(Originally published in the Fall 2014 newsletter)
With a new school year upon us, we think it’s a perfect opportunity to take you back in time to reflect on education in Montgomery Township many years ago. Before 1840, education was privately controlled, but open to all local children. After 1840, when the PA state legislature mandated publicly-financed schools in all towns and townships, Montgomery Township established a system of public education.
In the early years, there were several private schools in Montgomery Township including the Free School of Montgomery Square which operated until 1860 from a location on the southeast corner of the intersection of Bethlehem Pike and Upper State Road (now Buckman’s Ski Shop), a school at the Montgomery Baptist Church, and (in the 1830s) a boys’ boarding school near Montgomery Square. By 1844, there were four public schools operating in the township; on Cowpath Road, North of the Five Points intersection in Montgomeryville (still standing as a private home); Kenas Road; Doylestown Road; and at Montgomery Square (on the second floor of the Free School building).
At the elementary school level, students worked individually in an “open classroom,” and promotions were not based on age or the end of a school year. Students were only promoted when they successfully completed a reader. Subjects taught included spelling, geography, history, civics, reading and mental arithmetic (memorizing problems and then reciting them). Eighth grade graduation from all township schools was held at Montgomery Baptist Church, and those wishing to continue their education went on to Lansdale High School for three more years of study.
According to historian Edward Matthews, the Free School was built in 1791 then enlarged in the 1820s and again in 1876. The Free School “afforded opportunities superior to those usually found in the rural parts of Pennsylvania at this time,” Matthews asserts. Some notable graduates of this school include Benjamin Hancock (who also taught there in the 1820s), father of General W.S. Hancock, and Samuel Medary, later governor of the Kansas and Minnesota territories.
The cost of school supplies back in 1816 was twenty-five cents for a spelling book; 6¼ cents for a student primer; and 12½ cents for a copybook. The cost of tuition was approximately 6 cents per day.
Beginning in 1840, the Free School continued to operate on the (current Buckman’s) building’s first floor, and the public school operated on the second floor. The Free School closed its doors in 1869, but the public school continued to use the building until 1925, when the Montgomery Township Consolidated School was opened (still standing, but vacant) at the Five Points Intersection in Montgomeryville. Since then, the former Free School building in Montgomery Square has been used as a public meeting hall and eventually housed the former Blue Jay Tavern. Local lore holds there was once a tunnel connecting the Free School to the former Montgomery Square Methodist Church (now the TD Bank property), as the school served as a “station” of the Underground Railroad. Much of the tunnel was destroyed when the road was widened in the late 1940s.
Excerpted from An Erudite Little Township, A History of Montgomery Township to 1900 by James Williams. Special thanks to Buckman’s Ski Shop for permission to highlight their building for this article.