History

A Historic, Independent School

Founded in 1811, Thornton Academy is one of the nation’s oldest independent schools. Originally named Saco Academy, the name was soon changed to Thornton Academy by the Board of Trustees in honor of Thomas Thornton, one of the Academy’s earliest and most generous benefactors. 

Throughout its history, Thornton Academy has welcomed and educated students from near and far. As an independent school, Thornton Academy is governed by a self-perpetuating Board of Trustees and operates independently of local school boards and municipalities.

Thornton Academy is accredited by the New England Association of Schools & Colleges (NEASC), and adheres to the rigorous standards of NEASC’s Commission on Independent Schools, considered the gold standard of quality assurance.

Thornton Academy’s independence provides the autonomy to innovate, while remaining true to our traditions, values, and mission of preparing students for a changing world.

WHERE IT ALL BEGAN

The Old Thornton Academy

Thornton Academy founded in 1811

The American nation was less than 25 years old, when in January of 1811, thirty-seven Saco citizens petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to establish an academy in Saco and to provide students with the opportunity to receive a private education. By late March, 1811 the successful petitioners had chosen a site, which today is near the Unitarian Church on School Street, and work commenced on a handsome wooden structure. 

Into the new academy came fifty boys and girls ranging in age from 11 to 20 years old. Tuition was $3 per quarter, plus boarding for those not living in the immediate area. The student register for the first quarter indicated that the academy served a wide geographical area. Students came from Saco, Biddeford, Kennebunk, Topsham, Wells, Berwick, and Kittery, as well as Nantucket, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. School remained in session the entire year, six hours in the winter and eight in the summer. In addition to classes, students performed hands-on activities to balance the curriculum,  classical in content and included Latin, Greek, history, and math. 

Graduate recalls old academy 

"Secluded as we were, out of the reach of rattling vehicles; with no other school in the neighborhood, and no railroad, there was almost unbroken quiet outside, unless a cow, feeding on the common, chanced to low, or a bird sang now and then. Sometimes , once in two years, maybe, a circus tent was pitched at the lower end of the common, and while the band belonging to it was delighting its lawful audience, it was also tantalizing the ears of those who had not been allowed from their post in the sultry school room, for there were many sultry days experienced, since the long summer term left but small room for a vacation."

The Founding Fathers
 
Thomas Cutts John Pike Sherburne Tilton
Thomas Thornton  J. Spring Stephen Fairfield
Cyrus King William Todd David Buckminister
Jonathan Cleaves Samuel Moody John Smith
Ichabod Jordan Daniel Cole Moses Bradbury
Richard Manus James Gray Joseph Leland
William Freeman Samuel Hartley Edmund Perkins
Daniel Granger James Carlisle Samuel Gillpatrick
George Thacher Joshua Cumston Tristram Hooper
Daniel Cleaves Samuel Dennett Nicholas Scamman

 

Foundation

         Trustee James W. Bradbury

Name changes

The name was officially changed to Thornton Academy in 1821 in gratitude for the gift of $1,000 by Dr. Thomas G. Thornton, also the marshal for the Maine territory, which put the school on solid financial footing. This was an immense sum, since 31 of the town's leaders, giving generously, mustered only $643 among them. In gratitude of Dr. Thornton's generosity, the trustees gave his name to the institution. 

The academy burns

On Saturday, July 28, 1848, at half past nine o'clock in the evening, the academy building was discovered to be on fire. All evidence pointed toward an arsonist since a fire had not been kindled in the building for more than two months. Thornton's trustees offered a reward of fifty dollars, and the Saco selectmen a similar amount, for the detection of the arsonist, but without success. So in the middle of its thirty-sixth year Thornton Academy lay in ashes, not to rise for another 40 years. 

Thornton Academy reopens

For forty years every mayor expressed the hope that Thornton trustees would rebuild the school. Trustees rejected building on the old site. Legal threats slowed the process to determine its future location. In 1886, eight acres were purchased at the Main Street site where Thornton now stands on eighty-four acres. On July 27, 1887, an agreement was signed between the city of Saco and the trustees of Thornton Academy,  reading as follows: "The said trustees agree to erect during the coming year, on their lot of Main Street, Saco, school buildings ample and suitable; organize and maintain said school in said buildings, at least thirty-five weeks a year, of a grade as high, at least, as the present high school in Saco."

On September 9, 1889, 108 students walked through the doors of the Main Building to begin the academic year at the reopened Thornton Academy. Curriculum focused mainly on the humanities and arts. Again, much like today, students chose from among three courses of study: English or Scientific, Classical, and Business. When not engaged in their studies, the students had "two large, well ventilated rooms" devoted to gymnastics exercises. 

Admissions to Thornton Academy, like most private schools at that time, was generally based on recommendations and exams. Applicants from other cities and towns had to furnish "a certificate of good moral character and a full statement of what has been done by them in study." They also had to pass an exam. Tuition was $15 a term, or $45 a year.

Architect Chosen

The Trustees chose the plans of architect H.G. Wadlin of Boston to construct the new school building. The following was from the April 1888 edition of the Tripod:

"This building is to be different from anything in this vicinity. It is to be built of brick with red mortar, underpinning, steps, curbs, etc. brownstone. There is to be a basement, one full story and one roof story. The basement will contain the boys and girls gymnasiums, dressing and clothes rooms, boiler room and coal bin. The first story will contain the main school room, the music room, four recitation rooms, the principal's office, assistant's room and a large corridor. The laboratory, lecture room and library will be be in the second story."

 The Victory Bell

On December 13, 1889, during the dedication of the school flag, Charles Cutts Gookins Thornton, whose family would later name the library in his memory, stepped forward to donate "a large and handsome bell. The bell is now hung in the tower, and with its deep mellow tone, calls the student to their daily work."

Decade-by-decade

1900s

Thornton graduated between 18 and 34 students each year during this decade. The school became a multi-building campus in 1903 when the library was built for $20,000. The distinctive portico with four ionic columns of Vermont white marble has served as the backdrop for many class pictures beneath the Latin words Disce Ut Semper Victurus; Vive Ut Cras Moriturus. (Learn as if you'll always live; Live as if you'll never die.) 

The third building on campus was the Academy House, the white, colonial-style house completed in 1906 as the home for TA's headmasters. Ernest Woodbury was the first resident as he took over the headmaster position after Edwin Sampson resigned in 1905. TA was changing and growing; along with the new headmaster, there were new teachers. When teacher Lydia Chadwick, one of the original eight teachers, retired in 1908, student paid tribute to her in the Tripod. "She has guided our lagging footsteps safely through the mazes of Latin and German and will always be remembered by us as a model teacher, thorough, painstaking and patient," one student wrote.  

Sports continued to be the center of social events during the 1900s. As the December 1901 Tripod put it, "Such a slump in the excitement, now the football season is over." Sports teams held banquets, sleigh rides and evening events with music, a basketball game and dancing. One such event, held at City Hall, was a colonial party. Students wore quaint costumes from George Washington's day and the Virginia Reel. These evening socials raised between $25 and $50 dollars. 

1910s

Students during this decade, 100 years after the original TA was founded, saw Haley's comet scorch across the sky, saw ads for automobiles and motor goggles appear in the Tripod, and saw the birth of a lunch room. In 1917 a music class was added to the curriculum. Classes on Monday and Wednesday were shortened so there could be an extra seventh period for music. Music class, although not mandatory, was very popular. 

By the end of this decade, Greek was no longer being taught and Spanish was. Gone too were classes on Caesar and Virgil. Latin was only required for the college prep students. The commercial course grew, adding shorthand and typewriting instruction as we as course in office practice and commercial law. Physical training was required for all students each year. "Thornton aims to educate the bodies of its students as well as their minds. The department aims to cure the faults of posture, carriage by remedial gymnastics," a TA boasted. 

Students from out of town stayed at the dorm, a large, colonial house on Maine Street, a five-minute walk from campus. "It is a pleasant dormitory, a real home, with home comforts and a genuine home atmosphere," a Thornton Academy ad said. There were two separate entrances and parlors for the boys and girls. Only the dining room was used in common. Mrs. Estelle Tatterson served as the first Matron of the Dormitory. Living at the dorm cost $8 per week. This house is still standing at 331 Main Street and reads Thornton Hall over the front door. 

World War I

"The United States is at war," the first page of the April 1917 Tripod began. "It is hard to realize that we, who have studied and read of war in our school histories, are now to witness one first hand." World War I brought about many changes for the students at TA. Dozens of Thornton's son went off to fight. The Tripod printed notes and letter from overseas alumni. A service flag went up in front of Thornton with stars for each alumnus and undergraduate who had joined the service. By the end of the war the number had reached 141. A poem by Fred Shields '20 probably expresses the feelings of returning soldiers. 

Well, this punk ol' war is over, 

And peace once may reign,

And soon we'll start for Boston, 

And I'll take the eastbound train.

And I'll never be contented till I land in Saco, Maine. 

At least nine of the boys in this class enlisted in the service after graduating from Thornton.

1920s

This decade was full of new things. Women won the right vote and "talkies" replaced old silent films. For the first time a Maine governor visited Thornton Academy when Percival Baxter delivered an address to students in 1921. 

The Math Society, TA's first honorary society, was organized in 1920. Their meetings became popular social events as well as having demonstrations on the various uses of the slide rule and readings of essays on such topics as Pythagoras. The T Club, the forerunner to the Varsity Club, started in 1921 and was open to any boy who had earned an athletic letter. There was also the Y Club for girls whose purpose was "to face life squarely and to find and give the best."

1930s

The main building annex, completed in 1930, not only extended the main building but the curriculum too. Mechanical drawing, woodcraft, music, art and science courses were added during the 1930s. The school owned 27 typewriters and 10,000 books. Tuition was $100. The school bell was moved to the roof of the annex and the bell tower atop the main building became an observatory in 1936 when trustee Frank C. Deering donated a telescope. 

While President Roosevelt with his New Deal was creating new agencies, new clubs were budding at Thornton. There was a Commercial Club to further business interest among the students. There was an Astronomy Club, a Camera Club, boys and girls glee club, and a French Club, Entre Nous. 

1940s

TA students at the start of the 1940s numbered 434. The early 1940s carried on much of the good naturedness and happy-go-luckiness of the 1930s. Freshman went through freshman week, carrying their books in pillow cases and tin buckets, wearing mismatched socks, pigtails and clothes inside out. The Mutual Theater was popular, as was Scammons across the street where student hangout after class. 

The tripod, the school newspaper since TA opened, published its last issue in 1942. That year's junior published a newspaper and the Tripod went out of business. The name Tripod lived on, however, in the yearbook. 

World War II

With the onset of World War II, Thornton Academy underwent rapid changes. Buildings were sand-bagged and TA became the civilian defense center in Saco. Rationing hit. "We recall our third year was a rather quiet one as far as social life was concerned," the 1942 class history reads. There were fewer dances and parties, but still the TA spirit continued on. The war silenced some clubs. TA had clubs at the start of the decade but only four after the war broke out. The orchestra shrunk to a quartet. 

Many student went to serve their country directly. Ninety-five boys from the classes of 1943, '44 and '45 joined the service. Some left without graduating. An accelerated program was arranged so boys could graduate early before joining up. A half-year graduation program was held by the nine boys who completed the course. Even headmaster Hollis Sanderson left TA to serve the Red Cross Overseas. "After the declaration of war, the urge to get into the conflict seized the boys as the became of military age. Many enlisted, some were drafted, others have been enticed into leaving school for war work; and today our class numbers 57." The empty seats were not overlooked, the students nor forgotten. Students who had left for the war were always considered part of their class and were included in the yearbook.  

"I am seeing things that I never thought existed in this modern world of ours. You know, Saco is a wonderful place when you come to think of it. why, i would give my left leg to be back there tearing around Thornton Academy in my car."

-Henry Vermette, '44

1950s

A new cafeteria was built in the summer of 1958. About a third of the students bought hot lunches. A student dictionary in the school newspaper described the cafeteria as "the place where the elite meet to do anything but eat." There were other changes around campus too during the 1950s. The Locke Building, completed in 1957, provided much needed classroom space. The $100,000 addition to the Emery Gymnasium housed four classroom, two bathrooms, junior homerooms, lockers, woodworking and metal shops. A new chemistry lab, with gas and running water, was created. The home economics department moved into the old chemistry and biology rooms and a sewing room. 

A number of new clubs burst onto the scene during the fifties - knitting, model building and leathercraft. There was also the Astronomy Club, which later expanded into the Nature Club, a Science Club, a Spanish Club and a Latin Club. The Student Council. which had had a number of starts and stops over the years, finally took hold in 1950 and continued every year of the decade. The nine member council organized a Career Day, posted a student suggestion box and established a small parking area on Clark Street during the 1950s. 

1960s

During the 60s, the campus had its biggest growth spurt in decades. The once spacious Emery Gymnasium could not longer accommodate TA fans. The William S. Linnell Gymnasium, completed in 1963 and named for a 1903 graduate and long time trustee, became the site for games, dances, plays, concerts and assemblies. The gym hosted the Portland Symphony Orchestra and the class of 1964 was the first to graduate in the new gymnasium. 

Exchange programs started bringing foreign students to study at TA. Throughout the decade there were exchange students from Chile, Sweden, Germany and Kenya. In 1962, TA started offering six-week summer school courses. For $25 students could catch up and get ahead by taking math, typing, science, French or English classes. There was a growing emphasis being placed on going to college. "The youth who does not continue his education after high school will have less chance than those who do not share in the dividends of our nation's highly competitive future," a student wrote in 1961. 

"Something is happening," a student wrote in 1969. "An undefinable, difficult-to-pin-point something. All over the country, high school students have become more aware, more political, more involved. Because of the mass media none of us is isolated in our secondary school ivory towers." The editorial urged students to get involved. "While we are asking, many of our contemporaries are doing." TA students would start doing more in 1970s as they took on school, local and world issues.

1970s

The 1970s was a decade of change for Thornton students. For the first time girls could wear pants in school and boys could sport long hair, moustaches, and beards. In 1972, both the voting age and the drinking age were lowered to 18. Headmaster James Jortberg arrived to lead Thornton Academy through the turbulent 1970s, replacing Robert Bowie who retired after 41 years at Thornton—16 as headmaster. 

Many new courses were offered during the seventies. There was a data processing class using a large IBM machine with information stored on punch cards. There were English electives and social studies electives such as government, sociology, and psychology. Accounting and public speaking and catering classes came on the scene. 

1980s

The most visible change at TA during the 1980s was the building of the Dr. Paul S. Hill, Jr. Stadium. Named for a 1923 graduate and 43-year trustee, the stadium gave the school new facilities for athletic events and a place to hold outdoor graduations. The class of 1981 was the first class to graduate outdoors in the new stadium. Since then, graduations have been held in the stadium except when it rains and the ceremony is held in the gym. In 1987, James Jortberg retired after 15 years, and Carl Stasio, Jr. took over as headmaster. 

In 1989, Thornton threw a birthday party for itself. That year marked 100 years since the first students passed through the front door of the Main Building. Photos and memorabilia from Thornton's first hundred years were displayed at Saco Biddeford Savings Bank and Key Bank. 

Innovations

Campus and Facilities

 

In 1886 eight acres of land were purchased by the board at the corner of Main Street and Fairfield Street in Saco as the future site of Thornton Academy. On July 27, 1886, Thornton Academy became a legal corporation. The plans for the new school building were designed by H. G. Wadlin. It officially re-opened on September 6, 1889 and began its school year three days later with a class of 108 students. Today the original building is referred to as the Main Building.

Over the course of the next fifty years, several buildings were added to the grounds: the Charles Cutts Gookin Thornton Building in 1903, the headmaster's home in 1905, the George Addison Emery Gymnasium in 1913, and the Main Building Annex in 1931. Starting in the late 1950s and continuing to the early '70s, additional buildings were added because of enrollment increases related to the post-WWII baby boom: the John S. Locke Building, the William Linnell Gymnasium, the Edith Scamman Science Building, and an Industrial Arts Building. In 1996, 54,000 square feet were added, linking the Main Building with the Scamman Science Building, and adding the Mary Hyde Library, the Helen Atkinson Dining Commons, the Harry Garland Auditorium, six arts classrooms and six math classrooms. Because the Academy has grown to nearly 80 acres and the buildings listed, it more resembles a university campus than a traditional American high school.

GROWTH OVER TIME

Annex Added

After the opening of the Emery Gymnasium in 1913, new growth did not occur until 1930 when the trustees used the money left by Charles Thornton to construct the Annex to the Main Building. The Annex provided much need classroom space, as well as room for the manual training department. 

John S. Locke Building

Thornton continued its steady growth in student through the next two decades. By the 1950s it was evident that again Thornton needed more class space. Turning to the alumni, the trustees found once again their generous support, and the John S. Locke Building was opened in 1957. Attached to the Emery Gymnasium, this new building contained the Industrial Arts Department. 

New Gymnasium needed

At the same time that the school was needing classroom space, it was also needing a larger gymnasium. No longer could the student body and all interested TA sports fans fit into the once spacious Emery Gymnasium. In fact, basketball games had to be moved to the National Guard Armory to accommodate the crowds. With the need apparent and pressing, the trustees began constructing the William S. Linnell Gymnasium and at the same time appealing again for alumni help. On October 20, 1963, the new gym was dedicated. 

Building in stages 

When one recalls the baby boom, it should not be surprising that Thornton's needs were as strong as they were in the 60s. Each new class bragged about how theirs was "the largest class ever" at Thornton Academy. In fact, the new gym had hardly been dedicated , when plans were drafted for two new buildings to be completed in stages. The first floor of the Edith Scamman Science Building was the first goal. Under the guidance of Headmaster Robert Bowie and Alumni Director Hank LaValle, this goal was reached in 1967. The next targeted area was the Industrial Art Building. Again, almost like clockwork, showing the dedication of the alumni to this program of growth, the Industrial Arts Building was opened at 1970.  

 

Paul S Hill Jr. Stadium

Thornton Academy boasts a long and storied athletic history that dates back to the 1890s when the first interscholastic sports teams began competing with other area schools. TA is home to baseball and softball diamonds, tennis courts, a Jr. Trojans athletic facility, and the Eastern Trail, which winds around the athletic complex, providing a scenic running path for cross-country and biking events.

Some of Thornton’s greatest performers and most memorable moments are linked with Dr. Paul S. Hill, Jr. Stadium, the school’s main outdoor competition venue. In operation since 1980, Hill Stadium has been home to the school’s football, soccer, field hockey, cross country, outdoor track and field, and lacrosse teams and is generally regarded as one of the top high school playing venues in southern Maine.

TA Firsts

The first of any event, be it a mind-boggling extravaganza or a minor accomplishment, creates an indelible impression. Thornton Academy has had its share of firsts during its first 100 years. Some may be considered extraordinary, others run of the mill, but all remembered dearly by the participants. Here are just a few of those first:

First Rule For Students

When students filed into Thornton Academy in 1889 there was only one rule: "Pupils are expected to behave themselves as becomes ladies and gentlemen."

Home Economics Class

In 1912, the first domestic science class was offered as "an effort to bring home and school together". This course, called household chemistry, was aptly named for it was much like a science class. The class was only open to senior girls who had taken general chemistry. The students tested milk for fats and solids and conducted an experiment o the "digestibility and finely chewed and bolted food." The girls studied the fuel value of food, methods of heating, ventilating and lighting, bacteriology, cleansing agents and food preservatives. In 1917, domestic science was added as a branch of study. By that time the students were receiving cooking and sewing instructions, much more similar to today's home economics classes. 

Radio Station

Thornton got its own radio station in the spring of 1922, only a year and a half after the first commercial radio station began broadcasting in Pittsburg. The call letters were 1-CPR. TA students were impressed with being equipped with a modern radio set but were cautioned that it was an expensive apparatus and could be "injured in ignorant hands." Still unsure of who was being reached. TA's DJs put a note in the Tripod: "Anyone hearing us, please drop us a card."

Yearbook

The first TA yearbook came out in 1932 and cost $1.65. It borrowed its name, Tripod, from the school magazine that had been published monthly since 1889. Senior Betty Bragdon served as the first Tripod editor-in-chief with a staff of 22, including a joke editor. English teacher Hobart Cole was the first faculty advisor. The first yearbook lists the freshmen's names in all lower case letters, includes a paragraph about each senior and is dedicated to Thornton Academy "in recognition of the tradition of earnest scholarship and ardent fellowship that these buildings have for four years typified for us." Bragdon wrote as foreword, "This is our first yearbook, and we, the editors, offer it to our principal, faculty, and fellow students with fear and trembling, not knowing just exactly how it will be received. We hope that having a yearbook may become a permanent custom at Thornton Academy." And it did. 

First Graduating Class to Break 100

The class of 1942 was the first class to graduate more than 100 members - just barely more with 101. Only two years later, the class of 1944 was half that size as World War II drew many students away from school. The senior class numbered 100 again in 1948. The class of 1970 was the first to break the 200 mark with 214 seniors. 

Marching Band

Thornton's first marching band came together in 1947. It was not a smooth start as the 1949 yearbook recounts: "The first difficulty encountered was in securing the interest of the students. After the campaigning of our faculty, it was found that there were more students than instruments. With the help of Mr. Greene (headmaster), other instruments were obtained." The band played for the first time in uniform at a Thornton-St. Louis basketball game in 1949. 

Hot Lunch

A new cafeteria was built in the summer of 1958 where the woodworking shop and janitor's quarters had been in the basement of the Main Building. Starting in the fall of 1958, the cafeteria started serving hot lunches. These meals were prepared and served by three women. Several students worked in the cafeteria selling milk, serving food and washing trays. The new cafeteria, with its modern equipment, led one student to boast: "the many culinary marvels make the TA kitchen better equipped than the average restaurant."

Outdoor Graduation

The 253 seniors in the class of 1981 were the first students to graduate outdoors  in the newly built Dr. Paul S. Hill, Jr. Stadium. 

Thornton Academy Through the Years

Girls basketball players pose with a ball
Girls in formation stretch their arms
Students in the chemistry lab in the 1950s
students use typewriters in the 1960s
the marching band in the 1940s outside the main building
students in the 1950s at a formal ball in emery gymnasium
posed photo of the 1891 tennis team

Milestones

Athletic legacy begins

1889

A co-ed tennis team is the first sport offered on campus. While tennis began as a club sport in 1889, the first interscholastic match occurred in 1896.  Many other sports were added in the 1890s including track, football, and girls' basketball. 

We bleed Crimson & Gold!

1893

Five students select Crimson & Gold as colors to represent Thornton Academy. Later, in the 1920s, the official colors were changed to Maroon & Gold. Since then, thousands of Thornton Academy students have been known to "bleed maroon & gold."

First Gymnasium Opens

1913

The George Addison Emery Gymnasium opens with space for fencing and a main gymasium. Today, the building houses the dance studio and Mary Weymouth Hyde Library.

New clubs, new opportunities

1934

Student Council is formed to boost school spirit and improve communication between students and the administration. Other new clubs in the 1930s include National Honor Society, Library Club, Astronomy Club, French Club, and a Literary and Dramatic Society.

Counseling comes to campus

1950

Thornton Academy's first guidance director helped students prepare for standardized tests and college admission. Now, the Student Services Team includes the School Counseling department, Academic Deans, Social workers and provides support for students to be successful at TA and beyond.

Preparing students for a changing world

1962


International exchange programs begin, setting the foundation for the International community that Thornton Academy is today. The first programs included exchange students from Chile, Sweden, Germany, and several African countries. 

First days of computers

1974

As a precursor to today's Technology and New Media department, Thornton Academy began offering its first technology class in Data Processing.

Go Trojans!

1981

Dr. Paul J. Hill stadium opens its gates. The class of 1981 was the first to hold its graduation ceremonies at Hill Stadium. Renovations at Hill Stadium in 2014 included the installation of turf and lights that allow teams to play and practice at night.

Residential program opens

2007

Nelson Hall opens and welcomes its doors to Thornton Academy's first international students. Since then, we have educated students from 35+ countries. International alumni return each November for the International Student Reunion.

200 years and counting

2011


Thornton Academy celebrated its bicentennial with a years worth of activities, parties, and memories. Here's to another 200!

New Leadership, continued traditions

2012

Current Headmaster Rene M. Menard '88 takes the reigns of the school from Carl Stasio. Stasio Hall, Thornton Academy's second dormitory is named for the outgoing headmaster who provided leadership to TA for 25 years.

STEM education at the forefront

2015

Thornton Academy's new STEM center opens with four high-tech laboratories, four modern mathematics classrooms, and one engineering lab. It is also the start of the 1:1 iPad program that places a tech device in the hands of every student and staff member at TA. 

About

students perform a chemistry lab in the 1950s