Bucks County Herald

Barrie-John Murphy: Then and Now

Subscription schools paved the way

Historian Thomas Moll displays a photo of students taken more than a 100 years ago during his lecture Sunday at the Church School, Springfield Township’s last functioning one-room schoolhouse.

If you wanted an education in Springfield Township more than 200 years ago, your choices were limited.

While there were some church-operated schools, there weren’t nearly enough to cater to the dozens of children looking to learn the Three Rs.

As a result, residents formed their own schools, called “subscription schools” because of the tuition they charged to cover teacher pay and supplies.

Families who couldn’t afford the $2 tuition often paid in food, firewood, or provided the teacher with a place to stay, according to historian and librarian Thomas Moll, who has studied efforts at early education in Upper Bucks, and is the co-author of a comprehensive history of Quakertown Community School District.

With the help of announcements in the defunct Springtown Weekly Times, Moll has catalogued at least 19 one- or two-room schools in the township, the last of which, the Church School on Route 212, closed in 1981. Anyone who has watched “Little House on the Prairie” can easily picture the one-room schoolhouse, where the teacher was not only responsible for education but also some of the maintenance, too.

But there were distinct differences in Springfield and surrounding municipalities.

The school term in the 19th century typically lasted only from November to March, so students could help out during the growing season. Reflecting the community they served, some schools alternated between English and German teachers so as to leave no child behind.
While the state was busy consolidating schools elsewhere, one- and two-room schoolhouses persisted in Springfield well into the 1930s because of its relatively large size compared to neighboring townships and low population density.

Soon enough though, buses and cars sped up the process of clustering. Now children in different grades could be taken to one schoolhouse, their older brothers or sisters dropped off at another schoolhouse nearby.

High schools followed suit. Durham-Springtown on Route 212 and Bridgeton-Nockamixon high schools eventually merged to become Palisades Junior-Senior High in the 1950s. And now, as back then, the district continues to offer German instruction.


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