Few people have left a legacy at Mansfield equaling that of Fordyce A. Allen, for whom Allen Hall is named. Prof. Fordyce Almon Allen was born July 10, 1820 in Massachusetts and two years later his family settled in Mansfield.
In his early years, Fordyce lived in Ohio, Massachusetts and New York with his father, Almon. At the age of 19, Fordyce moved to Coudersport where he worked as a clerk. During that time, he married his first wife, Sarah Colwell. They had one child before she died at a young age. Sarah passed away on the couple’s third anniversary.
Allen later moved to Smethport where he was principal of an academy there. He also met and married Jane Martin, who was a remarkable woman in her own right. Fordyce and Jane raised four children of their own. They lived in McKean County until 1857 and during that time, Fordyce served as a newspaper editor and county superintendent of schools. In that capacity, he was responsible for overseeing all schools in the county.
In 1857, as Mansfield Classical Seminary was opening, Fordyce moved to West Chester and founded Chester County Normal School (not a predecessor institution of West Chester University). While in Chester County, Allen gained a favorable reputation as an educator. Allen’s school was just one of many in operation in that area and competed against many institutions there. There are also reports that Allen served as a corporal during the Civil War with a light artillery unit in Company Gus, but there is little other documentation of his service.
In 1864, Allen was elected principal of Mansfield State Normal School. He closed Chester County Normal School and moved the furnishings, which he owned, to Mansfield. The new furniture vastly improved the living standards of the Mansfield students. Professor Frank Crosby, who taught language and literature at West Chester, came to Mansfield at the same time, as did as many as 40 of their students from there.
On several occasions, the Wellsboro Agitator wrote “Prof. Allen is well known throughout the state as a gentleman of accurate scholarship, possessing a practical experience of 15 years as an educator of teachers.”
Allen’s reputation also helped Mansfield to attract other students from the West Chester and Philadelphia areas. The Elmira Advertiser commented that the students were “attracted here by the high reputation of Prof. F.A. Allen, the indefatigable principal of the school.” By 1867, Mansfield was the largest of the four Normal Schools in Pennsylvania.
Allen’s homecoming was nothing but a blessing for the community. He is credited with providing students with plenty of food, healthy air, and comfortable and well-ventilated rooms. Allen also had a zeal for temperance and managed to convince the state legislature to ban alcohol sales and billiards tables within two miles of Mansfield State Normal School.
One of the best example of Allen’s love of education is provided in the autobiography of William A. Stone, a Mansfield graduate who went on to become the only Tioga County native to be elected Pennsylvania governor. He served as governor between 1899 and 1903. It is possible that without Allen, Stone would have been a life-long farmer in Delmar Township near Wellsboro.
Stone described a speech that Allen gave in Wellsboro at the courthouse. Stone and his friends went because they had nothing better to do rather than out of any interest in education. Stone’s family could not afford college anyway.
“(Allen) closed by saying that want of money should not prevent anyone from obtaining an education,” Stone wrote of the speech. The professor invited anyone in the audience to his hotel room to discuss making arrangements to pay for college at Mansfield. Stone was the only person to show up.
Stone spent his first year sweeping floors and tending fires to pay his way through school. In his second year, Stone was able to borrow the money for college. In those days, a normal school education was two years long. Stone also says that Allen taught “natural philosophy.” Newspaper accounts of that era included the final examination questions. It seems that natural philosophy was similar to engineering.
Stone probably heard Allen’s first commencement address, delivered in 1866. The Wellsboro Agitator commented that Allen’s address “was like himself: genial, heartfelt, and well-judged.”
The future governor was hardly the only person to benefit from such an unusual arrangement. Early advertisements about the Normal School noted that produce, which was later used to feed students, would be accepted to cover tuition costs.
In 1869, after serving as principal at the Normal School for five years, Allen decided to move on to other projects. The Corning Journal commented “we regret that his connection (with the school) ceased with this term.” That high praise may have had something to do with the elegant reception that Fordyce and Jane held for the reporters from Wellsboro, Elmira, and Corning during commencement exercises that year.
Fordyce’s next project, which actually started while he was principal at the normal school, was to establish the Mansfield Soldier’s Orphan’s School. That school provided an education to children who had lost parents in the Civil War and was one of many across the state. Initially, the school was located at the corner of Main and Wellsboro streets at what is now a computer store. The first application to start the school called for 25 boys and 25 girls to enroll. When the school opened on Oct. 1, 1867, Allen had 63 pupils, who were educated in part by the teachers-in-training at the Normal School.
As the Orphan’s School grew, Allen opened his home to students. That house is still standing on Academy Street today. In 1872, the Allens purchased a farm on Brooklyn Street. Some of the Orphan School students learned the profession of farming there. At the time, a farmer could earn $1.50-$1.75 a day. That wage was less than the wage earned by masons, mechanics, and carpenters, but it was more than uneducated orphans could earn. That farm stayed in the family until Samuel Dorsett of Lamb’s Creek bought it in 1907. The Wellsboro Agitator noted that it was one of the best farms in the county and sold for about $9,000. Now, a century later, there are plans to convert the property into a commercial park.
In addition, Allen built in 1878 what became known as the “Allen Block” on Wellsboro Street where an apartment building and several businesses are now located. Some of the orphans received their education there and many important businesses found homes on the block. Later, the fledgling Mansfield Free Public Library was briefly housed in the upper levels of the Allen Block. The building stayed in the family until Fordyce’s daughter, Stella Allen Ely, sold it in 1951 to Harold G. Strait.
In 1875, the Democrats nominated Prof. Allen to run for county prothonotary, but he declined the nomination. Allen was also on the first board of the Mansfield Fair, which was held at Smythe Park. In 1877, there are accounts that Allen served as president of the Sunday School Teacher’s Association.
During that same year Allen was elected principal of the normal school for a second time. The appointment was for five years, but he would only live to serve three of those years.
Throughout it all, Allen hosted numerous teacher’s institutes, which were meetings of several days to help train teachers who may or may not have attended a college-level institution. A year before his death, Allen made a memorable trip to California and on his return trip, held institutes in Kansas. While in California, Allen visited his brother, Charles, who was also principal of the institution that is now San Jose State University. San Jose State used to have an Allen Hall, named for Charles. That Allen Hall, which served as a dormitory, was torn down in 2003. Both men were very progressive for their time and Charles is credited with opening the University of Wisconsin to women before moving to California.
Fordyce’s life was cut short when he died Feb. 11, 1880 at the age of 59. Interestingly, he died on his brother’s birthday. In another twist of history, the main building at Charles’ California State Normal School at San Jose burned the day before Fordyce passed away.
Allen’s obituary listed the cause of death as typhoid pneumonia. However, there are accounts that the disease was caused when a piece of wood embedded itself into Allen’s chest. At the time Allen may have been dynamiting tree stumps on the farm, blowing the piece of wood into the professor’s body. According to his obituary, the funeral was attended by thousands of people, including the students at both the orphan’s school and the normal school. He left behind an estate estimated at $50,000, including an extensive library.
During commencement exercises that year, the female graduates wore badges of mourning while the men wore arm bands on their left arms in memory of their late principal. In addition, the juniors provided entertainment while a large likeness of Prof. Allen hung on stage.
After Fordyce’s death, Jane continued to run the orphan’s school with Mansfield alumni, Vine R. Pratt. She retired from that job in 1883. Jane was also a member of a committee that was charged with planning a memorial chapel in conjunction with the Episcopal Church.
In 1934, a monument dedicated to the 13 pupils who died while attending the Orphan’s School was unveiled at Mansfield’s Prospect Cemetery. Prof. Allen’s granddaughters, Elizabeth Allen and Jane Ely, unveiled the monument for 145 people, including 80 former students.
In addition, there is a memorial to Prof. Allen, erected by his former students, at the corner of Main and Wellsboro Streets. “His words of wisdom and tender admonition have proved a guide and inspiration,” the tablet reads.
The former East Hall was named for Allen in 1964. According to council of trustees minutes, the initial plan that year was to name all of the buildings at once. However, there was a concern that there was not enough time to do a thorough job on the project and only four facilities and the dormitories were named that year. Allen’s name was one that many people suggested and Allen Hall was the second building, after Straughn Auditorium to be named for an important person in Mansfield history.
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