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History of Saranac Lake high schools

A deer leaps in front of Saranac Lake High School alongside state Route 3 in April 2019. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Well, I’d better qualify that title. This column will not cover the history of the present high school at 79 Canaras Ave. Freshmen students from the former high school at 141 Petrova Ave. entered the new high school in 1970. The last graduating class from the Petrova school was 1969.

Now stick with me here … this column was prompted when I heard a couple of young people in Tops Market say, “Hey, that guy will know the answer.” They came up to me and asked, “Why was Petrova Avenue named Petrova?” I quickly told them the story, and they went on their way.

History is so quirky and inaccurate, and so, for the very first time ever, right here in this space we are telling the absolutely straight, honest-to-God story of the first two high schools in Saranac Lake. There have been bits and pieces of that story in previous columns, but here it is all under one newspaper roof.

The first high school

This first high school, located at 100 Main St., site of today’s Hotel Saranac, was dedicated in 1890 by President Benjamin Harrison, our 23rd president and the grandson of our ninth president, William Henry Harrison. The last graduating class of 30 students was in 1924.

I doubt if any POTUS has ever dedicated a small-town high school anywhere in the United States. How did that ever happen in Saranac Lake?

Well, I am glad you asked. I turn to my dear readers to clear up all mysteries. So here is the answer from Henry D. “Buz” Graves Jr., who lives just outside the village on Trudeau Road.

Levi P. Morton was President Harrison’s vice president, serving from 1889 to 1893. Mr. Morton built the historic Adirondack great camp on Eagle Island in 1903.

Petrova school, 1948, dedicated 1925

The camp was sold to Henry Graves Jr. and his wife Florence in 1910.

That, dear readers, is the very short version of the story as to how President Harrison ended up dedicating the first Saranac Lake High School … and for once, a vice president got to do something big and create a bit of Saranac Lake history.

The second high school

I have a very tattered copy of The Enterprise dated Wednesday, Feb. 18, 1925, with page 1 filled with stories about the opening of the new high school on Petrova Avenue.

First — Madame Petrova …

Over the years, many stories circulated about Ms. Petrova, a famous Russian ballerina, dancing on the stage of the Petrova school.

Well, it turns out that she was not Russian and she was not a dancer. Her name was Muriel Harding; she was born in Tur Brook, England, in 1884 and died in Clearwater, Florida, in 1977 at age 93.

She came to the United States at a young age, became a famous actress, starred in more than two dozen movies, wrote the script for several others and wrote three plays. Her studio billed her as a Polish-born Russian aristocrat. She published her autobiography, “Butter My Bread,” in 1942.

She arrived in Saranac Lake in 1921, touring with a theater group for a special event as the guest of William Morris, who owned the biggest theatrical agency in the United States. He had a big, beautiful home on the shores of Lake Colby known as Camp Intermission.

She was so famous the street and school carried her “stage” name. (See photo.)

The dedication stories

The Enterprise, 1925:

“NEW HIGH SCHOOL IS LAUNCHED WITH GLOWING PRAISE”

“With the appropriate ceremony in the presence of nearly one thousand persons, the new school building to house the Saranac Lake Junior and Senior High schools was dedicated on Monday evening.

“Dr. Frank P. Graves, state education commissioner, who was to have delivered the address was detained in Albany by an imperative legislative conference.

“Dr. James Sullivan, Deputy Commissioner, represented the education department at the exercise.

“The setting for the event was the new auditorium, which forms a part of the new school plant and which is to be available for many community purposes as well as for the use of the school. The stage was banked with evergreens, and with the Board of Education and speakers of the evening were seated the members of the teaching and supervisory staff, also the architects and the builder.”

Most of the story is missing, with Dr. Sullivan’s speech, but here is the lead:

“Citing examples in politics of superficial thinking [gee, sounds like today], Dr. Sullivan urges upon modern schools the teaching of future generations to think things through.

“This was Dr. Sullivan’s theme in the dedication address delivered by him at the formal dedication of Saranac Lake’s new $650,000 [the present high school which opened 45 years later cost $4 million] public school plant in the new auditorium.”

[Dr. Sullivan is probably another relative of my cousin, Beth Sullivan Bevilacqua, the right-hand woman to Harrietstown Supervisor Mike Kilroy.]

More presentations at the new school were featured on page 1:

“Operetta Packs New Auditorium — Over Thousand Folk Are Delighted by Artistry of School Children — ‘Hiawatha’s Childhood’ is Charmingly Depicted in Song, Dance and Story.”

“Present Comedy at New School — Junior Class to Appear in Play, ‘Come Out of the Kitchen’ begins at eight o-clock this evening. A comedy in three acts by A. E. Thomas, it is the dramatic offering of the week in the new auditorium in a varied program of events in connection with the dedication of the new building.”

Of course, the school became more famous in 1948 when I was in the graduating class.

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