One of the sorest points of
difference between the Teutons and the Celts in our valley arose from the
management and direction of the public schools. The Proprietor was in favor
of schools, and for this purpose had made provision on the triangle set
apart for church purposes, but the kind of school he contemplated was the
parochial school under the supervision of the pastor of his own church.
Others not belonging to the church were not excluded if they paid their
proportion of the expenses, but they had no voice whatever in the selection
of a teacher, course of study or general management.
The "Old Yellow School House"
was built in the rear of the church. It was a long, low structure with two
doors in the side near together, with a partition between the doors,
dividing the floor room into two equal parts, and in one part English was
taught and in the other Dutch. The house was good enough, but the
instruction and discipline were not. Rude vulgarity characterized the
deportment of the pupils, and as for any proficiency in learning there was
no such thing. But here we were, and there was no getting away. Children
must put up with the coarse treatment to which they were exposed, or stay
away from school. The latter was preferable.
In 1834 the free school law
was enacted by the General Assembly after being submitted to a vote of the
people. It was a burning question while it was up and our Lehigh contingent
was dead set against the measure, but outside their own village they were of
Under the provisions of the
law each township was a school district under the direction and control of a
Board of Directors, who were elected by ballot at the township elections.
The district was then divided into as many sub-districts as were considered
necessary and suitable buildings erected. The voters in each sub-district
met at the school house and elected a school committee consisting of three
resident citizens whose duty it was to employ the teacher, provide fuel and
generally supervise the management of the school.
Now it was easy for the
Teutons to run the Saegerstown school, where they had everything their own
way, but Saegerstown was not a corporation and the school under the law was
only a sub-district of Woodcock township and was subject to the control of
the township board. Outside the village our oppressors were not thumb high
and our solid old men were not long in letting them know it. They secured
the township board and then petitioned for a sub-district two miles square
adjoining the town line. This effectually left the Dutch to themselves. The
people of the township stood by our folks and all their measures were
promptly carried through. The district was outlined and called the McGill
sub-district of Woodcock township. The building was erected on the line
between Henry and John McGill, on land donated by them for that purpose.
Somehow the word
"sub-district" perplexed the Saegerstown folks. They had never heard of such
a thing in Leigh county, but after consulting their preachers they came to
the conclusion that they were the original district and that we were only a
sub and consequently we were yet under their control; so when a meeting was
called to elect a school committee they turned out in great force to perform
that important duty.
My father, all my uncles and
their allies were present looking on at the performance. When the time
arrived for organizing the meeting the leader of the town force called order
and proceeded to nominate three Wentles of the town as committee men to take
charge of the McGill schools vote was taken and the candidates were declared
elected. They then adjourned and took their departure.
No citizen of the
sub-district voted or took any part in the proceedings, but after the
departure of the Narrowentles they selected a committee in an orderly manner
and certified their action to the board of directors, and thenceforth the
regular committee of citizens of the sub-district took charge of affairs
without further molestation. A competent teacher was employed and in due
time the school was opened and became famous.
The preachers peeht and pooht
and turned up their noses and took snuff ; and the other little fellows
haw-haw-hawed at the presumption of running a school without clerical
supervision; and all kinds of ridiculous predictions and vulgar jests were
perpetrated at the expense of the new and unheard of innovation. But there
was joy and gladness at our end of the line. A school of our own, made up
almost entirely of our own kind of people, was a boon almost beyond
realization. The nice new forms, each for two pupils with aisles between;
the seats and desks all fronting the teacher's table, and the blackboard on
the blank wall; windows to the right and left and rear-plenty of light
everywhere, all so different from the old low yellow pen with its old, long
dirty desks, mutilated and carved with every imaginable form of vicious
obscenity. Our pretty forms were smooth and bright and clean and pure as
were the faces behind them.
Yes, the McGill school opened
like the sunrise of a bright clear day-classes were organized, lessons
assigned and from that hour on it was an institution of learning; humble and
unpretentious, 'tis true, but fraught in many ways with matters of great
import to the coming generations of men.
I do not wish to boast or
claim mental superiority for the urchins of this school, but I do say that a
more aggressive lot was never turned out in search of learning. They were
after knowledge and they pursued it with relentless activity. They were not
very quiet or submissive, but they were hustlers, and the teacher who came
expecting a period of rest and recuperation from his college toils found
himself in a whirl of belligerent youths fighting their way for higher
attainments in the intellectual life.
They had been starved and
beaten down and oppressed by the stupidity of the old masters in the vulgar,
dirty, yellow den, and now that they were free and the road to knowledge
open to them they were not content with any gentle pace, but rushed for the
fountain head and would not be restrained.
They were not restive or
disobedient to the rules of the school, but were brigands when the
recitation came. "Stand and deliver!" was the stern order that confronted
the pedagogue when some knotty problem required elucidation.
Every teacher who amounted to
anything was delighted with the progress of the school and the few who did
not amount to much never after had business our way.
To my uncle, William P.
McGill, more than to any other man was due the honor of securing and
organizing the McGill school. At the cost of many personal friendships he
had fought the local contest for the free school law and he was a fighter
reckless of consequences.
He then took the saddle to
wrest control from the Dutch or rather to effect a separation from them.
This was bitterly contested, but "Uncle Bill" smashed opposition regardless
of personal consequences to himself and made some implacable enemies who
pursued him to the grave, without disturbing his equanimity in the least. He
now stood at the head of the school committee and as long as he lived kept
an open eye and a firm hand on the management and exacted in every
department the greatest efficiency possible to attain. His personal and
social relations with the faculty of Allegheny college afforded him an
advantage in the selection of able and competent teachers and several men
taught our schools who in after life became prominent in affairs. At the
first session of the school taught by one Dwight Virgil, two aspirants for
professional careers took lessons in Latin.
As the school progressed it
expanded and reached out after better things and higher attainments. There
was no limit to study and research, ambition had full scope and the push in
the right direction was unrestrained. The rules of the text book were
practically discarded and "the reason why" was in popular demand, and it had
to be rendered then and there. Forms and formulas gave place to analysis and
brain power was brought into requisition in delving after the why and
wherefore of things. The most remarkable feature in this anomalous process
was that there was scarcely a "chump" in the whole outfit, but all were
crowding to the front eager to be taught and to learn.
It is not therefore to be
wondered that our young people began to think they knew a great deal-in
fact, became self-conceited and were quite ready to tackle anything that
came along. They reached out after accomplishments other than those taught
in the regular course and began to show an unmistakable disposition to run
things without help.
A singing society was
organized and sacred music cultivated, and a Debating and Dramatic Club
formed. It devolved upon me to write a constitution and by-laws for this
organization and after profound study I produced a document that to this day
I consider the greatest achievement of my life. I had no model to go by, but
out of my own inner consciousness I evolved rules for the mental and moral
government of incipient manhood and provided penalties for their infraction.
It was a great work, and to add to its dignity was very lengthy.
Had I known of the Army
Regulations and had access to them I might have made it a little more
binding, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances, and it was
Debates, always interesting,
became the order of the day. Questions of great national importance were
discussed with the energy and zeal, if not the ability of Senators. The
girls wrote pretty essays and real, original poetry, some of which was by no
But do not imagine that all
our time was employed with these forensic exercises. We were not the
pale-faced, dreamy students of romance, but wide-awake, roystering young
Americans full of frolic and fun. We took our athletics in the open field
where we hustled each other, rough and tumbled, wrestled and fought; a
bloody nose or a black eye were only artistic trophies of our gladiatorial
contests, and we could play shinny !
In the hey-day of life and
unrestrained youthful joy we bethought ourselves of our old oppressors in
the low, dirty, yellow den. We would decoy them forth and lambast them. We
sent them a formal challenge to meet us on the stage, but they declined, and
in no way could we bring to a contest in which brains were a ruling factor.
Then we tampered with them on the shinny question.
In an evil hour for them they
proposed to play school against school. They outnumbered us more than two to
one, yet we promptly accepted the challenge-the game to be played on our
grounds. We had emissaries in their camp and we were advised that our
adversaries intended to beat us down by force if they failed to outplay us.
We expected this and were glad that the enemy had been so indiscreet as to
show his hand, for we wanted an excuse for a little side play we had in
view; as we had reprisals to make and old scores to settle with that crowd.
We were fully prepared and
trained up to the highest stage of efficiency. Just before the battle our
Captain lined us up and gave his orders as to the manner of conducting the
contest. They were brief and to the point, viz.:
"If any one gets in your way, no
odds how big he is, bust him-put him out of action."
And the fun of it was that
the least cub we had was as ready and keen for the fray as any of the larger
The enemy arrived in large
numbers. We lined twenty warriors, of whom eight were McGills, five were
Burchfields (cousins), and the remaining seven were from the outlying homes
in the district, four or five of them being of German extraction, but loyal
to the school.
The game opened fast and
furious from the start. We played lightly for a few minutes to get their
gait, then brought our discipline and tactics to bear with effect. The ball
was used merely as a decoy to induce mad, disorganized rushes of the enemy,
who tumbled over one another and were mercilessly thumped and whacked by our
nimble footed players. The round ended with at least half a dozen fellows
limping to the fence out of the game.
In the second round every one
was thoroughly in earnest-it was not played for fun but to win and was a
battle royal. It was skill and agility against numbers, and ill directed
force, and it also ended disastrously for our opponents, many more being
sent to the fence discouraged.
By the time the third round
was called those Dutchmen were becoming as dangerous as wild animals and our
Captain saw that the crisis of the battle was at hand and gave orders to
wind it up without further ceremony. It was no longer a ball game, but a
battle with clubs.
Organization and concert of
action will always tell against disorganized masses, and before the third
round was half out we drove them in terror from the field.
Fortunately no one was killed
or seriously injured. It taught our friends that an aggressive element had
grown up alongside of them that were better let alone, and thereafter we
were treated with the respect that was our due, and not with the contumely
of other days. The news of the battle was carried up and down the valley and
over the hills and was everywhere received by our friends who understood the
situation with great mirth, and instead of acquiring a reputation for
ruffianism as we feared, a halo of heroism was thrown around the act, and we
were given celebrity as spirited young men who knew how to do the right
thing at the right time, and the McGill school was thereafter a celebrated
institution and was soon furnishing from among its pupils teachers for the
new schols that were being organized all around under beneficent action of
the free school law.
The people of the country
were always our friends and rallied to our support and public opinion veered
in our direction in a manner gratifying to our pride to say the least.