Exploring Bellefonte Academy’s rich history

This is the 1926 Bellefonte Academy football team. The school was known for its athletics program and later burned down in 2004.
This is the 1926 Bellefonte Academy football team. The school was known for its athletics program and later burned down in 2004. Photo provided

There once was a school in the hill.

No, seriously, there was.

It was in Bellefonte, sitting at the top of Spring Street where it overlooked the Big Spring. Maybe you’ve heard of it? The Bellefonte Academy.

It’s gone now, burned to the ground in 2004. But in its time, from 1805-1934, it held a special place in the town, thanks in no small way to its athletic teams.

And that’s what drew the attention of Ralph Gray, a former teacher-coach turned historian.

Gray, who taught math for 20 years at Bellefonte and later at Penns Valley, was also an assistant baseball coach under Don Robinson at Bellefonte during the Red Raiders’ run of success through the 1970s. Since his retirement from Penns Valley in 1997, Gray has turned his attention to writing books, producing five of them prior to his newest work, “The School on the Hill”

If you have any interest in the fascinating history of the school, which was once such an integral part of Bellefonte’s history, this will satisfy your appetite. Practically every page contains a tidbit of information that will leave you shaking your head and saying to yourself, “Hmmm, I didn’t know that.’’ Like Gray’s previous works, which include The Battle of the Benner Pike, which details the history of the football rivalry between Bellefonte and State College, this one is meticulously researched, with the aid of Bellefonte native Harry Breon.

The Cougars, the nickname for the Academy teams, were of high school age and played against many of the surrounding schools including Philipsburg, Snow Shoe, Bellwood and State College. They also played a team described as the Penn State Scrubs fairly regularly before opening the 1908 football season against the Penn State varsity. The Bellefonte Academy won that game 6-5. Bellefonte’s Coffey Dillon had a 40-yard punt return for a touchdown in that game and Warren Elsey kicked the extra point for the win.

We know this because Gray provides the details for all of the baseball, basketball and football games played by the Academy teams as well as team photographs and recaps of the seasons of the track, boxing and swimming teams.

The 1926 Academy football team posted a 12-1 record and was named the National Prep championship team. In 1928, Bellefonte Academy shut out Perkiomen 14-0 to win the state championship.

Probably the most notable graduate of the Academy is John Montgomery Ward. He attended the Academy before enrolling at Penn State College as a 5-foot-9, 165-pound freshman. At 15 he played on Penn State’s first baseball team. Later, Ward became the second professional pitcher to throw a perfect game, in 1880. He is the only Penn Stater to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The 228-page book is so full of details of the Academy, and Bellefonte, that it lists the names of every student, both male and female, from Centre County who was a student at the Academy.

Book signing

Ralph Gray, author of “The School on the Hill,” will be holding a book-signing at the Centre County Library and Museum in Bellefonte from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m Friday. The Hon. Charles C. Brown, former president judge of Centre County, will be a guest at the signing.