The Elders Ridge Academy

Prior to the development of public high schools, students prepared themselves for college by studying with private tutors or attending academies.  The academies were often church-related and staffed by the clergy. This was especially true in western Pennsylvania with its Scotch-Irish Presbyterian heritage.  In Indiana County alone the Presbyterians sponsored such early schools as the Indiana Academy, Jacksonville Academy, Saltsburg Academy, and Elders Ridge Academy.

In June 1839, Alexander Donaldson (1808-1889), an 1835 graduate of Jefferson College at Canonsburg and newly ordained minister at Elders Ridge, began to provide private lessons and to listen to recitation in the upper story of the log spring house which acted as the pastor’s study.  John McAdoo was his first student.  Donaldson, who had done tutoring for his alma mater following graduation, was apparently a good teacher and filled a growing demand for education in this area of Pennsylvania.  The number of his students steadily increased, but it was not until 1847 that Elders Ridge Academy was officially founded.

Donaldson continued to teach in this informal fashion for six years with no thought of starting an academy until he met John M. Barnet, a popular teacher in the common schools.  Barnett persuaded Donaldson of the need for teacher preparation and also for college preparation for people in the area.  After careful consideration and the urging of Dr. Matthew Brown, president of Jefferson College, Donaldson formally opened Elders Ridge Academy on April 16, 1847, with sixteen students and the assistance of John M. Barnett.

During the summer of 1847, Donaldson had erected at his own expense a small frame building which cost $320.  It measured twenty-six feet by twenty-four feet and resembled a common school.  Many thought that the establishment of an academy in this relatively rural setting was visionary since academies located in county seats had closed their doors.  The founder held that many of the failures could be traced to the lack of a permanent head.  At Elders Ridge, the founder acted as principal and proprietor, remaining responsible for everything concerning the school.  Donaldson always hired scholarly, well-trained assistants.  He divided the income from tuition with his assistants so that popular teachers who attracted more students thus earned more money.  Some of the assistants following J.B. Barnett were: T.B. Elder, James A. McKnight, Matthew Clark, John M. McElroy, D.W. Elder, John C. Thom, J.W. Smith, S. Kennedy, James E. Caruthers, J.H. Donaldson, F.J.C. Schneider, S.J. Craighead, A.W. McCullough, Eben B. Caldwell, G.B. Smith, S.S. Gilson, A.M. Donaldson, W.B. Donaldson, W.W. McLane, H.B. Knight, W.J. Bollman, John Brownson, R.H. Carothers, J.M. Duncan, John B. Donaldson, C.F. Gallagher, John A. Scott, G.W. Gilbert, S.M. Jack, Reverend A.J. Stewart, L.A. Frantz, and Maggie M. Elder.

The Academy was not established as a boarding school and did not encourage the enrollment of boys so young that they required constant supervision.  At first, students boarded for one dollar a week with the ten or twelve families who lived within two miles of the school.  Within ten years John Smith, Christopher Iman and John Thom erected boarding houses for the students.  The weekly rate rose gradually over the years from $1.25 to $3.50.  In the late 1880s an effort was made to introduce “boarding clubs” like those found at colleges to furnish good board at a rate of two dollars per week.

The enrollment steadily increased until 1854 with the majority of the students coming from Indiana, Cambria, Clarion, Huntingdon, Bedford, and Franklin counties.  But students from as far away as Mississippi and Louisiana enrolled in the Academy as its record of success in college preparatory work, especially for students attending Jefferson College, became more widely known.  The pre-college course was by all accounts rigorous, focusing almost exclusively on the classics and mathematics.

Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Church began to show an interest in having a school connected to the Blairsville Presbytery and established a committee to review applications from various area schools.  Since Elders Ridge was located within the bounds of the Blairsville Presbytery, Donaldson submitted an application.  In 1848 Elders Ridge was chosen the Blairsville Presbyterial Academy.  This meant that visitors appointed annually by the Presbytery would attend exams and advise the principal respecting the Academy’s management.  In a short time, however, the affiliation became merely a nominal one as the visitors grew more interested in other schools located within the Presbytery.  In 1856, when the Presbytery was divided and Elders Ridge and its principal were removed from Blairsville’s jurisdiction, not a word was publicly said about it.  Throughout the eight years the school had been the Blairsville Presbyterial Academy, not one dollar had been given to the school and no students had been recruited through the church’s efforts.

One of the few suggestions made by the visitors of the Presbytery in 1849 was the need for a larger building. Donaldson realized this and, in a time when other schools were multiplying, he “took the risk” and in 1850 erected a two-story brick building measuring forty-eight feet by thirty-two feet at a cost of $2,020.  The first floor had twelve feet partitioned off in front for a short hall with students’ rooms on either side.  A main hall occupied the remainder of the ground floor.  The second floor had twelve feet in front for a recitation room and the larger part was divided into two social halls which the students furnished.

elders ridge
Elders Ridge Academy

The cost of construction fell entirely on Donaldson who had to pay down $300. The remaining $1700 was paid at 6% interest over 22 years so that the cost came to $3700 for the brick building.  Including the cost of the first building, Donaldson had invested over $4,000 of his own money in the Academy.

In 1849, a women’s department was started at Elders Ridge under the charge of Martha Bracken. It was successfully carried on until 1858 when the project was abandoned because of “the extreme difficulty of procuring suitable boarding places for ladies.”  Some years later women were again admitted.

The session of 1854 began on a high note with the largest student enrollment in the Academy’s seven year history, 113 men and women, but a series of unforeseen events gave the Academy a sharp setback for the next decade.  During the summer of 1854 an epidemic of typhoid fever developed in one of the boarding houses.  The proprietor of the house, several of his friends, a student, and many neighbors died.  The students left school over a month before the end of the session, with five or six dying of the fever after they left.  The fever still raged the next session, and three-fourths of the students never returned.  Just as the Academy enrollment began to recover, the Civil War reduced it again, and there was no general increase until after 1865.

Organizations were an important influence on the students at Elders Ridge Academy.  One such organization was the Society for Religious Inquiry.  Its purpose was to promote an interest in topics of a religious and missionary character.  The other main organization was the Amphisbeteon Literary Society.  It held weekly meetings at which orations in Greek, Latin, French, and German were given.  After the Academy moved into the new brick building in 1850, the Amphisbeteon Literary Society was divided into two new societies, the Ereuneteon and the Matheteon Literary Societies.  These two societies held annual contests and at the end of each year advanced students competed for four awards of special merit: Salutatory, Latin oration, Greek oration, and Valedictory.

Donaldson also gave a book as an annual prize, at his own expense.  It was awarded by vote to the student whose general excellence of character seemed best. He awarded twenty-eight of these books which ranged in price from $1.50 to $4.00. The practice was abandoned when the Academy was given over to others to run.

In 1875, Donaldson, at the age of sixty-seven, realized that some legal way would have to be found of maintaining the Academy after his death.  He selected a self-perpetuating board of nineteen trustees from the different religious denominations in the area of Elders Ridge.  The only stipulations were that each succeeding trustee would be from the same denomination as his predecessor, that the principal would be a Presbyterian, and that any of Donaldson’s lineal descendants should be educated, one at a time, free of charge.  On July 6, 1875, he named the new board and gave the right, title, interest, and all claim to the Academy and its grounds to the Board.  The first members were: John Wherry, R.S. Townsend, A.H. Fulton, S.P. Townsend, Robert Wray, William Fritz, W.T. Wilson, R.H. Wilson, Thomas Hood, Arch McAdoo, Thomas Scott, Joseph Wilson, W.G. King, S.H. George, Samuel George, and Alexander Gray along with Donaldson and his two teaching assistants, Thomas B. Elder and S.J. Craighead.

The trustees, after accepting the conditions of the letter, re-roofing the building, made other repairs totaling $600, and re-elected Donaldson as principal.  By now the students were referring to Donaldson as “Pater” Donaldson because he always treated the students as if they were his own children. Donaldson was continually re-elected principal until 1884 when he asked to be relieved of all connection with the institution.  The trustees turned him down, but in 1885 they agreed not to re-elect him, and Thomas B. Elder replaced him as principal.

Elder had been an instructor at the Academy for nearly thirty years and had earned the nickname of “T.B.” from the students. He had graduated from the Academy in 1853 and then completed his education at Jefferson College in 1855 before returning to Elders Ridge as Donaldson’s assistant.

T.B. Elder
T.B. Elder

Eight principals succeeded Elder at the Academy: N.B. Kelly, James Gailey and his brother, W.S.A. Wilson, W.B. Elder, R.A. Henderson, Preston Urey, and Professor Smith.

On April 14, 1889, Donaldson suffered a stroke while returning home from church.  He died four days later and was buried on April 20.  He had preached fifty-one years and one Sabbath.

With the turn of the century changes in the pattern of American education, especially the expansion of public schools which drained enrollment from the more expensive private academies, meant that the days of the academies were numbered.  Elders Ridge was no exception.  The school became financially troubled and was about to be sold for debt when Lucius W. Robinson gave $3,000 to help pay off its obligations.  Robinson assumed control of the academy, agreeing to return the school to the Board of Trustees in five years if it could be made self-supporting. Robinson temporarily saved the Academy but could not restore it to its former condition.  In 1914, an act of the state legislature which provided for vocational education offered the school a graceful way to ends its history as an academy.  The Elders Ridge trustees made an arrangement with Kiskiminetas Township (Armstrong County), Young Township (Indiana County), West Lebanon and Clarksburg (two independent school districts), and the State Board of Vocational Education to finance a vocational school.  The grounds and buildings were to remain in the hands of the successors of the original trustees and were rented for $1.00 by the Vocational Board.  The school, now state controlled, had a faculty of one principal and five assistants.

Figures available to 1880 show that over 2600 students had attended Elders Ridge Academy.  No complete list of graduates and their professions exists, but a partial list suggests that they did well. Among other professions noted were: 150 ministers, nine foreign missionaries, eighty physicians, ninety admitted to the bar (at least six served on the bench), one college president, three editors, one lieutenant governor, one moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, many college and high school teachers, and numerous state senators and legislators.  Elders Ridge students included James M. Swank, editor of the Iron Age; H.T. Tourley, Pittsburgh mayor and controller; and noted scientist Charles H. Townsend.

The Academy buildings which stood as a reminder of the past were destroyed by fire. The original spring house in which the Academy began was moved to a new foundation on the corner of the Elders Ridge Vocational School grounds on August 31, 1932. It formally opened as the Academy’s museum on October 21, 1932, but only ten days later, it was levelled by a fire which also destroyed the Gymnasium.  The Academy’s brick building was renovated in 1934 and served as a grade school for Young Township and as classrooms for the Vocational School until it was destroyed by fire on February 19, 1936. Few reminders of the Elders Ridge Academy remain today, but during the second half of the nineteenth century it acted as one of the leading educational institutions of southwestern Pennsylvania.

Aunt Jane

“Miss Jane E. Leonard is selected for Congress Democrats of this District will give women a chance.”  This mundane headline appeared in the March 25, 1922 edition of the Indiana Democrat, and it seemed to understate the newsworthiness of an event.  It was a historic occasion.  Miss Jane E. Leonard, as the Democratic candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania’s Twenty-seventh Congressional District, was one of the first women to seek a national political office as a major party candidate in Pennsylvania.*  Since only ten women in the entire country ran for congressional seats as choices of major political parties in 1922, Miss Leonard attracted national attention.

Jane E. Leonard was the former preceptress of Indiana State Normal School (known today as Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP)).  The former Leonard Hall on the IUP campus had memorialized her name.  She served “the Normal” from its opening in 1875 until her retirement in 1921.  Then, less than a year after her retirement and at a spry eighty-one years of age, she ran for Congress.  This episode is both more incredible and, at the same time, less incredible than it seemed at first notice.

The 1922 election was only the second national election following the enfranchisement of women by the Nineteenth Amendment.  Miss Leonard had not been that active in politics; her life was spent in education.  And at eighty-one, it was an amazing age to be launching a new career.  She was, moreover, a Democrat in an area dominated by the Republican party. Despite this, she ran extremely well, polling a far larger percentage of the votes cast than any other Democratic congressional candidate in a ten-year period.

“Aunt Jane,” as Miss Jane Leonard was affectionately known by the thousands who attended the State Normal School in Indiana, came to Indiana from the Clearfield County area.  She was born on December 27, 1840, in Leonard, Pennsylvania.  Her family was so well established in the area, that there is reflected in the vicinity’s place names – Leonard Station, Leonard House, Leonard School, and Leonard Run as well as the town itself.

It is likely that her early education was at Leonard School, a gift to the rural community from her father.  Her life-long involvement in education began at the age of fifteen when she first taught in the public schools of her native Clearfield County.  Later, desiring more advanced educational preparation, she entered Millersville State Normal School, the first institution of its kind in Pennsylvania.  Then she spent some time teaching in Lancaster County schools.  Her attainments as a student at Millersville, her teaching experiences, and her personal qualities led to Miss Leonard joining the Millersville faculty in 1868 as instructor of history and mathematics.

Jane Leonard

In 1875, the Board of Trustees of the new State Normal School at Indiana asked Dr. J.P. Wickersham, Pennsylvania’s superintendent of education and the founder and first principal of Millersville State Normal School, to recommend a candidate for the position of preceptress and instructor of English literature.  He recommended Jane E. Leonard.

For the next forty-six years, Miss Leonard served Indiana.  When she retired in 1921 she was awarded emeritus status and given permission to continue occupying her apartment in John Sutton Hall.  As an education she always stressed that her students should be ambitious both for themselves and their communities, that they should be active and participate in their world, that they should shoulder the responsibilities offered to them, and that they should work to better the world they lived in. In that educational philosophy lie clues which make “Aunt Jane’s” political adventure less incredible than it first suggests.

Although she could not even vote in a national election until she was seventy-nine years old, Jane E. Leonard had developed an active interest in politics. She was lauded as having a wide knowledge of politics and political men.**  As a member as the Indiana community, Miss Leonard while not seen as a political firebrand, had not been politically bashful.  She was accustomed to interrupting her return from Sunday church service to impose herself on one of the local newspaper editors or political leaders in talk over the public issues.  According to the March 23, 1922 Indiana Weekly Messenger, Miss Leonard “was one of the campaigners for years for equal franchise and has campaigned also for prohibition.  She never neglects an opportunity to assail the monopolistic practices of the tariff barons and speaks for National economy, friendly relations with other nations, universal peace and human advancement.”

Her political orientation appeared foreordained.  The Indiana Weekly Messenger said bluntly, she is “a democrat by nature and it was inevitable that with the enfranchisement of women she would be found aligned from the outset with the Democratic party.”  Her affinity for involvement in her interests, an “Aunt Jane” trait, made it rather natural that she later gravitated toward political stewardship when the opportunity presented itself.  In 1922, she was chairman of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Fund, devoted to soliciting monies for Wilsonian goals, chairman of the Indiana County Ladies Democratic Committee, and president of the Indiana County Democratic Women Voters League.  The octogenarian was one to give her personal time and support to those matters that personally touched her.

The challenge of being the Democratic candidate in the Twenty-seventh District’s congressional race was not a quest that she eagerly sought.  The distinguished lady had to be sought out, and, according to the Indiana Evening Gazette, “Her friends…demanding a fit representative in congress insisted that she permit her name to be used.  Miss Leonard did not make any effort for the nomination, letting her name be used but not spending a cent in a campaign or making one speech.”

The days preceding her nomination for the Democratic primary, Miss Leonard had another and very different, political interest – to secure the Republican gubernatorial nomination for Indiana’s native son John S. Fisher.  Although she was serving as the chairman of the Indiana County Ladies Democratic Committee, she strongly endorsed Fisher.  She attended the formal opening rally of his campaign in front of the Indiana County Courthouse, she wrote an open letter to the alumni of the Normal School urging their support for Fisher, and she later addressed the annual reunion meeting of the Allegheny County ISNS Alumni Association stressing the need of their support of his candidacy.  The Indiana Republican press praised her as a “grand old lady.”

While such incongruent activities might have branded Miss Leonard as a political maverick, they were in keeping with her character.  John S. Fisher, as a former Indiana Normal student, was one of “her boys” in whom she had confidence.  She declared that “Democrat though she was, she’d vote for him for governor if he’d capture the Republican nomination for that office.”  Her open support of the Republican Fisher was simply an indication that she never was and never could have been a narrow political partisan.

The primary campaign was very quiet since Miss Leonard was unopposed, and her opening political activity reflected that situation.  If any event served as a campaign kickoff it was the Democratic Ladies Tea which was held on March 30.  Miss Leonard presented the opening remarks which contained some advice on the Indiana County Democratic campaign.  The state chairman of the Women’s Democratic Committee of Pennsylvania was in attendance.  The Indiana Democrat hailed the event as “A Fine Success.”  The first public endorsement of Leonard’s candidacy, and the only known one in Indiana County, came on April 5 when the Joseph M. Blakely Camp, No. 71, United Spanish War Veterans unanimously endorsed her.  These were the only public acknowledgements in the Indiana press of the Leonard campaign prior to the May primary election.  Of course an active campaign is not required of an unopposed primary candidate.

The fall general election, however, was a different situation.  Miss Leonard’s political interests and knowledge must have suggested to her the seemingly insurmountable obstacle she was facing.  Pennsylvania in 1922 was essentially a one party state – Republican.  The Twenty-seventh Congressional District was solidly Republican, and Indiana County was rock-ribbed Republican. The primary returns reinforced this general knowledge.  In Indiana Borough, for example, only 124 Democrats bothered to vote while 1,481 Republicans cast their ballots.  In Indiana County, running unopposed, Leonard received 667 votes while a total Republican vote of 8,633 was split among three contestants.  In the fall when the voter registration for the Twenty-seventh Congressional District was announced it favored the Republicans over the Democrats, 68 percent to 23 percent.  Certainly a bleak prospect faced the novice candidate.

To make matters worse, her Republican opponent was formidable.  He was Nathan L. Strong, the incumbent Congressman from Brookville, Jefferson County.  Certainly everything was a disadvantage: Miss Leonard was running for her first elected political office, her opponent was an incumbent seeking his fourth congressional term.  She was eighty-one years of age, her opponent was sixty-three.  She was a woman, he was a man.  The odds were staggering.  There was little wonder that William K. Hutchinson, a national news correspondent, included Miss Lenard among the five feminine congressional candidates who had only “a chance in a hundred” of winning.  It could be suggested that perhaps, at least in “Aunt Jane’s” case, Hutchinson was even underestimating the odds.

It could be argued that Miss Leonard was not really a serious contender.  If newspaper advertisement is any indication, the Democrats spent little money on the campaign.  The Leonard campaign trail in Indiana County was not overly onerous.  It is possible that the Democrats, faced with the impossibility of winning the election, had conceded from the start.

Jane E. Leonard, nevertheless, seemed to use the public exposure to continue to stress ideals important to her. During her campaigning, light though it was, she worked to further her causes.  “Aunt Jane” challenged women to involve themselves in politics.  “We are in politics,” she declared, “and we are going to do our duty.  Our duty is to do the best we know how.”  In another instance she lectured the newly enfranchised women on “the importance of women taking the responsibilities which are now theirs with the assuming the principles of enfranchisement, an action which at the present time they are not prone to do.”  She became known for her positions on what were to her the vital issues, some of them most progressive – the inclusion of a secretary of education in the president’s cabinet, a tariff used only for revenue, measures to insure fiscal responsibility in national government, and election victories for Democratic candidates.

Miss Leonard, always bound by her principles, could not be bound by party lines.  She acclaimed the educational program of Pennsylvania’s Republican Governor William C. Sproul.  That program had been embodied in the Edmonds Act which aimed at consolidating schools, increasing aid to education, increasing aid to education, and standardizing curriculum, teachers’ qualifications, and salaries.  She publicly acknowledged that Dr. Finegan, the Republican-appointed superintendent of public of public education, had “done more to advance education in the past three years than had been accomplished in the preceding ten years.”

She apparently did not have many opportunities to express her ideals.  Her reported public appearances following the primary were at the Indiana County Congress of Women’s Clubs meeting in June and the one day Democratic County Tour in September.  It was an incident at the Cookport Fair, one of the stops on the County Tour, that permits a glimpse of “Aunt Jane” on the hustings.  One writer described the scene this way: “As she climbed aboard the hay wagon, the veteran educator carried her 83 [sic] years as though they were a mere 50.  She had a sprightly step and her voice was strong as she urged the assembled voters to support the Democratic candidates from top to bottom.”

Given the light campaigning effort, given the political realities, the November election results were surprising.  The eighty-one year old, former educator carried 37 percent of the vote in the Twenty-seventh Congressional District to her opponent’s 54 percent, and 30 percent in Indiana County to his 55 percent.  The popular vote was 18,682 to 12,927 and 5,071 to 2,764 respectively.  A loss by a landslide, yes, but a comparably minor landslide.  In 1920, Strong’s victory was 66 percent to 25 percent in the District and 70 percent to 16 percent in the County; in 1924 Strong would win by 59 percent to 18 percent and 59 percent to 13 percent.  The neophyte, maiden politician had done remarkably well.

The full story of Miss Leonard’s relative success rests more in events outside of the Twenty-seventh Congressional District since the Pennsylvania Republican party that year had been severely splintered by internal struggles.  The election of 1922, nevertheless, was a surprising story, and “Aunt Jane” really fared no worse than any of the other nine female candidates who were running for Congress – they all lost (even Alice M. Robertson, the incumbent congresswoman from Oklahoma).

Miss Jane E. Leonard, an Indiana institution as an educator, probably considered herself to be continuing her educational goals as a politician in teaching by example the duty of personal responsibility and active participation, expounding one’s convictions and ideals, and attempting to better the world.  If there was a loser in the 1922 election, it was not “Aunt Jane.”  Her “political whirl” was the giving of a practical lesson – she was engaged, as always, in educating.

*Ellen D. Davis was, in the same election, running for the congressional seat in Pennsylvania’s Second District.

** The “Indiana legend” that James Buchanan, fifteenth president of the United States, had proposed marriage to Miss Leonard has no basis in historical fact.