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Greersburg Academy

Milestones Vol 24. No.3

By Cheryl Nicely

Reverend Thomas Hughes, Greersburg Academy and the roots of education in Darlington are intertwined. Nestled between a modern post office and a seldomused railroad spur in the tiny borough of Darlington stands Greersburg Academy. The "old stone pile," as it was affectionately nicknamed, is the oldest existing building in Beaver County.

Recognized as the first academy west of the Alleghenies, it stands as a monument to early education. By its very existence, it makes a silent salute to the intense interest of early settlers in the education of their children. In fact, plans for Greersburg Academy existed before the formation of the town of Darlington, formerly called Greersburg.

With many fledgling endeavors, one man's ambition becomes the embodied spirit of the undertaking. Reverend Thomas E. Hughes was that driving force in the construction of Greersburg Academy. Soon after his installation as the first minister of the Mt. Pleasant United Presbyterian Church in 1799, Hughes affirmed his belief in education by constructing a log school on his own lot.

What caused Hughes' zeal in the area of education? Perhaps clues can be gleaned from his background. Born in York County, Pennsylvania of Welsh parents, Hughes was raised among religious influences. Thomas was educated in the Academy of Canonsburg and later at Princeton. Possibly his early education at the academy in Canonsburg helped him form his model for the Greersburg Academy.

In 1802, Reverend Hughes brought up the project of establishing an institution of learning in the area. This meeting of the Eric Presbytery was held at Mt. Pleasant Church. Through Mr. Hughes' efforts, the Presbytery adopted the following resolution:

Resolved: To give their aid to erect an academy at Greersburg, and to solicit the aid of their respective charges.

Hughes' contribution did not stop here. Cosntruction of the stone edifice was begun in the summer of 1802 and Reverend Hughes was a faithful fund-raiser. It is said that he traveled as far as Boston on horseback soliciting funds.

The building was begun on what was to be the corner of Market and Third Streets in 1802. However, completion was hampered by the slow accumulation of funds. 1\vo events occurred between the initial ground breaking and the occupation of the building. First, the town of Greersburg was laid out in 1804. Second, in 1806 the legislature of Pennsylvania established the new school as Greersburg Academy and appropriated $600.00. The first board of trustees was chosen in 1806 and the dream became a reality.

During the administration of Reverend Hughes the school was large and flourishing. At the Academy, courses in Classical, Scientific, Normal and Preparatory were taught.

The stone academy educated area students for seventy-eight years. In 1884, a new brick academy was constructed and the old stone academy became a relay station for the Pittsburgh, Lisbon and Western Railroad. Presently, the Little Beaver Historical Society is in the process of restoring the building to its original state.

Greersburg Academy made a significant contribution to education of its era. Off-spring of local families who never attained fame outside the area and many well-known men attended the institution.

Local lore makes John Brown of Harper's Ferry a former student. In fact, according to information found in the History of Beaver County, two of Reverend Hughes' sons confirmed the fact that John Brown attended the academy. Reverend Henry Potter, former minister of Mt. Pleasant and Academy board member for thirty years, is quoted as saying the sons further stated that John Brown boarded with their father's family while he attended the Academy.

Another disputed student is Reverend William McGuffey, D.D., L.L.D., author of the McGuffey readers. These sources point out the facts that McGuffey was born in Washington County and graduated from Washington College. They ask, "Why would a boy be taken so far from home for education when there were institutions closer at hand?"

However, Mary Spear and Laura Thomas, grandnieces of McGuffey, signed a notorized statement affirming that he did indeed attend. This document is now held by the Little Beaver Historical Society.

Some former students are not in doubt. General John W. Geary, Governor of Pennsylvania and an officer in both the Mexican War and the Civil War was a student of the academy. At least 23 ministers received either part or all of their education at the academy. Among them were four sons of Reverend Hughes. Numerous others, of less universal fame, were also students.

Greersburg Academy stands as a monument to a society interested in the education of its youth. It stands as a monument to the Presbyterian minister of western Pennsylvania and his devotion to education. It stands as a monument to those who attended, both the famous and the unknowns. It stands as a monument to the past.

The Stone Academy was replaced by a new brick Academy in 1884. The brick Academy lasted as a private institution until 1908. It suffered the fate of similar institutions in the late 1800's. A diminished need for boarding schools and better transportation signaled its end.