On March 20, 1849, the new entity of Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, was carved out of the existing counties of Beaver and Mercer. The town of New Castle became the seat of power of the new county. At that time the children of New Castle attended classes at four separate locations in buildings known as the Northeast, Southeast, Northwest, and Southwest Schools.
In 1851 the town of New Castle, with a population of about 4,000 residents, sold its four school buildings in order to build a lone consolidated school. That school was modeled after a schoolhouse in Allegheny City and would stand on the west side of North Jefferson Street, where it now intersects Grant Street, and be known as the New Castle Public School – but usually referred to as the Union School
The sturdy brick building, which contained three stories and seven total classrooms, was designed by architect J.D. Barr and built by contractors B. Craven and S.T. Sippey. The top floor had an auditorium, which was used for various school events and later by the local Presbyterian Church for its Sunday services. The façade of the schoolhouse had a stone marker that read in part, “New Castle Public School, Built A.D. 1851.” It opened sometime in 1852.
It was the first dedicated schoolhouse to be built in the town upon the founding of Lawrence County and marked the beginning of the modern educational era in New Castle. Christian-educated William Travis served as the first principal and among the seven teachers were “first assistant” Martin M. Gantz, Cecilia Townsend (who married Gantz in December 1853), Margaret “Maggie” Sheal, Lyda Loy, Mary Horner, Sarah Bonnell, and Margaret “Lizzie” Porter. Travis and Gantz, friends and former classmates at Washington College (now Washington & Jefferson College), taught nearby at a parochial school connected with the First Presbyterian Church on Jefferson Street until the Union School was completed. Gantz was an exceptional student and was the valedictorian of his college class.
In June 1854, Martin Gantz, who taught the older high school level students at the Union School, succeeded Travis as principal of the school (which for a time became known as the First Ward School). Gantz later served as the Superintendent of the city schools and it was under his tutelage (and determination against severe criticism and opposition) that the first New Castle High School, built on North Street, was opened in the late 1870’s. He went on to serve as a beloved professor at this school. Gantz was the driving force behind guiding the New Castle School District into the twentieth century and is often considered the “father of education” in New Castle.
When Gantz died at the age seventy-five on June 19, 1899, he was lauded as an educational pioneer and the Union School, where he had worked for many years, was rechristened in his honor. The Martin Gantz School remained in operation until its antiquated facilities led to talk of abandoning the building in the mid 1920’s. It was finally closed for good in June 1928 and its pupils were transferred to the North Street School (the former high school) for the coming school term. Beginning in June 1933 the former teachers and pupils of the Martin Gantz School held a yearly reunion. In 1933 about 200 alumni visited the old schoolhouse before attending a delightful banquet at the George Washington Junior High School. The reunions went on for many decades and the last event was held in October 1972. A reunion was planned for October 1973, but due to financial difficulties it was cancelled. Future events were discussed but with the advanced age of the alumni members this spelled the end for the long-running reunions.
The school board considered several proposals for selling the property and an idea to establish a new Post Office on the site was also contemplated. The old schoolhouse, at the time one of the oldest and most important landmarks in the entire city, was razed beginning on December 19, 1933. The lot generally sat vacant for over a decade until it was sold to the locally-owned William Milson Oil Company in February 1945 for $27,500. The company later secured permission to install commercial gas tanks at the site.
The little known legacy of the pioneering school can still be seen elsewhere in the city. Over 100,000 bricks from the old school were used to construct a wall and expand locker room facilities at Taggart Stadium beside Ben Franklin Junior High School. The work commenced in October 1934 and the bricks were used along the north end of the stadium generally along DuShane and McGrath Streets.
To read an article from June 1899 mentioning resolutions from teachers and students of the high school honoring the late Martin Gantz click on: MEMORY HONORED ARTICLE. An article in the same newspaper brought the news that the Union School would be renamed in honor of Gantz. To read that article click on: NAME CHOSEN ARTICLE.
The opening of the Union School (later Martin Gantz School) in 1852 marked the beginning of the modern school system in New Castle. William Travis served as the first principal and Martin Gantz was his “first assistant.” Gantz took over as principal in 1854 and served in that capacity for a number of years. Full Size
This photo, courtesy of Suzanne Petranek, is of the 8th grade class of the Martin Gantz School of 1910-11. Suzanne’s grandmother Julia Elizabeth Miller (Shelatree) is in second row fifth from left end. Class teacher Edna Young and school principal George C. Thompson (in hat) are standing behind students. Notice the school sign hanging in the background. I have a complete list of the names and will post them here later. Thanks so much to Suzanne for providing this great photo! Full Size
Professor Martin Gantz (1823-1899) was a pioneering educator who is often considered the father of the modern school system in New Castle. (c1885)
After his death in June 1899 the Union School was renamed in honor of Martin Gantz. (c1896)