James Rada, Jr.
The Year was 1969
Students at both Thurmont High and Emmitsburg High left school at the end of the day on Friday, February 7, 1969. However, when they boarded their school buses or walked to school the following Monday, February 10, they wound up at Catoctin High School. Students from the two rival high schools now found themselves classmates in a brand new school.
“If problems do arise between the two groups of students, it will probably not be a shock to Catoctin High, for this school, even before it was built, had one of the stormiest histories of Frederick’s educational growth,” the Frederick News reported.
The Need for a New School
A consolidation of the two schools had been talked about since the late 1950s. Both Thurmont High and Emmitsburg High were old schools. They needed updating. Thurmont High School, which had been built in 1919, was overcrowded. During a Frederick County Commissioners meeting about combining the schools, “A young woman told the commissioner that she knows a new school is needed for she has had physical education in the halls, classes in the warehouse, and has been a witness to ‘many other problems’ in the school system,” according to the Hagerstown Morning Herald. On the other hand, Emmitsburg High School, built in 1922, was much underutilized, which was limiting some of the educational opportunities available to students.
The Frederick County Board of Education decided to build a new school…but just one. By giving up their small schools in town, each community was told that their students would attend a modern high school located between the two towns.
The problem was where to locate that school?
This is where Catoctin High first became a contentious topic. Local committees couldn’t reach an agreement on where to locate the new school.
“Since the two committees appointed some time back to select a site for a consolidated school have not come up with a solution as to where the new school would be located, it is becoming apparent that the School Board just might take the ‘bull’ by the horns and pick a site itself,” reported the Emmitsburg Chronicle in July 1963.
One possible site was found midway between Thurmont and Emmitsburg, but the property owner wanted $1,000 an acre. Meanwhile, a suitable and larger site just north of Thurmont could be had for $750 an acre. It was also possible for the school to hook into Thurmont’s water and sewer system for additional savings.
The latter site, called the Staub property, was attractive to some members of the Frederick County Board of Education because bussing expenses would be minimized, considering the bulk of the students attending the new school were in Thurmont. Since the school was closer to Thurmont, it meant that while some students would travel further to school, more would have a shorter ride.
Faced with having a site forced upon them, the local committee met and unanimously recommended the purchase of forty acres on Payne’s Hill for the school. It was a site nearly halfway between the two communities.
“This site had previously been approved by both the County Commissioners and the School Board, and its selection, one of the most scenic in the northern section of the county, and one easily accessible off U. .S Route 15, is felt by the committees to be the most feasible and agreeable to the citizens and taxpayers of this area,” the Emmitsburg Chronicle reported.
However, negotiations on the cost of the property faltered.
Then, on November 27, 1963, Emmitsburg residents awoke to discover that the board of education had reversed direction and authorized the purchase of the Staub site for $30,000.
“However, the Board of Commissioners apparently threw caution to the winds and when the Board of Education, either by default or deliberate intention, offered no alternate site, the Commissioners went ahead and okayed the sight and appropriated the money,” reported the Emmitsburg Chronicle.
Lawsuit and Funding Problems
The new school was named Catoctin High in February 1965. However, this wasn’t the first choice. It might have been named James A. Sensenbaugh High School, after the former Frederick County school superintendent who was the Maryland school superintendent at the time. The Frederick News reported that Sensenbaugh had rejected the honor because he didn’t like naming buildings after living people, even if it was him.
Three days after the school was named, six Emmitsburg residents filed suit against the county commissioners and the county board of education. The complainants included Emmitsburg Commissioner J. Norman Flax, Jr.; Chamber of Commerce Leader Bernard Boyle; and Chronicle publisher C. Arthur Elder. They wanted a site for the school closer to Emmitsburg and were charging that an incorrect decision had been made on purpose, ignoring things that would have made the midway location just as attractive as the Staub site. The state board of education heard the case in May but still favored the Staub site, despite Emmitsburg’s arguments.
The planning for the new school began, and in February 1966, the plans were released. Catoctin High would educate up to 1,000 students in 122,000 square feet. It would have an auditorium that seated 1,060 people, 41 teaching stations, a large gymnasium, an auxiliary gym, and cafeteria. Catoctin High was also to be the first high school in the county to have a heated indoor pool.
The Hagerstown Morning Herald proclaimed, “The 1,000 student capacity high school will be designed with futuristic educational facilities, enabling students to receive lessons and research material at home via microwave to television unit.”
The expected cost for all of this was projected to be $2.4 million.
The county board of education approved the preliminary plans in March 1965, with a few—mostly cosmetic—changes. For instance, the slanted roof changed to a flat roof, redwood trim on the exterior was eliminated, and oversized brick instead of split rock was used on the exterior. The Morning Herald reported that the Town of Thurmont had to raise its sewer rates to accommodate the increased needs of the school.
The costs of the school soon started rising. The lowest bid that came in was still $1 million more than the projected $2.4 million. Officials began discussing how to bring the costs down. Wall-to-wall carpeting and the pool topped the list of things that could be eliminated, if need be. Another suggestion was to make the auditorium smaller.
By 1967, the county commissioners still wouldn’t approve the budget. More cuts were asked for.
The Emmitsburg Town Council unanimously objected to the inclusion of a pool in the school. However, even if the pool were to be cut, it wouldn’t save the entire $118,000 cost.
“The controversial swimming pool was accepted by the board after they were informed that the pool would serve double duty as a reserve water supply for the school’s sprinkler system as a swimming pool,” the Frederick News reported.
Without a pool serving that purpose, a pond would need to be built to hold a water supply, and that would cost $50,000 to $75,000. A compromise was reached to move the pool outside.
Things seemed to be getting to the point that not much more could be cut from the plans without making the school’s student capacity smaller. North County residents blamed Thomas Johnson High School for using up construction funds.
“We are being punished in Thurmont for the money spent in Frederick. We are being taken advantage of,” stated Thurmont Mayor Ray Weddle.
Even as the board of education was trying to strip down plans for the school, costs continued to rise. Board of Education President Mary Condon Hodgson presented a $2.7 million plan that was “stripped of all frills” to the commissioners in February, only to have it rejected a second time.
The commissioners even suggested that perhaps a new site should be chosen and the whole process started over. Forty acres southeast of Thurmont were offered for free, but the Board of Education turned down the site, stating the two high schools needed to be consolidated and the new site would take more time to develop, thus opening old wounds between Emmitsburg and Thurmont that had started to heal.
“Mayor Guy A. Baker, Jr. of Emmitsburg said the citizens of that town would erupt in “open rebellion” if consideration is given to changing the site for the school,” the Frederick News reported.
A $2.6 million plan was finally agreed upon, and construction began in July 1967. “Ground-breaking ceremonies were held on July 28, 1967, and the first shovelful of earth was turned over by Ross V. Smith, a local citizen who is a member of the Frederick County Board of Education,” according to the first Catoctin High School yearbook.
Although much was stripped out of the approved Catoctin High School, it was noted that it would have the first mathematics lab in the county.
“A portion of the mathematics laboratory will be devoted to individual study areas where the student may pursue on his own an interest that may have in a specific branch of mathematics,” the News reported.
Some of the resources in the lab for student use included computers, film strips, and records.
The school was also in a scenic location. “The school is being built to take advantage of the view—mounds of the Catoctin range on two sides, the sprawling valley on another side, and a forested area on the fourth side. Even the trees of the orchard that once covered the school property have been left within a few yards of the school door,” the News reported.
When students returned to Frederick County schools in the fall of 1968, students were still attending Emmitsburg High and Thurmont High. The organizations and sports teams were starting to combine as Catoctin High, although Catoctin High was not yet operating.
When students began attending the new school on February 10, 1969, Catoctin High’s history was already starting to form. The Frederick News noted that Catoctin High’s history “is a malleable piece of clay that can be molded in to a fine and finished product of beauty and grace.”
Now fifty years later, that clay has been formed into a school of which Northern Frederick County can be proud.
The first graduating class from Catoctin High School is shown entering the auditorium. The photo appeared in the first Catoctin High School yearbook in 1969.