Francis Newton Thorpe (1857-1926)
During the short life of North East’s Lake Shore Seminary, the school helped shape a few hundred students into bright, ambitious young men and women. Included on this list of students is Francis Newton Thorpe. Although today few North East residents are familiar with Mr. Thorpe’s story, in his lifetime he was recognized as the premier authority on constitutional law and the American Constitution, an extraordinary educator, orator and author.
By the age of fifteen, Thorpe’s education at the North East Academy came to a close, but his hunger for knowledge and an industrious spirit fuelled his pursuit of an education. When Lake Shore Seminary opened its doors in 1872, he seized the opportunity to attend. As he would recall later in life in preparing notes for an autobiography that would never be written, Mr. Thorpe wrote,
In 1872, the Lake Shore Seminary was opened, but my father thought the Academy was good enough in its opportunity for me. Late in the year I earned enough by doing chores for a neighbor, to enable me to enter the Seminary at the opening of the Spring term in 1872. I continued at the Seminary until I graduated. ( Life and Letters of Francis Newton Thorpe (1857-1929), Part I & II, edited by Marion E. Thorpe Diller, 1956)
Upon graduation, Thorpe was elected assistant principal at Pleasantville, PA, a position he held less than one year. In 1876 he was chosen to teach the Intermediate Department of his beloved and familiar North East Academy – 70 students in total. Two years later he was elected the first principal and superintendent of the new Academy, and was challenged with writing the rules and regulations and course of study for the newly opened high school. Thorpe skillfully served the North East public school system until 1885 when he began his 13-year Fellow of History and Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1911 he was hired as a professor of Political Science and Constitutional Law at the University of Pittsburgh, and he and his family purchased a home on Castleman Street in Pittsburgh’s Shady Side. While teaching at the university, Thorpe was one of 25 men appointed by PA Governor William Sproul to serve on the Commission of Constitutional Amendment and Revision. This was a great honor for the university and Thorpe, as he was the only academic appointed to the commission.
Although his work required he live elsewhere, Thorpe maintained a fondness for the shores of Lake Erie. He longed to walk the familiar paths he took as a child walking his neighbors’ cows to pasture, and in 1892 he purchased 50 acres in North East. Thorpe visited the farm every summer, along with his wife and daughter. Ten years after the purchase of the farm, he built a modest house in the middle of the vineyards and named his farm Indian Arrow Vineyard.
Of all of his accomplishments, Thorpe is perhaps best known for his literary works, as he wrote continuously for forty years and penned more than 70 books and articles, constitutional law and American history the topics of many. Thorpe’s bibliography contains a few surprises, however. In addition to 2-3 unpublished dramas, he also wrote An American Fruit-Farm, an account of horticulture in North East, and two successful fiction novels, The Divining Rod and The Spoils of Empire.
In the spring of 1926, Francis N. Thorpe succumbed to throat cancer at the age of 69. At the end of his life he was recognized as an accomplished author, scholar, educator, friend, husband and father.
“Dr. Thorpe was perhaps North East’s outstanding man, of most winning personality, besides being a man of prodigious learning.”
North East Breeze and Advertiser, June 10, 1926
Written by his friend and fellow Lake Shore Seminary graduate G.A. Hampson
Source: Life and Letters of Francis Newton Thorpe (1857-1929), Part I & II, edited by Marion E. Thorpe Diller, 1956. This unpublished two volume manuscript is a collection of personal letters and notes owned by Francis N. Thorpe. Manuscript provides a brief narrative written by his daughter Marion E. Thorpe Diller. McCord Library, North East, PA.
Ruthanna Walter, now of Parkside North East, 2 Gibson Street, told me that she has done extensive research on Mr. Thorpe.
It is perhaps appropriate that Dr. Thorpe’s property was purchased by the North East School District in the mid-1960’s and now comprises a significant part of the District’s real estate.