Bellefonte Academy

The Bellefonte Academy was a popular private school that educated students from Centre County and across Pennsylvania for more than 125 years.

The “School in the Mountains,” as it was known, operated from 1805-1934, except during the War of 1812 and Civil War. The school initially enrolled only boys, but girls were admitted by the 1860s.

From its founding through the Civil War, a succession of headmasters ran the school as a traditional classical academy. Starting in 1868, James Potter Hughes and his son, James Robert Hughes, owned and operated the Academy for more than fifty years as a boarding “prep” school.

Built on a bluff overlooking the Big Spring, the Bellefonte Academy was a local landmark until it was destroyed by a fire in 2004. (Centre County Historical Society)

When James Dunlop and James Harris founded Bellefonte in 1795, they believed the town had three needs: a public square, a place of worship, and an academy. At the time, public education did not exist in the Commonwealth, so students either were educated at home or attended private academies. 

The original two-story school was built in 1805 on a limestone bluff overlooking the Big Spring in Bellefonte. North and south wings were added in the 1840s. A dozen students from Bellefonte and the surrounding townships attended the academy the first year. The academy was funded with two thousand dollars by representatives from many of the surrounding townships on the condition that at least six poor children would receive education for two years, free of charge.

The first principal was Reverend H.R. Wilson, the first regularly ordained Presbyterian pastor in this area of Pennsylvania. The first board of trustees included Thomas Burnside, who later became a Supreme Court justice, and ironmaster Roland Curtin.

The academy’s curriculum included Latin, grammar, geography, mathematics, science, music, and other classical studies. Many of Pennsylvania’s future business, legal, and political leaders attended the academy. They included Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Walker.

Pennsylvania’s Free School Act of 1834 gave local governments the authority to operate public schools. As a result, many private academies across the Commonwealth closed, but the Bellefonte Academy survived.

During the summer of 1904, a fire destroyed the school building’s top story, and the board of trustees decided to rebuild the school. The new building, designed by local architect Robert Cole, featured large Grecian-style marble columns.

The academy offered extracurricular activities, including orchestra. It also offered sports, including football, basketball, baseball, boxing, and track and field.

The football team under head coach Carl Snavely had a national reputation in the 1920s. It won national prep school championships in 1920 and 1926. Bellefonte Academy routinely defeated college freshman teams in football and other sports, including Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh.  The school’s team even played the Penn State varsity team in 1890 (Penn State won 23-0).

Snavely went on to serve as head coach at Bucknell University, the University of North Carolina, and other universities. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1965.  Bellefonte Academy produced a number of professional football players, along with basketball and baseball coaches, and, John Montgomery Ward, a member of the baseball Hall of Fame.

During the Depression, enrollment declined dramatically and the academy was forced to close. In 1939, it was briefly used as a school again after a fire damaged the Bellefonte High School.

In 1946, the school building was turned into apartments. The three-story rectangular building, with its two wings and six-column classical-revival portico, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. However, In 2004, the building was destroyed by a fire, and in 2008 it was removed from the National Register.  Only the old headmaster’s house remains on the knoll today.

Brady Wynkoop


“A Card. Miss Cross.” Bellefonte Patriot, June 25, 1823.

“Bellefonte Academy.” American Patriot, November 2, 1816.

“Bellefonte Academy Newly Remodeled.” Centre Democrat, January 22, 1914.

“Bellefonte Academy Victor in Texas, 55-0,” Boston Daily Globe, December 26, 1926.  

“Fred D. Smith Collection of Photos and Postcards of the Bellefonte Academy.” Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association. (Accessed March 13, 2024).

Gray, Ralph. The School on the Hill: A History of the Bellefonte Academy Cougars. Millheim, PA, 2016.

Linn, John Blair. History of Centre and Clinton Counties, Pennsylvania. Bellefonte, PA: Centre County Library and Historical Museum, 1883.

First Published: June 30, 2024

Last Modified: July 3, 2024