“The Conemaugh Saltworks, we are happy to state, are now in the full tide of successful operation . . . rewarding the enterprising individuals who constructed them (and) conferring important advantages upon the district as well as the country.” So said the Greensburg Register in 1816, just three years after the commercial production of salt began where Loyalhanna Creek and the Conemaugh River join to become the Kiskiminetas.
Salt is so cheap and abundant in our time that we hardly give it a thought, but the fact is, we literally cannot live without it. When Britain’s blockade choked off imports during the War of 1812, the United States had to rely on just four internal sources of salt: Onandaga/Cayuga Counties in New York, Gallatin County in Illinois, Kanawha in the Cumberland, and – just in time – the new Saltworks right here in Indiana County, PA. For folks along the Kiski and Conemaugh, the Salt Boom predated the Coal Rush by a quarter century.
But how did it all begin, and who were those “enterprising individuals” responsible for it?
A saline spring rising from beneath the Kiskiminetas near what is now Saltsburg had long been tapped by local Indian tribes, for whom it was a zone of truce; that there was salt in the area was known to Europeans as early as 1755, when Lewis Evans’ General Map of the Middle British Colonies in America noted, “The Kishkeminetas . . . has Coal and Salt.” In 1766, one Frederick Rohrer of Greensburg may have become the first settler to discover that spring and boil its waters to extract salt. Or it could be that a certain Mrs. Deemer, who chanced to taste salt water in a Conemaugh pool near White shortly before 1800, was the first. And Doctor Samuel Talmadge, our county’s first resident physician, is said to have noticed animals licking rocks out in the Conemaugh opposite Broad Fording (Burrell) in 1810. There he sank a barrel lined with clay to keep salt water and fresh water from mixing, dipped out the saline and boiled it down in iron kettles.
Well, maybe. Even if each story is true, they’re not mutually exclusive. What is certain is that commercial production here began in 1813 when, on his second local attempt, William Johnston struck a saltwater aquifer beneath 450 feet of rock while drilling “on the bank of the Conemaugh near the mouth of the Loyalhanna.” After buying a manual pump, building a furnace and installing evaporation pans, he lined his 2½” diameter drill-hole with copper tube and began producing 30 bushels of salt per day. The blockade had done wonders for the price of that already-precious commodity, and at $5.00 a bushel, salt soon made Mr. Johnston a wealthy man.
Drilling, pumping and evaporating were no easy tasks in those days. It took two men up to nine months to drill through 400 to 600 feet of rock with their swing pole drill, a weighted chisel suspended by chain, rope and pulley beneath a wooden tension pole. A “blind horse” powered the pump that drew the saline from well to furnace. Four men operated the furnace and deposited the boiled-down residue in twenty-foot “grainers”, or evaporation pans; four others mined coal from the nearby hillside, and one more led a horse hauling coal to feed the furnace. Pay ranged from .75¢ to $1.00 per twelve-hour day.
[Though defined in none of the surviving records, it is almost certain that the “blind” horses were simply those fitted with blinders, also called blinkers.]
By the time of the Register article there were fourteen furnaces fed by four wells within a mile of the Conemaugh/Loyalhanna confluence, owned respectively by William Johnston, Samuel Reed, Andrew Boggs and the partnership of Boggs & Forward. Between them they produced over 100 bushels of salt per day, selling at the post-war price of $2.00 per bushel – still a tidy sum.
But the Boom was just getting started. High demand, the introduction of steam engines and the arrival of the Pennsylvania Canal caused the number of producers and their total output to climb steadily through the 1820s. Records show ten wells producing 1,750 bushels per day in 1821 and 31 producing 7,600 bushels per day by 1829. That’s an amazing four million pounds a year! Both the settling of Saltsburg (laid out by salt magnate Andrew Boggs) and the rise of Blairsville to become the county’s chief city were direct consequences of the flourishing salt industry, and the Conemaugh Saltworks boasted the fourth largest post office in the county.
Boom was nearly followed by bust when overproduction and price wars brought salt down to just .19¢ per bushel in 1826. As the price of salt fell below the cost of production, well owners announced that they had agreed among themselves never to sell their salt below $2.00 per bushel – legal, in the days before the Sherman Antitrust Act. It worked, and the Boom continued through the 1830s.
Of course, Mother Nature doesn’t always take kindly to the changes Man’s endeavors impose on the land. By 1830, proliferation of wells had caused the minimum depth at which adequate concentrations of saline could be struck to drop more than 200 feet, and many a producer went out of business when his well failed. Exacerbated by poor engineering decisions made in construction of the Pennsylvania Canal, the river flooded disastrously in 1828 and 1832, bankrupting Andrew Boggs and several others. The Boom continued even so, reaching its peak between 1838 and 1840.
But it was history that finally closed the book on the salt industry of Indiana County. Westward expansion of the United States brought the discovery of mineable salt in Michigan, Kentucky and Louisiana. These sources were easier and cheaper to exploit, and were more productive than our saltwater aquifers. Steady decline after 1840, relieved only briefly when the Civil War cut off access to southern mines, left just two producers by 1870.
Yet despite its brevity, the Salt Boom’s long-term effect on our county’s economy was broad and positive. Our coal-mining industry owes its start to salt: the Works were the single greatest consumer of coal in southwest Pennsylvania before the 1840s, increasing local production by more than three thousand percent between 1814 and 1838. It drove demand for iron and wood products, attracted immigration from pre-famine Ireland and was one of the main reasons for the expansion of Pennsylvania’s road and canal systems. You might say that salt gave Indiana County . . . well, “the Works”!
Under the bare headline Local Items, a birth announcement of sorts appeared in the Indiana Democrat on December 4th, 1879:
“A select literary circle is being organized in Indiana.”
Unremarkable among 53 other one-liners, the note gave no name nor even the date of birth. Who could have guessed the newborn would grow up to be a supercentenarian honored as “the oldest social and literary organization in Indiana County”?
Notwithstanding its little-noted beginning, the Amateur Social Club (as it was first christened) had as its parents “the choice and master spirits of the age,” as Shakespeare might say. It was conceived by Josias Young, Chairman of Indiana Normal School’s language department, and its first complement of members included the likes of State Supreme Court Justice Silas Clark, Civil War General Harry White, Congressman Summers Jack and the grandparents of future actor Jimmy Stewart (see photo). And while its purpose was the social integration of incoming Normal School faculty and their spouses, Professor Young’s choice of Shakespeare studies as the means to that end may have been prompted by a performance of Othello put on here by Pittsburgh’s Shakespeare Club the week before.
In any case, Professor Young and twelve others became charter members when that group met at photographer Bela Tiffany’s home on November 27th; thirteen more men and women were invited to become members the following day at the Club’s first formal meeting. That number – thirteen married couples – remained the standard complement until it was increased to sixteen couples in the 1990s.
Membership was recruited from the academic, professional and commercial sectors of Indiana society, by invitation of existing members. The seemingly narrow “couples only” tradition was in fact a progressive provision ensuring gender-balanced point of view on the varied and sometimes controversial topics to be addressed. Spouses sat separately to encourage independent thought, and seating arrangements changed from meeting to meeting to avoid formation of cliques.
With the exception of Christmas week, meetings were held Friday evenings during the academic year (September-April) in members’ homes or at the Tea Room on special occasions. Hosts and topics were scheduled a year in advance and printed in the Kalendar, a booklet given to each member. After six years, the Club had gone through Shakespeare’s entire surviving folio, so they decided to pursue instead the popular Chautauqua course of morally-based adult education. Many members “found it too much labor,” so when the course was completed in 1889, the Club stopped meeting. But old members decided ambition should be made of sterner stuff; the Indiana Shakespeare Club reconvened in 1890, and has continued with remarkably few changes down to the present.
Tradition and stability have promoted the Club’s longevity. There have been just eight presidents since its formation, from the redoubtable John Sutton (served 1879-1942) to second-generation member John Barbor. Even little things contribute; chocolate and ice water have been served at the end of each program since the beginning, a holdover from when both commodities were expensive rarities. And the Shakespearean tradition that the show must go on is upheld by the priority given meeting-attendance: the week of 9/11, members sang the National Anthem and headed to the Apple Theater in Delmont as scheduled. Only World War II was allowed to interrupt, with just nine meetings held during those 45 months.
Some things have changed. Perhaps due to the acceleration of life’s pace over the last century, meetings have gone from weekly or biweekly to monthly. Men and women no longer retire to separate rooms to socialize after meetings adjourn. And the Shakespeare Club has had five different names since its inception as the Amateur Social Club, including 1884’s Hyperion Shakespeare Club, a probable reference to the “quest for enlightenment” described in John Keats’ The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream. But, what’s in a name . . .?
Examining the Kalendar of a particular year in its life gives us a good idea of the Club’s character and interests. The booklet for the 1914-15 season is titled “The World’s Mine Oyster” on the cover and closes with the Club Toast, a parody of the song Maryland: “(W)ith cult of knowledge, love and mirth….” Every page leads off with a quote from Shakespeare, Byron, Goethe, or the like. Each week’s topic fits within the theme for that year – itself derived from current events – and is presented in a Shakespearean context when possible. History, travel, science and civics are mainstays. Some examples from that year’s Kalendar:
Count Zeppelin and his Inventions
Edison and his Achievements
Kaiser Wilhelm as Man and Father
Women in the Politics of 1915
Shakespeare and Democracy
A View of Socialism
The Shakespeare Tourist in Belgium, Serbia and Germany
The American Melting Pot
As you can see, the war in Europe and a comparison of America’s perspective with the combatants’ was that year’s theme. Each host had months to prepare, and guest speakers with relevant experience or knowledge could be added at the last moment. “Magic lantern” travelogues were a Club favorite.
At present as in past, one or more field trips may be made during the year. Most are to theatrical or concert venues within a day’s travel, but in recent years the Club has even shown up at Pirates baseball games! Perhaps the most memorable trip was in 1959, when the group traveled in a special Pennsylvania Railroad car to New York City. There they attended a United Nations session and were given a guided tour of that institution by Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold’s executive assistant . . . who just happened to be club-member Ralph Cordier’s brother.
The Indiana Shakespeare Club was founded with the original intent of community integration and liaison, and that function is not absent today. Members are drawn from every segment of society, and friendships forged between members tend to be lifelong and resemble family ties. There is even an organizational sibling of sorts; the Ingleside Club, likewise founded in the 19th century, has many a literary interest in common with the Bard’s brood, and the two sometimes host each other’s meetings.
And so it goes. Ah, but you ask how long the light of our Shakespeare Club will shine? Ask not, for in Indiana County as in Stratford-upon-Avon, ignorance is the only darkness. Say rather: How far that little candle throws its beams!
(How many hidden Shakespeare quotes canst thou find in this script?)
Did your parents call the family fridge an “icebox” when you were growing up? If you’re a Baby Boomer, they probably did, because it really was one back when they were kids. Their generation was the last to use iceboxes, and the last to know firsthand the people and processes that supplied the ice inside.
Humans have preserved their food with ice for thousands of years, but the harvesting, storage and distribution of natural ice reached its historical peak right here in the eastern United States during the 19th century. Democracy, geography, and industry gave birth to the new “Ice Age.” Ice in summer had been reserved for aristocracy since ancient times, but the American Revolution democratized its use and thus increased demand. Our north Atlantic seaboard had the right climate to produce harvestable ice in quantity, and the ports to ship it from. As for industry; well, we were that century’s keenest entrepreneurs: if there was a high demand for something, American traders would find a way to supply it.
The ice trade actually began as an export business, since most early 19th century Americans lived in rural areas where they could harvest their own ice. Boston’s Frederic Tudor first shipped ice to the Caribbean in 1806, and by 1840 had ice houses around the world. But the biggest consumers of all were America’s two largest (and hottest) cities: New York, which used more ice than most countries, and Philadelphia, which had the highest per-capita consumption of ice on the planet. Domestic ice sales overtook exports after the Civil War, and our expanding railroad network allowed long-distance transport of meat, produce and dairy products for the first time thanks to ice-cooled refrigerator cars.
By 1870, most Americans had stopped harvesting ice for themselves, happy to let commercial suppliers relieve them of the task. But in more remote areas like Indiana County, many farmsteads, butchers and hotels had their own ice pond and ice house. Making ice cream, brewing beer, and drinking ice water were now possible year-round. Not everyone approved; the Indiana Democrat equated drinking ice water with drug use and implied that those who indulged in it were bound for “a clime where ice water is not used” after death.
There was social status in ice as well. Serving ice-cooled drinks to summer guests meant you were a “somebody,” so upper-class folk built ice houses behind their homes, and social columns noted who had filled them in the past week. The icewater-and-chocolate tradition still observed by Indiana’s Shakespeare Club was born of that practice.
Where did the rest of us get our ice? Depends. Those living in rural townships or small boroughs could help fill the community ice house with each winter’s harvest and tap it in summer. Citizens of larger boroughs bought ice from the butcher, grocer or fishmonger until ice supply houses sprang up in the 1870s. Then in the summer of 1875 came the Indiana debut of an American classic: the ice wagon!
Ice came daily to our homes in Blairsville and Indiana. Deliveries were not suspended on Sundays – the icemen were exempt from Blue Law strictures because ice preserved food and therefore life. It sold at 35 cents for 100 pounds in 1880. Horses drew their brightly-colored wagons through the streets each morning from April through October, rain or shine; one or two men hefted blocks of up to five cubic feet with giant ice tongs and brought them in to our iceboxes. And though it was illegal and the subject of many a parental lecture, hitching one’s bike or velocipede to the back of the ice wagon as it passed was a favorite childhood sport. There’s a little Marty McFly in all of us, eh?
Demand increased here until, by 1887, there were at least five ice merchants in Indiana and three in Blairsville. Ours was cheaper than ice sold in Philadelphia, where the Knickerbocker monopoly imported it from Maine after local harvests couldn’t keep up with demand. (It was healthier, too – most major rivers were polluted!) No figures exist for our county’s per-capita consumption, but it never matched the average Philadelphian’s 1400 pounds per year.
So, how was it harvested? At first we used tools of the carpenter, stonemason and lumberjack, but purpose-designed equipment was available by mid-century. The Wyeth horse-drawn ice cutter allowed fast, high-volume harvesting, but not all of our lakes and licks froze deep enough to support its weight, so much of the harvesting here was done manually. A depth of 8 to 12 inches was typical, and some years brought up to 18 inches. Harvest usually began in January and continued into March, when gorges – ice jams that blocked and flooded waterways – put an end to the season. Here’s a description from the 1892 Indiana Progress:
“The first process is (to use) a scraper which removes snow, rough ice and other substances. Next is to mark out blocks…. Then the ice plow is brought. (It) resembles a saw with large teeth, is drawn by a horse and is guided by the marked lines. The ice is plowed within four inches of its depth, (leaving) enough to bear the workmen’s weight . Large cakes are then sawed off by hand and floated through canals kept open, guided by men with steel bars.”
Our supply was more than equal to the demand. We harvested waterways from Mahoning Creek to the Conemaugh, but the most productive sources were excavated “ice ponds.” The biggest of them was created by the Pennsylvania Railroad at Black Lick in 1870. It yielded 241 boxcars of ice that first winter, most of which went to Pittsburgh (Blairsville and New Florence got the rest). There were even three ice ponds within Indiana borough itself; of these, the hands-down favorite was Gessler’s.
Carl Gessler prided himself on being “Indiana’s Original Ice Merchant.” His ice house, ice pond, and ice wagon were each the borough’s first. Gessler’s Ice House on Chestnut Street, where he also sold ice cream and other confections, was served by its adjacent ice pond starting 1879. The pond was Indiana’s favorite skating venue between winter cuttings and was stocked with fish in summer.
But history was catching up with the ice pond. Ice famines caused by warm winters and increasing demand in the 1890s brought an alternative source to the fore. Production of artificial ice had been possible for decades, but the technology was unreliable and cost-prohibitive. Improved techniques made “plant ice” practical and profitable, and by century’s end it accounted for almost half of US ice production. Carl Gessler and the PRR both abandoned their ponds in 1903 when they switched to plant ice. Even so, natural ice wasn’t frozen out of the market just yet; the progress of each year’s ice harvest was followed by our county’s newspapers through 1936.
The fate of home-delivered ice (and the icebox) was sealed when domestic refrigerators were introduced after World War I. Not much of a threat to Jack Frost at first, they cost more than a car and were harder to maintain. But price and compactness had improved enough by 1930 that we bought more refrigerators than iceboxes that year. And for those of us who still couldn’t afford one, there was even a conversion kit that turned our icebox into a Frigidaire!
Pennsylvania’s last ice wagon horse died in 1936, and “retired” wagons were used as mock tanks for training during WWII. When the final icebox maker closed in 1953, the “Ice Age” was over.
If you’re ever out by Aging Services in Indiana, walk around the block. There where the tracks cross Chestnut between 10th and Edgewood you’ll find it, the last trace of our “Ice Age:” some gravel-mounds and a bulldozer or two in a field that was once Gessler’s Ice Pond.
There’s an old adage that says a frog dropped in boiling water will hop right out, but he’ll stay there till he’s cooked if the water’s heated slowly enough. We humans can be that way about threats to our freedom, and Pennsylvanians are no exception. We proudly shed our blood in the War to End Slavery, yet just six weeks before we won, our legislature authorized the next great threat to freedom – and almost no one objected.
Not many realized it was a threat at the time. The need seemed genuine, and the solution obvious: train-bandits were better armed and organized than law enforcement in many Pennsylvania counties, so railroads asked for the right to create their own police units. It seemed like a practical idea, so Act 228, An Act Empowering Railroad Companies to Employ Police Force, was passed in April 1865.
Rail police were to “possess and exercise all the powers of policemen in the city of Philadelphia.” Their authority extended not only to company property but throughout the county(s) in which they were commissioned. A year later, the Act was amended to include two other giants of the Industrial Age: “all corporations, firms or individuals . . . in possession of any colliery, furnace or rolling mill within this Commonwealth.” Badges were now to read “Coal and Iron Police” and show the company name. And just what did it take to become a Coal and Iron Police officer? The governor’s signature on a single-page application from the company, an oath and a badge. No training, no background check, no security bond . . . and no accountability. Answering only to his employer, each man was essentially a law unto himself.
Almost from the start, coalfield “C&Is” were used primarily as strikebreakers, economic enforcers and agents of social control in company towns. They performed evictions and collected debts, kept up surveillance and shut down public gatherings, and above all prevented infiltration by union organizers. They were not without legitimate functions; many a murderer and thief was brought to justice by Coal and Iron Police, and the very lack of accountability that made C&Is such a threat to freedom gave would-be criminals reason to reconsider. Though the Act stipulated that anyone arrested be “dealt with according to law,” in practice they were as likely to be beaten as brought to trial.
Accidents of geology and geography spared Indiana County some of the worst abuses. We sit on the edge of three high, medium and low-volatile bituminous deposits; since coal companies tended to concentrate on a single type, no monopoly like those in Allegheny and Schuylkill counties controlled our land and people. Lucky, too, that our miners weren’t recruited from the counties in Ireland where Molly Maguires were found. In the 1870s, that underground society reacted to coal company abuses in eastern Pennsylvania with arson and murder, and the Coal and Iron Police responded in kind.
The relative peace here was reflected in our newspapers. Coal and Iron Police were mentioned just three times in their first twenty years, and even then it was for their actions elsewhere in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. But in 1894 the lid came off.
It happened as part of the biggest coal strike America had seen to date. When Glen Campbell strikers threatened their non-union replacements, our County Recorder swore in sixty new Coal and Iron Police officers for the Berwind-White coal company. “Foreigners” (as newspapers called immigrant miners) and “Cossacks” (as miners called C&Is) seemed eager to trade shots, and the latter had shoot-to-kill orders should gunfire erupt. Why didn’t it? Curiously, that credit goes to Jefferson County’s strikers. They’d already become violent, so Governor Pattison sent in the National Guard. One thousand uniformed men marched through Glen Campbell on their way to Walston, and trigger-fingers suddenly stopped itching . . . a close call.
Coal consumption was breaking records every year as the 20th century approached, and mine employment rose to meet it. So did labor activism and the C&Is’ increasingly brutal response. That the creation of the Coal and Iron Police had been a mistake was by now obvious to almost everyone – even other states’ producers! An 1898 edition of The Coal and Trade Journal noted that “Pennsylvania has an institution peculiar to itself . . . a private standing army of irresponsible myrmidons apparently authorized by the laws of that state.”
The first small changes to that army were set in motion by the Anthracite Strike of 1902. When both sides refused even federally-mediated settlement for almost six months, America ran out of home heating coal; with winter approaching, President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to nationalize the mines and replace strikers with soldiers. The UMWA and Operators’ Association immediately split the difference and resumed production. As part of the deal, a presidential commission investigated the strike’s root causes. Among their recommendations was “discontinuance of the system of Coal and Iron Police . . . and resort to regularly constituted peace authorities in cases of necessity.”
Though the first part of that recommendation would not soon be acted upon, Governor Pennypacker agreed to limit previously open-ended commissions to three years, and in 1905 signed a bill creating Pennsylvania’s State Police. Troop D’s location in the heart of our medium-volatile bituminous region was no accident. The writing was on the wall.
Still, assaults kept increasing as coal production peaked. More than 170 stories about C&Is appeared in Indiana County papers from 1910 to 1930 compared to those three in the first twenty years. Yet even in places like Ernest and Creekside where “Cossacks” were ubiquitous, this county continued to see less labor violence than most.
During his first term in office, Governor Gifford Pinchot asked State Police to review all existing C&I commissions. Their 1923 probe found cause to recommend that some 4,000 of them – the majority – be revoked, and the governor obliged. He further announced that each future applicant must prove US citizenship and Pennsylvania residence, provide character references and employment history, and post a $2,000 bond. Problem solved, right? Well . . . not quite.
A 1928 US Senate Report on events here in the bituminous field was not well received in Harrisburg. Its 3,400 pages detailing Coal and Iron Police beatings, warrantless searches and property seizures “endangered the peace of the Commonwealth,” said Governor John S. Fisher. He claimed to mistrust the C&Is but thought that to eliminate them altogether was folly. A single death the following year made it all academic.
In 1929, officers of the Pittsburgh Coal Company’s police force responded to a miner’s drunken rampage by beating and torturing and finally killing him. All three were acquitted of John Borkovski’s murder; when retried, two of the three C&Is were convicted of involuntary manslaughter, but not before public outrage had spawned two bills further restricting the Coal and Iron Police. Governor Fisher’s choice to sign the weaker Mansfield Bill and veto the stronger Musmanno Bill contributed to his defeat in the next election. Gifford Pinchot was returned to office in 1931.
Making good on his campaign promise to abolish the Coal and Iron Police (announced at Indiana County Courthouse!), Pinchot turned Act 228 against itself. Its 1866 amendment said “the governor shall have the power to decline to make any such appointment . . . and at any time to revoke the commission of any policeman appointed hereunder.” He did just that, to all of them. At midnight on June 30, 1931, Pennsylvania’s Coal and Iron Police ceased to exist.
Some C&Is found employment as “real” police. Jack Stroble of the Keystone Coal unit served briefly as Indiana’s Police Chief in the 1930s. And in a final irony, Homer City’s policemen are nowadays represented by United Mine Workers of America!
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!
The Antislavery Movement in some respects put Indiana County on the map, and made it a safe haven for runaway slaves. The first formally organized antislavery society came into existence sometime around 1837. Antislavery supporters included Reverend David Blair, Joseph Campbell, Samuel Henry Thompson, and Dr. Robert Mitchell. Aside from the County society, there were also local antislavery societies including one in Center Township to which membership was open to “any person not being a slaveholder and consenting to the principles of this constitution.”
To be fair, there were some proslavery advocates in Indiana County as well. The most prominent being David Ralston, who even as late as 1862 maintained his view by publishing “A Bible View of Slavery,” in which he defended slavery on a basis of Bible arguments.
Because of the majority in favor of Anti-Slavery, Indiana County became a safe-haven for slaves attempting to flee their owners. Take for example the three young men who made their way to Indiana County from Virginia in April of 1845. They were aided by a small band of anti-slavery leaders who were businessmen from Indiana and Blairsville. They hid and fed the boys for two months.
Hollingsworth was sheltered and employed by James Simpson, to help on his farm. In June, one of the boys, 12-year-old Anthony Hollingsworth, was captured, bound to a horse and taken to the old Indiana House Hotel, which was operated by David Ralston, who had strong proslavery views and was also sheriff of the county. It was at the Hotel that he awaited his return to slavery in Virginia under his master, Garrett Van Metre.
Being a small town, word traveled quickly through Indiana, especially among the anti-slavery activists, and an angry mob surrounded the hotel, threatening to burn the men out to free the young boy.
Dr. Mitchell calmed the crowd, in part by promising them that Hollingsworth would be protected by the law. William Banks, a lawyer, was to present a writ of habeas corpus the following morning.
In the morning, Judge Thomas White, another anti-slavery activist, took to the bench to hear the case. A steady stream of people came through the doors. In front of Judge White sat Anthony Hollingsworth, in the custody of the sheriff, and Van Metre with his friends, on one side. On the other sat William Banks and Dr. Mitchell flanked by their co-antislavery members. Judge White carefully reviewing the case, he granted the petition, ordering Anthony Hollingsworth freed. After this ruling a great roar came over the crowded courtroom.
This was not the first interaction between Van Metre and Mitchell. Mitchell was sued for harboring a fugitive slave named Jared Harris. This case was tried in the United States circuit court at Pittsburgh before Judge Grier. Judge Grier was a strong proslavery man, as could be seen in his charge to the jury. Dr. Mitchell was convicted, and a part of the pine forest, near present day Diamondville, in which the slaves found shelter, was sold at sheriff’s sale to defray the cost of the $10,000 suit.
*Van Metre v. Mitchell, 28 F. Cas. 1036 (Cir. Ct. W.D.PA 1853).
On May 1, 2016 eighteen ladies enjoyed a Victorian style tea. There was an assortment of teas, pastries and a program about women’s fashion in the 19th century by Katie Gaudreau. If you missed this event be sure to watch our social media accounts as there will be plenty more events to attend so you can learn more about the history and culture of Indiana County. A special thanks goes out to Flower Boutique for supply the centerpieces for the table.
Flowers provided by Flower Boutique
Katie Gaudreau giving her presentation on 19th Century women’s fashion