Belleville Mennonite School was established in 1945 by a group of Amish and Mennonite ministers interested in providing a Christian education primarily for children of their churches. A Board of Trustees consisting of five members, with Clayton Hartzler as president, was appointed for the operation of the school.
The first name given to the school was Kishacoquillas Valley Christian Day School. In 1952, when the Constitution was first revised, the name was changed to Belleville Mennonite School.
Classes were first held in what was known as the old Dutch schoolhouse in White Hall (pictured above) with 29 students attending. John B. Kanagy was the first teacher. The growth of the school was quite rapid with an enrollment the second year of eighty-three and the following year one hundred and thirty. A new three-room building was erected in the summer of 1946. In 1949, more room was needed and the front half of the recently destroyed high school building was erected. Later three classrooms were added to the high school building and a six room elementary building and cafeteria were built.
In February 1976, the high school building was completely destroyed by fire. But by summer, ground had been broken for a new structure. Although not fully completed, the new building was occupied less than a year later, in April 1977. The high school department was licensed by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Instruction in the school term 1951-52. Today the school offers a quality curriculum and graduates are accepted by institutions of higher education for many different areas of study.
Excerpts from the following history (1945-1991) are from the book, Mifflin County Amish and Mennonite Story, 1791-1991, by S. Duane Kauffman, BMS Class of 1954
On May 28, 1945, a meeting was held at the White Hall Schoolhouse in which thirty-eight Amish and Mennonite ordained leaders and other concerned persons attended. An investigating committee consisting of Clayton C. Hartzler, Christian Y. Peachey and Abe S. Yoder gave their report. By a raised-hand vote, the decision was made to “start a parochial school since it was necessary for the church to work to counteract the evil of the times and teaching of the Word of God would help to do that.” Of the bishops present, Aaron Mast, John L. Mast, Emanuel B. Peachey and Raymond Peachey gave their encouragement and support. Jacob S. Peachey, however, urged caution until after the war was over “since the government had treated us so well.”
In the weeks that followed, the investigating committee, which functioned as an ad hoc board of trustees, met with the school boards of Union, Menno and Brown Townships to explain the decision and explore the possibility of purchasing an abandoned school building. In these sessions, considerable apprehension and opposition was expressed.
The action to withdraw students from the public schools brought a mixed response in the community. The rationale for doing it put the Mennonites who were teaching in the local classrooms in an awkward position.
With the support of Allensville, Locust Grove, Maple Grove and Rockville Mennonite congregations and the Spicher Amish fellowship, things moved quickly. The Kishacoquillas Valley Christian Day School was inaugurated with twenty-five students enrolled in the “Old Dutch Schoolhouse” in White Hall from the 1945-1946 school term. John B. Kanagy, who had previously taught at Hesston College, was the only teacher for the first year. The charter members of the board of trustees were President Clayton Hartzler, Crist Peachey, Abe Yoder, David Kanagy and Norman Yoder. A watch-dog group known as the Religious Welfare Committee was created to safeguard the interests of the local congregations.
For the second year, a new three-room building was ready for occupation, located near today’s Kish Valley Buying Station at the site of Cold Water Diesel. In the 1946-1947 term, eighty-three students were in attendance and in the following year, 130. Because of this dramatic increase, the original building proved inadequate. In 1949, a new building was constructed at the cost of $30,000 at the present site of BMS. It contained six classrooms, a library, health room, office and other facilities. Grades seven through ten moved to this site.
By the Fall of 1951, the school now know as Belleville Mennonite School had expanded to 12 grades with an annual budget of $14,935.00. The following year the enrollment received a big boost from the eight students of the Mattawana congregation who began making the long trek across the mountain. In 1953, further expansion provided a gymnasium/auditorium, science room, and two other classrooms at the cost of $23,647.92.
In 1958, six additional acres were purchased from Jesse Sharp and a new structure was built adjacent to he high school. In the following year, the original building was vacated and all students brought to the same campus. Also in 1958 the chairmanship of the board transferred from Clayton Hartzler, who had served admirably in that role since the school’s inception, to Trennis King. In the same year, superintendent Laurie Mitton resigned. He had succeeded Alphie Zook as the chief administrator in the fall of 1955. He explained that the spiritual-social structure of the local Mennonite Community made it virtually impossible for him to make any further acceptable contribution as a member of the faculty or administration.
In the mid-sixties, both the high school and elementary school reached their numerical peak. The top year was 1964-1965 with eighty high school students in a total enrollment of 240. In the 1966-1967 term, the school was aided considerably by the legislation that provided bus transporation to private schools by the local public school organizations. In that school year, two additional classrooms were added to the elementary school facility.
A review of the school board minutes reveals that though the 1960’s were a time of growth, they were also a decade of stress and change. Considerable attention was given to holding the line against challenges such as the mini-skirt. Interscholastic sports, athletic shorts, chorus gowns, audio-visual aids and a piano made their appearance. Though these innovations reflected the changing values of the patron constituency, it is noteworthy that resistance to these things was a factor that lead to the school’s birth. It was also not a coincidence that the support of the Beachy Amish diminished significantly at this time.
From the beginning, the school “operated on a shoestring.” The board struggled constantly with the challenge of providing a quality education with extremely limited funds. Painful decisions were made at times to cut back on the teaching staff or to hire less qualified but more affordable teachers. Special meetings were sometimes called to deal with the matter of teachers’ salaries, and on several occasions these sessions concluded with the Board of Trustees and the Religious Welfare Committee dipping into their personal financial resources to prevent further debt. The scarcity of funds was so severe that throughout the fifties the library was allocated only $50-$75 for its budget; in 1957 a teacher in the elementary school, Lena Roth, had a phone installed in the lower building at her own expense, and David R. Yoder offered to pay that phone bill for the school year.
Despite fundraising campaign to be “Debt-Free by Seventy-Three” and the addition of Kindergarten in 1975-1976, the bleak financial picture and the declining enrollment during the mid-1970’s, generated serious consideration to curtailing the high school program.
The board and the school community were focused to come to grips with the future when on the morning of February 20, 1976, the high school building was destroyed by a fire of a suspicious nature. As classes were held in the basement of the Locust Grove Mennonite Meetinghouse, much time was given to evaluation and discernment of future plans. Most of the attention focused on three questions 1) What contributions has the school made to the community and church? 2) what is the school’s future? 3) Would patrons feel more comfortable if the name was changed?
After the results of a questionnaire in the local newspaper and a special patron’s meeting, the decision was made to rebuild and continue the high school program. An expanded building of steel construction was erected at the cost of $360,00.00 on the original site.
The tragedy turned out to be a “blessing in disguise.” As a result, the Mennonite constituency was compelled to make a necessary examination of their commitment to Christian education. Perhaps the most positive result was the outpouring of sympathy and financial support from the local community. In 1972, Mennonite Disaster Service had provided help to the people of Lewistown to recover from a disastrous flood. As a result, a number of Lewistown businesses and private citizens responded with, “you helped us ‘72, we’ll help you in ‘76.”
Though Belleville Mennonite School moved into the 1980’s with momentum and resolve, demographics and a lukewarm commitment to the local Mennonites make the institution’s future tenuous. Though the name Belleville Mennonite School has been retained, the school’s greatest support comes from its non-Mennonite patrons. Since Mennonites are now a minority on the faculty, administration and advisory board, it would appear a name change is only a matter of time.
The welfare of the institution has historically depended on the extraordinary commitment of a small core of individuals who sacrificed and labored tremendously to keep the school alive. Most parents who sacrificed time and money to allow their children to attend BMS would likely conclude it was a sound investment. Among the alumni, the response would no doubt be mixed, but in the final analysis, the high percentage of graduates who moved into service occupations and leadership roles in the church is indeed impressive.
Those on the teaching and secretarial staff that contributed a decade or more of service were Mary Alice French, Ray French, Elizabeth Frye, Nelson Glick, Brenda Kauffman, Irene (Kauffman) Shrock, Malinda Kauffman, Shirley (Kauffman) Renno, and Ivan Yoder. Elizabeth Yoder deserves recognition for her role in launching the Kindergarten program. Jacob P. Yoder and Freeman Frye, among others, performed extraordinatry service as custodians, and Bennett Byler’s friendly faithfulness as a bus driver will long be remembered by many.
John Kanagy, 1945-1946
Pauline Peachey, 1946-1947
Lester Zook, 1947-1948
Alphie Zook, 1948-1955
Laurie Mitton, 1955-1959
Arthur Byer, 1959-1962
Ivan Yoder, 1962-1963
Paul Bender, 1963-1968
Gerald Yoder, 1968-1971
Robert Brenneman, 1971-1975
Jack Magill, 1975-1979
John Yoder, 1979-1984
Leon Miller, 1984-1988
Orville Heister, 1988-1991
Matthew McMullen, 1991-1996
Ray Baker, 1996-2002
Ken Hartzler, 2002-2004
Ann Kanagy, 2004-2009
Wayne Bond, 2009-2010
Kevin Dellape, 2010-2013
Starla Fogleman, 2013-2018
"For me, Belleville Mennonite School is a past, long past, of happy memories. Chiefly that’s because of some outstanding teachers that I had in my 12 years there. I’m one of five who were first graders when BMS opened in 1944 and who went through all 12 grades to graduate together in 1957. I’ll never forget my first day of school in the one-room, former garage in White Hall. The teacher, J. B. Kanagy, gave me a book and said, “read!" That was it, as I remember. One of the eighth grade girls jumped in to help, I soon learned what “See Spot; see Spot run,” meant. I still thrill when I see those words."