On Monday, November 4, 1901, the J. P. Byers School, also known as the South New Castle Borough School, opened to serve the children the newly established South New Castle Borough – formed eight months earlier from what was previously part of Shenango Township, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. The four-room, two-story brick school, with a basement auditorium, was built on East Tresser Avenue (at the intersection with Hanna Street) in what was then a mostly rural area. It served all grades up to the eighth grade and was named in honor of Venango County resident and wealthy landowner John Piper Byers, who either donated or possibly sold the land on which the school was built.
The school’s namesake, who apparently went by the name “Piper Byers,” was born on July 10, 1829, in a part of southern Mercer County that later was split off to help form Lawrence County. As a teenager he moved with his parents and five or so siblings to Venango County where he later became a successful farmer and merchant in Cooperstown. He invested heavily in real estate including the acquisition of a large piece of property in South New Castle known as Byers Place. He was twice married, had a total of three children, and later died at the age eighty on March 23, 1910, at his home in Cooperstown. His death touched off an intense legal battle among his heirs that lasted several years.
The J. P. Byers School served the rapidly growing local community of Sheep Hill and a two-room addition was opened on the back of the building in November 1922 that increased its student capacity to 208 pupils. I believe another classroom was added later, possibly during a remodeling effort in the summer of 1930. The school accommodated students up through the eighth grade and those wishing to continue their education had to attend high school in New Castle or Shenango Township. The school was almost lost to an early evening fire on the evening of Sunday, December 30, 1934. Local fire department personnel were able to extinguish the stubborn blaze, which started in the basement boiler, with very limited resources. The damage was luckily contained to only $300 and the school was quickly repaired.
In July 1953 the South New Castle Borough School District entered into a jointure with the Shenango Township School District. As a result of this alliance the J. P. Byers School was soon altered to handle grades 1-6, while the local kids in higher grades – including high school – started attending classes at the Shenango Township Consolidated School. Those older kids were also among the first students to attend classes at the new Shenango High School when it opened in September 1959. In July 1964 the temporary jointure became an official merger and the new Shenango Area School District was established.
In the late 1960’s the aging J. P. Byers schoolhouse, known as the J. P. Byers Elementary School since about 1960, came under increasing scrutiny and the school board entertained proposals to close it down to save money. With the major remodeling in 1970-1972 of the old Shenango Township Consolidated School – previously renamed as the Shenango Elementary School – the fate of the J. P. Byers Elementary School was sealed. For a time during the beginning of the 1971-72 school year the entire sixth grade student body of Shenango Township was housed at the J. P. Byers schoolhouse. In August 1972, the eighty or so remaining students at the Byers building were transferred to the upgraded and newly opened Shenango Elementary School and the old school – in service for seventy-one years – was no more.
Within a few years the school district donated the former school to the South New Castle Borough, which planned to remodel the building for use as a dual municipal building and recreation center. With the benefit of local and state aid the Borough renovated the inside of the old building, added basketball and tennis courts to the grounds, and constructed a new backstop for the ballfield in the summer of 1976. The first floor was used for the municipal offices including the police department, the second story was left mostly vacant, and the basement was used for recreation purposes and as a community center.
Unfortunately, before the facility was in use for too long, a raging fire on the morning of Saturday, January 22, 1977, completely devastated the old but sturdy structure. The municipal offices of the South New Castle Borough were forced to move back to their former building located a few blocks away at Hanna Street and Moorehead Avenue. The cause of the fire was determined to be most likely the work of an arsonist. The building was declared a total loss and cleared away and a playground was eventually built over the site of the former school. A sad end to schoolhouse fondly remembered by many of her students, one of them being my uncle Walter “Junior” Ridenbaugh Jr. who attended for grades two through eight.
I received some wonderful emails from former J. P. Byers student Stanley “Stan” Prejsnar Jr. of New Castle who wrote: “(I was) born and raised in South New Castle Boro. I attended J. P. Byers School from the 1st thru 8th grade. I remember the wooden outhouse in back of school building and summer programs held in the school basement….I remember of a picture of John Piper Byers hanging in the school, in the hallway I guess? I’ll have to get back with you on the date of the J. P. Byers school reunion, many former students of the school didn’t know of the reunion….The (South New Castle Boro) fire hall was packed for the reunion, it was suggested that the next reunion be held at the Sheep Hill Community Center. The reunion was casual dress, if I remember correctly only a small fee was charged per former student and a dish of food per student was suggested to be brought to the fire hall. Some food items, snacks, and pop were donated. There was plenty to eat. A 50/50 drawing was held and a question and answer period of past memories of the school and time to talk to old friends….Due to complications, this was the first and last reunion to date….It’s too bad that the school building wasn’t converted into apartments, it was a well constructed building…. The Boro is still my home in memory.”
To read an article from January 1923 that describes the J. P. Byers School after its recent improvements click on: FINE INSTITUTION ARTICLE.
|A photo of John Pipers Byers (1824-1910), the namesake of the small school in South New Castle Boro. Byers was a wealthy landowner from Venango County who either donated or sold the land on which the school was built in 1901.|