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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Through a broad range of activities, The Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County seeks to promote a greater appreciation of the Indiana community's rich heritage and a better understanding of life today.

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