By Jane Malone
In the fall of 1861, Mary McClellan (“Miss Mary”), an experienced teacher from the Gettysburg public school system, took the bold step of opening her own private school. In the face of the uncertainties of war and the potential competition from another new private school, Miss Mary placed the following ad in Gettysburg’s Compiler newspaper for the Sept. 2, 1861 issue: “Miss Mary D. McClellan, late first assistant in the Gettysburg Public Schools, respectfully informs her friends and the public that she will open a Select School on the 16th of September. Terms $4.00 per quarter.”
Miss Mary’s competition was Miss Carrie Sheads, whose ad for her school appeared on the same page of the Compiler. Her “Select School” became a mainstay of education in Gettysburg in the late 19th century, preparing students for high school education.
Miss Mary’s Select School was located in a small brick building next to the County Jail on High Street across from the public school (now the present-day Adams County Housing Authority building.) According to an Adams County News article of 1914, Miss Mary taught students “the various branches until they were ready for the Preparatory Department of the College”—Pennsylvania College’s prep school. Her graduates noted that she did not teach algebra or Latin but “was recognized as a teacher of exceptional ability, especially in the English branches.” She taught both the sons and daughters of the leading families of Gettysburg. Those who participated in a 1915 reunion of graduates included McCurdys, McConaughys, McCleans, Swopes, Neelys, Scotts, McPhersons, Carsons, Shicks, McIlhennys, and Fahnestocks.
At the 1915 reunion, John Reed Scott said Miss Mary never appeared in a photograph. In the historical sketch he prepared for the event, he described Miss Mary as “the slender figure in the black gown; the somewhat rusty and dusky black hat; the thin features; the dark hair; the slightly aquiline nose; the eyeglasses with their gutta-percha frames; the nervously composed manner; the sharp eye that always, even in rebuke, held a twinkle just behind the frown; the quiet controlling manner, inspiring one to study for study’s sake and because of regard for her; in all things just, capable, admirable.”
In that same sketch Scott shared some memories of their school days outside of the classroom. He wrote that “Ethel Swope and Norm McPherson had many political debates on the sidewalk;…that Ella Gilliland, from a persistent tendency to knock a ball behind her, was named ‘Miss Twister;’ that Sallie Gilliland for the same reason was ‘Miss Twister’s sister;’…that the coasting was bully on the Jail Hill and the German Reformed Hill; …Grace Harper was a crack long-distance batter at town-ball.”
Miss Mary conducted her school from 1861 to 1889, with a brief interlude in 1878 or 1879 when enrollments dipped too low for her to continue to operate. Popular pressure from parents encouraged her to reopen in 1880. Finally, in 1889 the Select School closed and Miss Mary retired. She died on April 12, 1898. She had lived her entire life in Gettysburg.
The small brick building that served Miss Mary and her students so well is no longer standing. In 1949 the Adams County Library purchased the old county jail and its property. In the early 1960s Miss Mary’s school building was also purchased, the building was torn down, and the land used to build an annex to the Library for its children’s department. Miss Mary would have been pleased with the land’s new use. On the very spot Miss Mary had for so many years encouraged children to read, the Library’s children’s department continued that encouragement until 1992 when the Library moved to its current location on Baltimore Street.
Jane Malone is a Gettysburg Licensed Town Historian. To learn more, visit www.gblth.com.