The 1895 Public School
The Whitpain 1895 Public School and School Life
The two-story schoolhouse opened in September 1895 and is located at 799 W. Skippack Pike, Blue Bell on the corner of Skippack Pike and School Road. The schoolhouse served to consolidate students from several one-room schoolhouses in the area and to provide the first public high school, grades nine to eleven, in this rural area. The schoolhouse is almost completely original inside and out and is a fine example of an authentic schoolhouse of the period. It continues to serve the community as the Headquarters of the Wissahickon Valley Historical Society.
The Whitpain 1895 Public School has a distinctive style due in part to the Moorish design, the heptagonal turret on the front of the schoolhouse and the Gothic style inscription over the front of the building reading “AD Public School 1895”. It was constructed in 1895 by local architects and builders using locally available materials.
In 1887, the Pennsylvania legislature passed general laws authorizing the establishment of High Schools. By 1890, there were 180 high schools in Pennsylvania. Prior to 1890, secondary education in Pennsylvania was carried on largely by academies, which were established throughout the state by groups of local citizens or by religious denominations. In 1895, the School Directors in Whitpain Township determined the need for a larger, modern schoolhouse. The Whitpain 1895 Public School was designed by Victor H. Baker and built by Walter Shaeff of Blue Bell. Local artisans assisted including Benjamin Franklin Famous and Henry Steinbright, both from Blue Bell. The school was dedicated on November 20, 1895. The Master of Ceremonies was William D. Beyer and the ceremony included an address from County Superintendent R. F. Hoffeckers and a historical sketch of the public schools of Whitpain by Hon. Jones Detweiller, Secretary of the School Board. The school was described as “rather an artistic modern school building having somewhat a Moorish appearance.” The school cost:
- $3,698.54 to erect
- The front stone wall and grading cost $231.82.
The money for the construction came directly from the teachers’ own salaries; the School Board cut salaries from $45 a month to $40 a month for a period of ten years. William D. Beyer was appointed as the first principal and teacher.
The first floor of the schoolhouse held classes for students in grade one to eight and the second floor from nine to eleven. There were 30 – 40 students in the first floor classroom and the second floor classroom held 18 – 20 students. Attendance depended on chores or whether it was planting or harvesting time on the farm. Students on the lower end of the Township went to Ambler High School for twelfth grade; those in the upper part of the Township went to Norristown High School. The school’s lunchroom was located in the basement while the principal’s office and library were located on the second floor. The Principal, William D. Beyer, rode his horse and wagon each day to school from East Norriton. Central heating was provided by a coal Smead-type heating system, modern for its time. The schoolhouse did not have electricity, lighting devices or plumbing. There were two small sheds outside, used as lavatories, one for the boys and one for the girls which were torn down prior to 1960. Drinking water was available at a pump located outside of the schoolhouse. A second floor lavatory was installed in 1956 and removed during the renovations in 2018. The first floor lavatory was installed in1984 and updated in 2018.
Originally the schoolhouse had a tall Gothic bell tower with a catwalk and a quill weathervane. During a severe storm in 1923, the bell tower was struck by lightning and repaired shortly thereafter to the current Heptagonal Turret design.
The exterior of the Heptagonal Turret (7 sided), which rises from a pendant base, has a conical shaped cedar shingle roof, and the turret contains five casement, six light windows. From the top of the pendant base to the windowsills there are rows of varying shaped cedar shingles.
Due to the Turret’s location on the corner of the schoolhouse, the interior is an Octagonal Turret (8 sided) room, containing a circular wooden staircase. The staircase originally led to the trap door where the bell tower was located.
Many of the children walked to school, some rode bicycles. On rainy days parents had mercy on their little ones and picked them up at school. One of our long-time Whitpain residents remembers that on rainy days the front of the school yard would be full of horse “teams” as parents picked up their children. This same gentleman also relates that on deep-snow days, some children were gathered up in bob sleds or farm sleds and taken to school. School busing began about 1918. One former student describes the two buses: “one makeshift Ford that rocked and one Reo, slightly better.” Another former student further explains the “rocking” of the Ford bus, “when too many students sat in the back of the bus, the front wheels left the ground and there had to be a hasty redistribution of students”.
In 1916, the School Board decided to consolidate six neighboring elementary schools, creating the Whitpain Township Consolidated Public School. The new school was built 45 feet adjacent to the Whitpain 1895 Public School in 1916. It was a modern two-story brick building containing four classrooms, two on each floor. Two grades were taught in each classroom. There was also a basement which contained the Principal’s office, a Teachers’ room and bathrooms, with indoor-plumbing-of-sorts. The new school was built with electricity, plumbing and steam-radiator heating. In September 1917, the Whitpain Township Consolidated Public School was open for grades one to eight, while the Whitpain 1895 Public School housed the high school grades nine to eleven. The Whitpain Township Consolidated Public School was dedicated on November 29, 1917.
Behind the two adjacent schoolhouses was a play area extending all the way back to the woods which, of course, have disappeared. At recess the 1920’s children played the games of the era: Tag, Hide-and-go-seek, Prisoner’s Base, I Spy, snowball fights, Fox and Geese, jump rope, etc. The high school students had organized sports: volley ball, soft ball, baseball, soccer and basketball.
Apparel of these rugged country children was sensible and suited to the seasons. In winter, long under-drawers were standard equipment for all of the younger children. The boys wore knickers, long brown stockings and high laced shoes; the girls wore long stockings, dresses and high shoes.
WHITPAIN`S SCHOOL SONG
All hail ! For dear old Whitpain
Thy home sweet home so dear;
Where truth and honor will always dwell;
Thy name we truly revere.
Thy precepts will never perish.
Thy name we shall ever cherish.
The blue and white ever stands for right;
Then hail! Dear old Whitpain, hail!
Fight, fight, fight for blue and white!
Roll down the field of green
Wave your banners proudly
Where Whitpain stars shall gleam.
Fight, fight, fight for blue and white!
Fight on to victory!
For Whitpain High fight, fight
on to the end! Fight! (yell)
Let’s go for blue and white.
Fight on for victory; fight on for victory,
Fight against the foe.
Stand up and cheer her glorious name;
as Whitpain High goes into the game.
We’re loyal to you, all cheering for you, as we
Let the rafters ring as we keep cheering for
Rah! Rah! FIGHT!!!
(Repeat the last verse)
When the Whitpain Township Consolidated Public School became overcrowded in 1924, the first floor of the Whitpain 1895 Public School was used for 4th and 5th grades. In 1929, the rear of the Whitpain Township Consolidated Public School was expanded adding classrooms on three floors, along with an auditorium and a cafeteria in the basement. The expanded Whitpain Township Consolidated Public School took over operations for elementary and high school grades. The Whitpain 1895 Public School was used for auxiliary purposes at this point ending the period of significance for the Whitpain 1895 Public School.
Following the period of significance, the Whitpain 1895 Public School was used as follows:
- In 1947, because of increased enrollment in the Whitpain School District, the Whitpain 1895 Public School was reopened for the 5th and 6th
- In 1957, as the population increased and Whitpain Township became more developed, three new schools Blue Bell Elementary School (Symphony Lane), Shady Grove Junior High School (Skippack Pike at Lewis Lane) and Stony Creek School (Yost Road) were built.
- From 1957 to 1967, the Whitpain 1895 Public School became the Township Administration Building and Police Station
- In the early 1960’s, the Wissahickon School District held kindergarten classes and special education classes on the first floor of the Whitpain 1895 Public School. The last kindergarten class was held for part of the 1963 school year.
- From 1967 to 1981, the Whitpain 1895 Public School housed the Whitpain Branch of the Wissahickon Library.
- On July 27, 1981, Whitpain Township purchased the Whitpain 1895 Public School from the Wissahickon School district for $500.
- In 1982, the Wissahickon Valley Historical Society leased the Whitpain 1895 Public School from Whitpain Township.
- In 2015, the Whitpain Historical Society merged with the Wissahickon Valley Historical Society and moved into the Whitpain 1895 Public School.
The interior and exterior of the Whitpain 1895 Public School are remarkably original. The interior of the schoolhouse is of the late 19th century, complete with its original slate chalkboards, wooden plank floors and large glass windows. The front and side yards of the schoolhouse still retain its original fieldstone walls in an essentially unchanged condition at the street edges. The Whitpain 1895 Public School maintains the overall likeness one would expect for the 1895 period, except the space is used now as a museum and library rather than a classroom.
Wissahickon Valley Historical Society is a certified 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization