that the seasonal regularity of school buses are seen in numbers rolling toward various schools in Elizabethtown. The school buses are filled with excited children anticipating a new school term. Their excitement in regard to a new term, new teacher and perhaps new classmates is not unique nor unlike the excitement that children experienced in Elizabethtown over 200 years ago at the beginning of a school year. However, children then were embarking on uncharted territory.
The first recorded schoolmaster to greet those uncertain students 228 years ago in Elizabethtown was George Paul Freyer who arrived from Derry Township in 1789. A conveyancer as well as an educator, he settled on a four acre property which he titled "Walnut Grove" just north of Elizabethtown. He was renowned for his beautiful copperplate hand and often requests were made for him to draft documents. Today examples of his handwriting survive in legal papers. He taught in Elizabethtown until his death in 1821 when he died in debt, leaving his wife and children homeless, a sad farewell for Elizabethtown's first recorded teacher.
The schools in Elizabethtown during the late 1700's and early 1800's were supported by local churches and children attended the school affiliated with their church. At that time there were two church schools to accommodate the approximately thirty families of Elizabethtown. One was a Catholic school built in 1796 and located near the historic St. Peter's Catholic Church on Church Alley. The other church school was located at 45 West High Street, on the site which is today The End Zone Bar and Grille. A reasonable assumption would be that the school was associated with the Lutheran Church, another strong religious presence in Elizabethtown in 1800.
Today children yearly study several subjects and attend school nine months. They start school as early as five years of age and attend for twelve years.
Children in the early 1800's in Elizabethtown attended schools which were bilingual (English and German) for two or three sessions, with each session consisting of three months. The goals for parents when enrolling children in school was that their children learn to read, to write in an easily deciphered handwriting and to solve arithmetic problems applicable to daily life. Once the goals were met or lessons mastered by the child, the parents withdrew the student from school.
Evidence of this mindset was found in a will left by an Elizabethtown wheelwright by the name of Andrew Gross in 1804. Mr. Gross left instructions in his will that his youngest daughter Rosannah be sent to the Catholic school and taught to "read and write in both the German and English" and given an education "sufficient for a woman. I schooled the rest."
Rosannah's teacher was Terah Jones who emigrated from Ireland in 1797. All reports indicate that he was a well-respected teacher who taught sporadically until he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the United States Army to defend his adopted homeland in the War of 1812. His replacement at the school was Edward Masterson, another Irish immigrant, from County Haven, Ireland.
Before leaving for battle Mr. Jones had the pleasure of encountering a fellow Irishman who walked into Elizabethtown on a cold day in January of 1807. His name was Fortescue Cuming, an adventurous young man on a journey that began in New York. Starting in New York he began walking to Philadelphia, then Lancaster, with a destination of Pittsburgh. He was a proficient writer and published an account of his adventure in 1810 titled Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country. The following is an excerpt from that account where he discussed the school and the schoolmaster in Elizabethtown. "This village contains about thirty tolerable houses, has a meeting house, and a school, when a master can be got, which is not always the case, the place having now some months vacant. The school trustees ensure twenty-five scholars at two dollars each quarter, which being only two hundred dollars per annum. I would have supposed insufficient for his support, if at the same time I had not been informed that his board and lodging in the most respectable manner will not cost him above eighty dollars a year, in this cheap and plentiful country."
A decade would pass from the day Fortescue left Elizabethtown, heading toward Pittsburgh, before a new school was built on Lot 12 along Mechanics Street. That new school would be a sturdy wooden structure built in 1812. It served the children that lived east of Market Street in Mt Joy Township as an academic refuge. Anthony Syfort and David Colhoon were the assigned teachers for the Mechanics Street school. Across Market Street in West Donegal a brick structure was built to replace the log school that stood at 45 West High Street. The basic structure still stands today and has been incorporated into the End Zone Bar and Grille.
In the 1830s politics were no less divisive than they are today. The hot topic tossed from one party to the other that decade pertained to the education of Pennsylvania's children. The state legislature took three years to draft a bill creating a free, tax-supported, statewide system of education. The bill was finally approved by a unanimous vote of both houses in part because voters of every township would decide whether they wanted to pay for public education with their tax dollars.
It was among the voters within each township that the divisiveness escalated when the bill that pertained to a taxable education was given to them to vote upon. The only source of tax dollars was land, and landowners such as farmers were adamant they did not want to pay for public schools. In addition, there were opponents who objected to the idea that the lessons would only be taught in English. Those opposed were primarily the Pennsylvania Germans, who supported their own German-language, often church-related schools. The residents of each township would take years to vote in favor of the bill. It would be almost ten years before all townships had voted in support of tax-funded public schools.
In 1843, Mt. Joy Township landowner's tax dollars built a new brick school house, replacing the wooden structure of Mechanic Street School. That school remained operational as a schoolhouse until 1874.
In 1860, the residents of West Donegal replaced their schoolhouse on West High Street with a brick structure on Peach Alley. That one-room school served the students living west of Market Street till 1874.
Both schools had similar curriculum which expanded through the decades. It consisted of writing or penmanship, practical arithmetic and reading. The reading curriculum emphasized vocabulary and grammar. Children only attended school for six or seven months a year. Each school had eight grades and children attended from age six through age fourteen. The months the children did not attend school were necessary to meet the needs at home where children assisted with planting and harvesting. During the months that school was in session attendance was not mandatory.
Teachers early in the 19th century were certified by a local or county board of examiners. The teachers were required to pass a test administered by the local or county board of examiners proving their competence to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, Geography, grammar and orthography (spelling) were later added to required subjects. Examiners also judged the "moral character" of teachers. In 1864, a state board of examiners began issuing certificates accepted in all parts of the state.
In 1870, the Mechanics Street and Peach Alley schoolhouses were filled to capacity. The Elizabethtown School Board recognized the need for a larger school and construction began on a new schoolhouse in 1873 and was completed in 1874. Replacing the beloved Mechanics Street and Peach Alley schoolhouses was a large two-story brick building with four large classrooms. It cost the residents of Elizabethtown $12,000.00 to build the school and it stood on the south side of West High Street. Subsequently the Mechanics Street and Peach Alley Schoolhouses were both sold to private owners. Eventually the Mechanic Street schoolhouse was demolished. Fortunately the Peach Alley Schoolhouse still stands today as the home of the Elizabethtown Historical Society.
The large school provided an academic haven for grades first through twelfth until it was demolished in 1909. It was replaced with a larger, three-story building on the same site. The new school had six classrooms for the lower grades and two for the high school with an auditorium on the top floor. Unfortunately, less than two years later, a fire of unknown origin destroyed the new school. Undeterred, the school board quickly rebuilt the school with four more classrooms than the previous school.
As the schools in Elizabethtown expanded so did the training for the teachers. New privately funded institutions called normal schools were designed to specifically train teachers. They became increasingly important as the certification process became more rigorous. Eventually colleges and universities took the place of normal schools.
As the population of Elizabethtown continued to grow and children opted to further their education from eight years to twelve, the need for more classrooms became evident. In 1923, to address this immediate need the Peach Alley Schoolhouse was reopened as a school. The school board became creative and made what was affectionately known as "chicken coops". They were basically one-room additions to serve as make-shift classrooms until a permanent solution could be adopted.
The borough's solution became a new Junior-Senior High school on South Poplar Street, which still stands today as the home of GEARS. The Junior-Senior High School that was dedicated in November of 1929 was completed at a cost of $122,000. The grammar school children continued to attend the school on West High Street and neighboring one-room schools.
Two decades later the buzz around town was the consolidation of one and two-room schools. In 1949, representatives from Elizabethtown, West Donegal and Mt. Joy Townships met to discuss a single educational system designed to provide quality education for all children. It took the districts until 1953 to prepare a proposal for the voters of each district. Once all the districts agreed the Elizabethtown Area School District organizational meeting was held in July of 1954.
The first three proposed elementary schools slated to open in 1955 and 1956 were Mill Road, Fairview and Rheems at a collective cost of $800.000. Ground was broken for a high school in 1956 and it opened on East High Street in 1957. The cost for the high school was $2,000,000. A year later, St. Peter's Church opened an elementary school in the former Brethren Church on Washington Street.
Elizabethtown's older school buildings and West High Street School all closed in 1973. The borough of Elizabethtown proposed buying the old school on West High Street for borough offices. Unfortunately only days after they reached an agreement, fire gutted the old school building, which was subsequently demolished.
The Elizabethtown Historical Society has a comprehensive display of one and two-room schoolhouses that were built in the Elizabethtown area. Please visit our museum at 57 South Poplar Street, Elizabethtown, PA.