A Brief History of the Williamson School

On December 1, 1888, Isaiah Vansant Williamson, a Philadelphia merchant and philanthropist, founded The Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades. His purpose in founding the School was to provide financially disadvantaged young men with the opportunity to become productive and respected members of society. In his own words, “It was seeing boys, ragged and barefooted, lounging on the streets, growing up with no education, no idea of usefulness, that caused me to think of founding a school where every boy could be taught some trade free of expense.”

I. V. Williamson was born in 1803 in Fallsington, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to a Quaker family whose ancestors came to America before William Penn. As a boy, Williamson worked as an apprentice in a country store, saving enough money to open his own dry goods store in Philadelphia. For a number of years, he ran the store and several subsequent businesses quite successfully, enabling him to retire in 1838 with a small fortune. Adopting the custom of wealthy young men at that time, he traveled throughout Europe for a couple years.

Upon his return, Williamson began a plan for investing his money and by 1880 had become one of the wealthiest men in Philadelphia. As his wealth grew he turned to philanthropy, giving away much of his fortune. A self-effacing man, he anonymously gave large sums to favorite charities, hospitals, colleges, and homes for children. The founding of The Williamson Free School with a two million dollar endowment was one of his last charitable acts before he died in 1889.

Upon founding the School, he directed through a deed of trust that the Quaker ideals of hard work, honesty, religious faith, and modest lifestyle be instilled in the students. In his own words, he said that “in this country every able-bodied, healthy young man who has learned a good mechanical trade, and is truthful, honest, frugal, temperate, and industrious, is certain to succeed in life, and to become a useful and respected member of society.” Although some of the original rules have since been adapted to the times, the School remains dedicated to the values upon which it was founded.

The School's History

The 220-acre campus, located in Middletown Township, Delaware County, PA, was purchased in 1889.  Frank Furness, one of the most prominent architects of the day, was employed to design the buildings.  The School opened in 1891 and it offered three-year programs in bricklaying, carpentry, machine shop, and pattern-making.  With the first graduation in 1894, the School became a significant pioneer in America’s vocational education movement.

In 1957, when a fire destroyed all but one of the shop buildings, it looked like Williamson might be forced to close, but the School was saved when the Board of Trustees entered into agreement with the Trustees of the Rodman Wanamaker estate, creating The John Wanamaker Free School of Artisans, now an integral part of Williamson. The agreement funded the construction of four new shop buildings and a general education building, and provided an endowment that covered an increase in the number of scholarships offered.

Until 1961, students were of high school age and the School’s curriculum emphasized the trades. However, due to the rise of secondary education and the significant advances of technology, the Williamson Board of Trustees decided to convert the School to a post-secondary institution. Programs were upgraded and in 1972 the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania granted the School the authority to award the Associate in Specialized Technology Degree. Williamson now offers Craftsman Diplomas in Carpentry and Masonry and Associate in Specialized Technology Degrees in Construction Technology (with an emphasis on carpentry or masonry); Horticulture, Landscaping and Turf Management; Machine Tool Technology; Paint and Coatings Technology; and Power Plant Technology.

Begun in the 19th century, Williamson still provides a free, quality trade and technical education to qualified young men and continues to upgrade its programs to meet the current challenges of advancing technology.


Content © 2011 The Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades • 106 S. New Middletown Rd., Media, PA 19063 • 610-566-1776

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