Skip to main content

Cecil County Life

West Nottingham Academy:

Jun 29, 2022 01:54PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Gene Pisasale
Contributing Writer

Not many schools can boast to having taught two signers of the Declaration of Independence or having a teacher who later became president and trustee of one of the nation’s most elite universities. West Nottingham Academy can rightly claim credit for all those and much more. Situated in Cecil County, the Academy has a rich history that dates back to when news traveled slowly, the fastest mode of transportation was a horse and the nation’s roads were not much more than muddy pathways through the woods.

West Nottingham Academy was founded in 1744 by Presbyterian Reverend Samuel Finley. Finley originally spent time in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and is believed to be a graduate of William Tennent’s Log College in Warminster. The College was known as a training ground for evangelical Presbyterian ministers during the period now called The Great Awakening. Finley was asked to lead a new congregation which had formed along the lower branch of Octoraro Creek as settlers developed the Nottingham Lots, around what would later be defined as the Mason-Dixon Line.

The Church needed him there to serve the local citizens in all matters religious, including baptizing infants, preaching the Gospel and consecrating marriages. Finley felt strongly that to live a good and effective life as Christians, people needed training in all the teachings and concepts of the day, so as to allow them to function effectively in a rapidly changing world. Religious practice was important to the Finley family. At least two of his brothers, James and Andrew, also became ministers.

The Academy first operated in a small log cabin structure at the rear of Finley’s home, near the site of the present Rising Sun Middle School. A few years after its founding, the school was moved to a two-story building. Two tragedies—a fire and a storm—destroyed buildings constructed to house students, but in 1865 the red brick building known as the J. Paul Slaybaugh Old Academy was built and it stands to the present day. The Academy is believed to be the first of some 1,600 Presbyterian preparatory boarding schools built across the country. The school website states that West Nottingham is “the longest-standing boarding and day school in the United States.”

Finley’s teaching methods must have worked. They produced two students who would later shape the history of our young republic. Benjamin Rush, known today as one of the most respected physicians in the Philadelphia area during the American Revolution, was one of Finley’s students. Finley’s first wife, Sarah Hall, was the sister of Susannah Hall Harvey, Benjamin Rush’s mother. It is thought by some historians that Finley convinced Rush to become a physician. Rush later studied at the College of New Jersey, today’s Princeton University, where Finley taught as well after leaving the Academy. Rush subsequently studied at the University of Edinburgh, receiving his medical degree. He later became the Surgeon General of the Continental Army. Rush became an influential teacher himself. He was later a professor of chemistry and medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Rush would sign the Declaration of Independence and become a strong supporter of the U.S. Constitution.

Finley’s life intersected with another man who would influence the course of our nation. His Academy student Richard Stockton also studied at the College of New Jersey, becoming an attorney and well respected for his legal acumen, as well as a longtime friend of George Washington. Stockton was a member of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia and also signed the Declaration of Independence.

With its rich heritage, West Nottingham Academy proudly anticipates a bright future. The school’s programs encompass a wide range of activities designed to guide students in a number of ways. The school’s website mentions “…from the classroom to the playing fields, art studios and club gatherings, students are exposed to a diverse community… Our environmental sustainability program with its community and global ethic is cutting edge. Our Artist-in-Residence program supported by Eric Fischl, a renowned American painter, is virtually one of a kind.”

West Nottingham Academy feels the school presents the “best of both worlds: a foundation in history and tradition that starts with the founding of the country and… innovation … that will propel us into the future.” Their facilities include the Chesapeake Learning Center with a focus on international students, the Foutz Student Center, Bathon Science Center and Durigg Plaza, an outdoor amphitheater for the school community. The nearby West Nottingham Historic District comprises roughly 85 acres with a stream and small lake and several buildings from the 19th and 20th century.

The Academy’s enrollment is small, at around 130 students, but it offers a wide variety of programs, including sports like soccer, basketball, lacrosse, cross-country and skating. Its figure skating program is renowned, with members of Team USA and Winter Youth Olympics having been on the roster.

Other notable West Nottingham Academy alumni include John Morgan and William Shippen, Jr., co-founders of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, Ebenezer Hazard, a U.S. Postmaster General from 1782 to 1789, Alexander Martin, an early governor of North Carolina and Austin Lane Carothers, the governor of Maryland from 1908 to 1912.

Gene Pisasale is an historian and author based In Kennett Square. His ten books focus on Chester County and the mid-Atlantic region. His latest book is titled “Forgotten Founding Fathers: Pennsylvania and Delaware in the American Revolution.” His books are available through his website at and on Gene can be reached via e-mail at: [email protected].

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Cecil County's free newsletter to catch every headline