So Shall Ye Reap

When we think of the Industrial Revolution, big-city images usually come to mind:  belching smokestacks, grimy streets and tenements bursting with captive workers who never see the sun.  But on the farms where most 19th century Americans lived, that Revolution wore a different face and had a decidedly different effect.  Here in Indiana County, nothing embodied that difference better than the Reaper Trials of 1869.

The mechanization of American agriculture hadn’t begun in earnest until just before the Civil War.  Devices like the reaper and thresher had been invented decades earlier, but farmers were a conservative lot who looked upon them as unnecessary at best.  The price for their reluctance was severe.  Plowing, planting and harvesting were labor-intensive and mind-numbingly repetitive;  scythe-swinging reapers especially were virtual “slaves of the season.”  Yet once accepted, farming technology actually freed  an entire class of Pennsylvanians from the very bondage the Industrial Revolution had imposed on workers in other industries.

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Wood’s Reaper, one of eight models at the 1869 trial.

Why did our farmers finally accept the mechanical reaper?  Ads and travelling salesmen had little effect.  But in 1857, the United States Agricultural Society held its first “Great National Field Trial of Reapers and Mowers” in upstate New York, where a thousand farmers watched forty different reapers go head-to-head.  It was a success, so local Societies held smaller versions across America after the war.  Pennsylvania’s trials were held at the new Experimental Farms in Chester, Centre and Indiana counties.  Ours came first, in July  1869.

The Western Experimental Farm had only been in existence for a year.  In 1868, the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania had provided funds to purchase land totaling 120 acres for its creation.  The grounds were located just outside Indiana, where Fisher Auditorium and the IUP Parking Garage stand today.  It was an ideal venue for the Trials.

Eight plots of wheat were planted there that spring.  Eight manufacturers were invited, and arrangements were made for reapers arriving by rail to be offloaded directly onto the Farm.  The Trials Committee published an “open invitation to all interested parties” in county papers;  judges were selected from across Pennsylvania, and Harry White (whose efforts had landed the Experimental Farm for our county) was tapped to give the opening address.  The stage was set.

One by one, the out-of-town agents arrived and checked in at Indiana House – nice digs for a salesman!  Morning on the 14th found them assembled at the Experimental Farm with the contest judges and two hundred farmers from across the county.  Each machine was assigned one of the plots of wheat, and lots were drawn to determine starting order….

First up was the two-horse Kirby from New York.  A right-handed cutter like most of them, it impressed the judges by turning in the fastest time despite having the narrowest cutter.  “This machine, by its smooth cut and ease of draught…operated in tangled grain admirably.”  Onlooking farmers were likewise impressed.  An eighth of an acre in 15 ½ minutes?  Unheard of, even with a six-man team!

On its heels came the only PA-manufactured reaper in the bunch.  The four-horse Hoffheim had just two in harness that day, to prove it could be done. Though praised for keeping the standing and falling wheat separate, it “required the driver’s personal attention with a stick to keep the grain out of the gears.”  Next!

All but one of the remaining machines were from Ohio, starting with the Buckeye.  Best-known of the eight, it was sold in Indiana by A.M. Stewart’s Big Ware House.  This one surprised the crowd by working better in the intentionally-tangled half of its plot than in the freestanding half.  The World and Excelsior reapers followed;  the former was cited for its compactness and low torque, while the latter “did not seem to be in working order, and the committee was not satisfied….

About that time it began to rain.  Committee members, factory reps and reporters (but alas, no farmers) were treated to lunch and “many a toast” at Indiana House until the sky cleared and trials resumed.

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Manual grain-cradle scythe

Next up was the Hubbard.  Despite its back-of-the-pack 29 minute time, it was “judged satisfactory by the committee” given the field’s sodden state.  Finally there came the Aetna, which fell victim to its manufacturer’s charitable impulse/marketing strategy.  It had been donated to the Experimental Farm back in June, with the resulting publicity one-upping a flood of ads by the other seven.  But it was shipped in sections and only reassembled when Aetna’s traveling agent passed through on the day before the Trials;  he set the adjustable speed too high to handle wet grain, so it “cut fair but deposited sheaves irregularly” while turning in the second-fastest time.  The best-laid plans, eh?

If you’re keeping count, that’s just seven entries.  The Wood, a combination reaper/mower like the rest, was withdrawn and entered only in the next day’s mower trials.  The Reaper Trial results were written up and distributed, with each entry rated on criteria like adjustability, clean work, draught (torque) and speed of operation.  Rather than announcing a winner, the Agricultural Society chose to let guests come to their own conclusion – a good idea in hindsight, since an allegation of undue influence was leveled against one of the manufacturers the following week.

Several newspapers outside Indiana County covered the Trials, but our own were of two different minds on the event’s importance.  Perhaps because grain farming was most common in our southern townships, Blairsville’s Press devoted 1200 words to the technical stats and performance of each machine, then followed that up with the full text of General White’s speech on the history of the Experimental Farms.  But Indiana’s Weekly Messenger simply copied a Pittsburgh paper’s synopsis, saying “it saved us the trouble of writing up the affair ourselves.”

So, did our Trials accomplish their mission of persuasion?  A month later, the Press noted “Our farmers are showing their enterprise by buying labor-saving machinery, including a large number of Reapers and Mowers,” and the fifty mechanical reapers in our county before the trials grew to eight hundred  by 1879.  “Slaves of the season” no more, even immigrant Scots farmers abandoned their suspicion of the inneal buain.

Mission accomplished.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Hello, Central

It was a time of wonders.  In the 20 years starting 1876, our world was transformed by a flood of inventions more amazing than anything since the printing press: the electric light, automobile, radio, phonograph, motion pictures. . . even the first fax or “telautograph.”  But the one that changed us most and most quickly was the telephone.

We didn’t know what to make of it at first.  “An apparatus has been invented by which tunes can be played by telegraph.  It is called the telephone,” noted the Progress.  But we caught on fast!  By 1878, phone lines had been strung between several Indiana County businesses and their owners’ homes.  Wires were so numerous in Indiana, Blairsville, Saltsburg and Blacklick that local papers predicted we’d soon create “a complete network of cord” above the county.  And we weren’t alone: from just one in 1876, the number of American telephones exploded to 156,000 by 1881.

So how did folks here get a phone in those early days?  You could rent them from a phone company, but we didn’t have one yet; you could build them yourself like J.M. McIntire of Jacksonville, but few knew how.  The rest of us had to order them by mail at up to $100 a pair – big money back then, so only the well-to-do could afford them at first.  Getting a phone was an event worthy of mention in the social columns.

The decade between our first phone and first phone company was a sort of Wild West time.  Some folks bothered to secure right-of-way where their phone lines crossed others’ property, and some didn’t; more than one farmer cut down intruders’ lines, and Blairsville even had a pole vigilante.  Few lightning arresters were installed, so there were injuries and at least one death by electrocution.  And rumor had it that typhoid and smallpox could spread via phone line.  “Communicable disease” indeed!

Being a mostly rural area, we didn’t catch the attention of the industry’s giant right away, so our first companies were local.  The Indiana Telephone Company was formed in 1887, and Greenville’s followed a year later.  In all, eight independents were formed here over the years, with the Indiana, Blairsville and Farmers’ companies providing most of the service.  Then the Central District Printing and Telegraph Company came to town. . . .

CDPT was a Bell Telephone subsidiary.  Like Standard Oil, Bell was a classic 19th century monopoly bent on being the only game in town – in every town – and its trump card was long distance.  Did you want to call Pittsburgh or Portland or Parma?  That took connection to a cross-country line, and Bell owned ‘em all.  Indiana granted CDPT a franchise in 1892 on condition that they also open an exchange that year.  Instead, a single phone with an on-site operator was opened to the public; if you wanted to make a long distance call, you had to do so there.  Why?  CDPT refused to make connections for people calling from a non-Bell phone, and we didn’t have any yet.

The tactic worked, as it had worked elsewhere.  Local demand for long distance increased until, by year-end, Indiana Telephone agreed to replace customers’ rented phones with Bell units and allow CDPT’s long distance switchboard to be installed in their office.  But ITC changed to Keystone brand phones when they built our county’s first exchange in 1895, so CDPT took its switchboard elsewhere.  Its request to build a competing exchange was denied by the borough council, which ruled that the company’s failure to build one in 1892 had voided the contract.  CDPT continued here as a long-distance-only service . . . for the moment.

The new exchange’s effect was revolutionary.  Before, you had to have a line between your phone and each phone you called; now, a single line connecting you to the exchange let you speak with any other subscriber.  Rates were cheaper as well, with the new phones renting for half what a Bell unit had cost.  Yet even thus democratized, the telephone was not yet common.  Only 19 of ITC’s 45 original subscribers were individuals; the rest were commercial, professional and government entities.  And who had phone #1?  Pharmacist J.R. Stumpf, owner of Indiana’s first automobile.

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Our first exchange opened in 1895.

The telephone influenced every part of our lives.  “Hello” became a verb meaning “to call,” and directories were called “Hello Books.”  Indiana County election results were tallied by phone starting 1895, allowing certification in hours instead of days.  Pennsylvania’s Blue Law was amended to prohibit Sunday phone use except in medical emergencies, and many a life was saved when phones were installed in the mines.

The Farmers’ Telephone Company of Indiana, Armstrong and Jefferson Counties (Farmers’ for short) was the second largest of our independents.  Each of the cooperative’s members owned his own phone and provided his own poles, while wires and switchboards were purchased collectively.  Rejecting merger offers from other independents ultimately helped them stand against the Bell monopoly for 58 years after their 1902 founding.

Indiana Telephone prospered too as the new century dawned.  Like any 14-year-old, it was bursting its seams!  So in 1904, the company moved into its newly-constructed home on Carpenter Avenue at Gompers.  Operators, all women, worked the central switchboard on the first floor.  Night shift “centrals” could even relax in the adjoining room’s armchair or bed while waiting for calls.  The brick building, now student housing, continued as an exchange into the 1990s.

Alas, prosperity was no shield against a determined monopoly.  With Pennsylvania phone companies being absorbed by Bell at an alarming rate, several Indiana County independents entered into a series of defensive mergers starting 1905.  Indiana Telephone became a part of the Huntingdon & Clearfield Telephone Company, which was itself combined with American Union two years later.  When that statewide entity failed in 1913 (with a little help from Bell, rumor had it), Indiana Telephone bought back its properties and resumed the name Huntingdon & Clearfield.  Still with me?  Okay….

By this point, most of our newspapers agreed with Mark Twain’s statement that the telephone was “the most useful of inventions, rendered almost worthless by the companies of chartered robbers who conduct it for us.”  The events of the next decade only confirmed their opinion.  Under pressure, Huntingdon & Clearfield abandoned its Saltsburg franchise in 1920.  Bell took control of Blairsville Telephone in early 1927 and bought H&C (Indiana Telephone – remember?) later that year.  Tiny Elders Ridge Telephone and Dilltown & Buffington held out until after WWII.  Farmers’, the last one standing, was harvested in 1960.

In the meantime, service technology had evolved independently of who-bought-whom.  Most of us chose low-cost party lines during the Depression;  the War Production Board banned new individual lines “for the duration” after Pearl Harbor, and post-war, Pennsylvania Bell installed only party lines until facilities construction caught up with demand in 1953.  Dial-tone service began in ‘51 – no more “Number, please” – and direct dial long distance followed in ‘68.  High-tech stuff, huh?

Don’t laugh.  Generations hence, folks will wonder how we in 2020 got by with just a smartphone (whatever that was).  But a few will look back and say: “It was a time of wonders.”

Almost

Let’s face it: we history buffs are spoiled.  Sitting here in the present, we have the luxury of browsing through heroic successes and happy endings, a habit obliged by four centuries of positive Pennsylvania history.  But is it really those outcomes that we savor, or is it the character of the players – their vision, faith and ingenuity, win or lose?  Surely the latter.  So come with me back to Indiana County at the close of the Guilded Age for a tale of dreamers and what might have been. . . .

Marion Center’s Independent broke the news in August 1892, a coup for that town’s tiny paper.  Unnamed backers were proposing a 28-mile link between Indiana and Punxsutawney, in a corridor which had no train service at the time.  But that wasn’t the half of it: it was to be the first long-distance electric railroad in the United States!  America’s first electric trolley had debuted four years earlier in Virginia, and contiguous towns like Altoona and Hollidaysburg had been connected by electric “street railways” since 1891, but. . . cross-country?  Unheard of!

There were four challenges facing such a project from the start: technology, geography, economy and monopoly.  Then-standard DC power had to be resupplied at intervals along a line to compensate for losses during transmission, and this limited a railroad’s length outside urban power grids.  We’d have to build a generator mid-way at, say, Marion Center.  Geography ran a close second, since electric locomotives couldn’t handle grades steeper than 6%.  Ever driven between Indiana and Punxsy?  As for economics, well, remember that public works were often private works in those days, so funding for things like mass transit came not from tax dollars but from venture capital.  Six figures worth of it, in this case, which meant a lot of fundraising.  Finally, monopoly: traditional railroad companies did not take kindly to such competition, and they weren’t known for playing fair.

There were critics, of course, but we didn’t flinch.  As the Reynoldsville Star observed, “There are always those who make light of a matter and think it an impossibility, yet these very fellows are ever ready to enjoy the blessings of prosperity that result from the enterprise of energetic citizens.”  And isn’t that the difference between a critic and a dreamer?  So the backers, still anonymous, went to work.

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Electric Locomotive, 1890s

General Electric’s chief engineer arrived in early autumn and surveyed each of several possible paths.  “There are two very desirable routes which we would not have difficulty utilizing,” he told the Gazette after his inspection.  “Of course, the future depends on the reports of a civil engineer.”  He returned with just such a fellow a few weeks later.  Pittsburgh’s S.L. Tone concluded that “The grades are not so heavy that they cannot be overcome, (and) it can be done with much less work than first supposed.”  Ultimately, the route recommended was: Indiana > Kellysburg > Marion Center > Rochester Mills > Covode > Horatio > Punxsutawney.

So much for technology and geography.  How ‘bout economy?

That was a different matter.  Though low operating costs ensured a reliable profit for investors once the line was up and running, estimates of construction cost rose by 25 then 50 then 75 percent as the autumn weeks passed.  Potential investors started wavering.  Time to bring out the big guns!  The chief of those previously-anonymous backers stepped forward.  It was none other than Judge Harry White.

The idea had come to him in Beaver, of all places.  On his way there the year before, Judge White had gotten off at the wrong train station; he was transferred to Beaver Valley’s electric line for the final leg, by the end of which he’d conceived the Indiana-to-Punxsutawney project.  “With the proper energy, effort and support of our counties’ people,” he told the Gazette.  “I am sanguine of success.  I think it would be possible and politic to have at least half of the stock subscribed by citizens and farmers along the route.  If that is done, I know where the rest of the money can be secured.”

That was enough to calm the jitters.  Would-be investors and every newspaper along the route resumed their enthusiasm for what was dubbed the Electric Express.  Articles peppered with White-isms (like the archaic use of “sanguine” to mean “confident”) appeared almost daily, touting the advantages to citizens and urging farmers to grant free right-of-way.  The Messenger even printed a schedule showing that one could travel from Punxsutawney to Pittsburgh via Indiana, go shopping and return before 9:00 PM, a day-trip not possible on existing lines.  Yes, that November was truly the project’s Indian(a) Summer. . .

But winter wouldn’t be denied.  Something must have put another chill on the project, for a spate of articles denying loss of momentum appeared in December and January: interest was “not on the wane” and “only sleeping.”  This time the rallying-cries even went national, with a stories appearing in The Electrical Engineer and Electrical Age.  Ironically, the latter’s claim that the company had already been formed was the last time our chimera would be mentioned in print until 1896, save for a postmortem that spring.  The paper that first broke the story now had the last word: “We wonder if the electric railroad through this place is slumbering so soundly that it cannot be awakened,” mused the Independent.

So just what pulled the plug on the Electric Express?  No one knows.  Perhaps the investors Judge White spoke of backed out, or the $250 blocks of stock that were to have been offered to “citizens and farmers along the route” proved too expensive for most.  Then again, the combine that included Jefferson County’s Low Grade Railroad may have found a way to ensure that the switch would never be thrown.  Yet it was all academic in the end, for the second worst depression in American history struck that February.

The Panic of 1893 virtually shut down commercial credit for three years;  five hundred banks failed nationwide, dragging countless projects with them, while Coxey’s Army and the Bituminous Miners’ Strike made Pennsylvania ground zero.  So in a way, whatever stopped our Electric Express did us a favor in the end, avoiding what may well have been the last straw for local banks, landowners and investors.

We dreamed of our Electric Express one last time in November 1896.  With the Panic at last behind us, our papers again noted a push by unnamed backers and another survey, this time by engineers from Western Electric.  Though the articles were positive (and again, similarly worded), they didn’t make the front page.  Once burned, twice shy?  That caution proved wise, for the Electric Express was never heard from again.

Or was it?  The Indiana, Punxsutawney and Sagamore Street Railway Company was launched in 1907 when “trolley fever” swept America.  Okay, so it wasn’t a real cross-country railroad with electric locomotives – we loved it while it lasted.  Sometimes our children have to finish the dreams we start.

R.F.D.

America has long prided itself in creating a classless society, one without bars to participation.  We fought a Civil War to end slavery, amended our Constitution to ensure women’s suffrage and abolished the poll tax.  But few recall that in those same days we also fought to include our country’s biggest group of outsiders, and that the uniformed heroes of that fight were the postal carriers of Rural Free Delivery.

Before the Civil War, all Americans picked up their mail at the post office.  Home delivery in cities began in 1863 and in midsize towns by 1890.  A letter could go from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia door-to-door, but . . . between farms in Indiana County?  Nope.  Both parties had to travel over miles of dirt roads to the nearest P.O. or hire a courier to do it for them.  And forget about speed it took less time for mail to get from Chicago to Boston than from Covode to Boltz.  Rural Americans thus became second-class citizens who had to “pay to play.”

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Pennsylvania’s Rural Free Delivery began in October 1896.

The obvious solution had surprisingly little support.  Expansion of mail service into the countryside was championed by the Grange, a farmer’s fraternity that began lobbying Congress in 1870.  Fearing financial disaster, politicians and the Post Office Department resisted for two decades.  But legislation was finally passed, and in 1896, Pennsylvania became the third state to establish Rural Free Delivery.

It didn’t happen all at once.  After experimental routes in Westmoreland County succeeded, applications were accepted from across the state.  Preference was given to “small towns having thickly-settled farming communities about them in a radius of four miles;” petitions had to be sponsored by a congressman and signed by the heads of at least 60 households along the proposed route.  The roads themselves had to pass inspection as being “in good condition – drained and graded, unobstructed by gates and without unbridged or unfordable streams.”  Some 20% failed first inspection.

But even before a route’s approval, it had the effect of empowering the farmers it would serve.  Congressmen realized that rural Americans were in the majority, which meant votes come election day.  Representative Summers Jack became our tireless advocate, personally examining each proposed route ahead of inspectors and “wheeling and dealing” for road improvement funds.  And our newspapers, eager for the potential boost in subscriptions, beat the editorial drum for rural delivery.

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James McKee was our county’s first RFD carrier (1899-1931)

Our county’s first RFD debuted in September 1899.  It looped out through White Township from Indiana and returned, serving 115 families spread out over 25 miles.  Its first carrier was one James McKee.  It took him and his wagon-horse Daisy six hours to finish the route in good weather.  But rain or shine, snow or mud or flood, McKee made the trip six days a week from 1899 through 1931.  A quarter-million miles without missing a day – now that’s dedication!

‘Course, you really had to be dedicated to be an RFD carrier.  A bond was required, and it was forfeit if you missed a single day.  And you’d never get rich on the $400 annual salary, which had to cover horse feed, wagon repair and blacksmith fees on top of your own living expenses.  But carriers enjoyed high social standing in the community and were even considered a “good catch.”

And not all carriers were men!  One hundred fifty of Pennsylvania’s earliest routes were “manned” by women.  Anna Devers was our county’s first.  She spearheaded the drive for approval of Blairsville’s second route in 1903, then served as its carrier for 13 years after testing highest of six applicants.  Grace Barr, who made the rounds on Grant Township’s Route #3 by car in the 1920s,  was said to be “so efficient and accommodating that a mere man was not considered” when several applied to replace her.

A rural carrier had to be something of an octopus as well.  Their wagon was in effect a mobile post office, carrying stamps, envelopes and postcards for sale.  They accepted cash for money orders to be mailed back at the P.O., and  until 1910, farmers could leave coins in the mailbox to cover postage for outgoing letters.  RFD wagons even displayed a set of signals communicating the Weather Bureau’s daily forecast, an invaluable service to farmers.  (At one point, sixteen grateful Indiana County farmers made their carrier’s life easier by mounting all their boxes on a horizontally-rotating wagon wheel atop a post at the crossroads!)

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Early RFD carriers used their own automobiles.

Success breeds success.  By 1903, each of the county’s larger boroughs had several routes serving their surrounding townships, and Star Routes those hauling mail between post offices added RFD service to homes along the way.  In 1915,  it was announced that Indiana County was so thoroughly covered that individual householders could petition for new routes directly.  And our carriers’ reputation was such that Blairsville and Indiana were chosen to host the state Rural Letter Carriers conventions of 1911 and 1914.  Their service could come at a price:  many minor post offices like those in Crete and Clyde were closed, since their towns’ populations were small enough to be served by RFDs.

Solving the greatest challenge to rural delivery had the side-effect of boosting farmers’ inclusion once again.  Our roads were, in a word, abysmal.  Horses sank in spring mud and winter snow, and wagon-wheels broke in hardened summer ruts.  The Gazette opined that “many routes may have to be abandoned” when inspectors returned, as had happened in Washington County.  To the rescue came the Good Roads Movement, a coalition of local and national interests which secured passage of our state’s Sproul Road Act and the federal Rural Post Roads Act of 1916.  Even the Great Depression contributed to the solution: Pennsylvania’s make-work Rural Roads Act appropriated 477 miles of Indiana County roads for pavement and extension as “Pinchot roads” in 1931.

The hard times of the 1930s and ‘40s brought out Americans’ adaptability, and postal employees were called upon to do their part.  To avert layoffs and route eliminations, rural carriers were required to take unpaid furloughs totaling 11 days per year from 1932 to 1934, and the maintenance allowance for automobiles was eliminated.  The uniformed troops of RFD showed their mettle again after Pearl Harbor, when carriers sold Defense Savings Stamps and accepted War Bond applications from customers.  And like police and firemen, they were given priory for tires and gas by the county Rationing Board.

The world continued to change, and so did rural delivery.  As far as can be told, faithful James McKee was our county’s last carrier to use a horse;  by 1929, the year the highest percentage of Americans were served by RFDs, autos were in use on almost all Pennsylvania routes.  As roads improved and America moved to the suburbs after WWII, route-lengths increased but the total number of rural households declined.  Yet even today, only Texas has more carriers than the Keystone State.  And it can truly be said that our farmers are second-class citizens no more.