Henryville was site of Pocono People’s College
August 08 , 2013
Brochure cover for the Pocono People’s College of Henryville, which operated from 1924 to 1929.
By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association
This time of year, students and teachers are getting ready to head back to the classroom as a new school year begins. Educators are preparing lessons and activities while children and young adults are buying school supplies and getting themselves back into a scheduled routine. The same was true during the 1920s when a small liberal arts college opened in Henryville, Monroe County.
The Pocono People’s College opened its doors on January 3, 1924 and welcomed both men and women ages 18-30 who wanted to further their education. The college was established with a charter, and the chairman of the board was Dr. J.K. Hart, editor of the Education Department’s Survey magazine.
A prominent director of the corporation was Dr. Sorn A. Mathiasen. Dr. Mathiasen had taught at the International People’s College of Elsinore in Denmark and was familiar with the Danish style of adult education. Dr. Mathiasen and his wife, Lucille, traveled extensively throughout Scandinavia and witnessed other examples of this successful type of educational institution. They were so inspired by Europe’s people’s colleges that they wanted to bring this liberal type of education to the United States.
A local resident, Dr. Henry Hulbert of Henryville, was also intrigued by the ideology of a people’s college, and he was instrumental in bringing this form of education to the Poconos. Through his determination and enthusiasm to establish an educational institution for adults, Dr. Hulbert garnered local support by speaking to community leaders to promote the school.
In his numerous local speeches, Hulbert praised the idea of a people’s college to “encourage adults to think for themselves.” Dr. Mathiasen secured financial support from the Russell Sage Foundation in New York and became the President, Director, and Spokesperson for the Pocono People’s College in 1924. Together, Mathiasen and Holbert succeeded in raising awareness of and establishing the Pocono People’s College.
A school year at the Pocono People’s College consisted of two three-month semesters. Summer session ran from June 1 through September 1, and winter session ran from December 1 through March 1.
The college was housed in a large two-story main building, constructed of local stone, and was located “out in the forest on the top of a mountain” that overlooked “the beautiful Paradise Valley and the long range of Pocono Mountains.”
The college stood two miles from the Henryville train station, and during the summer season, it was noted that “special arrangements have been made with the D. L. & W. [Delaware, Lackawanna and Western] Railroad to have practically all trains stop at Henryville on June 1 and August 31.”
The classes offered at the Pocono People’s College were very much like that of other colleges during the time; however, there were some major differences.
The college promoted itself as a “Folk School for Men and Women Seeking Knowledge and Spiritual Growth.” Similar to their counterparts at other schools, students of the People’s College were required to take classes in biography, history, psychology, literature, composition, natural science, art, drama, social science, and physical education. Electives were also offered, and students were able to take classes in community singing, home economics, agriculture, languages, grammar, mathematics, and English.
What differed greatly from other colleges during that era was that admission to the Pocono People’s College was open to anyone regardless of previous education. Students from all educational backgrounds were welcomed; it did not matter if a student had had substantial coursework beyond high school or if the student had only had a grade school education. Admission to the Pocono People’s College was based not on “school credits but by the recommendations of responsible citizens” and that “neither eighth grade nor high school diplomas” were required.
The teaching style at the college also differed from other colleges of the day. Upon entrance and completion of a course, students were given a psychological test instead of written exams. Teachers and students dined, studied, worked, and played together. Instructors were encouraged to visit one another’s classrooms and to work with each student to learn about the student’s “past experience, hopes, ideals [and] weaknesses.” In this way, instructors could apply the individual experiences of the students to the subject matter with the intention that the students would grow both spiritually and intellectually.
In 1924, the total cost to attend the Pocono People’s College for one three-month session was $239, and this included room and board.
In addition to their coursework, students were expected to work for the college. A professional chef was hired to prepare meals, but it was the students’ task to set the dining table, serve the meals, and clear the dishes. Students also took turns washing dishes.
Additional duties given to students included “sweeping, dusting, and cleaning the main hall, library, office, and classrooms; caring for bathroom; caring for kitchen range and fireplace; bringing mail; and cutting weeds and general cleaning around the school.” Of course, students were also responsible for their own bedrooms. College officials boasted that because of the assistance of its students, tuition rates could be kept low.
Recreation was also an important component of the experience at Pocono People’s College. Day hikes, group sing-alongs, picnics, marshmallow roasts, swimming, skating, and tobogganing were all organized activities for students and faculty alike. Sports such as volleyball, baseball, and dodgeball were part of the special activities; however, “no effort is made in the athletic games to have winning teams” and that the “purpose is to develop fine physical health and happy spiritual growth within the group.”
Local residents who lived near the college were encouraged to interact with the students. Social events in the community, such as Saturday night square dancing, were open to the college students, who had made the activity “quite famous.”
Students attending the college were given a list of items to bring from home. Young ladies were instructed that they would not need to pack a party dress; rather, they only needed “a pair of heavy hiking shoes.” Women wore pants when hiking, sneakers and a loose blouse for gymnastics and folk dancing, and a bathing suit for swimming. Men were encouraged to maintain neatness in dress and appearance for a mixed group of girls and boys. It was also suggested that male students bring two outfits for physical activity so that the “high standard of cleanliness may be maintained.”
Throughout the late 1920s, local newspapers dedicated articles to the success of the Pocono People’s College and its charismatic spokesperson and promoter, Dr. Mathiasen. Upcoming graduation ceremonies, farewell dinners, plays performed by the college students, and special guest lecturers were often announced in community publications.
Mathiasen gave speeches promoting the college to many business and social groups both within and outside of Monroe County. According to an article in the May 12, 1925 edition of the Morning Press, there was such an interest in the People’s College that other states, such as Kentucky and Rhode Island, were working to establish similar institutions.
By July 1925, the Carnegie Foundation financially supported the Pocono People’s College. In 1928, Mathiasen spoke at the Annual banquet of the Allentown Y.W.C.A., sharing the mission and goals of the Pocono People’s College. The June 2, 1928 edition of the Morning Sun featured an article that the Pocono People’s College had the highest enrollment since it had been founded (though it never gives an actual figure) and that students “from many sections of the country” were to attend the summer session. The summer session also boasted one student from Canada and three students from West Virginia.
The front page article in the Morning Sun of from August 21, 1929 reads, “Pocono Peoples College Starts Huge Expansion.” College officials were looking to expand and needed to raise $250,000. They wanted to raise $2,500 locally before allowing the professional investment firm, John Price Jones Financial Corporation, to secure additional funding.
Dr. Mathiasen met with 30 influential members of the local community at the Thomas Street, Stroudsburg, home of Mrs. W. B. Easton where he presented his vision to the group of would-be investors. The group, which included local bankers, agreed to support the college and saw the many benefits that this educational institution would continue to bring to the community and to the investors’ personal businesses.
Despite local support and the growing success of the Pocono People’s College (after all, its enrollment had been increasing year after year), investors became increasingly reluctant to donate money to the college during the financial uncertainty that loomed in the late 1920s. The John Price Jones Financial Corporation was unable to secure funding during this time, and the college was unable to survive the stock market crash that would occur only three months later.
Unfortunately, the college was unable to continue under the financial crisis of the Great Depression.
Interestingly, while the Pocono People’s College of Henryville did close, the idea of a People’s College continued. There is a letter addressed to Dr. S. A. Matthewson (misspelling of Mathiasen) from African American educational leader and activist, W.E.B. DuBois. The letter is dated 1931, two years after the Pocono People’s College closed.
In his letter, DuBois writes that he was very pleased to have met Mathiasen and that he was very interested in this style of education, especially for African Americans. DuBois writes that he was certain a college of this type could be successful and would work better in the northern or border states such as “Harlem, New York City, in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indiana and Chicago.” Du Bios closes his letter asking for additional information.