So, you think you can multitask? Not surprising; if you’re an urban twenty-something armed with the latest cybertechnology, it’s what you do. But what if you’re a fifty year old living on the urban fringe, and the highest tech you’ve ever seen is steam? Well, if you’re Benjamin Franklin Williams of Cookport and it’s the 1880s, you operate a mill, foundry, hotel, newspaper, machine shop, livery stable, roller rink and community center while supporting the local Grange, G.A.R., Odd Fellows and temperance league . . . all while raising a family. Now that’s multitasking!
B.F. Williams was truly a man of his time and place and people. His parents came to what is now Cambria County about 1830, bringing with them the “never-say-die” adaptability common to Welsh immigrants of the day. Their firstborn was a credit to that tradition, and was well-named. Benjamin (“son of my right hand”) was so energetic and reliable that John and Ann split the family farm, built a house on the new parcel, and sent four family members and a servant to be his household there.
Though the 1860 Census lists him as a farmer, the young man seems to have learned the blacksmith’s trade in the previous decade. Nevertheless, his first job off the farm was as operator of his own planing mill. The Ebensburg Alleghenian noted in 1861 that “Mr. B.F. Williams, with commendable energy, is making rapid headway toward completion of his mill. The engine, which has been steamed up several times, is graced with a melodious whistle….” To its planing apparatus he added a flouring mill, a corn cob crusher and a patriotic name. That name was not incidental. The Union Planing Mill opened just as the Civil War began, and its advertising slogan borrowed from Stephen Decatur’s famous toast: “The Union – right or wrong!”
That same patriotism moved Benjamin to enlist during the Emergency of 1862. With the Confederate Army at our southern border, Governor Curtin called for volunteers; ninety-two men of Ebensburg formed the “Barker Guards” (Company E of the 4th Militia) and were rushed to the front north of Antietam. But the armies clashed further south on the line, and only the 4th’s artillery engaged. The Emergency – and their enlistment – lasted fifteen days.
Every soldier needs someone to come home to, and for Benjamin, it was his Jennie. Jane Tibbott probably came into his life through a fraternal order called the Sons of Temperance. Reverend William Tibbott was already a member when Benjamin joined in 1860, and his daughter’s name appeared (controversially for the day) on the Ebensburg rolls in 1861. The were married by Jane’s father the following February.
Benjamin’s sudden enlistment was not the first or last challenge the couple would meet. They lost their barn and livestock to a fire three months after they wed, and the Union Planing Mill met the same fate at the hands of an “incendiary” (arsonist) a week before their first anniversary. The mill’s remaining orders were subcontracted while Benjamin waited to rebuild; its ads continued until the insurance claim was paid in August.
Life chose that very moment to get stranger still. Though they had already served, members of the mustered-out Barker Guards were declared eligible for the draft of 1863, and Benjamin was among those “drawn from the wheel” that August. All but two of the drafted veterans were subsequently ruled exempt by the Board of Enrollment, for reasons ranging from disability to family status. Benjamin Williams and Thomas Lloyd “paid commutation.”
What was commutation, and why did Benjamin pay it? In those days, draftees were allowed by law to substitute money or manpower for their obligation – someone willing to serve in their stead, or $300 cash (about six months’ income). As to why a man brave and patriotic enough to volunteer for combat at Antietam would buy his way out of the draft, none can say. Perhaps he, like the veteran who writes this article, thought the draft inconsistent with American freedoms. In any case, the announcement of his commutation was the last time Benjamin F. Williams’ name would appear in print for five years.
The couple moved north in 1865, and bankruptcy followed. The next Census found Benjamin as a lumberman of rural Green Township, Indiana County. In 1867, the name Williams was added to the proprietors of Indiana’s Excelsior Planing Mill; though the ad gave no first name, its wording resembled the old Union Planing Mill ad’s, so Benjamin – a timber supplier with mill experience – may have been the new partner.
That the couple maintained their Ebensburg ties was apparent. Benjamin was listed among those paid for services to the Poor and Employment House of Cambria County, and visits by the couple’s relatives were regularly noted in county newspapers. But Uncle Ben and Aunt Jennie, as they had come to be known, were fast becoming the leading citizens of a town very different from the one they had left behind.
Before the 1880s, Cookport had a reputation as a frontier-style town, a logging community where urban social codes had yet to penetrate. Something of its nature comes through in the 1871 Atlas of Indiana County: a saloon, a hotel and three planing mills stand opposite one school and a church. Yet about that time, articles crediting Cookport’s steadily-improving character to people like Benjamin and Jane began appearing in the Indiana Progress:
Several newcomers have made their homes among us, whose deportment is calculated to work quite a change in the morals of this place. A few more … and Cookport may become as noted for the honor and sobriety of its citizens as it has been for their rowdiness and intemperance. God speed the day!
The name Williams disappeared from Excelsior Planing Mill ads after 1871, but Benjamin was not resting on his laurels. He built a blacksmithy and wagon-making shop in Cookport that autumn and was elected a township Overseer the following spring. His neighbor, postmaster William Kinter, was chosen Auditor in that same election. Their association would extend to at least four businesses and one U.S. patent over the next eight years.
Their first project together was not one you would expect from a lumberman and a postmaster, but it worked. The Cookport Academy, a private secondary school competing with those in Pine Top and Cherrytree, had succeeded in every sense but financially since its founding; Kinter & Williams “took the school in hand” in 1873, increasing paid enrollment from fifteen to forty-two before returning the Academy to its stockholders. There followed a sawmill, machine shop and iron foundry before Kinter left the partnership and moved north in 1880.
Not all of Benjamin’s early multitasking was done with a partner. The business for which he would be best known was launched in 1874 when he renovated the former Fleming House at what is now 3379 Cookport Road and opened a hotel there. The Williams Hotel would be Cookport’s social hub for the rest of Benjamin’s life, and even the Census would list him as a “Hotel Operator” despite his many other roles.
They say that most men peak in their thirties. Not so for B.F. Williams, whom the 1880s found at the top of his game. Assuming the earliest of birth-dates listed for him is correct (they kept creeping up with each Census!), he began that decade at age 47. In 1880-81 alone, he:
- Designed and manufactured an improved shingle-making machine that sold for less than existing ones.
- Erected a sawmill in Blacklick Township with his brother David
- Supervised a logdrive of “over one million feet” of timber on the Upper Twolick to supply their mill
- Operated his hotel, livery stable, iron foundry and machine shop
- Sponsored longtime boarder Napoleon Blatchford’s ventures as restauranteur, confectioner and inventor
- Served as an officer of three fraternal orders.
Each business Benjamin opened seemed to prosper and attract the notice of journalists. The Weekly Messenger declared his machine shop to be “the most complete in the county . . . a hive of industry (with) enough work to keep them going for four months,” and that his energy was part of the reason for Cookport’s boom. “There is more business done here than in many towns twice its magnitude.”
The next year started hopefully, seeming to offer even greater promise. It delivered, and so did Jane, who at age 47 presented Benjamin with a son the week of their 20th anniversary. But like the first year of their marriage, 1882 brought a great burden as well. Little Samuel is mentioned in two articles about his father that March, but never again – not even in the couple’s obituaries. The void left by his passing was probably why they adopted a daughter two years later.
Benjamin’s resilience in the meantime would have made his parents proud. He purchased and renovated two failing machine shops in Cherrytree, adapting them to run on the gas that had been bubbling up from a nearby well. He constructed Williams Hall and opened that 2400 square foot structure (complete with “an elegant organ from S.S. Wilson of Indiana”) for community use in September. It would be Green Township’s polling place for decades to come.
Though he may have seemed a superman, Benjamin was not invulnerable. The first episode of “a serious illness” struck him in April 1883; he recovered quickly, but thereafter left operation of the Williams Hotel to Jane. That autumn he was commissioned to inspect the newly-completed bridge over the Susquehanna, and as the year closed, Uncle Ben donated enough Christmas trees to make that yule the biggest one Cookport had ever seen.
That gracious nature showed itself year-round. Words like affable, lively and funny accompanied most mentions of Benjamin in county newspapers, even during his times of trial. Perhaps the greatest tribute was an offhand comment in the Progress: “(T)here is no more genial, whole-souled man in the county than B.F. Williams.” He would need that whole-souled strength again all too soon.
Fire swept through the heart of Cookport in the early hours of June 12, 1884. Had it not begun to rain, “the best part of the town would have been consumed.” As it was, Williams Hall and Benjamin’s grist mill were among the structures lost. He rebuilt, though insurance covered just a third of the cost. And as if to punctuate the year, his entire flock of turkeys was stolen a few days before Thanksgiving.
It was probably around that time that Benjamin and Jane, by then in their fifties, adopted the infant daughter of Merle Simpson. Nellie Williams would attend Indiana Normal School, graduating at age 15. Since she inherited half of her grandfather’s estate later in life, it is likely that she was raised with knowledge of her birth family.
In the course of his remarkable life, the year 1885 may have been Benjamin’s finest – and busiest. He founded the Cookport Monitor in January, serving as its editor and wily PR man on top of all the other hats he wore. Jane was its Society Editor, and reporter Elmer Conrath would go on to edit Johnstown’s Leader and Tribune.
Readers may recall that a roller skating craze swept Indiana County just then. Uncle Ben opened the last and longest-lived rink of the era in March. It outlasted those in Indiana by five years; even its end was spectacular, shattered by a tornado eight years after its 1890 closing.
Autumn brought the topper for that best of years. The G.A.R.’s James O’Neill Post #537 was organized in nearby Mitchell’s Mills that November, and Benjamin was among its founders. Members often met in Williams Hall, and the “old soldiers” made Green Township’s annual Decoration Day memorable with his help. He would be the Post Adjutant in his final years.
[Editor’s Note: Post 537’s Descriptive Book – its journal – remains unlocated, so the Records Officer for Sons of Union Veterans asks that anyone who knows of it contact him through the website GARrecords.org]
And through it all, Benjamin ran as many as nine businesses and kept up membership in four fraternal orders at a time. To these he added political activism for the Greenback and Republican parties. It seemed that there was always a new profession to be taken up; just when the Monitor’s press was converted to less hectic job printing, he launched Cookport’s new telephone exchange “in his spare time!” He was appointed postmaster (in those days, a political patronage) as the decade closed. And even then he could not resist the urge to adapt, designing and installing public lockboxes before those were standard post office features.
But after a long chase, Father Time was catching up to the jack-of-all-trades.
Uncle Ben wore just five hats by 1892. Perhaps the recurring bouts of illness slowed him down, or he simply discovered that at 59, one’s energy is no longer unlimited. When Democrat William Lutman replaced him as postmaster in 1893, Benjamin seemed glad to be free of the job. Another political post followed when he was elected Justice of the Peace in 1894, and he remained a “squire” the rest of his life. No doubt the happiest act he performed in that office was the marriage of his stepdaughter Nellie in 1902.
As the twentieth century approached, each new venture was progressively more sedate. But even these showed Benjamin’s versatility: the Program of Institute in Cambria County (a continuing education course for teachers) featured his class on Teaching Geography, and he was appointed Green Township’s “Vice President to the County Fair.” He was twice elected Township Clerk.
The Census of 1900 was the last of Benjamin’s life. It found the 67-year-old living with his family and three boarders in the Williams Hotel. That he still held a Retail Dealer’s License implies that his mill and/or foundry was still in operation, and though the Monitor had long since closed, the Indiana Gazettte referred to ‘Squire Williams as “the news center of Cookport.”
Thinking his appearance a sign of good health (in keeping with beliefs of the time), the Weekly Messenger reported that “Cookport’s jovial landlord and magistrate . . . is growing red and rotund as befits one who lives on the luxuries of the earth.” But Benjamin and Jane were frequently ill by that point, each from what was probably congestive heart failure. Both were abed when Benjamin died on February 24th, 1906.
Uncle Ben’s passing was noted by six newspapers in Cambria and Indiana Counties. It was given precedence in the Gazette’s unusual three-event banner headline that day, above an assault on millionaire W.K. Vanderbilt and a fire in Homer City. Benjamin Franklin Williams was escorted by a G.A.R. honor guard to Lloyd Cemetery in Ebensburg, where he was buried on his 44th wedding anniversary. His Jennie would join him there three years later.
A life well lived, and a credit to his community. Diolch, Ewythr Ben!