History & Traditions
On December 6, 1759, a group of citizens, concerned about the education of their children, met with Daniel Mackinett at the Green Tree Inn on Germantown Road. At this meeting, The Germantown Union School (now known as Germantown Academy) was founded.
The Early History of Germantown Academy
Germantown Academy had its beginning in the midst of the struggle that surrounded the birth and growth of a new nation. The bell tower and the bell that announces the beginning of each school year have become symbols of continuity and perserverance. The first two “Headmasters,” James Dove and Hilarius Becker, had far different approaches to education. Dove held fast to the authority of the paddle and sarcasm; while Becker was almost “modern” in his style, using kindness and empathy to cajole his students into learning. Becker was much praised for his sensitive teaching style, and soon a one-Headmaster school was growing steady.
The bell was cast in England and brought over on the tea ship "Polly" in 1774. Because of the unrest in Philadelphia at that time, the "Polly" turned around and, with cargo intact, headed back to England. It was not until 1784 that the bell was returned and placed in the bell tower. The weather vane, with its crown of England and copper ball, attests to its presence during the War for Independence by the scars it bears from musket balls fired by British soldiers. They had occupied the area and used the school building as a hospital for a brief time during the Battle of Germantown. The troops of General Howe's Third Brigade used the playing fields for the first cricket match played in America.
The second English Master in the school's history, Peletiah Webster, devoted much of his energy to improving the quality of education offered; at the same time he encouraged the board of managers to seek a charter from the state. The charter was granted in 1784 to the "Public School of Germantown," which remains the Academy's corporate title to the present day.
The Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 made it necessary for President George Washington and his cabinet to leave Philadelphia for the higher altitude of Germantown. During his residence there, his cabinet met at the school, where he later enrolled his adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis, as a student.
As early as 1767 instruction for girls was proposed. In 1797 a second attempt was made to enroll girls. In 1831 A. Bronson Alcott, educator and father of Louisa May Alcott, was Master and 19 girls were registered at the Academy. This venture was soon terminated, and for the next 125 years only young men were graduated. Head masters of great quality, such as Dr. William Kershaw who stayed at the helm for 38 years and Dr. Samuel E. Osbourn for 33 years, were able to establish a tradition of academic excellence, and the school graduated men of dignity, perseverance, and honesty.
It was natural for a school that had been a part of the colonial period of American history to choose red, white, and blue as her colors. However, in 1875 the white was changed to black as a tribute to the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln and to the Academy boys who had served their country in the war. The colors remain red, black and blue today.
In December of 1958, one year before the bicentennial of the Academy, the Board of Trustees voted to accept the offer of Robert McLean of 160 acres of rolling meadow and woodland in Fort Washington. It was agreed that in order to serve the whole community, the Academy should enroll both boys and girls as had been done in earlier years. Here in Fort Washington we have had an opportunity to create buildings and playing fields for more than double the number of students than could be accommodated in Germantown.In September 1965, through the generous efforts of the Trustees and Friends of the Academy the move from Germantown to Fort Washington was completed.
Hail Our Alma Mater...
A school 250 years old understandably enjoys quite a few traditions. Some traditions are as old as the 1700s, while others have been born in the last decade. All make Germantown Academy the amazing school that it is today.
During the middle part of the 19th century, boys who were students at Germantown Academy formed a cricket team to compete against other local cricket clubs. In those days, hats were used to distinguish each team. Around 1870, the GA Cricket Club team chose red, white, and blue as their colors.
They soon found, however, that the white on their caps turned to yellow after extensive play in the hot weather. This may not have mattered, except that one of their rivals, the Philadelphia Cricket Club, wore the colors of red, blue, and yellow. Late in the season the two teams were practically indistinguishable.
Around 1875, our boys at the Academy decided to clear up that confusion. At that time, the legacy of President Abraham Lincoln, assassinated in 1865, had ascended to legendary status. Seeking both to distinguish itself from a rival team and to connect GA in still another way to our country’s history, the cricket team changed its colors to red, blue, and black in tribute to our fallen leader.
The current GA colors were founded. Then, in 1887, the school held its first Field Day, a tradition that we still carry on in the Lower School. As part of the celebration, the Academy developed its first red, black, and blue flag.
GA-PC Day is the oldest rivalry between two independent schools in the United States. Begun in 1886, Germantown Academy meets Penn Charter in November for a day of athletic competition which culminates in the GA-PC football game. A beautiful exhibit of both schools' art adds to the festivities. GA-PC Day is also a time when alumni gather together.
Field Day is a Lower School tradition that began in the 1960s. It can also trace its roots all the way back to the Upper School Tug of War from 1875. The entire Lower School is split between Red and Blue Teams. Once a student is assigned to a team, they are on that team for life. All students parade around the school and then on to the fields for a morning of fun competition.
Penned and composed by J. Heffenstein Mason, GA Class of 1901 circa 1910, our proud school song is rehearsed and known to all students, starting with the very youngest in Lower School. Its unifying tone is used to celebrate and mark the bigger moments of each school year – starting with Flag Raising and ending at Graduation.
Hail! Our Alma Mater,
To Germantown we sing,
Cherished are the mem’ries,
Which ‘round thy old walls cling.
May thy glorious spirit,
Ever stay thy loyal Ones ,(*)
And lead us on to victory,
Tho’ foes outnumbered come.
Then, whate’er betide us,
We will together stand,
By one bond united,
One common impulse, grand.
Call us then together,
While we raise our voices high,
And fling defiance to our foes,
Thy spirit cannot die.
(*) – the single lyric “Ones” replaced “Sons” after the school became fully coeducational in the late 1960s
No new school year has officially begun until the time honored ritual of Flag Raising has been completed. As per tradition, on the morning of the first Friday of full classes in each new school year, every member of the school community – all students, faculty members, staff and administration - gather on Connor Quad by the main flag pole. After announcements for the year, and sometimes a re-enactment of our proud school history, the senior class is asked to sing our “Alma Mater” while a special American Flag, bearing thirteen stars recalling the original collection of colonies existent in our young country at the time of our schools founding, is raised above the GA school flag where they will fly each day of the school year. All are dismissed for the start of the day’s first class by the toll of our historic bell ringing for all to hear from The Belfry atop the Administration Building.