In 1876 some of the more prominent citizens of the small town of Volant in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, proposed building a college-level academic facility in their town. After several failed attempts they were finally successful in raising enough money for such a venture and construction started in late 1888 on what would be known as the Volant Normal Academy. A “normal school” was an institution for training high school graduates to become teachers.
The first classes, containing about thirty-three total students, commenced in the Methodist Episcopal Church in April 1889, while the school was nearing completion. The studies were led by academy president and Professor Asher A. Galbreath, a lawyer and the driving force behind the founding of the facility, and several other distinguished educators. Mr. Galbreath, a graduate of Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, was also assisted by his wife Anna M. Galbreath, sometimes referred to as “The Mother of Volant College.”
On May 11, 1889, the Volant Normal Academy, situated on Mercer Street, was completed and formally dedicated. A year later the school was given the authority to confer educational degrees. The first commencement of graduating students was held on June 22, 1890, when three students were awarded their diplomas: Alice Galbreath, W. P. Love, and W. J. Zimmerman. The campus initially consisted of a lone wooden academic building with eight total classrooms and in 1891 a twenty-four-room dormitory was built to house thirty-two students. Other small additions were added in the next few years.
In the spring of 1892 the academy received court approval and was incorporated and renamed as Volant College, serving future teachers as well as other professions with two-six year courses of study. In June 1892 the college awarded diplomas to fourteen total graduates. This was the zenith of the college as at the time it had about 150 total students enrolled.
In 1894 an athletic department was established and a baseball field was built on a farm east of town. In 1898 the baseball field was moved to its current location off of Main Street in “downtown” Volant. One of the most famous “student-athletes” to attend the college was an eccentric lad named George “Rube” Waddell, who was born in 1876 and mostly grew up in Butler County, Pennsylvania. Waddell was an excellent pitcher and started garnering attention while playing on various baseball teams in western Pennsylvania. In early 1897 Volant College, looking to have some athletic success, offered Waddell a small stipend to play for the school’s baseball team. Waddell, who did not even have to attend classes, led the team to an exceptional winning season and soon went on to greater fame.
He played professional baseball for the next thirteen years with such teams as the Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Athletics, and the St. Louis Browns. He was the dominant power pitcher of his time and led the major leagues in strikeouts a remarkable five years in a row from 1903-1907. During his career he won 193 games, compiled 2,316 strikeouts, hurled 261 complete games, and finished with a career 2.16 ERA. On the flipside Waddell had a fondness for alcohol, was known for his outlandish behavior, had several failed marriages, and frequently battled with his managers and teammates. He was so odd at times that many experts today speculate that he suffered from some sort of mental illness. Waddell, who died in 1914 at the age of thirty-seven after a bout with tuberculosis, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1946.
The college quickly went into decline by the late 1890’s as enrollment dwindled due to competition from established schools such as Westminster College and Grove City College. Other colleges such as the Slippery Rock State Normal Academy (now Slippery Rock University) and Mercer Academy soon sprung to life as well. Worse yet the student dormitory burned down in 1896 and the validity of the school’s degree program was called into question (but cleared) during a state-level investigation in 1898.
In December 1896 Professor Galbreath left the college to manage Mount Hope Academy (College) in Rogers, Ohio, was elected mayor of that same town, and later served as a state senator from 1917-18. His departure was a blow to Volant College and he was followed by a quick succession of administrators, including M. E. Hess, the Reverend G. E. Brenneman, and C. F. Ball. The last commencement was held on June 20, 1901, as the school faced financial crisis. For the next five years the school remained opened but in limited use. The school closed in 1906, briefly reopened under new leadership, but closed for good in the spring of 1909. There was talk of reorganizing the college as a technical school of some sort but this never materialized.
The school and campus grounds were generally signed over to the borough, which decided to convert the main building into a high school for the 1910-11 school year. The eight-room building was remodeled into a four-room school for the older students of Volant with Norman W. Igo, a 1909 graduate of Westminster College, serving as its first principal. Within a few years it was utilized as a school for all grades and had 126 total students by 1922-23.
The public school served the community for several years until it was devastated by an early morning fire on Thursday, August 2, 1923. The fire was discovered at 5:30am by a nearby resident. Like many small communities at the time Volant did not have a fire department of its own and by the time help arrived from New Castle it was too late. The loss was estimated at $16,500. C. F. Ball, a former Volant College president and then Lawrence County Assistant Superintendent of Schools, called the loss “…a real catastrophe.” The destruction of the building basically signaled the end of what remained of old Volant College. A new Volant School, estimated to cost $15,000, was opened on the same site in August 1924 and served the community as an elementary school until it was closed in 1978.
Back in 1914 a Volant College alumni association was founded and its first annual reunion was held on the former school grounds on Friday, August 20, 1915. The popular event was eventually expanded to include the graduates of Volant High School and even the community as a whole. At least one reunion, in 1919, was held in Cascade Park in New Castle. The 1940 reunion, held in Volant on Wednesday, June 26, was one of the largest ever. During that gathering, a boulder with a commemorative bronze tablet, funded by the alumni association, was put in place to mark the former site of Volant College. The reunions continued for many years, usually based at the Methodist Episcopal Church in Volant, and the last one I can find mention of was in the summer of 1960. Volant College had a short existence but it was fondly celebrated by its former students and staff members for many decades.
An old postcard showing students and probably faculty posing in front of the old Volant College building on Mercer Street. It’s hard to pinpoint what year this is but probably c1905, when the school was in limited use.
A catalog from Volant College for the 1897-98 year. The two pages posted above list the school’s alumni dating back to 1890. Full Size
This old postcard was sent to Mr. Myrt Scott in Seely Creek NY and postmarked as April 28, 1908. The inscription reads, “I had most (sic) forgotten to answer your card. Will try and not wait so long again. This is a picture of our bunch this spring. Ford.” (1908) Full Size
The bottom of this postcard – postmarked in July 1907 – is marked as “This is a group of the senior play. Yours, Verne.” Full Size
The writer of this postcard seems a little angry. The inscription on the back reads, “Dear Sister. Where are you and why don’t I hear from you? This is a photo of my building. Many thanks for Valentine card but should have been more grateful for a letter. V.B.L.” It was sent to Miss Mildred Lefler of Mansfield, PA, and postmarked as Feb 1, 1908.Full Size
A closeup of the memorial tablet dedicated during the 1940 reunion. (Jul 2011)
The bronze tablet placed by former Volant students at East Carmel Cemetery to honor Asher & Anna Galbreath. Asher died in Dec 1935 and Anna in Mar 1940.