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Olney Friends School: A Brief History

Olney Friends School is in its 180th year of educating aspiring young people. The school was founded in 1837 by the Ohio Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). This group of newly settled Ohio Quakers, most of whom migrated north in protest of the institution of slavery in the South, began plans for a boarding school for both boys and girls as early as 1814, to be modeled on Quaker boarding schools in Philadelphia. Finally, in 1835, the building of the school commenced and was opened for students two years later. This early school, which was simply known as the Friends Boarding School, was located at Mount Pleasant, Ohio, northeast of its current location. The name “Olney” was informally adopted from a poem entitled “Olney Green,” written by Louis Taber, a visiting minister from Vermont and teacher at the school in the 1840s.

In 1854 there was a division in Ohio Yearly Meeting, the principal organizing body of Ohio Quaker Meeting groups, over doctrinal differences. The division occurred between two groups that had differing visions for the future of Ohio Yearly Meeting. Eventually the Ohio Supreme Court awarded the original school building to the “Gurney” group of Quakers in 1874. The other group, known as the “Wilburite” Quakers, built a new school building at the present Barnesville location in 1876.

In March of 1910, a fire that started in the belfry of Olney’s main building burned the building to the ground, leaving only the outer brick walls and the front porch. Although the building housed the academic classrooms as well as the student living quarters and dining area, the class of 1910 remained through the year to graduate on time thanks to local families who opened their homes. The main building was rebuilt and separate boys and girls dormitories were added. Even before the buildings were completed, the students moved back in to their new school in November 1910. The gymnasium was added in 1938 and a new girls dormitory was built in 1968.

Olney Friends School originally only served students from Quaker families. By the 1960s students from a variety of religious, cultural, and geographic backgrounds began attending the school. In 1978 the school’s official name was changed to Olney Friends School. In 1998 Ohio Yearly Meeting decided to end its governance of the school due to low enrollment and increasing financial burden. A group of individuals, mostly Olney Friends School alumni concerned for the continuance of the school, formed a new corporation: Friends of Olney, Inc. After much deliberation Ohio Yearly Meeting agreed to turn over the management of the school to this group and negotiated a lease for the use of the school property, about 350 acres, including the farm. When the transition was completed, a board of trustees began operating the institution as an independent Quaker school no longer under the care of a Friends Meeting. The former name, Olney Friends School Inc., was legally transferred and continues to provide a sense of continuity based on the school’s Quaker roots. In late June 2004 an agreement for the purchase of the main campus property from Ohio Yearly Meeting was successfully negotiated, with the farmland continuing to be leased.

Today, Olney Friends School’s 50+ students come from diverse international, religious, social, and economic backgrounds. In the 21st century, Olney Friends School is chartered by the Ohio State Department of Education and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States. Olney Friends School also holds memberships in the Ohio Association of Independent Schools, Friends Council on Education, The Association of Boarding Schools, and The National Association of Independent Schools.