The Old Eagle School, part 3 – Radnor Lyceum

In continuing the story of the Old Eagle School as begun in this column several weeks ago, it is a noteworthy fact that from the time the first small crude building was erected in about the year 1767, it was not only school and church, but pre-eminently “a social center of bucolic life,” to quote from Henry Pleasants’ history of that historic landmark. It became indeed a public meeting place of the neighborhood where militia companies were organized and drilled and where political meetings were held. And on the lighter side of life it was where singing groups and debating clubs met. Still in existence is a quaint invitation of March 1, 1822, for a debate to be held there a few days later. This invitation reads:

“The Eagle Association’s compliments to Miss Eliza Siter and requests the favour of her company at a debate at the Eagle School house on Saturday evening, March 9th.”

This invitation is among the bits of early evidence that the Eagle School was among the pioneers in the “lyceum movement,” which was to become an integral part of the life of the early settlers in this section. Records show that as early as 1935 the Chester County Education Convention organized a County Lyceum with a full roster of officers. As already stated in this column, Radnor Lyceum was organized in 1838 with Hugh Jones Brooke as president. Among the names connected with this Lyceum that still live on in present-day families are those of John Pechin, John Mather, and Adelaide Cornog.

Among these lyceum meetings held in Eagle School is one of 1832 so graphically described by one of the audience that his account is well worth quoting in full. It was given to the Board of Trustees of the old School by the late Joseph Levis Worrall, of Radnor, and recorded in Mr. Pleasants’ history.

“In 1832 we had an exhibition of the telegraph in winter time. Two operators came up to Edward Siter, who kept the Eagle Hotel . . . and asked permission to give the people a free exhibition of the telegraph at the Eagle School. The real object of the exhibition was for the purpose of obtaining an appropriation from the Pennsylvania Legislature through representatives favorable thereto . . . Edward Siter sent word around on horseback to the different stores, blacksmith shops and taverns, and put a notice in the Delaware County paper “Upland Union” of Chester, and in the “Village Record” of Chester County.

“We had a crowd of persons present at the exhibition; the building was jammed, and many could not get in. Dr. Joseph Blackfan and my father, Fred Worrall, were chosen by the people to sit by each telegraph operator, who took their positions at opposite corners of the room. Edward Siter, John Pugh and others stood in the doorway of a board partition . . . as judges to see that no sign was given of what was written, and then a message was sent across, the machine writing by dots and dashes on paper: Dr. Blackfan writing down a message which the operator sent to the man at father’s end, who read it out aloud, and then a message was sent back. The judges were first given the message which Dr. Blackfan wrote down, to see that no fraud was practiced. The message was always read off correctly and the effect on the audience was astonishing. They closely questioned Dr. Blackfan and father to know if there was any collusion. Father and many others thought the exhibition one of supernatural powers. Edward Siter stated that he could not account for it. Others thought that it was the work of the Devil.

“The arrangement for the exhibition had been made with much care. The batteries were concealed in boxes. John Meredith sent men to do all necessary carpenter work without charge; and the school was dismissed at noon, so that they had the full afternoon for making their arrangements. The door was locked until the time of the exhibition.”

Thus did our forebears in this section first learn of the mysteries of telegraph, which was so soon to become one of the country’s greatest means of communication.

From its earliest establishment old Eagle School was placed under the control and management of men designated as “Trustees” or Committeemen, who held a position similar to that of our present-day School Directors. The last formal election of these trustees is said to have taken place in the old building about 1835, at a meeting held there “for the purpose of securing better educational facilities for the neighborhood.”

Many of the names of these trustees have been preserved, not in record form, but in the memories of those who have passed their names down from generation to generation. Among those from Radnor were William Siter (the elder), John Pugh (the elder), Nathaniel Jones, Samuel Cleaver, Robert Kennedy, landlord of “The Unicorn,” and Edward Siter, landlord of “The Eagle.”

Other rural schoolhouses of an early date that have been preserved to the present generation, and are well known to many of us are the Camp School at Valley Forge, restored by the Valley Forge Commission; Diamond Rock School near Howellville and the Octagon Schoolhouse near Newtown Square. Until the Common School System of Pennsylvania came into full operation about 1836 such schools as these afforded the only facilities for the education of children in the rural districts. Many of them were established soon after the arrival of William Penn. Compared to what the schools of today have to offer they were primitive and crude, indeed, yet in their way they served their purpose at a time when nothing else offered itself.

Standard books of these early schools, according to Mr. Pleasants, included “Cornleys Spelling,” “Pike’s Arithmetic,” “The American Tutor” and “Murray’s Introduction to English Reader and Sequel.” Occasionally used by particularly apt scholars were “Gummere’s Surveying,” “Bonnycastles’ Algebra and Measuration” and “Kirkman’s Grammar.” Records show that at the Eagle School the usual tuition was two dollars per quarter, “exclusive of books, slates, ink and goose-quills.”

Old-time school masters usually acquired their positions by “circulating a subscription list around the neighborhood and inducing the various residents to send their children to school at certain rates.” There is some question as to who was the first master, that honor lying between a Brinton Evans and Jacob Sharraden Werkiser, son of that Christian Werkiser who gave the original acre of land on which the first school building was erected. Another of the old masters was James Boyle, descended from Irish gentry, who also taught at Old Glassley School, in what is now part of Devon, and at the Union School, near Great Valley Baptist Church. Still another was Adam Siter, a lame man, whom the pupils “endearingly called ‘Old Step-and-go-fetch-it.” He also taught in the School house at Old St. David’s Church. These old-time school-masters had no supervision from anyone except possibly from “the committeemen,” though there is not much evidence even of this. Among the relics of the Old Eagle School are some of the primitive instruments by which a rudimentary education was literally “driven into its early pupils.

(To be continued)