The Old Eagle School, part 1 – Evening Bulletin, Martha Wentworth Suffren

“Still sits the school house by the road, a ragged beggar sunning. Not ‘ragged’ any longer. The trustees see to that. They keep the grass cut, remove a tree if one falls. But – no prayer of faith wafts upward to the blue, no childish feet scamper or scuffle through the deep doorway, even as once from Sunday School. Houses have sprung up thickly around the old building, and children there are in plenty. ‘For educational and religious purposes and for the repose of the dead.’ So runs the ancient devise, as interpreted and re-established by the court.”

So Martha Wentworth Suffren, born in Strafford in 1858, and still a resident of that historic community, concluded an article written some years ago for the “Evening Bulletin” concerning the Old Eagle School. One of the most interesting historical landmarks of rural Pennsylvania, this building stands up the hill north of Strafford Station on Old Eagle School road, which runs from Lancaster Pike crossing the tracks of the Pennsylvania Station by an underpass. The school is, according to Mrs. Suffren’s delightful account, “a quaint, almost forgotten relic of early Colonial days, with tightly shuttered windows and tightly bolted door. With the adjacent graveyard, that is a part of the demesne, where the great trees spring as often from the graves themselves as from the ground between, it makes a distinct – and pathetic – appeal to the passerby.”

Among these graves are those of many Revolutionary soldiers. Another link with that period of American history was proximity of the old school to the last of the “sentinel trees” from which during the encampment at Valley Forge direct communication was maintained with the American Army. This tree, a great chestnut over six feet in diameter, and about seventy-five feet high, was taken down when Sigmund’s Drug Store was built at the intersection of Lancaster Pike and Old Eagle School road.

The original Old Eagle School was probably built in the year 1788, as indicated by a stone set in the south gable. It was undoubtedly intended not only for a school, but for a German Protestant Church, erected by some of the early settlers of Tredyffrin and Radnor Townships who followed the original settlers who were Welshmen. The second group of settlers consisted mainly of Germans with some Swiss and even a few of the unfortunate Acadians driven from Nova Scotia. Following a custom of the home land, these Germans probably built a church before they had even completed their homes.

According to Mrs. Suffren, the original structure was only half the size of the present 33’x19′ now standing. The door, now at the south end, was then in the middle of the west side and the line of the added masonry can be plainly seen. The house as enlarged “took the place of an even older log building, used as church and school, which stood a few feet to the northward. Local tradition has it that the two structures stood side by side until 1805, when the first one was pulled down and the huge logs were used in another building now standing.”

A quaint picture in Henry Pleasants’ “History of the Old Eagle School” shows the small building as it looked in 1788. This picture, the author explains, “has been carefully prepared to conform as far as possible to the most authentic traditions of its appearance.”

Built of stone and one story in height, it had the door of which Mrs. Suffren speaks set between two westward facing windows. The window to the right was a large one, while that to the left was a narrow one. These, with two windows on the northeast side and two on the southeast side, lighted the interior. The door was a double one. Inside there were benches arranged in double rows around the side of the building, making a hollow square pen by the fireplace. Here stood the school master’s desk. At evening meetings held for community purposes, no provision was made for lighting the building except by candle or perhaps an occasional lamp. These, in accordance with the custom of the times, were brought to the building by the attendants and placed in rude wooden racks hung on the sides of the room.

Heating of the building was accomplished at first by an open wood fire, later by a ten plate stove. In this connection it is interesting to note that stoves of this type were distinctly of German origin. There were five, six and ten plate stoves according to the number of cast-iron plates composing the stoves. Five plate stoves were cast at all the furnaces in Pennsylvania from 1741 to 1760. Later these were superseded by the six-plate stove, and about 1765 ten plate stoves were put into use. But even with one of the latter. Mr. Pleasants comments that “the most zealous advocate of fresh air could hardly have complained of the ventilation of the building.”

Inside walls were entirely without plaster; window sashes “slid sidewise on the inside, as is yet often done in old barns, leaving the window ledge outside of the building. There were no shutters to these windows. The front door was secured by a long wooden bolt, slipped into place by a crooked piece of iron, passed through a hole.”

This description of the original school house of 1788 was based, not on hearsay, but on the actual description of it as given by several persons who were daily attendants there not many years later. It cannot fail to be of interest and value, Mr. Pleasants feels, “to the present favored recipients of the glorious school privileges of Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties in this twentieth century.”

(To be continued)