Portland Area Schoolhouse 1886-1969
Prior to the Free School Act signed into law by Governor George Wolf on April 1, 1834, there were no schools that were free or public. The only schools that existed were schools established by religious denominations within their place of worship, or some parents would get together to establish their own schools, or even traveling schoolmasters would invite parents to send their children to be taught by them in exchange for a small amount of tuition in the form of lodging. The classes would often be held in the very homes of the children they taught.
The Free School Act faced much opposition for several reasons, one of the main reasons being the introduction of the school taxes. Thaddeus Stevens, member of the United States House of Representatives from Pennsylvania, made a speech on April 11, 1835, that has been credited as one of the greatest speeches in Pennsylvania history. His speech was going against the reversal of the Free School Act that had been passed and he defended the new educational system, stating that it would actually save money, and demonstrated how and claimed its opponents were seeking to separate the poor into a lower caste than themselves, and accused the rich of greed and failure to empathize with the poor. Stevens argued, "build not your monuments of brass or marble, but make them of ever living mind!" [JRS1]. Ultimately, with the help of this speech and the persistence of Governor George Wolf, the law was passed that all schools in Pennsylvania be free and public thus paving the way for the Portland Schoolhouse to come into existence over 50 years later.
Before 1876, school for the children residing here mostly meant the little old stone building between Portland and Slateford or the school building on the hill next to the Methodist Church. A borough school did not emerge until June 5, 1877, when the children moved to the two-room schoolhouse next to the Methodist Church. The first school board was put together in 1877 and on June 5, 1877 the Board of Education Committee held their first school board meeting. On June 10, 1878 the school board made an agreement with the church to rent the basement for $25 per year. This became the third classroom. Later on, the school building was converted to three rooms and the basement was no longer needed. On August 31, 1880, the Methodist Church decided to raise the rent for the schoolhouse to $40 per month but the school board refused to pay the increase.
During the 1881 school year, the school board felt the need for a larger school. The emotions of building a new school and the cost associated with it ran quit high for a while. Once they decided it was time to build, they purchased land from Enos Goble, which was located on one of the highest hills in town overlooking the Borough and all the country surrounding it. Another notable date in the schoolhouse history is Thursday December 22, 1881, when the directors agreed to let teachers hold December 26 (a Monday) as Christmas or holiday, a notable day for the children as well!
After some careful planning, the construction on the new Portland area school began in 1886. Between purchasing the land, the school would be built on and the construction of the school itself, the total cost was approximately $10,000. It was decided that the new schoolhouse would be designed very similar to the Lincoln schoolhouse in Bangor. The schoolhouse was constructed with three large rooms on the first and second floors. A chalkboard made of slate was placed in each one of the rooms, and furniture that would have been considered modern day was placed in each room as well. It was heated with steam pipes and ventilated with specially constructed flues. All rooms would be kept at the same temperature. The grounds surrounding the schoolhouse would have trees and flower beds and walk ways. The trees would be arranged not only for purpose of shade but also to make the grounds look nice. The flower beds were ornamentally placed.
The school was first set up for the 1887-1888 school year and had 124 students in attendance. The six-room building was run by John S. Niles, M. Florence Flint and Lilly Shoemaker. The layout of the grades and classrooms changed throughout the years. The six-room schoolhouse (three and three) underwent some reconstruction and the redesign allowed for eight rooms (four and four). The basement housed the indoor restrooms and a room was added to the eastern side that was used at various times for an office, a typing room, a nurse’s office and then even a quiet room, for when students wanted to read in peace. Eventually, a cafeteria would also be added to the basement. During the beginning, Portland housed kindergarten through a two-year high school (Junior and Senior) with the first graduation being held in June 1889. The school continued to run this way until the high school grades increased to three years in 1915, and then to a full four-year high school in 1927.
When the high school grades ended in 1947, students would get transported to either Stroudsburg or East Stroudsburg high school until 1962 when they would go to Bangor Area High, which is where Portland’s high schoolers still go today. Even after the high school grades left the Portland Schoolhouse, the elementary school of eight grades remained until that was reduced to seven, and then to six grades with kindergarten through fourth remaining on the bottom floor and fifth and sixth along with the Principal’s office remaining on the second floor.
The school closed on June 13, 1969 and has since been transferred to the Borough of Portland for municipal use for which it is still used today. The police headquarters are on the first floor along with Council chambers, water authority and the main office. The local scout troops hold their meetings on the second floor. The playground next to the schoolhouse, originally assembled in the 1940’s, was updated and received a fresh coat of paint in 2012.
Council Vice President, Bridget Kenna, remembers her school years there fondly and recalls when the buses would drop them off at the bottom of the hill and the students would use the sidewalk and stairs that had been installed to go up to the school in the morning and then down to catch the bus at the end of the day. It was during her elementary school years that the Portland Schoolhouse closed and Bridget and all her classmates were transferred to Five Points Elementary which is a part of the Bangor School District. The Bangor School District remains the district school system for Portland and other surrounding towns offering three elementary schools, a middle school and the high school, Bangor Area High.
In recent years, the schoolhouse has received a degree of notoriety for having been used for scenes in the 2012 film, My Best Day (click here for movie trailer). The cast also included Portland’s Mayor, Lance Prator, as the suspicious whistleblower.
As you can see, the Portland Schoolhouse, as well as the town of Portland itself, holds much history for you to discover. We hope that you decide to make our schoolhouse a stop on your trip so that you can explore for yourself…..or perhaps you will have a chance encounter with Ernest Courtney, one of its past Principals, that is rumored to still roam the halls coughing and clearing his throat, apparently unaware school had let out permanently some time ago!
Another important part of Portland’s Schoolhouse history is the gymnasium which was built on the east side of the school during the depression. Civil Works Administration Project hired local workers to build the gym. The gym was spacious and had enough room to hold all the school sports, events and programs in. This same group of local workers also built the baseball field. This was the Home of The Apollo’s, a semi-pro team which was part of the Blue Mountain Baseball League. The Apollo’s were the dominate team in the league's early years, winning the first three championships in 1946, 1947 and 1948 There are multiple Apollos player inducted into the Blue Mountain League Hall of Fame.
Barbara Moore LaBarre, a lifelong resident of Portland went to this school and graduated eighth grade from here. Barbara and her husband Sherman LaBarre had three children that also went to the school, Sherma, Craig and Sharon LaBarre. Sherma would be the only one of the three to graduate from the school before it was closed on June 13, 1969. Barbara recalls her school days as very happy and never a bad day. Barbara also goes on to tell us when it was time for prom; she would sit on her grandmothers porch and watch the high school kids going into the gym which would be decorated nicely for the big night. She goes on to tell about the other events and programs held there. They had school talent shows, band concerts, plays, Christmas programs and school basketball games. She also added that the school would be transformed in a haunted house during Halloween for many years.
As of 2016, the gymnasium remains vacant for the most part but Town Council plans to research grants and begin a fundraiser to help bring the school and gymnasium back to their former glory. Both the schoolhouse and the gym are still a wonderful place to stop and soak in the history of a town that has been and continues to be so important to so many.