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.
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.
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.