Sunday, November 23, 2014

Fourth Ward and the Economy schools

Although I do read a bit about the history of the Harmony Society's Economy, I mainly focus my research and blogging on Ambridge and the post-Harmonite period. But sometimes the two overlap, as wonderfully illustrated by this photo:

Three Economy schools
State Library of Pennsylvania
Old Economy Village archives

Although I had probably seen this photo on one of my earlier explorations of the State Library of Pennsylvania archives, I didn't appreciate what it showed until I started doing research on "Ambridge's First Building" which I blogged about last week.

The Old Economy historian's letter cited in that blog post mentioned two photos of the Blaine House, described as a school. The Blaine House is the large building on the right above. The Harmonites moved Blaine House from its previous location near what is now First and Merchant Streets shortly after they arrived at what would become their last settlement, Economy, in 1824. Christiana Knoedler says in her 1954 book The Harmony Society that the Blaine House was used as a school for over 60 years. The Old Economy-Ambridge Sesqui-Centennial Historical Booklet, compiled and edited by Rev. Norman C. Young, May 1974, agrees, saying that the Blaine House was used as a school until 1884.

Those other two buildings in the photo were also schools. The one on the left is a later Harmony Society school. The building in the background with a tower peeking out between the other buildings is Ambridge's first school, originally named Economy Public School, later called Fourth Ward School.

All I know about the Economy school on the left side is this bit of information from the Sesqui-Centennial booklet: "In 1884 a building was built on Church Street near 16th Street and prior to 1904 classes were conducted in this farm building adjacent to the old 4th Ward Building. This building is now used as an apartment house." An apartment building still occupies that corner, although it doesn't look like the 1884 school building in the photo.

In the photo, the Blaine House school and the school on the left look like they were next to each other; however, Laughlin Street ran between them. I don't know when Laughlin Street was constructed, although I believe that it was one of the streets that were cut mid-block in the larger old Harmony Society blocks when Ambridge was being built. Perhaps Laughlin Street was built after the photo was taken, but if so, it must have been soon after, since the street is shown on a 1905 map of the area.

I knew that not everyone who lived in Economy had been a member of the Harmony Society, and ever since I started doing historical research on Ambridge, I'd wondered where the children from non-Harmonite families went to school before Ambridge existed. Some may have been home-schooled, but in addition, according to The Twentieth Century History of Beaver County Pennsylvania, 1900-1988 (edited by Cheryl Weller Beck, 1989), "A schoolroom was always in use in Old Economy and attendance was free to all children, not only the children of members of the Society." 

The Ambridge School District built its first school, called Economy Public School, in 1904. It's the middle school in the above photo. Located between Laughlin and 16th Streets, almost mid-way between Church and Merchant Streets, it was built the year before Ambridge was incorporated, designed by architect Elsie Mercur Wagner, who compiled the 1924 Economy Centennial Souvenir Program: Economy of Old and Ambridge of Today

I've wondered about why Ambridge chose to build its first school between Laughlin and 16th Streets. Undoubtedly a new school was sorely needed with the sudden influx of new families moving into Ambridge after American Bridge was built; however, most of them were settling on the other end of town, near the mill.

Below is a postcard postmarked in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1912, showing the Economy Public School built by Ambridge:

"Public School Building, Economy Pa."
postmarked 1912

Although postmarked in 1912, the photo and card itself may well be pre-1907. Before 1907, the U.S. permitted only a mailing address on the back of postcards. This card has an undivided back with the notation, "This side for the address." The U.S. permitted divided back postcards beginning in 1907, allowing both a message and address on the reverse side of a card's image.

Any message on an undivided back card was often squeezed in the front's margins as it is here. The writing is very faded, but this is what I can make out:

On the left side:
Dear Miss Buchman, Kindly let me know how early in May you can [send?] for me. Bell phone 527.

On the right side:
Mrs. J. C. Campbell Lan[undecipherable] Gertie Rauch(?) phoned you about me. 

Fourth Ward School was used as a school until it was closed and razed in 1964. Its site was used for a playground for many years. The playground was razed to make room for the Old Economy Visitor Center which opened in August, 2003.

Old Economy Visitor Center
270 Sixteenth Street
April 1, 2014


  1. Your blog entries make me wish I had grown up in Ambridge, although I know the Ambridge you grew up in is just as gone as the one above is.

  2. Interesting read. I've got a family connection to the 'Blaine House' in that my grandparents purchased that property in 1949 and it remained in family hands until my aunt sold it in 2006. Certainly, I was aware that the building was part of the harmonist settlement, but had never heard that it had been moved from the other end of town.

    Christiana Knoedler, I knew as the elderly church organist at St. Johns, and somehow was aware that she had some connection to the Harmonist, but given 3 generations of separation never had a conversation with her.

    As it happens I was in the the Old Economy center just yesterday. Probably toured old economy village several times as a child, but never developed an appreciation for its history until recently. Thank you for all the work you do in preserving Ambridge history.

  3. Howdy, Friends. Having gone to the old Ambridge High School, graduating in 1969, my memories are of football games, Police Station Pizza which you have to try if you get there, Pirate games, Steelers at old Pitt Stadium, etc. My childhood in the country was idyllic. The Ohio Valley had become a rust belt with the demise of the steel industry. Now it has made a comeback with the specialty steel fabricators who supply stamped sheet steel for the auto industry. Many of the communities are vibrant. You have to experience the ethnic identities extant from Polish Hill to Bloomfield, where many Italian immigrants settled. The 'Burgh is alive and well. Many folks live in Ambridge and commute 30 minutes to Pittsburgh. Still a good place to live. It is nothing like a big city, but close enough to many fine cultural and dining experiences.

  4. My grandparents house bordered the playground on 16th street. Spent many summers playing there. Sad to see it destroyed for a visitor center that in no way looks like it belongs in old economy

    1. hi bill,
      jd aka john domansky
      which side did your GPs live on? merchant side or church st side, i am betting it was merchant side, what yrs did you play there?? my time was 1940 thru 1954, a full court basketball was there along the large swing set, & a seesaw. the swings were large & could fly high, then let go (standing on seat & jump off, tough landing on cement tho. only for the bravest to do. a large round sandbox near front, & i recall a fire escape going up to the 3rd floor?? 15th st side. there were picnic style benches near fence & was a nite time girl & boy spot. 1950s. spent many days shooting BBs, nick name was gunner.

    2. jd aka john domansky

      oops, misread what you said about living on the 16th st side, gotcha now, your GPs faced the school from across the st. i was thinking 15th st.i bet they watched a lot of basketball games.