Written by Rick Epstein
FRENCHTOWN HIGH SCHOOL – When the Hillside Academy burned down on March 20, 1923, some residents wanted to rebuild there, but that acre, although centrally located, would be too small to accommodate additional rooms and a playground, too. Whether the new school should go all the way up through grade 12 was also debated.
It took the school board until April 4, 1924, to ask the voters for $89,850 to build a K-12 school between Eighth and Tenth streets. That amount would be augmented by $16,000 from fire insurance. Voters approved the plan.
But the bids came in high, and on Nov. 28 the board asked voters to approve another $20,000. That request was defeated 237-127.
The architect said he would cut the cost by revising the plan – eliminating five rooms and a gymnasium, making it a nine-room school with an auditorium. Meanwhile a campaign was launched to soften voter resistance to approving the additional money.
On Dec. 31 the Star, which did not normally publish letters to the editor, ran a Page 1 appeal by hatchery owner William F. Hillpot, who urged, “We have to put up a school. The State will compel us to. While we are doing it, let's do it right and put in the school that will do us the most good and cost us the least money to maintain. The advantages far excel the little additional tax it will cost us.”
In the new year, Hillpot wrote that Frenchtown had 37 high school students, but there would be more “if our school was at home” (instead of in Lambertville). With the nearest high school 12 miles away, he predicted an enrollment of at least 80 because of tuition-paying students from the neighboring area in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He also cited an estimate that the lifetime earnings of a high school graduate average $22,000 more.
“A high school is an inducement for people to locate in our beautiful village,” he wrote. Furthermore, “It will bring in the country folk and they will be glad to come to our town for the community center. It spells business for our community and the revenue derived from pupils attending our school from outside districts would greatly help maintain our high school.”
This last argument was also being put forward by Frenchtown school board president William Hoffman.
Theater operator Fred Sipes wrote to the Star, too. He drew an analogy. A farmer's 50-cow dairy barn burns down, and because there's a market for more milk, he wants to borrow to replace it with a 100-cow barn.
“After looking the matter over thoroughly,” he wrote, “I believe a high school is the best investment we can make in our town and am willing to pay my share of taxes toward same.”
A petition signed by about 200 residents asked the school board to try again for the extra money – $19,900. On Feb. 15, 1925, the voters said yes.
On a lighter note, the Star reported that Bert Trimmer and a couple cronies, sitting around the warm stove in his store, discussed the uptown site picked for the new school. Auctioneer William Carver said the swamp south of Tenth Street was so full of lizards “that they would be a menace to the new school,” reported the Star. So Carver, Trimmer and Irving McClain appointed themselves to a committee to kill the lizards. They went so far as to acquire a weapon, namely a flail – an agricultural implement consisting of a wooden handle attached to another piece of wood by a short bit of rope.
Apart from a nudge from the Star a couple months later, reminding the committee of its task, history does not tell us whether any lizards were actually killed, or whether there ever were any lizards to begin with.
The new school opened Sept. 2, 1926. It was owned by Frenchtown, but also served students from Milford and the townships of Alexandria, Holland and Kingwood, plus the Pennsylvania townships of Tinicum (Uhlertown and Erwinna) and Bridgeton (Upper Black Eddy). The high school students were upstairs and the K-8 students were on the ground floor. The supervising principal was Leigh M. Lott.
Its first graduating class, consisting of 22 scholars, got their diplomas in 1928. In 1932 31 graduated. The Class of 1952 had 52 members.
Bertram M. Light succeeded Lott as supervising principal in 1931, and he'd remain for the duration. (See entry for Bertram Light.)
Two wings were added with federal WPA money in 1939. The additions included a cafeteria, a library and an industrial arts shop. (Ilse Schmidt-Nickels says the expansions was 1936.
In September of 1947, the school newspaper, the Blue & Gold, gave the K-12 school's enrollment as 317. The school's first yearbook was published in 1946. It was called “The Terrier.”
The school's auditorium has been used for a variety of shows, but the most famous performer was probably Dick Foran (1910-1979), who grew up in Flemington and went to Hollywood to act in almost 200 movies, some of them as a singing cowboy.
The gymnasium extends back from the auditorium stage, so the auditorium seats serve as bleachers for spectators watching basketball players run back and forth. The auditorium is not quite wide enough for a regulation-size court, so it's a little short. When varsity games were held – starting in 1933 – a net was stretched across the front of the stage so balls and players wouldn't fall onto the auditorium floor.
In 1948 football replaced soccer as its fall varsity sport. Fielding a junior varsity team to start, the Terrier gridders were winless until their first game of the '49 season when they trounced the Phillipsburg JV team 26-6.
Frenchtown was a high school town, the way Princeton is a college town, Bridge Street merchant Terry Heater told me. That notion is supported by a front-page item in the Oct. 16, 1953, Del Val News:
Things Pop In
A Football Game
...It's really remarkable how a football game can liven up a town like Frenchtown. Since the Terriers came into being a few years back, the town has pepped up considerably. As someone said last Saturday, 'Well, things are just a-popping, aren't they?'
Around 4 o'clock every Saturday the townspeople look forward to seeing the merry youngsters as they parade down Harrison street and up to Bridge, led by the colorful band and majorettes and fully decorated with blue and gold streamers. The car horns compete with the band and other students to see which can out-noise the other.
Of course, if the Terriers don't win, things are rather quiet after the game, but for the past two weeks they have been the victors and there has been plenty of excitement and fun around town between 4 and 5 o'clock.
Last Saturday, they won over Belvidere with a score of 27-0, and as a reward the team and band personnel were guests of Mabel and Wilbur Johnson at the Coffee Shop. After the treat, the band gave an impromptu concert between the Coffee Shop and the Candy Kitchen. Bob Hoffman, co-captain and star player, was carried out of the shop on the shoulders of two students. Even the small fry joined in the fun by tripping the light fantastic in front of Eddy's.
More power to our high school football team and band. Our country, and all countries, need clean sports to combat juvenile delinquency.
But it wasn't all pageantry; there were livings to be made. Margaret Carpenter became the school's first guidance counselor in 1949. Freed of some of her teaching duties, she advised students on their vocational choices.
In 1956, even though the Pennsylvanians had their own high school – Palisades opened in '53 – FHS was filling up, and the borough school board published a leaflet making the case for a “West Hunterdon Regional High School.”
By standards of the day, the existing school building could accommodate 500 students, but it had 359 high school students and 195 Frenchtown elementary students. Kids in the younger grades had been displaced and were being taught in Borough Hall and the churches.
Frenchtown only had enough borrowing power to add four classrooms, but the high school would still need school-owned athletic fields, a better gym, locker rooms, a science lab, a music room, and more.
One option would be to sell the school to a new regional school board for $350,000, and build a new K-8 school for Frenchtown kids. The new school would cost Frenchtown $495,000. And Frenchtown would have to pay $42,000 for its share of the regional high school and another $42,000 as its share for improving the old school. Bottom line: This plan would cost Frenchtown $219,000.
A new high school would cost $1.5 million, and Frenchtown's share would be $180,000 – $39,000 less than the plan that would involve building a new K-8 school.
If Frenchtown decided to limit high school enrollment to borough students, the predicted per-pupil cost in 1956-57 would rise from $295 to $550 – plus the facility would still be inadequate, and the state probably wouldn't approve such a small high school anyway.
FHS' last graduation was in 1959. The yearbook cited Ilse Schmidt-Nickels and Bob Grossman as most likely to succeed, Betty Jane McCrea and Raymond McCrann as prettiest and handsomest, Zanette Chiarotto and Ron Trauger as best artists, and Carmella Dilello and George Kinney as best athletes.
The high school's successor, Delaware Valley Regional High School opened that September, almost 6 miles northeast of town.
Del Val inherited Bertram Light as superintendent for the first year, the FHS Terrier as its spirit animal, and most of the teachers, including Margaret H. Carpenter, math; Luther Hammond, English and business-ed; Hazel Hann, business-ed; Arthur Hawk, math and football; Lee Hill, phys-ed, baseball and basketball; Edna Holcombe, home-ec; Robin Johnston, guidance and science; Clifford Lessig, wood shop; Vera Miller, Latin and English; Elpedio “Pete” Petinelli, instrumental music; Ronald R. Rogers, science; Joseph Salema (1934-2014), history and football; Charles Strauss, art; Paul H. Snyder, business-ed; Helen Townsend, English; and W. Tap Webb, science and football.
When the high school moved out, a good deal of life went with it, Terry Heater recalled.
The borough's K-8 students expanded into the vacated space – each grade having its own classroom instead of doubling up. In 1976 it was renamed Edith Ort Thomas Elementary School, in honor of a long-time teacher.
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