Working Women in Indiana County

“In those days, women didn’t go out to work.”  This statement, often made when speaking of the first half of the twentieth century, was for many quite true.  It was a time when women were less likely to be involved in unions than in clubs; significantly, these were concerned less with labor and political activities than social etiquette and hygiene.  For example, the Indiana Evening Gazette reported on a 1905 club meeting where women discussed the problems of “expectorating on the streets” of Indiana.  Newspaper advertisements directed at women then were less concerned with promoting the image of a competent workwoman than with beauty and how to get rid of “sunken eyes and hallow cheeks…and the ravages of dyspepsia.”

jane leonard
Jane E. Leonard – Preceptress at Indiana Normal School

While much of this public image is true, underlying the illusion of women at leisure was the basic reality that many if not most women had to work, especially before marriage or in the widowhood.  The penury of some might be dramatized by tragic news headlines as “Woman Killed on Railroad.”  In December 1905, a 35 year old childless widow of one week was struck and killed instantly while picking coal along railroad tracks near her New Florence home.  In that very year another news release reported the tragic suicide of an unemployed manicurist, a 25 year old Blairsville “girl” [woman] who drank carbolic acid in her room at the YMCA. Of course these were exceptions, but there were many, many women who had to find work, and only a few could find employment in the two occupations generally believed to be most desirable for young women – teaching and nursing.

Other occupations were available to women in the Indiana area. Young girls from the farming community or from town often found plentiful work as cooks, waitresses, chambermaids, upstairs girls and laundry girls.  Though hard and heavy, this work was quite respectable female employment. For many years, the Normal School and the town of Indiana itself offered a large number of such jobs.  Insurance maps of the town dating from the turn of the century attest to the existence of hotels and restaurants for both mealtime and overnight guests, and at these women could find work.  Occasionally some women tested their entrepreneurial talents if they and their husbands were proprietors.  Mr. Long, a native Indianian, recalls with obvious admiration how his mother once helped in directing the West Indiana House, later the Houck Hotel.  While his father took care of the office, buying merchandise and paying bills, his mother interviewed, hired and directed the chambermaids, waitresses and cooks.  Her managerial duties were demanding for the business was extensive.  Mr. Long remembers that “…if they didn’t have 100 at noon, they thought it was a poor day.”

Work as governesses and live-in maids also existed, but its desirability naturally varied according to the attitude of individual employers.  While at times a live-in maid could be treated as a family member, she could also find it was lonely, demanding, and tiring work.  One Indiana woman remembers cooking and making bread for an entire family, while simultaneously acting as a governess for eight children, including infants.  Years later she still remembers the consternation of her employer when she asked for so high a salary – $8.00 a week.  Seamstress skill also offered extremely good employment for those with the necessary skills.  Some women were so expert that they undertook the task of outfitting entire families, perhaps even spending a week or two in homes of well to do citizens of Indiana until the season’s outfitting was done.

Less skilled jobs as “Hello Girls” or telephone operators were equally acceptable for women.  “Hello Girls” were aware that they had important jobs in maintaining communications, especially in emergencies.  When in 1904 the gas in Indiana was shut off for two hours, the news reported “Hello Girls Swamped.”  All of Indiana’s 200 switchboard plugs were flooded with calls of inquiry, the board becoming “…a veritable cobweb of connections.”  For a long time telephone operators also sounded the town fire alarm.  Mrs. Huber of Fulton Run Road, for a time an operator during the 1920s, recalls with amusement how lines were always jammed with calls from the curious asking for information about the fire.

Most of these jobs fell into traditional patterns of occupation, but occasionally even at the turn of the century female stereotypes were shattered much to the surprise of the community.  In 1904, a Miss M. Margaretta Hodge, a resident of Blairsville, was certified to practice pharmacy.  The following winter a news story in the Indiana Evening Gazette praised Mrs. DeVers, a Blairsville rural delivery carrier who was sometimes assisted by her daughter.  The article commended her for she had not missed a single day’s delivery throughout a very severe winter.  Expending the ultimate praise, the article noted that she made “…as good time as her male colleagues.”

head nurse
Head nurse’s private apartment – Indiana Normal School

As the Indiana business community expanded during the 1910s new jobs as clerks and salesgirls became available to women.  Stores such as Bon Ton, Troutmans, Luxenbergs, and McCrorys placed help wanted ads for “girls,” often specifically demanding “good girls.”  In fact in 1917 one ad for a female clerk required that she still be living at home with her parents in Indiana.  Heavier factory work also employed women of the area but only on a limited scale.  Women worked at the Dye Works, the Indiana Candy works, the Diamond Glass Company, the Macaroni Factory, the Indiana Steam Laundry, and King Razor Manufacturing Company, all during the 1910s.

Surprisingly, World War I made no perceptible impact on either the labor market or on attitudes about working women.  At most, news items urged women to do volunteer work to help the war effort.  On May 10, 1917 the Indiana Evening Gazette printed an article encouraging “girls” to make sacrifices for their country.  Here was no call for bravery, or even the study of nursing, or perhaps the replacement of draftees in the labor market.  Instead the article praised one young woman for rejecting five proposals of marriage and then encouraging her beaus to join the service.  The final admonition, “It isn’t fair to remain idle….Every woman worthy of the name will offer her services.”  Now was a call for service without pay.

While the postwar period, especially the 1920s, is touted as an era of economic and political emancipation for women, locally there appeared to be little change in basic attitudes.  The short dresses and bobbed hair of women of the county projected the image of the modern female, but both men and women continued to view women’s work as, at best, a temporary situation filling the hiatus between school and marriage.  However, while the county job market underwent no dramatic change, some companies such as the Diamond Glass Company, King Leather Company and the Indiana Textile Mills did need an increasing supply of working women.

For forty years the glass company in Indiana had been absorbing women into its work force.  During World War I, glass production had boomed.  In the 1920s the Diamond Glass Company employed almost 100 women, or girls as they were then called.  Women inspected the glass, polished, painted, and packed the product which Indianians still remember with great pride.  One former Indiana resident remembers the summer months when she and other youngsters walked across the fields from Wayne Avenue just to watch the young ladies at the factory.  Each woman with a small turn-table in front of her decorated glass with pretty leaves and flowers.  Unfortunately, this employment ended abruptly in 1931 when fire ravaged the plant.  If men found it hard to replace their jobs in those depression years, it was extremely difficult for women.  Some area employers openly discouraged married women and those under eighteen years of age from seeking jobs which men might otherwise take.

Another long standing company, the King Leather Factory, supplied much of the growing market for female workers in the 1920s.  In operation since 1910 it had produced a variety of leather items ranging from money belts to pocketbooks employing primarily women.  In the decade following the war approximately 50 to 75 women were employed at its barn-like factory on North 10th Street.  Only three men worked there; one owned the company and the other two were supervisors.  It was essentially women who produced the product.  On the lower level of the plant where the leather was stored, cutting machines were operated.  On the upper level the process was divided into different rooms where women operated electric sewing machines, stamped the product with gold lettering, and then sorted and packed the final product.

Women learned the different jobs quickly, even without past experience.  As Mrs. Zellman of Ernest remembers, even the sewing “…didn’t take much training.”  As in most firms of the time, few women aspired to managerial work, but those who had long been at the factory were sometimes assigned to supervise the training and work of the younger girls.

The atmosphere at the factory was described by a former worker as “…just like a family.”  Much credit for this was attributed to Mr. King who gave treats to the women at holidays, even joining them in song during those festive times.  In addition to the paternal atmosphere, a pleasant lunch break also stimulated the feeling of togetherness.  A newly widowed woman who lived near the factory began selling vegetable soup and crackers in her own home.  It soon became so popular that instead of bringing lunches, many women ate at her house.  They enjoyed her expanding menu of baked beans and sandwiches, as well as her hospitality.

The newest job opportunity of the Post World War I period was at what longtime residents still call the silk mill, the Indiana Textile Mill, which began operating in the late 1920s.  Probably influenced by the changing market of the Flapper Era which revealed women’s legs, silk mill produced top quality, high fashion stockings.  Unlike today’s stretch stockings, the high fashion stocking was sewn from separately woven pieces and made exactly to the size and shape of the leg.  In this company, as in the Leather Factory, the basic work force was women employed as seamers, loopers, and inspectors.  Business was so good at the silk mill that it operated on three shifts.  Former employees estimate each shift consisted of about 75 to 100 people, ¾ of them women.  Employees enjoyed working there too and felt that job conditions were good in spite of minor problems such as cotton dust from threads.  Though it was an exception for anyone to develop an allergic reaction to the silk itself, it could occur.  At least one woman’s hands became so sensitive to the material that they actually began to bleed, requiring profuse use of ointment every evening.  In spite of the pain, this woman continued to work at the silk mill for she had a family to support.

World War II dramatically reshaped the attitude of many Indianians, male and female, towards working women.  Suddenly, women were encouraged to work in civilian and especially in defense industries.  They entered the work force with renewed self-esteem for as one former defense industry supervisor notes, “They knew they were needed.”  In fact, women were so much in demand that companies such as Acme Dye in Latrobe provided buses to transport women from Indiana and Clymer to its Latrobe factory where they worked with explosive powders and bullets.

In Indiana County itself, defense industry work was soon underway at Federal Labs in Tunnelton, and at Indiana on Indian Springs Road and at the newly opened plant near South 13th Street, in the same building that had previously housed the silk mill.  Work plans for the South 13th Street plant illustrate the new trends at Federal Labs which moved quickly to mobilize the female labor force.  As William Durno, a long time superintendent there notes, the company immediately began “…gearing up for the high speed production.”  Original plans called for one shift of 64 “girls” and five men plus about 6 guards and some government employed inspectors who were usually women.  Soon this was expanded to a three shift operation.  Women worked on the production line, mixed and handled explosives and assembled hand grenades.  They did everything which once only men had done, unless restricted by state law.

shorthand students
Shorthand students at commercial college during World War I.

Indiana women quickly learned of the new opportunities available at Federal Labs and as William Durno smilingly recalls, “If they walked in breathing, we hired them.”  As far as testing goes there was only one primary question, “Are you afraid?”  A timid person was a hazard.  However, during World War II, women maintained a good safety record.  In retrospect, women don’t remember trying to conform to a Rosie the Riveter image.  It was just common sense to wear overalls and wrap one’s hair in a bandanna.  All jewelry was expressly forbidden – static electricity would set off explosives.  One person remarked that it could be difficult to convince some women to take off sentimental jewelry such as wedding rings.  Most interviewees remember that workers were well aware of hazards and quickly complied with safety regulations.  A couple of Indiana women recalled an incident in which one worker let wisps of hair show only to lose some hair and even skin when the hair got caught in the machinery.  An accident such as this was an exception.  Throughout the course of the war, there were no major injuries in Indiana County war industries.

Besides convincing both men and women of the abilities of working women, the war years were responsible for other attitudinal changes.  A new consciousness you might say, had been raised and new expectations developed.  One satisfying aspect of work was the new sense of camaraderie among the women.  Mrs. Goral of Indiana remembers that when her mother worked at a defense plant the factory women associated more even during off hours.  Another more practical change resulted in new perceptions of unions.

Many local women who worked in the early period had expressed some hostility to unions.  They perceived union leaders as either troublemakers or meddlers.  Yet the women who had become involved in the large scale concerns of war industries often discovered that tan active union was a necessary ally.

Even more significant than the satisfactions of new interests and friendships outside the home was the impact of the paycheck itself.  For many women this was the first time extra cash filled their pocketbooks and as Mrs. Ila Murdick comments, it may not have been a great deal of money “…but it was big for them.”  In fact some women dared to suggest that the monetary motivation, not patriotism, was of paramount significance at that time.  As Mrs. Mabel McQuown, herself a former defense industry employee, remarks on the primary motivation of the women, “For most it was the money.”

Yet, in this picture, basic patriotism was not to be discounted.  Though women in the county were working in different jobs and in larger numbers than ever before, their ultimate goal was the war’s end and return of the soldiers.  Again and again patriotism is mentioned as the common denominator among them.  When the war ended they knew they would be out of a job.  As one former war worker said, “I don’t think anyone felt bad about losing a job.  They were happy that the war was over.”  Mrs. Carrolton Philippi of Marion Center remembers a story of one Indiana County woman who took a job replacing a man.  She used to joke that when he returned she would gladly give up her job and then marry the returning soldier.  That was exactly what happened.

For many women giving up their jobs was achieved just as smoothly and as happily. But there were others who felt differently.  They hoped to continue to work somewhere, somehow.  Unquestionably, the 1940s had altered the consciousness of Indiana Countians just as it had nationally.  The former attitude that women should work only before marriage or in widowhood had clearly diminished, to be replaced by a new appreciation of what women could contribute to the labor force.  Surely, a contemporary might report of that period if questioned “Yes, a lot more women went to work in those days.”

The Ernest Mine Disaster of 1916

Located just four miles north of Indiana, PA, lies the mining town of Ernest, established in 1903 by the Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal Company.  In its infancy Ernest was known locally as a “model mining village” of 156 houses, 2 churches, a school, and a community center. During the first several years of development at the site the R&P opened four drift type mines in the upper Freeport E coal seam and built 274 beehive coke ovens which by 1909 had an annual production of 17,946 tons.  By the close of 1906 more than one thousand men worked at the operation.

Newspaper headlines today still attest that mining is a hazardous occupation.  In the early 1900s it was even more hazardous.  Modern attitudes toward mining safety were only slowly developing, and the inadequate mining technology of those days sometimes created dangerous conditions of its own.  Moreover, the advent of huge mining operations, such as the Ernest works, increased the potential for underground accidents.  With odds like those it is not surprising that Indiana County’s first major mining disaster happened in Ernest.  Nonetheless, by the standards of the day the Ernest mines were not regarded as particularly dangerous. In 1906, the Pennsylvania state mine inspector noted in his annual report that the mines at Ernest were in good condition and well ventilated by Capell, Robinson and Clark Fans.

On February 5, 1910, the town got a preview of the dangerous possibilities when an explosion of dust and accumulated gas occurred near the face of No. 5 room off No. 11 entry, resulting in the deaths of eleven men. County Coroner James S. Hammers held an inquest in the weeks that followed, and the jurors determined that the dead miners had succumbed to the “afterdamp,” a mixture of gases remaining in a mine after a fire or explosion of firedamp (methane). Families buried their dead; the town mourned.  The miners who remained went back to their underground livelihoods, and for the next six years the mines at Ernest produced coal without a major disaster.

tipple ernest
The town of Ernest stood to the left of this “Old Tipple,” replaced in the mid 1920s

On the morning of February 11, 1916, miners’ wives in Ernest rose early as usual, put pots of oatmeal on their stoves, and packed their husbands’ dinner pails.  The women filled the “buckets,” which resembled a double boiler with two compartments, with several thick sandwiches. Hot tea or coffee went in the bottom part. Miners habitually carried large quantities of food and drink into the mines in case of a cave-in which could imprison them for hours or even days.  While women performed morning chores and sleepy children ate their breakfasts, the Ernest miners on first shift gathered their tools together in preparation for the day’s work. Each man supplied his own pick and shovel, carbide for his lamp, and powder and squibs for “shooting down” the coal.

Several improvements in the years preceding 1916 had made mining somewhat easier and safer for the men working in Ernest No. 2. That year, the R&P purchased twenty-one electric cutting machines for the plant, greatly reducing the amount of work done by hand. With the increased availability of electric cap lamps, only certain portions of the mine were worked with open carbide lights.

Many of the miners who entered the No. 2 mine on the morning of Friday, February 11, 1916, were not, however, wearing the safer, battery-operated cap lamps.  The new electric cap lamps were cumbersome to wear and the batteries often leaked acid. Besides the men who worked in the fifteenth right room of headings three and four felt safe working with the older carbide lights; gas had never before been discovered in this part of the mine. Ordinarily, forty-three men mined coal in this area, but due to the funeral of one of the crew, the working force was reduced that day. Another miner, Amos Craven missed the man trip on Friday morning because his alarm clock had failed to go off. After waiting for him for a few minutes, the rest of the men climbed into the motorized man trip, and, setting their dinner pails on the floor between their feet, left the daylight behind them.

Back at home the miners’ wives did breakfast dishes, sent children off to school and began the day’s cleaning and washing. As early afternoon approached, clerks in the company store set out fresh fruits and vegetables; miners sometimes stopped on their way home to pick up something extra for supper. At school, children watched the clock restlessly, awaiting the dismissal hour. In Ernest No. 2 the men mined and loaded coal. By that evening, twenty-seven of them were dead.

ernest building
The original mine office in Ernest. The First Aid Team met in this building.

No one on the outside heard the sound of the explosion. “Butch” Tortella, a retired miner, was a small boy at the time of the tragedy, but he remembers it was Jimmy Moody, the motorman, who brought to news to the surface.   When he took his locomotive back into the mine late that afternoon to bring out the loaded mine cars, Moody discovered the body of one of the miners only about a mile from the entrance.  Hurrying back to the surface, he quickly summoned help. No whistle or siren blew to alert the rest of the town, for large crowds could have made rescue work more difficult. The miners were changing shifts at the time of the explosion, making it impossible at first to tell how many men had been in the mine. One of the men, Ben O’Hara, was just walking out of the mine when he felt the force of the explosion on his back. While on his way to the entrance of the mine he had passed George Bunton, Jr., going to work and as soon as O’Hara realized what had happened, he started back after his friend. Before he reached Bunton, however, O’Hara encountered two other men lying on the floor of the mine. He succeeded in dragging both fallen miners to safety and went back after Bunton, but was unable to reach him. Bunton’s body was brought to the surface shortly before 9:00 p.m. that evening. The exact time of the tragedy was later determined from a watch found hanging from a pocket of one of the dead men. The watch was smashed and the hands pointed to 3:20 p.m.

Rescue teams formed rapidly at the mouth of the mine as word of the explosion spread to Indiana. Crews from nearby mining towns arrived by automobile, and Thomas Lowther of Indiana took charge of the rescue attempts. All available doctors and nurses from the Indiana Hospital rushed to Ernest, together with Dr. C. Paul Reed of Homer City and Dr. F.F. Moore of Lucerne. Officials of the R&P and of the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway hurried to the scene in a special train from Punxsutawney, arriving in Ernest shortly before 8:00 p.m. F.M. Fritchman, general superintendent of the coal company, was early on the scene and assisted in the direction of the mine rescuers. A specially equipped mine rescue care came from Pittsburgh on the tracks of the B.R.&P. and by night fall every mining town in the district was represented by a rescue team.

Pennsylvania state troopers were summoned and prevented families and friends of the trapped miners from passing over the bridge leading to the mouth of the mine. An Indiana newspaper reported that there was “no great excitement” at the site; only the “silently weeping women, wringing their hands and giving vent to little cries of despair, and the hushed whispers of the crowd” could be heard.

By nightfall on Friday the rescue teams were organized and working their way into the mine. The first crew to report back told of barriers of tangled debris, but fortunately there was little fire due to the lack of oxygen at the scene of the explosion. Teams dug through the debris after clearing part of the main road and rebuilding the mine brattices as they advanced. The first of the bodies was brought to the surface about 4:30 a.m. on Saturday and the others at various intervals until daylight. A special train carried the dead to Indiana where morticians prepared the bodies for burial.

By Saturday evening, little more than twenty-four hours after the explosion, three Indiana undertakers had finished embalming of the twenty-six dead miners. Reports later estimated that nearly three thousand people, some moved by the tragedy, others merely curious, viewed the bodies as they lay in three separate Indiana store buildings. “The condition of the bodies,” noted the Indiana Evening Gazette, “was remarkable; of course a few, who had been more severely burned…presented horrible sights.” On Monday afternoon funeral services were held according to the religious affiliations of the dead. A large trench was dug at St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in Indiana; twelve of the miners were laid there in a single grave. Two of the men were immigrants who had arrived alone in America. As they spoke little English and had few friends, their full names were never known. Later, the body of Pompia George was recovered from the mine, bringing the total number of dead to twenty-seven. The long grave at St. Bernard’s was reopened to receive his body.

By Monday morning, February 14, coal company officials and Pennsylvania state mine inspectors started the investigation of the Ernest explosion. James E. Roderick, chief of the Department of Mines at Harrisburg, arrived that evening to take charge personally. B.M. Clark of Punxsutawney, assistant to R&P President Lucius Waterman Robinson, stated publicly that at least half a dozen theories as to the cause of the explosion had been advanced. A miner named Nord, who survived the blast, stated that he was about fourteen hundred feet inside the mine when the first detonation occurred. He was knocked about twenty feet and landed against one of the mine ribs. Before Nord could get to his feet a second explosion erupted and knocked him unconscious. His proximity to the mouth of the mine prevented him from breathing the poisonous fumes caused by the blast. Nord seemed positive that two explosions took place in the fifteenth right room of headings three and four, about a mile and a quarter from the entrance.

first aid team
Ernest First Aid Team, pre-World War I. These men administered emergency treatment outside the mine to the victims of the disaster.

Investigations carried out by a five-man team of Pennsylvania state mine inspectors from five districts concurred with the account given by Nord from his hospital bed. On February 15, three days after the disaster, the inspection team submitted its findings to Roderick. Their document is printed in full in the Report of the Department of Mines of Pennsylvania for the year ending 1916. It states that the inspection team entered Ernest No. 2 on Monday, February 14, and made an investigation of all rooms, butts and entries. They found loaded mine cars blown off the track, a ventilation door forced through its frame and a badly wrecked mining machine. They also found evidence of intense heat and “considerable force” surrounding rooms No. 14 and No. 15 right entry, all the way to room No. 8, but not extending to any other area of the mine. After completely examining the section where the disaster happened and noting all conditions caused by the explosion, all members of the tam concluded that “a body of explosive gas, which had accumulated on a fall*…was forced down by another fall of the upper strata and was ignited by the open carbide lights of the miners working on the pillar of 14 ½ entry.” The report noted that “all persons working in the vicinity were burned and afterwards suffocated by the afterdamp.” Investigators had “no criticism to offer in regard to the work of the mine superintendent, the mine foreman and his assistants who were in charge…as no explosive gas was ever previously discovered in No. 14 ½ or No. 15 right entry…in this part of No. 2 mine.” The tam concluded by making some recommendations to aid in the prevention of similar accidents, including the use of locked safety lamps in any pillar working within a reasonable distance of places where falls could possibly occur.

Unfortunately, the Ernest disaster was only one of many tragedies of this type. Available records show that there were 170 gas and dust explosions in Pennsylvania bituminous mines from 1878 through 1932, resulting in 1984 fatalities or an average of about 12 fatalities in each explosion. Of this total, eight-five of the explosions are classified as being characterized by marked violence; of these eighty-five, forty explosions, or forty-seven percent of the total, were caused by open lights. In the thirteen years from 1920 to 1932, however, there were only seven explosions from this source. The widespread, if belated, use of electric cap lamps in Pennsylvania bituminous mines after 1920 undoubtedly contributed to the decrease of explosion of this type.

The problem of correctly designating mines are gaseous or nongaseous took longer to resolve. The first attempts at careful classification came in 1909, but over the next years, the records showed scores of cases in which so-called nongaseous mines experienced severe explosions. As a result, the United States Bureau of Mines in 1933 began to consider all coal mines, if not gaseous, at least potentially gaseous. With the continued increase of research directed toward the science of mine health and safety, especially in the last ten years, the mining industry can look forward to the day when major mining disasters will take their place with the Ernest explosion of 1916 – in the past.

*A “fall” results from a sudden dropping of rock from the roof, leaving in its place a gap or hollow which may be several feet in diameter. Any formation of gas in the area quickly rises to the roof filling the pocket left by the fall. (In the early 1900s it was a common practice for miners to burn up small gas deposits over falls by igniting them with their carbide lights).

The Elders Ridge Academy

Prior to the development of public high schools, students prepared themselves for college by studying with private tutors or attending academies.  The academies were often church-related and staffed by the clergy. This was especially true in western Pennsylvania with its Scotch-Irish Presbyterian heritage.  In Indiana County alone the Presbyterians sponsored such early schools as the Indiana Academy, Jacksonville Academy, Saltsburg Academy, and Elders Ridge Academy.

In June 1839, Alexander Donaldson (1808-1889), an 1835 graduate of Jefferson College at Canonsburg and newly ordained minister at Elders Ridge, began to provide private lessons and to listen to recitation in the upper story of the log spring house which acted as the pastor’s study.  John McAdoo was his first student.  Donaldson, who had done tutoring for his alma mater following graduation, was apparently a good teacher and filled a growing demand for education in this area of Pennsylvania.  The number of his students steadily increased, but it was not until 1847 that Elders Ridge Academy was officially founded.

Donaldson continued to teach in this informal fashion for six years with no thought of starting an academy until he met John M. Barnet, a popular teacher in the common schools.  Barnett persuaded Donaldson of the need for teacher preparation and also for college preparation for people in the area.  After careful consideration and the urging of Dr. Matthew Brown, president of Jefferson College, Donaldson formally opened Elders Ridge Academy on April 16, 1847, with sixteen students and the assistance of John M. Barnett.

During the summer of 1847, Donaldson had erected at his own expense a small frame building which cost $320.  It measured twenty-six feet by twenty-four feet and resembled a common school.  Many thought that the establishment of an academy in this relatively rural setting was visionary since academies located in county seats had closed their doors.  The founder held that many of the failures could be traced to the lack of a permanent head.  At Elders Ridge, the founder acted as principal and proprietor, remaining responsible for everything concerning the school.  Donaldson always hired scholarly, well-trained assistants.  He divided the income from tuition with his assistants so that popular teachers who attracted more students thus earned more money.  Some of the assistants following J.B. Barnett were: T.B. Elder, James A. McKnight, Matthew Clark, John M. McElroy, D.W. Elder, John C. Thom, J.W. Smith, S. Kennedy, James E. Caruthers, J.H. Donaldson, F.J.C. Schneider, S.J. Craighead, A.W. McCullough, Eben B. Caldwell, G.B. Smith, S.S. Gilson, A.M. Donaldson, W.B. Donaldson, W.W. McLane, H.B. Knight, W.J. Bollman, John Brownson, R.H. Carothers, J.M. Duncan, John B. Donaldson, C.F. Gallagher, John A. Scott, G.W. Gilbert, S.M. Jack, Reverend A.J. Stewart, L.A. Frantz, and Maggie M. Elder.

The Academy was not established as a boarding school and did not encourage the enrollment of boys so young that they required constant supervision.  At first, students boarded for one dollar a week with the ten or twelve families who lived within two miles of the school.  Within ten years John Smith, Christopher Iman and John Thom erected boarding houses for the students.  The weekly rate rose gradually over the years from $1.25 to $3.50.  In the late 1880s an effort was made to introduce “boarding clubs” like those found at colleges to furnish good board at a rate of two dollars per week.

The enrollment steadily increased until 1854 with the majority of the students coming from Indiana, Cambria, Clarion, Huntingdon, Bedford, and Franklin counties.  But students from as far away as Mississippi and Louisiana enrolled in the Academy as its record of success in college preparatory work, especially for students attending Jefferson College, became more widely known.  The pre-college course was by all accounts rigorous, focusing almost exclusively on the classics and mathematics.

Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Church began to show an interest in having a school connected to the Blairsville Presbytery and established a committee to review applications from various area schools.  Since Elders Ridge was located within the bounds of the Blairsville Presbytery, Donaldson submitted an application.  In 1848 Elders Ridge was chosen the Blairsville Presbyterial Academy.  This meant that visitors appointed annually by the Presbytery would attend exams and advise the principal respecting the Academy’s management.  In a short time, however, the affiliation became merely a nominal one as the visitors grew more interested in other schools located within the Presbytery.  In 1856, when the Presbytery was divided and Elders Ridge and its principal were removed from Blairsville’s jurisdiction, not a word was publicly said about it.  Throughout the eight years the school had been the Blairsville Presbyterial Academy, not one dollar had been given to the school and no students had been recruited through the church’s efforts.

One of the few suggestions made by the visitors of the Presbytery in 1849 was the need for a larger building. Donaldson realized this and, in a time when other schools were multiplying, he “took the risk” and in 1850 erected a two-story brick building measuring forty-eight feet by thirty-two feet at a cost of $2,020.  The first floor had twelve feet partitioned off in front for a short hall with students’ rooms on either side.  A main hall occupied the remainder of the ground floor.  The second floor had twelve feet in front for a recitation room and the larger part was divided into two social halls which the students furnished.

elders ridge
Elders Ridge Academy

The cost of construction fell entirely on Donaldson who had to pay down $300. The remaining $1700 was paid at 6% interest over 22 years so that the cost came to $3700 for the brick building.  Including the cost of the first building, Donaldson had invested over $4,000 of his own money in the Academy.

In 1849, a women’s department was started at Elders Ridge under the charge of Martha Bracken. It was successfully carried on until 1858 when the project was abandoned because of “the extreme difficulty of procuring suitable boarding places for ladies.”  Some years later women were again admitted.

The session of 1854 began on a high note with the largest student enrollment in the Academy’s seven year history, 113 men and women, but a series of unforeseen events gave the Academy a sharp setback for the next decade.  During the summer of 1854 an epidemic of typhoid fever developed in one of the boarding houses.  The proprietor of the house, several of his friends, a student, and many neighbors died.  The students left school over a month before the end of the session, with five or six dying of the fever after they left.  The fever still raged the next session, and three-fourths of the students never returned.  Just as the Academy enrollment began to recover, the Civil War reduced it again, and there was no general increase until after 1865.

Organizations were an important influence on the students at Elders Ridge Academy.  One such organization was the Society for Religious Inquiry.  Its purpose was to promote an interest in topics of a religious and missionary character.  The other main organization was the Amphisbeteon Literary Society.  It held weekly meetings at which orations in Greek, Latin, French, and German were given.  After the Academy moved into the new brick building in 1850, the Amphisbeteon Literary Society was divided into two new societies, the Ereuneteon and the Matheteon Literary Societies.  These two societies held annual contests and at the end of each year advanced students competed for four awards of special merit: Salutatory, Latin oration, Greek oration, and Valedictory.

Donaldson also gave a book as an annual prize, at his own expense.  It was awarded by vote to the student whose general excellence of character seemed best. He awarded twenty-eight of these books which ranged in price from $1.50 to $4.00. The practice was abandoned when the Academy was given over to others to run.

In 1875, Donaldson, at the age of sixty-seven, realized that some legal way would have to be found of maintaining the Academy after his death.  He selected a self-perpetuating board of nineteen trustees from the different religious denominations in the area of Elders Ridge.  The only stipulations were that each succeeding trustee would be from the same denomination as his predecessor, that the principal would be a Presbyterian, and that any of Donaldson’s lineal descendants should be educated, one at a time, free of charge.  On July 6, 1875, he named the new board and gave the right, title, interest, and all claim to the Academy and its grounds to the Board.  The first members were: John Wherry, R.S. Townsend, A.H. Fulton, S.P. Townsend, Robert Wray, William Fritz, W.T. Wilson, R.H. Wilson, Thomas Hood, Arch McAdoo, Thomas Scott, Joseph Wilson, W.G. King, S.H. George, Samuel George, and Alexander Gray along with Donaldson and his two teaching assistants, Thomas B. Elder and S.J. Craighead.

The trustees, after accepting the conditions of the letter, re-roofing the building, made other repairs totaling $600, and re-elected Donaldson as principal.  By now the students were referring to Donaldson as “Pater” Donaldson because he always treated the students as if they were his own children. Donaldson was continually re-elected principal until 1884 when he asked to be relieved of all connection with the institution.  The trustees turned him down, but in 1885 they agreed not to re-elect him, and Thomas B. Elder replaced him as principal.

Elder had been an instructor at the Academy for nearly thirty years and had earned the nickname of “T.B.” from the students. He had graduated from the Academy in 1853 and then completed his education at Jefferson College in 1855 before returning to Elders Ridge as Donaldson’s assistant.

T.B. Elder
T.B. Elder

Eight principals succeeded Elder at the Academy: N.B. Kelly, James Gailey and his brother, W.S.A. Wilson, W.B. Elder, R.A. Henderson, Preston Urey, and Professor Smith.

On April 14, 1889, Donaldson suffered a stroke while returning home from church.  He died four days later and was buried on April 20.  He had preached fifty-one years and one Sabbath.

With the turn of the century changes in the pattern of American education, especially the expansion of public schools which drained enrollment from the more expensive private academies, meant that the days of the academies were numbered.  Elders Ridge was no exception.  The school became financially troubled and was about to be sold for debt when Lucius W. Robinson gave $3,000 to help pay off its obligations.  Robinson assumed control of the academy, agreeing to return the school to the Board of Trustees in five years if it could be made self-supporting. Robinson temporarily saved the Academy but could not restore it to its former condition.  In 1914, an act of the state legislature which provided for vocational education offered the school a graceful way to ends its history as an academy.  The Elders Ridge trustees made an arrangement with Kiskiminetas Township (Armstrong County), Young Township (Indiana County), West Lebanon and Clarksburg (two independent school districts), and the State Board of Vocational Education to finance a vocational school.  The grounds and buildings were to remain in the hands of the successors of the original trustees and were rented for $1.00 by the Vocational Board.  The school, now state controlled, had a faculty of one principal and five assistants.

Figures available to 1880 show that over 2600 students had attended Elders Ridge Academy.  No complete list of graduates and their professions exists, but a partial list suggests that they did well. Among other professions noted were: 150 ministers, nine foreign missionaries, eighty physicians, ninety admitted to the bar (at least six served on the bench), one college president, three editors, one lieutenant governor, one moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, many college and high school teachers, and numerous state senators and legislators.  Elders Ridge students included James M. Swank, editor of the Iron Age; H.T. Tourley, Pittsburgh mayor and controller; and noted scientist Charles H. Townsend.

The Academy buildings which stood as a reminder of the past were destroyed by fire. The original spring house in which the Academy began was moved to a new foundation on the corner of the Elders Ridge Vocational School grounds on August 31, 1932. It formally opened as the Academy’s museum on October 21, 1932, but only ten days later, it was levelled by a fire which also destroyed the Gymnasium.  The Academy’s brick building was renovated in 1934 and served as a grade school for Young Township and as classrooms for the Vocational School until it was destroyed by fire on February 19, 1936. Few reminders of the Elders Ridge Academy remain today, but during the second half of the nineteenth century it acted as one of the leading educational institutions of southwestern Pennsylvania.

Black History Month Program

On February 27, 2020, the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County presented “Less Known Stories of African Americans in Indiana County.”  The program was a collaborative effort between the Indiana County NAACP and the Blairsville Underground Railroad History Center.  The program began with some brief remarks by Mr. Jonathan Bogert, the Executive Director of the Historical Society, followed by an Address from Dr. Carolyn Princes, the President of the Indiana County NAACP.

The program continued with some comments by Dr. Lori Woods from St. Francis University who presented “Student reflections of the Blairsville Underground Railroad History Center.”  On February 8, 2020 students from St. Francis University visited the Blairsville Underground History Center for an interactive tour.  Following their visit, the students wrote about their experience.  The students found the tour to be very moving, and also an important aspect of our history that more people should learn about and understand.  This understanding of history helps us to improve society today and move in a positive direction.

Denise Jennings-Doyle, President and co-founder of the Blairsville Underground Railroad History Center, introduced two historical figures who visited and told their story of their life in Indiana County.

Anthony Hollingsworth was a 12-year-old freedom seeker from Virginia, was seized by slave hunters on the Simpson Farm, near Homer City.  He was bound to a horse and taken to the Indiana House hotel at Philadelphia and Sixth Streets.  There was a large crowd that gathered to protest his capture and stormed the hotel to free him.  Dr. Robert Mitchell and newspaper editor James Moorhead, ardent abolitionists, intercepted the enraged citizens and persuaded them to allow the courts to decide the young man’s fate.  The following day, Judge Thomas White asked the slave catchers to produce written evidence that slavery existed in Virginia; when they did not, Judge White set Hollingsworth free.  Several young men hoisted Hollingsworth onto their shoulders and paraded him through the streets.

Hollingsworth settled in Stratford, Ontario, where he was employed, according to the 1863 County of Perth Gazetteer, as a “hairdresser and shampooner.”  Hollingsworth never forgot the kindness and support he was shown by the local residents.  He mailed a letter to Dr. Mitchell, who briefly gave Hollingsworth shelter on his property near Diamondville, thanking him and the “good folkes” of Indiana County for their assistance.

Jane Brunson Johnston, was the wife of Lewis Johnston.  Together they were conductors in Blairsville and Allegheny City (North Pittsburgh), PA.   It’s believed they transported freedom seekers between Blairsville and Hollidaysburg.  Freedom seeker Richard Newman was living with the Johnston family on West Campbell Street in Blairsville when his attempted kidnapping occurred on April 1, 1858.  The Johnstons raised six children.  Their son Lewis Johnston, Jr. became the first black Covenanter Presbyterian preacher in Pennsylvania.

The evening concluded with musical selections by Anthony Frazier – singing and providing a history behind “Wade in the Water” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”  Patti Holmes also provided musical selections of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “The Greatest Love of All.”  Audience members were encouraged to join in singing with the performers and the Armory was filled with song.

Coming up in March the Society is hosting two programs.  The first will be an Irish Sing-a-long held on March 20, 2020 from 6-8PM in the Clark House.  If you love traditional Irish sing-a-long songs or find yourself singing classic tunes your grandparents sang for you, then you are going to enjoy the Irish Sing-a-long.  We will play and sing around the piano in the Historic Clark House.  Musical guests Allen Krynicky, Mike Busija, Scott Neuroh, Ken Black, Hazel Johnston, and Bruce Jenkins, will lead you in singing Irish tunes to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, as well as classic favorites from the 30s and 40s.  This event is an OPEN FUNDRAISER with no entrance fee or ticket cost, but donations will be gratefully accepted, with all the proceeds from this event going directly toward repairs needed for the Chickering Square Grand piano that was recently donated to the Historical Society.  For more information, or to donate to the Piano Fund, call 724-463-9600.

Our second event will be held on Sunday March 29, 2020 – the 2nd Annual National Vietnam War Veterans Day Program.  Doors will open at 5:30 PM with the program beginning at 6:00 PM.  The event will feature guest speakers, music of the era, and a historical display relating to “The Wall That Heals.”  Commemorative pins will be awarded to Vietnam Veterans by Christina Lonigro.  Refreshments and hors d’oeuvres will follow the program.  For more information and reservations please call 724-463-9600.  This event is sponsored by: The American Legion Auxiliary Post 141, the VFW Post 1989, the American Legion Post 141, and the Indiana County Historical Society.

Finally join us on Saturday April 4, 2020 at 7:00 pm in the Armory for our 3rd Annual Spring Swing.  Dress to the nines and put on your dancing shoes, it’s time to Swing!  Don’t know how? No problem! Lessons begin at 7:00pm, the dance will follow at 7:30pm.  Maybe this year we’ll try a little West Coast swing to spice things up a bit.  Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door, and are available at the HGSIC or through Crisp Entertainment. Call 724-463-9600 for more information.