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History of Public Schools



1915 Proposed High School


Since its incorporation as a Borough, on August 24, 1865, the growth of South Bethlehem in population and material progress has been, if not phenomenal, at least remarkable, and we are safe in claiming that few communities within the Commonwealth have, in a like period, shown a proportionate improvement along the lines of public education. The new Borough inherited from the ancestral Lower Saucon Township village, Bethlehem South, three humble buildings where,

“In his noisy mansion, skilled to rule,
The village master taught his little school.”

One of these, which was referred to as “the school in the field”, occupied the site of James Scott’s former hotel, on the southeast corner of Second and Spruce Streets. This modest building, 20 by 25 feet, was erected in 1858, five years after the Zinc Works, our pioneer industrial plant, went into operation, and five years before the first blast furnace of The Bethlehem Iron Co.” was lighted. So little was then foreseen of the growth of our town and its prospective requirements for school purposes that one of the Directors, on being asked if he thought this primitive school house sufficiently large, assured his questioner that it would meet the wants of our school population for the next 20 years. But instead of a score of years, it was but two years after when a larger building became an imperative necessity.

Another of those early schools was located in a flour and feed warehouse, situated on Front Street, near Northampton Avenue. Two of its teachers were ———— Lehman and Jacob Nickum.

The third of these schools ante-dating our Borough was built in 1860. It was a diminutive brick structure which stood, until quite recently, on the south side of Spring Street, about midway between Elm and Locust Street. The late Superintendent of our schools, Owen R. Wilt, was its first borough teacher.

Of the teachers in these, our first schools, in addition to those already mentioned, the names of Griffith Perkin, John D. Maughan, George Getter, Charles Kline, and Miss ———— Bush are rescued from oblivion. In their case, the mention here of their names and the location of their schools may serve to avert the fate which overtook, in a short time, Goldsmith’s first teacher, "Paddy" Burns, and his school house, and which Goldsmith deplores in his lines:

“But past is all his fame. The very spot
Where many a time he triumphed is forgot.”

The people of that early day did not regard the "school marm” with particular favor. Muscular strength and dominating sternness, so necessary in the successful management of the then all-important part of the juvenile population — the boys — were looked upon as essentials of the well-equipped teacher, and womanly sympathy and helpfulness were neither recognized nor appreciated. It is somewhat surprising then to learn that these early Directors saw fit to entrust their Second Street school to the tender care of a woman — Miss Bush.

As previously intimated, these three schools soon proved inadequate to the accommodation of the rapidly increasing youthful population. The school authorities convinced of this fact, built Penrose School, on the site of the present Central School, in the summer of 1867. The building which was first occupied on October 17, 1867, contained six large rooms and three smaller ante-rooms, and with its three tall stories of brick and its wooden belfry surmounting these, must have impressed its admiring patrons as a veritable “skyscraper”. Tradition says that the erection of this building was regarded as “a distinguished achievement”. Jacob A. Campbell, H.S. Houskeeper, J.H. DePue, C.T. Bender, P.J. Hall and Joseph H. McGee were the successive Principals of this School.



It was thought a certainty that Penrose would afford ample accommodations for many years to come, but within a short period of three years it was in turn overcrowded, and the building of another and more commodious' school house became not only necessary but indispensable. Accordingly, in 1870, Melrose School, an eight-roomed, brick structure, was erected on the site of the present Quinn School—the southwest corner of Fourth and Poplar Streets — at a cost of $14,900, and was first occupied on October 11, 1870. When this building was being razed, preparatory to the erection of its successor, there was discovered in the attic a piece of white pine floor-boarding which had penciled on it the following information: “Members of the School Board of South Bethlehem in 1870: H.S. Goodwin, President; G. Aiegenfuss, Secretary; H.K. Shaner, Treasurer; Steve A. Snyder, John Bachoffer, Hugh O’Neill, Charles Quinn, Directors; Architect and Carpenter, H. K. Shaner; Contractor Levi Overholtzer; Building finished, October, 1870”. The successive Principals of this School were: Peter Boone, John McCammon, A. L. Cope, W. J. Kratz, Thomas O’Reilly, P. F. Stauffer, A. B. Fehr, P. F. Enright, and Joseph H. McGee.


Central High School, South Bethlehem



Seemingly our school authorities have always placed too low an estimate upon the executive ability of their women teachers to entrust any of them, with a single exception, with the responsibilities of a Principalship. The one exception is that of Miss Kate Heilig (Mrs. John Reilly), who served as Principal of the “Wyandotte Street School”, which was opened shortly after the annexation of the “University District”, in 1888, and abandoned after the opening of Madison School.

Inquiry fails to elicit the origin or significance of the name, “Penrose” Whom or what it was intended to commemorate, or by whom suggested, does not appear. The name, "Melrose”, was proposed by one Boone, for several months the first Principal of that School. Doubtless he had in mind the dream-like, ivy-grown ruins of holy Melrose Abbey as pictured by Scott in his lines beginning,

“If thou wouldst view fair Melrose aright”, etc.

In resuming our narrative, we pass on to a period four years after the date last mentioned, when, in the course of his address at the Commencement Day exercises at Lehigh University, in 1874, Dr. Henry Coppée, Lehigh’s first President, expressed the wish that the public schools of this vicinity would raise their standard so that they might prepare young men for admission to the University. His remarks stimulated our Directors to immediate action toward that end. Under the leadership of their able and progressive President, the late James McMahon — South Bethlehem’s first Burgess — at their very next regular meeting, July 23, 1874, they decided to establish a school that would meet the desired requirements. It was also at the suggestion of Dr. Coppée that Harvey S. Houskeeper, B.A., (L.U. '72), then an instructor in physics in Lehigh, and secretary to the President, was chosen on August 11, the first Principal of the new school. On Saturday, August 29, Mr. Houskeeper and the Grammar School teachers examined 33 applicants for admission to the school, and 13 of them were found competent to enter the new grade. At the reopening of the schools, September 1, the school began its work, in the room on the north side of the third floor of Penrose School. On September 8, the Board fixed the course of the School at two years, and decided that it should be called “The High School”.

Principal Houskeeper entered upon his labors here with the same enthusiasm and ability which characterized all his subsequent work. His pupils who graduated in 1876 being the first Class to which diplomas were awarded, made remarkable progress, especially in mechanical and freehand drawing. Specimens of their work were exhibited at the Centennial Exposition, held in Philadelphia that year, and they are preserved by the School as cherished mementos of its first meritorious work.

The first Class to graduate from the School was constituted as follows: Addie Blaine (Mrs. Henry Mack), James F. Broughal, James Doran, Catharine Fluck (Mrs. John Christine), Jeremiah Griffin, Linda Guth (Mrs. Kleppinger), James McMahon, Jennie Munsloe (Mrs. J. Warren Martenis), Elmer E. Musselman, Mary E. Quinn (Mrs. Dr. Thomas O’Reilly), George Shawde, Milton Weaver, David J. Weidner, and Edward D. Whetford.

The two buildings last mentioned — the two roses — met the wants of the Borough for almost a decade. Then, in 1879, the contract for the erection of Excelsior School, on the north side of Fourth Street, between Birch and Elm Streets, was awarded. At the dedication of this School, October 1, 1879, Dr. Coppée delivered an address, and the High School was removed to the present southwest room of that building.


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