The Village of Smicksburg

Many natives of Indiana County know of the quaint little village of Smicksburg, many people know Smicksburg for the little shops and the Amish community. But this little village has quite a history behind it. Smicksburg was founded in May 1827 by Reverend J. George Schmick, a Lutheran minister from Huntingdon County, who purchased the land from Charles Coleman. Yes, there is a reason why the town is referred to as “Schmicksburg.” The town was a thriving community and business center in the northwestern part of Indiana county.

The federal government purchased the property which resulted in the loss of two-thirds of the town, for the construction of the Mahoning Dam. There were twenty-two buildings removed including several homes, the Lutheran Church, three cemeteries, a grist mill, creamery, telephone exchange, gas station and a school house. During the towns peak there were 225 people living in the borough; today Smicksburg is one of Pennsylvania’s smallest boroughs.

The Mahoning Dam, known as the Mahoning Creek Lake, and the acquisition of flood control property had a devasting impact of the community, as can be seen from the information listed above about the destruction of the twenty-two buildings. The Lake was authorized by Congress through the Flood Control Acts of 1936 and 1938. This dam is one of sixteen flood control projects in the Pittsburgh District, which were created in response to the St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936. Mahoning Creek Lake provides flood protection for the lower Allegheny River Valley and upper Ohio River.

Smicksburg is home to the 12th largest Amish settlement in the United States and the fourth largest in Pennsylvania. Beginning in the 1960s, Old Order Amish families began to move to the area from Ohio. These families were attracted to the area because of inexpensive farmland and the rural location.

The Amish shun modern conveniences and travel locally via horse and buggies. The area is dotted with one-room schoolhouses which are close enough, so students can walk to school.

A prominent person from the Smicksburg area, was John Buchanan McCormick, world class inventor and more. For more information about Mr. McCormick see a previous blog post.

The Smicksburg Lime Kiln

In order to make limestone a marketable material it needs to be heated, this involves a process of burning or roasting natural limestone cobbles or blocks. In order for lime production to be feasible there needs to be several natural features; a natural limestone ridge or vein of the appropriate stone near the surface needed to be located, as well as a large quantity of wood for fuel. In later years, coal was introduced to the lime firing process, so that added easy access to coal sources. However, it is not clear whether coal was used in the Smicksburg lime kiln. Although there is coal in the area, but it was not mined to the extent that it was in other area of Indiana County. The Kiln is located on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mahoning Lake property.

Lime kilns were used to produce quicklime, which was used to make plaster for mortar for building construction. There were other products produced as well, which included whitewash (quicklime saturated with water and then mixed with glue). It was also used as a bleaching powder in the paper industry, hair removal in the tanning industry, an ingredient for soap making, and a fluxing agent in the glass and iron making industry.

The most common use was a neutralizing agent or fertilizer for agriculture. This is the most likely use of the Smicksburg lime kiln, because of the large agricultural area nearby. Some tanning and iron making occurred in the nearby area, but by time the kiln’s construction (c. 1933), these industries were no longer operating in the area.

Processed lime was perishable and necessitated a quick, reliable, and protected means of transport. The lime had a volatile nature when it came out of the kiln, therefore it was not uncommon for wagons to catch on fire if the lime had not been sufficiently watered down or cooled.

Kills were made by laying fieldstonle into a bank of a hill with a wagon path to the top. The chimney would be filled from above with alternating lays of wood or coal and layered with limestone chunks and then set on fire. The temperatures reached two thousand degrees Fahrenheit and would break up the stone into hot lime, oftentimes with an explosive bank. The fire temperature was controlled by adjusting the air flow in the draft hole.

These kilns would burn anywhere from one to four weeks. Because the kilns were brilliantly lighted, a new word was termed: ‘limelight.’ The lime would filter onto the grate to the hearth below. The lime was then set in mounds and wetted down with water. The bushels of cooled, slaked lime were then loaded onto farm wagons and spread onto the fields.

The Smicksburg lime kiln was a unique industry, but it was short lived. The only remaining evidence of the Smicksburg kiln is the hearth and chimney along the banks of the Little Mahoning Creek.

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Buena Vista Furnace

Background

Buena Vista Furnace was used in iron making, which was an important industry in Pennsylvania. However, before the making of iron could commence, land needed to prospected for ore, limestone, and timber. Also needed was a stream located nearby for power. Once all the necessary elements were located the “iron master” began to construct the furnace and put it into operation.

These furnaces were located near hillsides, so the ore, charcoal, and limestone could be dumped into the top of the furnace by workers called “fillers.” A bellows provided air to raise the temperature to the point when smelting occurred.

When enough iron was melted, the furnace was tapped and iron ran into channels located in the sand floor of the casting house located in front of the furnace. The main stream of molten iron was called “sow,” and the side channels called “pigs,” henceforth the product which was produced was known as “pig iron.”

Before the pig iron could be used it had to be further refined before it could be used. The iron bars from the furnaces were hauled by wagon to the Pennsylvania Canal and further transported to a forge in Pittsburgh. It was in Pittsburgh where the iron was turned into products such as utensils, stoves and other items.

The Workers

The lives of those who worked at the iron furnaces, did not live easy lives; and their lives varied by skill, responsibility, and social status. The things which the workers needed, ranging from clothing to food to housing was provided by the furnace owner. Workers pay was “in-kind” rather than in cash. The workers included fillers, guttermen, moulders, colliers, miners, laborers, teamsters, and woodcutters. All of their work was supervised by the iron master.

The iron master was considered a capitalist, technician, market analyst, personnel director, bill collector, purchasing agent, and transportation expert.  This means that in order to be a successful iron master one needed to have a combination of numerous qualities including: wealth, respect and pride in producing a good quality product.

The Buena Vista Furnace

Buena Vista Furnace located in Brush Valley Township, located along Black Lick Creek, half a mile downstream of the Route 56 Bridge. The Furnace was erected in 1847 by Henry T. McClelland, Stephen Alexander Johnston and Elias B. McClelland, it has also been known as McClelland’s Furnace.

The story begins on April 29, 1847 when the partners obtained a deed to a tract of about 90 acres for the sum of $300. By December, the partnership acquired additional land so that they had 421 acres.  The Buena Vista Day Books contain entries of purchases of food, supplies and equipment with entries beginning May 7, 1847 and ending in 1849.

If you know about American history, Buena Vista will be familiar to you as a battle in the Mexican War. This battle occurred on February 22-23, 1847 when Santa Ana’s 14,000 Mexican troops met Zachary Taylor’s 5,000-man army near the small hacienda of Buena Vista, Mexico. Taylor’s troops were mostly inexperienced and badly outnumbers, but the two armies fought to a draw. Thanks to Taylor’s efforts at Buena Vista he won fame and later contributed to his presidential victory in the 1848 election. This battle is the namesake for the furnace.

buena vista
Buena Vista Furnace

The furnace began operating in 1848 with about 61 men and boys and 30 mules were employed at the furnace. A summary from an 1850 Sheriff’s Sale, the site contained a store, three houses, seven log cabins (called furnace houses), a blacksmith shop, two log barns, and a saw mill.

There was speculation in 1848 that the Pennsylvania Railroad would construct a line through the Blacklick Valley, which is the likely reason why the site was chosen for the furnace. However, the railroad was not constructed in this area until 1903, and by that time the Buena Vista Furnace was already out of business.

The furnace was 30-foot tall cold blast furnace, and used local iron ore, limestone and charcoal to produce about 400 tons of pig iron in 1848, but the furnace went out of blast in 1849.

In 1850, the Indiana County Sheriff seized the 822-acre property and sold at it at Sheriff’s sale. The Sheriff’s deed was made to Dr. Alexander Johnston, father of Stephen Johnston. The property consisted of 822 acres which included the furnace, a saw mill, “seven small frame and log dwelling houses, called furnace houses” and various other houses, barns, etc.  It was reported that the Furnace produced 560 tons of iron out of shell and bog ore in 1854. The furnace finally closed in 1856, ending a very short business life of less than 10 years.

Another change in ownership came in 1900, when Stephen Johnston sold a 67-acre parcel which included the Buena Vista Furnace to Judge A.V. Barker for $20,000. Barker then sold it and other properties to the Lackawanna Iron and Steel Company in 1902. The property passed again in 1917, this time to the Vinton Colliery Company.

There was a rumor in the 1930s that Henry Ford had an interest in purchasing the Buena Vista Furnace and planned to transport it to Greenfield Village in Michigan via rail. The proximity of the furnace to the railroad would have made dismantling and loading it relatively easy. However, there was then a movement to acquire the furnace and keep it in the local area, this movement may have been sparked by Ford’s interest.

In 1930, the Buena Vista Park Association was organized, with the purpose of preventing the furnace from being moved. There was a hope that the state would acquire the property and turn the property into a historical landmark or public park. As with most projects during the Great Depression, the establishment of the park was stalled.

The Historical Society purchased the furnace in 1957 from the Delano Coal Company. Through the efforts of Clarence Stephenson, county historian, improvements to the site began in the mid-1960s. Then in the summer of 1965 and continuing through 1966-67, a work-training project, through the Indiana County Public Assistance Office, completed site improvements.

The Failure of the charcoal iron furnaces

There are various reasons for the failure of the charcoal iron furnaces. One of those reason was the change of the anticipated railroad route thru the Conemaugh valley instead of the valley of Black Lick Creek. This change negatively affected Buena Vista Furnace. Another reason is the low grade and sometimes unreliable supply of carbonate iron ore. Third was the outmoding within a few years of the charcoal cold-blast method of iron making. Finally, were economic reasons, there was a lack of protection from cheaper foreign iron afforded by the low tariff o 1846. The average price of a ton of iron fell from $53.75 in 1815 to $24.50 in 1849.

The situation was so bad that by around 1850, most or all of the local furnaces were forced to close, some for good. There was an upsurge in the price of iron within a year or two. By 1856, two furnaces were operating in Indiana County, probably the Black Lick Furnace and the Indiana Iron Works, together producing about 2455 tons of iron.

Today the remains of the Buena Vista Furnace are what remains of this once thriving industry.

Welcome 2019!!

Happy New Year!! Just last week we rang in 2019, and this new year is looking to be very exciting for the Indiana County Historical Society. The first event we have coming up in the new year is our second annual trivia night. If you or someone you know is a history buff and you think you can answer any question about Indiana County’s past then you should join us on Friday, February 15, 2019 from 6pm to 8pm to test your knowledge. Tickets are $15 and will be available in advance starting on January 15, 2019. Prizes will be awarded to the most knowledgeable players. Please call the Society at 724-463-9600 for more information and to purchase tickets. We hope you can join us for this wonderful event; rumor has it that this makes for a wonderful Valentine’s Day outing for couples.

We also have some exciting news regarding our blog. Over the next months we will be introducing our Board of Directors; these introductions will give you a chance to get to know those in charge at the Historical Society.  Stay tuned for further events at the Society so you can be involved in all the exciting events that are about to occur over the next year.  We hope you come and visit us this year, whether that is to see the exhibits in the museum, do some family research, or just some research regarding Indiana County.

A programming note for 2019 is our annual closings:

April: Closed Friday the 19th and Saturday the 20th

May: The Society will be open from 10 am to 12 pm on Memorial Day

July: Closed Thursday July 4th

November: Closed Thursday the 26th through Saturday the 30th, reopen December 3rd

December: Closed Saturday the 21st through Monday the 31st, reopen January 2nd