Students check out Soldiers Orphans School
BY ROBERT L. BAKER
Mountain ViewElementary Schoolfifth graders took a field trip last Wednesday just over the mountain from where they regularly go to school to learn two very valuable lessons.
They visited the Harford Orphans’ School and learned that education today is a lot different from the way it was 150 years ago, and they also learned that people from the geographical region served by the district played very influential roles in the national government.
As two busloads of youths descended on the school grounds, members of the Harford Historcal Society quickly sorted out how they would address the fifth graders.
Half the students would listen to Ken Adams speaking downstairs about Galusha Grow – perhaps the most influential politician to come out of northeast Pennsylvania and certainly Susquehanna County, while upstairs, the rest of the students would be taken on a tour led by Linda and Michael Berol of the museum within the lone building that remains of the Orphans School.
Before it was the Orphans School, way back in the 1830s, a private school was created known as Franklin Academy.
During the American Civil War, Pennsylvania furnished more than 315,000 soldiers and sailors to fight in the struggle to preserve the Union, and more than 33,000 of them did not return alive.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly, not only recognizing the severe loss of its own population, also recognized something much more tragic – the disintegration of the family where dads, sons, brothers, and uncles were suddenly torn away from the traditional household unit.
So during the war, the state legislature – starting with a $50,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Railroad – decided to create a series of Soldiers’ Orphans Schools, where children of soldiers who didn’t come back from the war could get a first class education.
In time, there were 44 such schools across Pennsylvania and the one at Harford was the third, opened in November 1865, some six months after the Civil War ended.
It remained open until 1902 serving a larger mission than just the families of deceased veterans. It also housed and schooled the destitute children of living Civil War veterans as well as veterans of later military service.
On Wednesday morning, Michael Berol assembled the students around a large model display of what the 300-acre campus looked like in its hey day.
(The display was created by Berol’s in-laws, Linda’s parents’ Alan and Margery Rhodes, who were instrumental in the Orphans School restoration and they once raised chickens in the building they were now standing in.)
More than 2,000 students between the ages of four and 16 passed through the school, in which they lived in dormitories – with separate ones for boys and girls.
Not only would students have lessons like you might expect in a school, he told them, but this was also a working farm.
In a season, the campus could produce 2,000 bushels of potatoes and supported 50 head of cattle.
“Everyone – particularly the older ones – had a job,” Berol said, and as he walked over to a makeshift bunkbed, “they were happy to have this at night to lay down their heads.”
Upstairs he told them that once a month the students got a pail of water and a cloth to take a bath, but downstairs the fifth graders were told it was actually once a week. Students didn’’t seem to catch the discrepancy and their wide-eyed looks seemed to suggest they were more concerned about the lack of a tub or shower.
Although there was a chapel on the grounds, the Mountain View fifth graders were told that students marched down to the community of Harford – more than a mile away – each Sunday to attend church services.
Meanwhile downstairs, Adams, a 1946 graduate of Harford High School, shared with students the story of Galusha Grow.
He asked them how many had ever lived someplace else, and a few hands shot up.
He then proceeded to talk about the man whose dad died when he was a little boy.
Grow was born in Connecticut, and when he was around 11 – about their age – his widowed mother and three siblings “moved West” to Susquehanna County to start a new life.
They settled in a little village known as Glenwood, and he asked how many knew where that was.
A couple of hands shot up, and he shared that today it was off Rt. 92 about three miles north of Nicholson.
It is there that Galusha and his brother engaged in farming.
He said the story has been told that when Grow was 14, he helped float a load of logs down the Susquehanna River into the area near the nation’s capital, and came back with a purse full of money, suggesting he was capable of conducting business in a new surrounding.
Grow attended Harford Academy (probably in the same building they were standing) for three years and went on to Amherst College in Massachusetts where he became acquainted to many of the issues that would serve him well during two stints in Congress (1851-1863 and 1894-1903).
Adams noted that when Grow was first elected to Congress in 1850 he was the body’s youngest member and it was as a Democrat, although he would later switch his allegiance to the new Republican Party.
Grow was against slavery, Adams said, and he was also for something that would have a huge impact on American history- the Homestead Act which opened up huge chunks of land in the western part of the United States for squatters to settle and make a new life.
More than 80 million acres would be so claimed, according to the Library of Congress, suggesting that his influence was considerable.
But as important as that was, perhaps the most important thing, he told the kids, was that Grow was a friend of President Abraham Lincoln, and during the Civil War he was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Not bad for a home boy.
One of the youths’ teachers, Cheryl Kerr, stopped Adams, and said “Listen up. This is your history. Important people from right here in our midst went on to do great things, and so can you.”
Student Emily Wilmarth wasn’t quite grasping the ramification of what Grow actually did in Congress, but she thought it was “very cool” that he knew Abe Lincoln, and she thought it was neat to see where students learned a long time ago.
Adams acknowledged it was great to see kids still learning even as the school year was winding down, and he personally thanked a Mrs. Edith Tingley, who taught him a love for the history he was sharing this day.
He said that even if the fifth graders couldn’t quite yet grasp the importance of the Orphans School or Grow in history, he hoped the students could grasp their capacity to make a difference in the world.