Bessemer, located in the hills of western Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, became a bustling little village by the early 1900’s based on the success of the Bessemer Limestone Company, which set up local limestone mining operations beginning in about 1887. Oil wells, brick yards, and cement plants followed in the coming years as a boom town, inhabited mainly by Swedish and Croatian immigrants, quickly developed. In June 1913 the village, which underwent rapid expansion, was officially incorporated as the Borough of Bessemer. Unlike the wooden houses and shacks that were prevalent in nearby Hillsville, the town of Bessemer – thanks to the local brick industry – was full of sturdy brick homes and modern-looking buildings.
Bessemer was initially served by a one-room schoolhouse located in the center of the growing village. This school was replaced in about 1888 with a larger wood frame school known as the Bessemer Public School. The new school, possibly containing up to four classrooms, was located on North Main Street near the intersection of Poland Avenue. This school was soon overcrowded as the community rapidly expanded and several portable buildings were erected alongside it. It served local students up to the eighth grade, while those wishing to continue would have to attend high school in Mount Jackson.
The Bessemer school offered its first high school course study, in the ninth grade only, beginning in the fall of 1914. That same year Roy DeArment began serving as the principal. DeArment stepped down in 1918, spent several years at Mount Jackson High School, subsequently went to work for the Metropolitan Brick Company, and was a longtime fixture with the local school board. The tenth and eleventh grades were added in 1915 and twelfth grade was finally added in 1919. The school honored a small group of ten seniors as the first ever four-year graduates in June 1920. A proper athletics program was also established as boys basketball was first added in 1920 and football soon after in 1923. The “Cementers” sports teams donned red and black uniforms.
In 1918, thanks to the efforts of local school board president P. W. Griffin, it was decided to build a new public schoolhouse in Bessemer. The two-story school, designed by the W.G. Eckles Company of New Castle and costing a total of $35,000, would be constructed by the George Schenck & Company of Butler. It was manufactured of red bricks produced locally by the Metropolitan Paving Brick Company. It would consist of ten main classrooms and another two classrooms and an auditorium/gymnasium in the basement. With its sturdy brick construction and modern heating plant it was an exceptionally constructed school for such a small community.
The sturdy brick school, situated on Poland Avenue at the intersection of Main Street, was officially dedicated with a ceremony on Tuesday, April 29, 1919. The facility housed about 320 students in all grades including seventeen high school pupils. This was the first year that a twelfth grade course was added to the high school curriculum. The inaugural principal was Professor A. Kirk Thompson, a Westminster College graduate who would serve as headmaster in Bessemer until the summer of 1924 when he moved on to the Ellwood City School District. He was succeeded Bessemer teacher and football/basketball coach Edward R. Smith, a graduate of Ohio Northern University and former artillery officer in the U.S. Army. Smith was well entrenched in Bessemer academics, having led the commercial and athletics departments at the older school over the course of the prior year.
During the early 1920’s the local population and student body rapidly increased and in August 1922 – when there were 463 pupils – a large two-room portable building was added on the school grounds. To better alleviate the overcrowding it was soon decided to build a dedicated junior-senior high school building in Bessemer. A construction contract was awarded for the eight-room school, also designed by W. G. Eckles Company, in April 1924 to contractor Edward H. Cannon of McKeesport. Total cost of the school, including the heating and electrical work, was approximately $80,000. It was located on a lot on North Main Street between Roosevelt and Bestview Avenues. I believe the school was completed by May 1925, but was not fully occupied until classes reopened on September 6 later that year. On that day 250 students in grades seven and up, including from the nearby town of Hillsville, were enrolled in the new high school. The school was officially dedicated and opened for public inspection on Thursday, November 19, 1925. The old public school served the younger kids and became known as the Bessemer Elementary School.
At that time the new position of Supervising Principal of Bessemer Schools was taken over by Professor H. J. Colton, who studied at the Slippery Rock State Teacher’s College and Columbia University. Each school still had their own principal, but Colton oversaw the staffs and approximately 600 combined students of both schools. Colton was well regarded and soon took over as head of the Lawrence County Principal’s Association, a post he held for six straight years. It was under his reign that the schools in Bessemer blossomed and many improvements, including adding a large annex to the high school building (completed in November 1929), were made.
Colton announced his resignation in March 1931 (effective at the end of the school term) with the intention of moving on to head up the schools in Bridgeville in Allegheny County. His successor was Bessemer teacher Professor Gerald E. Nord, a former principal at New Wilmington High School and teacher at Ben Franklin Junior High School in New Castle. Nord left in June 1942 to take up the position of principal at Ben Franklin Junior High School and was succeeded by Chandler B. McMillan, a Pennsylvania State University graduate and seasoned teacher from Butler High School. McMillan departed in early December 1948 to move to the school system in Brentwood Borough in Allegheny County. His replacement was Bessemer High School principal Victor F. Thomas Jr., a University of Pittsburgh graduate who joined the faculty back in 1932 but had left for a time to serve in the U.S. Army from 1941-1947.
By the mid-1940’s the once-thriving Bessemer School District started to see a decline in enrollment and additional financial considerations saw consolidation initiatives become a necessity. In August 1953 the Bessemer School Board approved a jointure with Little Beaver Township and Victor Thomas assumed the title of Supervising Principal of the Bessemer-Little Beaver Township School District. It was a minor agreement as rural Little Beaver Township had less than 150 total students. Those students had been attending the joint Enon Valley-Little Beaver Elementary School in Enon Valley or the North Beaver Township High School in Mount Jackson. The majority would now be transported to either the elementary or high school buildings in Bessemer.
A few years later negotiations got underway concerning a substantial school district merger Bessemer-Little Beaver and the townships of Union, North Beaver, and Mahoning. In February 1957 the officials of the Bessemer-Little Beaver jointure, apparently feeling it was not in their best interest, decided against this merger.
In July 1958 the officials of Bessemer-Little Beaver decided to join a new entity, to be known as the Mohawk Area School District, which included the schools in the townships of North Beaver and Mahoning. Manford E. Brockway, the Supervising Principal of the Bessemer-Little Beaver School District since coming over from Tioga County in mid-1956, was elected to that same position (later renamed as Superintendent) in the new school district. Union Township went it alone, but joined forces with the borough of Edinburg in April 1959 to form the Union Area School District.
So where did the jointure name of Mohawk come from? According to the Mohawk Area School District’s current website the origin of naming the school as Mohawk actually has nothing to do with the Native Americans of the Iroquois Tribe. It was derived from the numbers “66” – the telephone prefix for the area (now mainly 667) – which converts to the letters “MO” on the telephone dial pad. The abbreviation “MO” somehow became Mohawk. A depiction of a Mohawk warrior (i.e. Warriors) was adopted as the school’s mascot/logo though, so I wonder about the true origin of the name.
Bessemer High School was renamed as the Mohawk Area High School and served the entire school district, while junior high students attended class in nearby Mount Jackson (at the old North Beaver Township High School). The elementary schools at Bessemer, Hillsville, and Mount Jackson were rebranded together as the Mohawk Elementary Schools (such as the Mohawk Elementary School at Bessemer), and continued to serve local kids up to the sixth grade.
Meanwhile, plans for readied for the building of a new high school. After much wrangling a 109-acre lot of farmland, located east of the heart of Bessemer on the road leading to Mount Jackson, was purchased from Willis Gleghorn for $35,000 in 1959. The architectural firm of Kling & Frost of Youngstown was hired to design the new school, and groundbreaking for the 27-classroom building got underway in late March 1962. In August 1963 the new Mohawk Area Junior-Senior High School, which cost about $3 million, opened for classes and was officially dedicated during an open house on Saturday, November 16, 1963.
To read about a pupil that was fatally burned during recess at the original Bessemer Public School in 1905 click on: CHILD FATALLY BURNED ARTICLE. To read about how the children of Bessemer were forgoing all candy and contributed the money they saved towards the American war effort in Europe click on: QUIT CHEWING GUM ARTICLE. To learn more about the dedication of the new Bessemer Public School in 1919 click on: DEDICATION ARTICLE. To learn how the high school curriculum was to be expanded for the 1919-1920 school term click on: HIGH SCHOOL PROGRAM ARTICLE. In the fall of 1922 a two-room portable was added to the overcrowded school. To read more about this click on: PORTABLES ADDED ARTICLE. To see a drawing and related caption of the proposed new high school for Bessemer click on: HIGH SCHOOL DRAWING. To read about how Edward Smith was slated to succeed Kirk Thompson as principal in 1924 click on: NEW PRINCIPAL ARTICLE. To read about the cornerstone laying ceremony for the new high school in 1924 click on: CORNERSTONE CEREMONY ARTICLE.
Bessemer was initially served by a one-room schoolhouse until a larger school (shown in upper left) was opened in the center of the village in about 1888. This building was quickly overcrowded and at least one additional smaller building was erected next door (on right). Various out buildings can be seen as well. These buildings were mostly torn down in 1918 and a new brick school was erected at the same location. (c1915) Full Size
A postcard showing what is marked as the “Room No. 5” class of the old Bessemer schoolhouse in November 1912. This class was housed in a portable building. (1912)
The Bessemer High School, which would house students in grades 7-12, was fully opened for classes in September 1925. It was officially dedicated during a ceremony on Thursday, November 19, 1925. In late 1963, with the opening of the new Mohawk High School, this building was redesignated as an elementary school. It was finally closed in 1983 and then converted into a community center. It was demolished sometime in the late 1990’s. (c1950) Full Size
The 1927 football squad, pictured in front of the new Bessemer High School that opened in late 1925. This team finished with a record of 4-2-1. All four of its wins were shutouts including a 63-0 drubbing of Mercer High School.
The Bessemer High School. (1927)
The 11th graders of Bessemer High School during the 1928-29 school year. (1928) Full Size
The 8th grade class of the Bessemer Public School in late 1928. (1928) Full Size
The Bessemer High School band during the 1928-29 school year. (1928) Full Size
The Bessemer High football squad from late 1928. The team, led by history teacher and head coach John Frederick, went 4-0-2 and were poised to win the county championship – but a 7-0 loss to Union High ended that hope. (1928) Full Size
The girls basketball team from Bessemer High in early 1929 was coached by French and English teacher Mary Smith (bottom right). The team started the season with three straight losses and finished with a record of 4-5. Two of their victories came against Union High. (1929) Full Size
Victor Thomas Jr., the Supervising Principal (Superintendent) of all Bessemer Schools from late 1948 until June 1956. Thomas, a native of Butler County, took over the position upon the resignation of Chandler B. McMillan. Thomas departed in 1956 to take up a new post in Beaver County. (1952) Full Size
Two senior photos from the 1951-52 edition of the “The Key” yearbook. (1952)Full Size
The 11th grade class from Bessemer High School in 1951-52. Mr. Robert Ramsey, a science and mathematics instructor, is at top right. (1951) Full Size
The 10th grade class of Bessemer High School in 1951-52. Mr. Robert Glaspey, a teacher of various subjects to include biology and geography, is standing at right. (1951) Full Size
The 7th graders that attended classes in the Bessemer High School building in 1951-52. Mr. John Samsa, a teacher of history and civics, is at top right. (1951)Full Size
The primary school kids and teachers from the Bessemer Elementary School from 1951-52. Principal Merle E. Davis oversaw the students in grades 1-6. (1951) Full Size
The Bessemer High football squad from late 1951. Head coach Bill Ciccone is pictured at left end. I believe the assistant coaches at right are John Samsa, a history and science teacher, and Robert Glaspey, a biology, mathematics, and geography teacher. This team finished with a record of 4-3-1. (1951) Full Size
The 1951-52 varsity basketball squad from Bessemer High School. Head coach Bill Ciccone guided this team to a record of 11-3, including a 70-63 defeat of powerhouse Wampum High School in February 1952. (1952) Full Size
Inside the gymnasium of the Bessemer High School. (1952) Full Size
Inside a typical art class led by teacher Jane Patterson. (1952)
Bessemer students enjoy science class taught by Mr. Robert Ramsey. (1951)
Girls work on their typing skills in a class headed up by Miss Isabel Crawford (back of photo). (1951) Full Size
A picture of the 1956 Bessemer football team, which went 6-0-2 and captured the Tri-County “B” League Championship. This team was led by head coach Willie Ciccone and star running back Mike Gasperoni.
This aerial photo shows the locations of various buildings in the heart of Bessemer. This photo also reveals the “island” – and odd configuration – that was once located in the middle of the intersection of Poland Avenue and Main Street. (1967)
The former Bessemer High School, which served as a elementary school from 1963-1983, being razed in the late 1990’s. (Photo property of Chris Gregg/Matt Sheehan) Full Size
The remnants of an old merry-go-round at the former school site on Main Street. (May 2011)
A sidewalk leading away from the side of the old school on Main Street. (May 2011)
Old signs still adorn the fence in front of the football/soccer field. (May 2011)
A view of the field where Bessemer High footballers made their mark in years past. (May 2011)
An old blocking sled rests in a sea of overgrown grass. (May 2011)
The old once school sat in the distance. Across Main Street you can see the Bessemer Presbyterian Church. (May 2011)