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Elmira Free Academy
Class Of 1963


In May 1859, Elmira Free Academy was formed under the jurisdiction of a Board of Education.

Professor Joel Dorman Steele was hired in 1866 to “govern the growing boys” at $1,600 per year.

This original edifice served until overcrowding required the erection of a new building in 1891.


Early in the 19th century in Elmira (then called Newtown), the first school was private.


There was no thought yet of a “free” education for Elmira’s scholars. Over the next 30 years came several private institutions.


In 1836, few students attended the Baldwin Street Academy, situated in the First Presbyterian Church on East Church Street. The New York Board of Regents accredited the academy in 1840. The academic course of study was four years, a suitable preparation for business or college entrance. New York State legislation required this private academy to become a free educational institution. In May 1859, the Elmira Free Academy reformed under the jurisdiction of a Board of Education.


The first EFA was located in a house on East Clinton Street. This building quickly proved insufficient. In April 1860, classes moved to the basement of the Park Church. Planning began for a more permanent school building.


While the new facility was under construction, EFA opened its fall term in the former J.N. Robinson Melodeon factory on the southeast corner of East Church and William streets. That first year produced two graduates.


By December 1861, the beautiful, new, three-story building was ready for students. Installed facing East Clinton Street, its basement was largely above ground. The assembly hall was on the second floor, and four recitation rooms were on the third floor. The basement housed the science laboratory and quarters for the fraternal and sorority societies.


The first commencement in the “new academy” was held July 25, 1862. Professor Converse was the first principal, followed by Isaac Wellington, and then G.W. Timlow. Disciplining the “big boys” proved too much for Timlow. Professor Joel Dorman Steele was hired in 1866 to “govern the growing boys” and to “bring order out of chaos” at $1,600 per year.


Steele challenged the students to “labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” The students were charged to self govern and rely upon themselves through an honor system controlled by the top-standing six boys and six girls who had special privileges.


A special study room was provided. Students took morning roll and rang the school bells. Monthly report cards rewarded extra credit for extra work. Volunteering was encouraged. Students held festivals to raise money for needed school supplies and decorations. One Christmas festival brought enough money to afford two oil paintings at $500 each.


Steele established an athletic program at the Academy, a debating society, and a literary society. Trees and bushes were planted on the grounds. Under Steele’s tutelage, awards were given to graduates for their achievement – among them, the Diven Elocution award, the Arnot Algebra award, and the Fassett-Hall spelling prize. Unfortunately, as was the custom of those days, “no girl need apply for the honor of being either valedictorian or salutatorian – as these honors were given to boys only —no matter the girl’s standing.”


In 1872, Steele gave up teaching and devoted himself to full-time writing. He and his wife Esther Baker Steele were celebrated authors of textbooks of history and sciences. Mrs. Steele established the Steele Memorial Library in his honor.


The first Elmira Free Academy had no gymnasium. Resourceful students and Elmira businessmen raised the $2,000 necessary and built a gym in 1870. It was home to indoor dumb bell drills, trapeze exercises, rings, and double and single bars.


This original edifice served until overcrowding required the erection of a new building in 1891. This second structure sufficed until overcrowding again demanded an even larger Academy in 1913 – this time fronting on Lake Street. During the construction students attended classes in grammar schools throughout Elmira. The 1913 EFA was equipped with a cafeteria and kitchen. Additional wings were added in 1940.


Elmira Free Academy relocated to a modern facility on Hoffman Street in the 1960s. The “Old Academy” on Lake Street became Ernie Davis Middle School.  Later EFA and Southside merged into the old Southside High School on South Main Street and was renamed Elmira High School.  The Ernie Davis Middle School moved to the EFA building on Hoffman Street and the old EFA building on Lake Street is now Finn Academy, a charter school.

The Elmira sports teams are no longer known as the Blue Devils or Hornets, but the "Elmira Express", named after the nickname that Ernie Davis earned here in our school.




Thomas Flaherty  2/4
Michael Neustadt  2/4
Martin Ademovic  2/7
Jarvis Gamble  2/8