History of Bennett’s Valley Schools and Education
The Gray School in early 1900s.
Like many others, the school systems of Bennett’s Valley started with many one room schools and followed through with successive stages of consolidation, jointure and merger–On July 1, 1965 the St. Marys Area School District included St. Marys and the Townships of Benzinger, Benezette, Jay, and Fox. What follows is a short history of the schools in Jay and Benezette Townships. This information has come from three standard sources of history in this area: History of McKean, Elk, Cameron and Potter Counties, Penn(Vol 2); History of Jay and Benezette Townships in Bennett’s Valley; and Pioneers of the Second Fork by Jim Burke.
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Early School Life
The pioneer school houses and the curriculum offered to the students of the early settlers of Elk County were quite primitive when measured by today’s standards. The typical early school house was generally quite small, approximately 18’ x 20’, one room structures with a single outhouse located close by to provide both the teacher and students necessary facilities.
The old Mt. Zion School was said to be a long cabin structure. Heat, if any, was a pot-belly wood stove generally located in the middle of the room. Oil lamps provided the lighting for the room. Some of the early schools were conducted in community building. Such was the case in Medix and Dents Run. In most cases a teacher who came to the community to teach was young, unmarried, with a minimal amount of training. It was common for them to board with a local resident and would walk to school as did the student attending school. The teacher was generally responsible for keeping the building clean, providing for the heat, and serving as a nurse when needed. The Ovell house on Mt. Zion Road boarded a number of teachers who taught at the Gray Hill School House.
The curriculum in the early pioneer school had many peculiarities in habit and in diction, the words “would and could” were pronounced by some – wold and cold, the letter “x” was pronounced sed, and had been pronounced a short time previous “izzard”, the words “cubic”, “music” and others, now ending in “ic”, were written cubick, musick, and the words ending “in” or were spelled and written “our”, as honour, labour, etc. In those schools there were no blackboards in use; slates were used for that purpose, and examples in the lessons in the arithmetic were performed on the slate. The pens used were made from the goose-grill, the ink from maple bark, copperas and pokeberries. Dilworth’s and Webster’s spellers, which were succeeded by Comley’s and Byerly’s Murray’s English reader and introduction were the principal books used in those schools. The arithmetics were Pike’s and Dilworth’s; Walker’s abridged vocabulary was referred to as a standard on pronunciation, providing the schoolmaster was so fortunate as to have one in his possession. Spelling from memory, words given out or pronounced by the teacher, produced somewhat of emulation, and as the higher branches were not taught, the pupils having more time and by frequent exercises in orthography became excellent spellers.
Very few school records survived for Jay and Benezette Townships in Elk County prior to the turn of the Twentieth Century.
In June, 1854, there were only twenty nine schools in Elk County. The first teacher’s institute in the county was held in June, 1856, under the supervision of Dr. Earley, and from that time was held annually until the position of Superintendent of Schools was abolished over one hundred years later. Those of record attending the 1884 from Jay and Benezette Townships included: from Benezette area was W.J. King, Maud Paddock, Edith Henry, Mary Gray, and Mary Haskin, from Dry Saw Mill (Grant) Mary Reed, and from the Weedville area their was J.H. Hayes and Lawrence (last name unknown).
The report of Superintendent C. J. Swift, on the schools of Elk county, dated June 4, 1888, gives the following statistics: 81 school houses or 99 rooms; 10 grade schools; 28 male and 89 female teachers; 1,890 male and 1645 female pupils, of whom 2,440 attended schools; school tax $37,196.69, State monies $3,203.21, total revenue $44,930.52; teachers’ salaries $23,613.15; total expenders $41,930.47, including salaries, and $9,357.67 expended on houses and rents.
It is interesting to note the rich pioneering heritage of Bennett’s Valley as it pertains to Elk County. Elk County’s first schools, post office, first saw mill, first tannery all began in the Bennett’s Valley. In addition, Caledonia served as the first county seat of Elk County, the first court of the county was held at the old school building.
Elk County’s first school was opened in 1821 at Medix Run then known as Medoc Run. This school was presided over by Cephas Morey. Classes were held in a two room community building for a class of three students. A school served this community continually for the next one hundred and ten years – from 1821 to 1931. Cephas had, at the age of 11, accompanied his family to settle here in 1813. The Morey family is acknowledged as the founder of Medix Run, and were very active in the development of both county and local townships.
Huston Hill School was located in the north-eastern corner of the township. This school closed its doors in 1929, and children on Huston Hill continued their education either in Sterling Run, Cameron County or in Benezette.
Mt. Pleasant School was on Winslow Hill and closed in 1931. Dents Run had a two room school that closed in 1941. Benezette had a school that was in operation before 1861 prior to the Civil War. The first high school was established in 1883 when eight students were graduated. This was believed to be the first high school in Bennett’s Valley. In 1904 the original building was destroyed by fire and rebuilt. In 1924, two students went to high school in Weedville.
Mining brought people to Wilmer and they had a school which was in service from 1903 to 1930. Wilmer was a few miles north of Mt Pleasant and the only mining town in Benezette Township. As the mine’s vein of coal played out, Wilmer became a ghost town.
The lumbering boom in 1907 and 1908 brought the need for the Hicks Run School.
The Johnson School was opened 1909 by the Johnsons who were the first settlers in Grant and Summerson. The following year it was moved to Grant and functioned up to 1931.
Benezette Consolidated School was formed in 1931 and became the center of learning for the township. Additional years had been added to the high school and in 1932 the only four-year graduates were know as “three wise men,” Clair Gallagher, Reed McManigle and Earl Vanlew The high school then went back to a three year school. In 1933 it was again a three year high school. From 1932 until 1954 pupils could attend the school of their choice outside the Township to continue their 4th year and the tuition for that year was paid by the Benezette Township School District. In 1947, a cafeteria was added thanks to the work of some of the students digging out a basement. Three students drove to Weedville for eleventh grade in 1955/56. They were Robert Ritter, Gary Chase and Don Losey and then continued the next year as seniors. The junior high school students were first bused to Weedville for school year 1959/1960.
Bennetts Valley Joint High School was formed on October 28, 1952 when they merged with neighboring Jay Township High School. Three students drove to Weedville for eleventh grade in 1955/56. They were Robert Ritter, Gary Chase and Don Losey and then continued the next year as seniors. Benezette’s high school students were moved to Weedville after the graduation of its last class in 1956. The junior high school students were first bused to Weedville for school year 1959/1960. The elementary school in Benezett continued on until July 1, 1965, when the Bennett’s Valley School District merged with The St. Mary’s Area School. After this date, the elementary students of Benezette attended the Weedville Elementary School. The Benezette School house building continues to serve as a community building.
In 1822, Potter Goff, a veteran of the War of 1812, opened Elk County’s second school in what is now Jay Township in the Mt. Zion area and it was known as Potter School. Potter (Peter) Goff came to the Bennett’s Branch to settle in 1817. His first wife died in 1834 and in 1836 he married the widow Ann M. Luce, and took up residence on W. F. Luce farm later known as the Gray farm on Gray Hill Road. Potter Goff died November 12, 1846, and is buried in a family cemetery next to the farm.
A school in Caledonia was opened quite early in the history of Elk County. We cannot locate an exact date; however, when the first courts of Elk County were held on December 19, 1843, the site was originally named as the Hezekiah Warner’s house, but soon later changed to the old Caledonia School House. We assume that the first school in Caledonia was started sometime about 1820, give or take a few years. The last school in Caledonia was a two story frame building located at east end of town on Route 555 (“triple-nickle”). This school was closed in 1941, and the students of Caledonia became part of the Weedville School.
At the turn of the Twentieth Century there were seven schools in Jay Township:
The Paine School located near Fairview was operational until 1901.
The Mountain School in the Mt. Zion area which by some accounts was referred to as the old log school house.
The Webb School located near Weedville was closed in 1903.
Spring Run School was located on the old road that led from Benezette to Earlyville (Kersey) in Spring Run, near the upper end of what is now the Old Dodge Road. According to state records this school closed in 1911. Bertha Ovell visited this school building in 1917 and described the building is being approximately 18′ x 20′. She said that the building did not have any windows. The side walls and the back wall where lined with blackboards. Oil lights provided the lighting, and the in the middle of the building was a cast iron pot-belly stove. The Natives referred to this school as the Dodge School because it was on Dodge property located near the Dodge homestead. One of the last to teach at this school was Ada McKreghty.
The Pike School located on Caledonia Road about half way between the Mt. Zion Road and the juncture of Caledonia Road and Route 255. The Caledonia Road was known as the Caledonia Pike Road, as this road was once a section of the Milesburg Turnpike. This school closed in 1926.
The Gray Hill School House was located near the juncture of Rock Hill and Gray Hill Road and served the students of the Mt. Zion Area. The last six teachers of the Gray Hill School are pictured here. At least both Lena Singer and Victor Benigni boarded at the Ovell residence while teaching at the Gray Hill School House.
The Gray School and its last six teachers.
Alice Reed Gray
Lena Singer Burke
On Gardner Hill, the Gardner School was started in 1903 and was in existence only three years; the Beck School served its pupils from 1907 to 1935; and the Wheeler School was in operation from 1918 to 1925.
Teaching facilities were provided when the towns of Byrnedale, Force, and Cardiff were constructed. Byrnedale School opened its doors in 1901 and closed them in 1948. Children attended the one room Cardiff School from 1905 to 1935. The first school building in Force, called the Little White School, was above the Catholic Cemetery; later a two story building was erected near the middle of the town, and in 1942 all pupils were transported to Weedville.
Weedville School was a two-story frame building serving as grade and high school which had its first graduating in 1911. Those graduated were Magdalene Dill, Guy Gardner, Ernest Ovel, Sr., Lane Foust, Bertha Dill, and Edna Wright. In 1913, the principal was F. J. Cochran of DuBois, Mrs. Cecil Belle of Benezette was the assistant principal, F.S. Jackson of Punxsutawney was the superintendent and J. W. Sweeney was county superintendent. The building burned in 1918/19. In the fall of 1919, students were housed at Redman Hall, Union Hall, Turley Hall and the Election House while the new building was built on Route 555.
This building served all school students until crowded conditions necessitated the construction of a new high school in 1942.It continued as both an elementary and junior high school until fall of 1959 when the junior high students went to the school building on Route 255. This building continued as the Weedville Elementary School until it burned in the early hours of May 28 1969. At this time it housed 365 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. It had already been planned that the students were to move to the former junior/senior high school building on Route 255 for the next school year. The students had been packing up books to be moved to their new home.
Jay Township High School housed in the Weedville School building on Route 555, became a four year school in 1922 with its first graduating class in 1923 because the third year student had to complete another year. In 1922, there were three students from Tyler in the Freshman Class. It was not unusual for there to be 20-37 in the freshman class with the numbers dwindling to 12 graduates. In 1942 the first graduation was held in the new school building on Route 255. Bennett’s Valley Joint High School was formed by a merger with Benezette Township on October 28, 1952 and students with their own transportation came to Weedville. For the 56/57 school year the Benezette students were bused to attend high school here. The seniors had already graduated from Benezette’s three year High School.
Bennett’s Valley High School was built in 1958-59 adding an auditorium/gymnasium, library, lunch room, industrial, and additional classrooms in the high school built in 1942. In the fall of 1959, the southern end of the building that had been the old high school became the Junior High School and four seventh grade students from Benezette joined the students moving from the Weedville School on Route 555.
On July 1, 1965, the Bennett’s Valley High School merged with St. Mary’s, and became part of the St. Mary’s Area School District. It would be four years before the new school building was constructed. In 1967 the last graduation was held in Bennetts Valley. In 1968 and 1969 the students went to St Marys for their graduation after attending school at the Weedville high school. In fall of 1969, the junior and senior high school students were bused to St Marys. This building became the Bennett’s Valley Elementary School as a result of the destruction of the Weedville Elementary School building in May of 1969.