Banners are up on many of the Main Street lampposts recognizing the 200th anniversary of Bel Air High School. The school has several events planned through December to commemorate the anniversary.
Banners are up on many of the Main Street lampposts recognizing the 200th anniversary of Bel Air High School. The school has several events planned through December to commemorate the anniversary. (ALLAN VOUGHT | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

The modern-day Bel Air High School can trace its roots back over two centuries to a small preparatory school, the Harford County Academy, established on Pennsylvania Avenue during the War of 1812 era.

Beginning Friday, what well may be the oldest continuously operating school in Harford County will kick off several events planned to highlight Bel Air High's bicentennial through the end of the year.


Determining the school's exact age isn't a simple answer.

The Harford County Academy was established via a state legislative act in 1811 to serve students countywide, according to "Our Harford Heritage," considered the most definitive history of Harford County from its establishment in 1774 through the early 1970s when the book was published.

Bel Air High School's bicentennial, however, dates to 1816, when the first principal, the Rev. Reuben Davis, was appointed and the building began being used, according to research by the school's current administration, which cites a passage in the 1927 edition of the school's yearbook, "El Adios."

To commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of the founding Bel Air Academy, which became Bel Air High School, a series of events and celebrations are scheduled throughout the 2016-17 school year, the first of which will be on Oct. 7 and 8 with several home games that will showcase the Bobcats' athletic teams.

The same edition of "El Adios" mentions that the legislative act to establish the Academy was passed in January 1790.

"That's as far back as we can go in our yearbooks here," Athletic Director Tony Blackburn said Thursday, noting the 1927 edition is the oldest in the school building, which opened in 2009.

Blackburn is coordinating the series of athletic events scheduled for this weekend to kick off the bicentennial celebration. He is also working with his fellow faculty members to put on theater, visual arts, writing and musical performances with students and alumni that are scheduled through December.

"We're able to get our alumni to really participate in [the celebration]," Blackburn said.

The building on Pennsylvania Avenue that originally housed the Bel Air Academy is the forerunner of Bel Air High School,
The building on Pennsylvania Avenue that originally housed the Bel Air Academy is the forerunner of Bel Air High School, (ALLAN VOUGHT | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

The celebrations begin at 3:30 p.m. Friday with a junior varsity girl's soccer game, and the athletic events last through the varsity football game against C. Milton Wright High School, which starts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Alumni can also visit the school Saturday, with tours led by National Honor Society students at 9 and 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Spectators can purchase an all-day pass for sporting events for $10, or they can get tickets to morning events for $5, as well as $5 tickets for just the football game Saturday night. Organizers are expecting about 2,000 people to attend the football game, Blackburn said.

"We're hoping to have that alumni support in the stands," he said.

The celebrations continue with the Oct. 20 homecoming football game against North Harford High School.

Property developer John Zoulis does not plan to walk away from his efforts to redevelop the former Bel Air Academy, despite the recent withdrawal of his request to rezone the property at 45 E. Gordon St.

The fall play, "Fright Night V: An Evening of One Act Plays," will be in the auditorium Oct. 27, 28 and 29, and there will be a Harford County Public Schools marching band showcase at the school Oct. 30.

December events include the winter play, "Irving Berlin's White Christmas," on Dec. 1, 2 and 3, as well as a student art show on the same days, according to Blackburn.


A poetry slam for students and alumni is scheduled for Dec. 17, and the winter concert series, featuring student and alumni performers, will be Dec. 16, 19, 20 and 21.

A student and alumni art show is scheduled for Dec. 19, 20 and 21. Contact the school for more information at 410 638-4600.

Convoluted history

The Harford County Academy was one of six academies established in Harford County during the first half of the 19th century – local communities organized the academies, which were governed by boards of trustees, according "Our Harford Heritage," written by C. Milton Wright, a long-time Harford County educator for whom the high school in the Fountain Green area east of Bel Air is named.

The two-story stone academy building, which is still standing and has been used as a residence and offices, was not erected until 1814.

"This was probably because the War of 1812 prevented the construction of the building," Wright wrote. Towns along the Upper Chesapeake Bay, Havre de Grace among them, were invaded and overrun by the British during the heart of the conflict in 1813.

Alumni from Bel Air High School had a reunion over the weekend.

The Academy, designed to serve high school students, was built with a combination of public funds, private donations and student tuition, according to Blackburn.

"At one point, students from all over the United States were attending school there," he said.

Wright noted in his book that the Bel Air Academy attracted students "who desired to pursue a classical course which would fit them for the ministry, law and other professions."

Even though they had to grow up during the Great Depression and World War II, Linda Ropelewski sees the 1930s and 40s as a simpler time for her mother's generation to attend high school, compared to the pressures facing high school students today.

Attendance was decreasing by the 1880s, however, when a public school system was "well established" in Harford County, according to Wright.

The Academy trustees and the county's school commissioners executed a contract in 1888 to establish the Bel Air Academy and Graded School, which was in a new brick building constructed on Gordon Street.

The Gordon Street building became Bel Air High School in 1907, according to several sources, including "Bel Air: An Architectural and Cultural History, 1782-1945." The building also housed students in elementary grades. A lot of that early history is murky, according to a number of BAHS alumni who have tried to research it over the years.

In the 1920s, a new brick building was built behind the Gordon Street building, and the high school students moved there. Then, in 1950, what was considered by many at the time to be the most prototypically modern high school in Maryland, opened on the same Heighe Street property where the current building is. When enrollment outstripped that building in less than a decade, a second building was constructed nearby in 1961. It later became a middle school, as enrollment dipped when Fallston and C. Milton Wright high schools were built.

After the high schoolers left the brick building on Gordon Street, it then served elementary students until being demolished following the 1984 construction of the current Bel Air Elementary School on what had been the older building's athletic fields.

The original 1950 Heighe Street high school building, part of which sat on the site of today's Bobcat Stadium, fell to the wrecking ball when the current high school opened seven years ago.

The irony of all those changes, perhaps, is that both the original academy building on Pennsylvania Avenue and what is considered the first "high school" building on Gordon Street are still standing, although the latter has been vacant for a number of years. A plan by a developer who acquired the property from Harford County last year is stalled over issues with the Bel Air town government.

Today's Bel Air High School has 1,571 students, according to the school's web page, which also notes: "For 200 years, Bel Air has educated thousands of students who have gone on to further education at the collegiate and technical levels as well as employment and military service."