Mercersburg High School 1921 -1954

By Joan C. McCulloh

          In 1920 in the November election in which citizens throughout the nation voted for a President, Warren G. Harding as the Republican candidate or James M. Cox as the Democratic candidate, local citizens, in addition, were asked to vote their  approval or disapproval of a bond issue relevant to the building of a new school.

          In 1878 the Mercersburg School District built on West Seminary Street a school that served both elementary and secondary students.  The first graduating class, that of 1880, had four members.

          By 1920 the School Board, whose president was H.W. Byron, after having weighed the options of either renovating that school or building a separate high school building, determined to build a new building to be utilized as the high school and wanted to buy the property at the corner of Park and West Seminary Streets, property adjacent to the school built in 1878.  On the corner stood the Lauderbaugh building which the school board wanted to raze.  To purchase this property and to build a school the Board needed local approval in the November 1920 election of a bond issue of $44, 801.60. 

          Since the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution had been ratified only in August 1920, the November election of 1920 was the first election in which women with the exception of those living a few western states were permitted to vote. Therefore, the School Board went to the Women’s Club of Mercersburg at the club’s regularly scheduled meeting at the beginning of October and asked the members to cooperate with it and to attend a mass meeting of local citizens to be held at the end of October in order to encourage people to vote for approval of the bond issue.

          The women agreed immediately and noted in the minutes “the crowded and unsanitary conditions of the school.” According to the  Mercersburg American Journal  Miss Ella Bradley, a teacher in the school,  explained to the members what the bond issue involved and told why it would be a financial advantage to the taxpayers to vote affirmatively.  Miss Sadie Parker, a past president of the club and a teacher who had just retired after having taught forty-seven years in the local public schools, “in a few fitting and appropriate words introduced the study of the ballot.”  The women had a acquired a sample of what was then called the Australian ballot and at this early October meeting under the guidance of Miss Parker learned how to vote.

          They learned the difference between voting a straight party ticket and voting for individuals and learned that helping another person to vote, unless that person physically could not vote, is forbidden.  Miss Parker, who had taught first in the elementary school and then had taught English, algebra, and civics in the high school, said that she had taught her students to vote and that her students had held elections.  One woman at the meeting said that she would vote with pride. The Mercersburg American Journal noted: “All the members expressed interest and showed their determination to become intelligent voters.”

          In November of that year the women used their newly won power.  The results of the election on November 2, 1920, were that the nation elected Warren G. Harding as President and local citizens approved the bond issue by a vote of 456 to 31 so that the new high school could become  a reality. Consequently, the School Board awarded a contract to Quigley Hafer of Chambersburg for construction of the high school that served this community from 1921 until 1954.

          There can be little doubt that the approval of the bond issue for construction of this school was attributable in large part to the vote of the women.

          The Jester, published by the Mercersburg High School Literary Society in 1926-1927, stated the following: “In the year 1922 the building was finished in time for school.  The class of 1923 was the first class to be graduated from the new school, and the class of 1926 was the first to spend its whole course of high school work there.”  The  author of the article in The Jester in expressing pride in the high school noted “the auditorium, a community center for the promotion of the cause of education; the gymnasium, a popular recreational resort enjoyed by both pupils and citizens of the town; a laboratory with adequate equipment for the study of science; and the library whose benefits are greatly appreciated by both pupils and teachers.” In The Jester one of the students, Beulah Miller of the class of 1926, wrote “Ode to the New Schoolhouse.”

                   A building fair with stately lines.

                   Is what the casual eye may see;

                   But to the one whose heart is thrilled

                   With hopes for youth and all humanity,

                             It is a vital thing -apart

                             From merely walls and roof and floor-

                             It speaks of wisdom-music-art:

                             To God’s best gifts, it is a door,

                                      This new schoolhouse.

 

                    Seemingly from the ashes of a former shrine

                   Has sprung this fairer product of noble aim;

                   Oh, that youth may know the golden age

                   E’er it passes and with joyful heart acclaim

                             This is my school-’tis free

                   I’ll strive to do my best each day

                   And live that other folks may see

                   ‘Tis with gratitude and loyalty, I say

                                      My new schoolhouse.

 

          On October 23, 1925, fire destroyed the old school built in 1878 on West Seminary Street that had served both elementary and secondary students.   Therefore, the new building needed to accommodate all of the students from grade one through grade twelve.  Again according to The Jester “The junior and senior high school pupils and one section of the third grade assembled in the morning at eight o’clock finishing their work at 12:15 noon.  In one half hour all the other grades were at work in the same rooms just vacated by the first student group and were in session until 4:30.  Every inch of space available was converted into classrooms even the principal’s office and for a short time the Presbyterian Sunday School rooms were used until the two rooms of the old building which had not been destroyed were fitted up for work again.  Thus it was possible to continue school with little delay.”

          The Jester continued:  “Plans for a new grade building were soon under way, and another time Mr. Hafer of Chambersburg received a contract for one of Mercersburg’s public schools.  Although the memories of the school days in the old building are sacred to many, there are no regrets held against the fine, modern structure of 12 rooms that had taken its place.” 

          At the conclusion of commencement exercises four years earlier than the student publication and at the beginning of life in the new school the Mercersburg High School Alumni Association was formed.  On June 8, 1922, about fifty people remained at the conclusion of commencement exercises, and John L Finafrock, a resident of Mercersburg, who had been the high school principal from 1896-1905 and 1906-1915  and at that time was superintendent of the public schools in Franklin County, acted as chairman of the group.  He explained “the needs and benefits of such an organization.”

          The new school about which Beulah Miller wrote so enthusiastically in her ode in turn became the old school that in order to make way for the new was razed in 1980.  But the same activities remain.  The Jester in 1926 focused upon the teams, basketball, football, and baseball, and included articles about student musical programs, food sales, a sophomore reception, a junior carnival at which Miss Keller, who taught English, told the students their fortunes, “their past, present, and future,” a senior play, and student fund-raising for people in need both here and abroad.  Although the sports uniforms have changed, the types of activities remain constant. The message also remains the same.  As Mollie Patterson, one of the four members of the class of 1880, the first class to graduate from the high school in Mercersburg,  wrote in her valedictory address:  “The past is behind us. Let us tread these paths with hopeful hearts, with honest purpose, with earnest zeal, unhasting, unresting diligence.”  Although the buildings change, the message never changes.


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