Last week's column began investigating the curious creation of two independent schools in New Hanover Township: Swamp Independent and Fagleysville Independent.ˆ In 1875 they both received permission from the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas to break away from the New Hanover Township School District which operated the township's one room schools.ˆ Both Fagleysville and Swamp operated as tiny school districts complete with an elected three man board which had the authority to levy taxes and hire teachers.
Amendments to the school law in 1855 made possible independent school districts to accommodate up-state geography where a thin population in small settlements separated by rivers and mountains made intra-townshipˆ communication difficult. The interpretation of the law specifically prohibitedˆ wealthy sections of a township from becoming independent in order to shed the burden of the more needy sections or simply carving a townshipˆ into a lot of little districts for no reason.
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 are fortunate to 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.ˆ 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 asked two attorneys whom I know how one would find this record. Both said they had no idea.
Next, 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.ˆ 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 Fagleysvilleˆ assistant teachers at $6.00 per month. In 1862 Swamp had 61 students and Fagleysville had 56. The others 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.
ˆ And 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.ˆ 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 no doubt wanted more progressive education for their children and so perhaps advocated the separation.