The Historian: The curious origin of the Swamp and Fagleysville independent schools

Swamp Independent School, 1946 Front Row, L to R: Rhomas Richie, Irvin Heinly 3rd , Walter Skora, William Romig, Ruth Gaugler, Roberta Ganovsky, Ann McGee, JoAnn Evans, June Boyer, Sylvia Diffenderfer, Lewis Hojecki, Robert Ganovsky, William Greiner. Second Row, L to R: Frank Harper, Donna Gerhart, Theodore Hiriak, Gary Evans, Richard Gerhart, Judith Heinly, Raymond Houck, Charles Boyer, Lawrence Hojecki, Fred Yerk, Leona Skora, teacher Amy Trout. Back Row, L to R: Donald Moyer, Phyllis Heinly, Virginia Deysher, Joyce Reeves, Charlotte Skora, Richard Gross, Dorothy Boyer.

From 1875 until they closed in 1948, the New Hanover villages of Swamp and Fagleysville each administered their own tiny school districts. These independent schools were a rarity in the state and it is a wonder that New Hanover had two, side by side. Many local residents recall attending these two schools.

The Swamp District extended, more or less, about a half mile on both sides of the Swamp Pike from the Douglass Township line to Reifsnyder Road and Fagleysville District from there to the Limerick Township line.

How these two independent schools came to be is somewhat of a mystery.

Because many of the up-state mountainous areas presented obstacles to travel across wide and thinly populated regions, sub-districts (the area served by a particular one-room school) of a township school district were allowed, by an act of 1855, to break away and become independent and provide their own administration. They became in every sense their own tiny, independent school district. Residents of a sub-district wishing to break-away from the township district had to make application to their county court of common pleas for approval. However, problems arose.

The following explanation of intent added to the free school act in 1857 indicates that the independent school district provision may have been used for undesirable purposes: “… It was not the intention to cut-up townships into single school districts, nor to carve out the wealthier from the poorer portions of a township, to the prejudice of the rights and interests of the latter….” Which brings us then to New Hanover’s Independent schools.

There were very few such independent school districts formed within the state, and it is odd that New Hanover had two, neither of which could, it appears, be justified under the parameters of the law. In fact, their creation in 1875 seems to have been specifically prohibited under the terms of the law: there were no geographical feature preventing easy travel throughout the township, and both the Swamp and Fagleysville sub-districts, lying along the Swamp Pike corridor, encompassed the more well-to-do section of the township.

By what reason or justification could the court have permitted these two sub-districts to become independent? We have the New Hanover School District minute book from these years which have been donated to the historical society by Mr. J. Roger Moyer, Jr. whose father, J. Roger Moyer, Sr., was chairman of the joint school authority when the New Hanover Upper Frederick Elementary School was built in the early 1950’s. In fact, J. Roger Moyer, Jr.’s grandfather, John W. Moyer, was a school director and treasurer for many years and his great grandfather, Henry R. Weiss, was a New Hanover school director also.

As detailed in the law, in order to “go independent,” a sub-district had to petition the court of common pleas of their county government. We have the New Hanover Township School District minute book from the 1875 period. One would think that details of discussion and considerations of this break-away would have been recorded, but not so.

In fact, there are but two cryptic notes in the minutes, neither of which is informative. The first is dated June 21, 1873: “At a special meeting calt [called] by Wm. Ehl President of the New Hanover School board for to represent the township in the case of Swamp Independent district to the examiner at Norristown on the 26th day of June by Wm. Ehl, Jones [Jonas] Christman, David Hatfield, David Fryer and Henry Hollowbush present. By a vote taken a move maid [made] and seconded that all the minbers [members] to meat [meet] on sid [said] day in Norristown on the 26th day at 10:00 o’clock in the forenoon. Directors being present by the examiner at Norristown on the 26th day of June Wm. Ehl, Henry Hollowbush, David Hatfield and Daniel Fryer (Wm Specht and Jones Christman absent).

The other note was made February, 1874: “By a motion and second and agreed that William Ehl is to go to Norristown to pay John Hunsicker attorney from independent school district Number 2 [Swamp] and to employ J. Kite Apple as attorney in the case of Fagleysville School District.”

Neither of these notes is helpful in clarifying a reason the court, in this case the “examiner,” granted permission for these sub-districts to become independent. Why would the New Hanover board be paying the attorney for the Swamp Independent district?

One would think that the record of the court of common pleas for 1874 could be accessed and therein would be a description of the arguments and the verdict.

I called the Montgomery County prothonotary’s office as the prothonotary is charged with keeping the court’s records. Although pleasant and helpful the gentleman with whom I spoke admitted he had no idea where records of 1874 could be. He suggested the county archives. I responded that I was quite familiar with the archives and they maintained Orphan’s Court records such as wills and deeds but not civil court records. He then suggested I try the Historical Society of Montgomery County. I told him I had been on the board of directors of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, was quite familiar with their collection, and knew it was not there. Then he said try your local historical society. I said I am president of the local historical society. He said, “You have my sympathy.”

Next, I tried the state archives, but no luck. So the mystery remains.

My speculation as to why the examiner granted Swamp and Fagleysville districts their independence is that the township may not have been hostile to the idea; and, in fact, may have been glad to be free of a chronic problem. The minute books reveal that on days when school directors visited schools there was always a gross imbalance in school population. In 1859 Swamp had 41 students, Fagleysville 46 while the other buildings had as few as 10, most around 20. In 1860 for several months there were employed at Swamp and Fagleysville assistant teachers at $6.00 per month. In 1862 Swamp had 61 students and Fagleysville had 56. The others had as few as 8. In 1863 teachers at Swamp and Fagleysvile were paid $33 per month, but they had to find their own assistants while the other teachers got $20. In 1867 there was discussion on building a second school in Fagleysville.

Additionally, advocating for the independent movement, leading residents along the more “cosmopolitan” Swamp Pike corridor may have wanted better schools than those that satisfied the Pennsylvania Dutch farmers of the more northerly part of the township. The names of prominent local business men of the day---William H. Schneider, William Young, Elias Fagley and John Kehl--- appear in the early Swamp Independent minute book. Educated themselves, these people perhaps wanted more progressive education for their children and so perhaps advocated for the separation.