In about 1826 a Revolutionary War veteran named Abraham Crowe and his son William, a veteran of the War of 1812, came from Bucks County and settled a tract of land in Neshannock Township, Mercer County, Pennsylvania. Abraham’s other two sons, George and Moses, followed along about a year later. The area they settled became known as Crowe Town, but was contracted to “Croton” by 1847.
At some point, possibly in the mid-1830’s, the Crowe family donated a lot of land to the township, which would retain control over it as long as a schoolhouse stood on the property. If a school was closed for any length of time the property would revert back to the Crowe family, and it’s possible this agreement is still in effect today. A small school was subsequently erected on the property – now on Croton Avenue (at intersection with Cascade Street) – and fell within the confines of Lawrence County when that entity was formed in March 1849.
In early 1901 the New Castle School Board decided to replace the aging schoolhouse with a new two-story building (after some debate of whether to seek a new location) at the same site on Croton Avenue. Local architect W. G. Eckles, who became well known for his work throughout New Castle, designed that school with a projected cost of $25,000 plus other expenses. By early July 1901 demolition of the old schoolhouse was completed as workmen prepared to start construction of the new building. It was estimated that the work would take about four months, but incessant delays put the project way behind. The school board had to rent other buildings to house the pupils of the Croton Avenue area for the entire 1901-1902 school term. School officials were not happy.
Delays (some dealing with issues acquiring the proper stone blocks) dragged on through the summer of 1902, but the eight-room school finally opened for classes in September 1902. One of the features of the fine school was a large bell atop the roof that was rung to announce the start and end of the school day. Professor J. W. Skinner, a graduate of Grove City College and an aspiring Methodist preacher, was elected to serve as the first principal. He held that post until he departed to head up several Methodist churches in the Volant area in August 1906, at which time he was replaced by accomplished educator Miss Carrie Jeffrey.
One of the most enduring memories of this school was the Croton School Band, originally founded in 1914 and composed of only four boys. The volunteer band was led by school teacher and band leader W. Asa “Hoffy” Hoffmaster, who also took over as school principal in early 1916 after Miss Jeffrey, who was married in 1913, stepped down. The band was famous throughout western Pennsylvania and for a time was the only elementary school band in New Castle. The band entertained people at various building dedications, holiday celebrations, sporting events, and other festivities around the region. Among the many varied events it took part in was seeing off the Doughboys at the train stations during 1917-1918, as the young men were headed for action in the Great War (World War I) raging over in Europe.
Under Hoffmaster’s reign the small band, known for its sharp uniforms and musical talent, grew to about fifty members who usually came from the seventh grade. The ensemble became well known throughout New Castle and this excerpt from the Friday, September 21, 1922, edition of the New Castle News illustrates that: “Everybody within a radius of fifty miles has heard of the Croton band. For the past six years or more this band of boys from Croton school has put this section of the city on the map.”
In 1922 Croton lost it seventh graders – and the core of its band – as they were absorbed into the new Ben Franklin Junior High School. The band was reorganized and carried on mainly with sixth graders. Hoffmaster unselfishly donated his time and oversaw the band for almost thirty-five years, until he retired in 1948. Due to a change in school policy involving the music department, the volunteer band was sadly disbanded for good in 1957. Hoffmaster passed away two years later in late 1958.
The Croton School, which underwent a major remodeling effort in the summer of 1927, served the local community for many years. My father, who grew up on Scott Street, attended this school up until the third grade when he transferred to the new Harry W. Lockley Elementary School in 1955. In February 1961 the decision was made to replace the aging school and state approval for a new Croton Elementary, and a new Highland Avenue Elementary School, was received in August 1961.
The new Croton school was to be built right next to the old building and further property was needed. A dispute with property owner Giacomo Casciato, who owned a neighboring house, was settled in July 1962 by either a settlement or through condemnation proceedings. Ground was broken for the new school building on Tuesday, January 22, 1963, and construction kicked off in earnest. The new thirteen-room Croton Elementary School, which cost a total of $547,000, was completed in December of the same year.
Oddly enough, just prior to its opening, the school almost took on a new name. In response to the assassination of U.S. President John F. “Jack” Kennedy on November 22, 1963, the New Castle school board decided to honor him by renaming one of its schools after the charismatic leader. The new Croton Elementary has under serious consideration for the honor, however descendants of Abraham Crowe and other Croton residents waged a spirited campaign to avoid the name change. On December 11, 1963, the new Highland Avenue Elementary School, which opened back in September, was renamed in Kennedy’s honor.
On Thursday, December 12, 1963, sixth grader (and uncle of mine) Bill “Jinx” Hake, the son of Mr. Paul Hake – who ran a service station in Croton, was given the honor of helping Principal Arthur H. Walker ring the old bell for the last time. Afterwards the students from the old Croton School gathered up their belongings and proudly walked over to their new school for the first time.
During the ensuing holiday break the demolishing of the Croton School was began, but the old bell was saved and put on display outside the new school. An article in the New Castle News of Tuesday, February 4, 1964, reveals the aftermath of the demolition: “The only thing that remains at the old Croton School site is the leveling of the ground. All that remains of the once proud school structure has been removed and now in the prominent spot is the new building.” The ground was cleared and soon became a play area and parking lot. The school, in conjunction with the original Harry W. Lockley Elementary School, faithfully served the elementary level pupils of the Croton area for many years.
Beginning in the fall of 1988, as part of a reorganization plan, the school – renamed the Croton Kindergarten Center – became the home of all city-wide kindergarten children. The administrative offices of the New Castle Board of Education were also moved into the building as well. In the fall of 2014, with the opening of the newly rebuilt Harry W. Lockley Early Learning Center, the Croton building was redesignated as the Croton Pre-Kindergarten Center. The old bell still sits outside as a proud reminder of the old Croton School that once graced the location.
A postcard from c1902 showing the Croton School, which opened along Croton Avenue in 1901 and served students up to the seventh grade.
Postcard showing the old Croton School, which actually fronted Fern Street – with its immediate rear to Cascade Street. Croton Avenue runs behind the trees on the left. Photo taken not long after the school opened in 1901. (c1902)