Lower Merion Historical Society

The Lower Merion Historical Society

« David J. Schmidt Collection

Old Eagle School

By David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

At Old Eagle School, third graders from the contemporary Eagle Elementary School learn how good they have it compared to the students who attended the older school in the early 19th century. They visit the Old Eagle School as part of their unit on local history, and members of the Board of Trustees tell them about life and education in those distant years.

This program started about five or six years ago when Alice Doering was president of the Board, and there was a school group interested in coming to learn about how schools operated. She brought it to the full board, and they thought it was a good idea.

Visiting schoolchildren first encounter the stern visage of the 1820’s schoolmaster, dressed in period garb. But that visage quickly becomes a friendly guide through the strange world of a child’s education over 180 years ago. “I stuck out my neck and said that I would play the role of schoolmaster,” said James Boyle, one of the earliest schoolmasters, better known around Radnor as Bennett Hill. Hill now has a large following among school children as that ancient schoolmaster. “I decided that I would create a character in what’s called the ‘first person past tense’ o or ‘ghost’ format.”

Boyle wasn’t the first schoolmaster, but was probably the most colorful. “The fellow was Andrew Garden, whose initials are scratched in the west wall, something you’d expect more from a rambunctious student rather than the stern schoolmaster. “He was a Baptist and also a bit of a tippler,” said Hill. “Because of that, he was thrown out of Baptist meetings more than once,” said Hill. But he’d also been a fifer as a boy during the Revolutionary War, and his veteran status probably allowed for the forgiveness of at least some transgressions.

Hill decided that he didn’t want to portray Garden. “It’s more fun being able to talk about him rather than play him.” Less dramatic but equally educational, board members Betty Hannon and Dave Rogers join Hill in presenting the school to the children.

Hannon takes a third of the children around the exterior of the building, explaining its architecture and history. Rogers leads a tour of he school’s graveyard, getting help from students in reading tombstones as well as the memorial to the fallen of the Revolution.

Meanwhile the rest of the third graders are met at the door to the school by a bell ringing Schoolmaster, James Boyle. Upon ringing the bell to start the historic school day, he invited the children into the class and their tour of perhaps their great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandmothers and grandfathers school days.

Three or four times a year school children troop into the school and discover things were just a little bit different then. Students didn’t arrive at the same time. They would arrive on foot, horseback or perhaps on a horse-drawn sled in winter from all over what is now Tredyffryn and Radnor Townships. “Back then the township borders weren’t so important,” Hill said.

It wasn’t until 1836 that the townships were given responsibility for schools. Until then, if families wanted their children educated, the sent then where they could. There weren’t many possibilities. They might go to a boarding school if their parents were rich, following the English tradition of shipping young boys off to ‘public’ school at age eight. Or, they might attend religious school — Quaker, Mennonite or Lutheran, if one of those was close enough. But along Lancaster Pike near the Eagle Tavern there were enough families interested that they were able to start a school.

That wasn’t an inexpensive proposition. First there needed to be land for the school, and naturally, a schoolhouse. The land occupied by Old Eagle School was given by Jacob Sharraden, a German immigrant said to be of “wealth and education.” A grist miller, he’d bought 150 acres and, in 1765, gave one acre up for the school. In 1768 a log school was built and furnished with rough furniture — students sat upon split logs, with the younger students in front and older in the rear.

The earliest part of the present rubblestone building dates from 1788. “It was supposedly built by John Pugh who was also thought to be the builder of Finlay House. This is just legend, there’s no evidence,” said Hill. Due to the school’s location just up the road from the Eagle Tavern, directions usually included a reference to the tavern. The Eagle part of the name came to be associated with the school.

Even after it was built it was costly. According to Hill, fees over the decades ranged from two or three dollars a quarter or three cents a day for transients. Students were expected to bring firewood with them to school wood the older boys probably chopped themselves. By 1820 this was used in the 10-plate stove that radiated an agreeable heat in the cold winters of Colonial America.

The school was different than schools we know today in several important aspects. First, there were rituals. When a student arrived they would have to “make manners” to the schoolmaster. “For the girls that meant a curtsey and for the boys, a bow,” he said. Students worked on their own as other students came in, or perhaps helpid the schoolmaster with chores around the site: clearing paths in the winter, or controlling Pennsylvania’s fertile growth around the school. If the students didn’t do it, the tasks would be left to the schoolmaster in addition to preparing his lessons and grading his students’ progress.

Also, there weren’t any real classes.

According to Hill, there might be as many as 30 boys and girls up to 14 or 15 years old in the school. “Since their ages, and therefore progress varied, they didn’t spend much of the day in classes as we would consider them today,” he said. “The tables were faced along the wall and the students would work there with their slates because paper was very expensive.”

Other standards were different, too. “They progressed at their own rate. The schoolmaster might help the progress of a daydreaming student with a little tapping from a hickory stick.” There weren’t many texts, as books were special and expensive. For students at Eagle School there were three: Comley’s Spelling, McGuffy’s Reader and Pike’s Arithmetic. In addition, the Bible was an important reference and reading segment of the education process. Eagle School had no religious affiliation, serving any of the community who wished to send their children. Because the area was located relatively far from the city life of Philadelphia, most of the people were German, English or Welsh settlers.

“Even though this wasn’t a religious school, there was a belief based on the quotation and ‘fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ and even the public schools started with the Bible,” he said. There was a different definition of religious equality and freedom. The site was also used for community activities. “There was a tradition, however, that the space wasn’t available to Roman Catholics and I doubt if there were any Jewish people living out here,” Hill said. Even in the middle of what may have been the most tolerant society of its era — the peace-loving Quakers and Mennonites — standards were still very different from today.

The facility was used as a schoolhouse until in was abandoned in 1876. “I believe it was used as a residence, but whether they were renters or squatters isn’t known,” he said. The site also included a graveyard, dating from the Revolutionary War. In 1895, a court case determined that the site and building were owned by the community rather than the school district. Title was granted to five trustees, since expanded to nine, with the charter to use it “for the general use and good of the neighborhood for religious, educational purposes and the repose of the dead.” The community fixed the site up and it became public meeting place.

In colonial Tredyffryn and Radnor, community responsibility was essential. Often survival depended upon it. Today things are less critical. But the community and the school are still closely aligned. Where once local residents started the school, today’s neighbors help to maintain it. The necessity of this community action may be less today, but there’s no doubt the spirit is equal.