When we think of the Industrial Revolution, big-city images usually come to mind: belching smokestacks, grimy streets and tenements bursting with captive workers who never see the sun. But on the farms where most 19th century Americans lived, that Revolution wore a different face and had a decidedly different effect. Here in Indiana County, nothing embodied that difference better than the Reaper Trials of 1869.
The mechanization of American agriculture hadn’t begun in earnest until just before the Civil War. Devices like the reaper and thresher had been invented decades earlier, but farmers were a conservative lot who looked upon them as unnecessary at best. The price for their reluctance was severe. Plowing, planting and harvesting were labor-intensive and mind-numbingly repetitive; scythe-swinging reapers especially were virtual “slaves of the season.” Yet once accepted, farming technology actually freed an entire class of Pennsylvanians from the very bondage the Industrial Revolution had imposed on workers in other industries.
Why did our farmers finally accept the mechanical reaper? Ads and travelling salesmen had little effect. But in 1857, the United States Agricultural Society held its first “Great National Field Trial of Reapers and Mowers” in upstate New York, where a thousand farmers watched forty different reapers go head-to-head. It was a success, so local Societies held smaller versions across America after the war. Pennsylvania’s trials were held at the new Experimental Farms in Chester, Centre and Indiana counties. Ours came first, in July 1869.
The Western Experimental Farm had only been in existence for a year. In 1868, the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania had provided funds to purchase land totaling 120 acres for its creation. The grounds were located just outside Indiana, where Fisher Auditorium and the IUP Parking Garage stand today. It was an ideal venue for the Trials.
Eight plots of wheat were planted there that spring. Eight manufacturers were invited, and arrangements were made for reapers arriving by rail to be offloaded directly onto the Farm. The Trials Committee published an “open invitation to all interested parties” in county papers; judges were selected from across Pennsylvania, and Harry White (whose efforts had landed the Experimental Farm for our county) was tapped to give the opening address. The stage was set.
One by one, the out-of-town agents arrived and checked in at Indiana House – nice digs for a salesman! Morning on the 14th found them assembled at the Experimental Farm with the contest judges and two hundred farmers from across the county. Each machine was assigned one of the plots of wheat, and lots were drawn to determine starting order….
First up was the two-horse Kirby from New York. A right-handed cutter like most of them, it impressed the judges by turning in the fastest time despite having the narrowest cutter. “This machine, by its smooth cut and ease of draught…operated in tangled grain admirably.” Onlooking farmers were likewise impressed. An eighth of an acre in 15 ½ minutes? Unheard of, even with a six-man team!
On its heels came the only PA-manufactured reaper in the bunch. The four-horse Hoffheim had just two in harness that day, to prove it could be done. Though praised for keeping the standing and falling wheat separate, it “required the driver’s personal attention with a stick to keep the grain out of the gears.” Next!
All but one of the remaining machines were from Ohio, starting with the Buckeye. Best-known of the eight, it was sold in Indiana by A.M. Stewart’s Big Ware House. This one surprised the crowd by working better in the intentionally-tangled half of its plot than in the freestanding half. The World and Excelsior reapers followed; the former was cited for its compactness and low torque, while the latter “did not seem tobein working order, and the committeewasnotsatisfied….”
About that time it began to rain. Committee members, factory reps and reporters (but alas, no farmers) were treated to lunch and “many a toast” at Indiana House until the sky cleared and trials resumed.
Next up was the Hubbard. Despite its back-of-the-pack 29 minute time, it was “judged satisfactory by the committee” given the field’s sodden state. Finally there came the Aetna, which fell victim to its manufacturer’s charitable impulse/marketing strategy. It had been donated to the Experimental Farm back in June, with the resulting publicity one-upping a flood of ads by the other seven. But it was shipped in sections and only reassembled when Aetna’s traveling agent passed through on the day before the Trials; he set the adjustable speed too high to handle wet grain, so it “cut fair but deposited sheaves irregularly” while turning in the second-fastest time. The best-laid plans, eh?
If you’re keeping count, that’s just seven entries. The Wood, a combination reaper/mower like the rest, was withdrawn and entered only in the next day’s mower trials. The Reaper Trial results were written up and distributed, with each entry rated on criteria like adjustability, clean work, draught (torque) and speed of operation. Rather than announcing a winner, the Agricultural Society chose to let guests come to their own conclusion – a good idea in hindsight, since an allegation of undue influence was leveled against one of the manufacturers the following week.
Several newspapers outside Indiana County covered the Trials, but our own were of two different minds on the event’s importance. Perhaps because grain farming was most common in our southern townships, Blairsville’s Press devoted 1200 words to the technical stats and performance of each machine, then followed that up with the full text of General White’s speech on the history of the Experimental Farms. But Indiana’s Weekly Messenger simply copied a Pittsburgh paper’s synopsis, saying “it saved us the trouble of writing up the affair ourselves.”
So, did our Trials accomplish their mission of persuasion? A month later, the Press noted “Our farmers are showing their enterprise by buying labor-saving machinery, including a large number of Reapers and Mowers,” and the fifty mechanical reapers in our county before the trials grew to eight hundred by 1879. “Slaves of the season” no more, even immigrant Scots farmers abandoned their suspicion of the inneal buain.
It was a time of wonders. In the 20 years starting 1876, our world was transformed by a flood of inventions more amazing than anything since the printing press: the electric light, automobile, radio, phonograph, motion pictures. . . even the first fax or “telautograph.” But the one that changed us most and most quickly was the telephone.
We didn’t know what to make of it at first. “An apparatus has been invented by which tunes can be played by telegraph. It is called the telephone,” noted the Progress. But we caught on fast! By 1878, phone lines had been strung between several Indiana County businesses and their owners’ homes. Wires were so numerous in Indiana, Blairsville, Saltsburg and Blacklick that local papers predicted we’d soon create “a complete net–work of cord” above the county. And we weren’t alone: from just one in 1876, the number of American telephones exploded to 156,000 by 1881.
So how did folks here get a phone in those early days? You could rent them from a phone company, but we didn’t have one yet; you could build them yourself like J.M. McIntire of Jacksonville, but few knew how. The rest of us had to order them by mail at up to $100 a pair – big money back then, so only the well-to-do could afford them at first. Getting a phone was an event worthy of mention in the social columns.
The decade between our first phone and first phone company was a sort of Wild West time. Some folks bothered to secure right-of-way where their phone lines crossed others’ property, and some didn’t; more than one farmer cut down intruders’ lines, and Blairsville even had a pole vigilante. Few lightning arresters were installed, so there were injuries and at least one death by electrocution. And rumor had it that typhoid and smallpox could spread via phone line. “Communicable disease” indeed!
Being a mostly rural area, we didn’t catch the attention of the industry’s giant right away, so our first companies were local. The Indiana Telephone Company was formed in 1887, and Greenville’s followed a year later. In all, eight independents were formed here over the years, with the Indiana, Blairsville and Farmers’ companies providing most of the service. Then the Central District Printing and Telegraph Company came to town. . . .
CDPT was a Bell Telephone subsidiary. Like Standard Oil, Bell was a classic 19th century monopoly bent on being the only game in town – in every town – and its trump card was long distance. Did you want to call Pittsburgh or Portland or Parma? That took connection to a cross-country line, and Bell owned ‘em all. Indiana granted CDPT a franchise in 1892 on condition that they also open an exchange that year. Instead, a single phone with an on-site operator was opened to the public; if you wanted to make a long distance call, you had to do so there. Why? CDPT refused to make connections for people calling from a non-Bell phone, and we didn’t have any yet.
The tactic worked, as it had worked elsewhere. Local demand for long distance increased until, by year-end, Indiana Telephone agreed to replace customers’ rented phones with Bell units and allow CDPT’s long distance switchboard to be installed in their office. But ITC changed to Keystone brand phones when they built our county’s first exchange in 1895, so CDPT took its switchboard elsewhere. Its request to build a competing exchange was denied by the borough council, which ruled that the company’s failure to build one in 1892 had voided the contract. CDPT continued here as a long-distance-only service . . . for the moment.
The new exchange’s effect was revolutionary. Before, you had to have a line between your phone and each phone you called; now, a single line connecting you to the exchange let you speak with any other subscriber. Rates were cheaper as well, with the new phones renting for half what a Bell unit had cost. Yet even thus democratized, the telephone was not yet common. Only 19 of ITC’s 45 original subscribers were individuals; the rest were commercial, professional and government entities. And who had phone #1? Pharmacist J.R. Stumpf, owner of Indiana’s first automobile.
The telephone influenced every part of our lives. “Hello” became a verb meaning “to call,” and directories were called “Hello Books.” Indiana County election results were tallied by phone starting 1895, allowing certification in hours instead of days. Pennsylvania’s Blue Law was amended to prohibit Sunday phone use except in medical emergencies, and many a life was saved when phones were installed in the mines.
The Farmers’ Telephone Company of Indiana, Armstrong and Jefferson Counties (Farmers’ for short) was the second largest of our independents. Each of the cooperative’s members owned his own phone and provided his own poles, while wires and switchboards were purchased collectively. Rejecting merger offers from other independents ultimately helped them stand against the Bell monopoly for 58 years after their 1902 founding.
Indiana Telephone prospered too as the new century dawned. Like any 14-year-old, it was bursting its seams! So in 1904, the company moved into its newly-constructed home on Carpenter Avenue at Gompers. Operators, all women, worked the central switchboard on the first floor. Night shift “centrals” could even relax in the adjoining room’s armchair or bed while waiting for calls. The brick building, now student housing, continued as an exchange into the 1990s.
Alas, prosperity was no shield against a determined monopoly. With Pennsylvania phone companies being absorbed by Bell at an alarming rate, several Indiana County independents entered into a series of defensive mergers starting 1905. Indiana Telephone became a part of the Huntingdon & Clearfield Telephone Company, which was itself combined with American Union two years later. When that statewide entity failed in 1913 (with a little help from Bell, rumor had it), Indiana Telephone bought back its properties and resumed the name Huntingdon & Clearfield. Still with me? Okay….
By this point, most of our newspapers agreed with Mark Twain’s statement that the telephone was “the most useful of inventions, rendered almost worthless by the companies of chartered robbers who conduct it for us.” The events of the next decade only confirmed their opinion. Under pressure, Huntingdon & Clearfield abandoned its Saltsburg franchise in 1920. Bell took control of Blairsville Telephone in early 1927 and bought H&C (Indiana Telephone – remember?) later that year. Tiny Elders Ridge Telephone and Dilltown & Buffington held out until after WWII. Farmers’, the last one standing, was harvested in 1960.
In the meantime, service technology had evolved independently of who-bought-whom. Most of us chose low-cost party lines during the Depression; the War Production Board banned new individual lines “for the duration” after Pearl Harbor, and post-war, Pennsylvania Bell installed only party lines until facilities construction caught up with demand in 1953. Dial-tone service began in ‘51 – no more “Number, please” – and direct dial long distance followed in ‘68. High-tech stuff, huh?
Don’t laugh. Generations hence, folks will wonder how we in 2020 got by with just a smartphone (whatever that was). But a few will look back and say: “It was a time of wonders.”
Let’s face it: we history buffs are spoiled. Sitting here in the present, we have the luxury of browsing through heroic successes and happy endings, a habit obliged by four centuries of positive Pennsylvania history. But is it really those outcomes that we savor, or is it the character of the players – their vision, faith and ingenuity, win or lose? Surely the latter. So come with me back to Indiana County at the close of the Guilded Age for a tale of dreamers and what might have been. . . .
Marion Center’s Independent broke the news in August 1892, a coup for that town’s tiny paper. Unnamed backers were proposing a 28-mile link between Indiana and Punxsutawney, in a corridor which had no train service at the time. But that wasn’t the half of it: it was to be the first long-distance electric railroad in the United States! America’s first electric trolley had debuted four years earlier in Virginia, and contiguous towns like Altoona and Hollidaysburg had been connected by electric “street railways” since 1891, but. . . cross-country? Unheard of!
There were four challenges facing such a project from the start: technology, geography, economy and monopoly. Then-standard DC power had to be resupplied at intervals along a line to compensate for losses during transmission, and this limited a railroad’s length outside urban power grids. We’d have to build a generator mid-way at, say, Marion Center. Geography ran a close second, since electric locomotives couldn’t handle grades steeper than 6%. Ever driven between Indiana and Punxsy? As for economics, well, remember that public works were often private works in those days, so funding for things like mass transit came not from tax dollars but from venture capital. Six figures worth of it, in this case, which meant a lot of fundraising. Finally, monopoly: traditional railroad companies did not take kindly to such competition, and they weren’t known for playing fair.
There were critics, of course, but we didn’t flinch. As the Reynoldsville Star observed, “There are always those who make light of a matter and think it an impossibility, yet these very fellows are ever ready to enjoy the blessings of prosperity that result from the enterprise of energeticcitizens.” And isn’t that the difference between a critic and a dreamer? So the backers, still anonymous, went to work.
General Electric’s chief engineer arrived in early autumn and surveyed each of several possible paths. “There are two very desirable routes which we would not have difficulty utilizing,” he told the Gazette after his inspection. “Of course, the future depends on the reports of a civil engineer.” He returned with just such a fellow a few weeks later. Pittsburgh’s S.L. Tone concluded that “The grades are not so heavy that they cannot be overcome, (and) it can be done with much less work than first supposed.” Ultimately, the route recommended was: Indiana > Kellysburg > Marion Center > Rochester Mills > Covode > Horatio > Punxsutawney.
So much for technology and geography. How ‘bout economy?
That was a different matter. Though low operating costs ensured a reliable profit for investors once the line was up and running, estimates of construction cost rose by 25 then 50 then 75 percent as the autumn weeks passed. Potential investors started wavering. Time to bring out the big guns! The chief of those previously-anonymous backers stepped forward. It was none other than Judge Harry White.
The idea had come to him in Beaver, of all places. On his way there the year before, Judge White had gotten off at the wrong train station; he was transferred to Beaver Valley’s electric line for the final leg, by the end of which he’d conceived the Indiana-to-Punxsutawney project. “With the proper energy, effort and support of our counties’ people,” he told the Gazette. “I am sanguine of success. I think it would be possible and politic to have at least half of the stock subscribed by citizens and farmers along the route. If that is done, I know where the rest of the money can be secured.”
That was enough to calm the jitters. Would-be investors and every newspaper along the route resumed their enthusiasm for what was dubbed the Electric Express. Articles peppered with White-isms (like the archaic use of “sanguine” to mean “confident”) appeared almost daily, touting the advantages to citizens and urging farmers to grant free right-of-way. The Messenger even printed a schedule showing that one could travel from Punxsutawney to Pittsburgh via Indiana, go shopping and return before 9:00 PM, a day-trip not possible on existing lines. Yes, that November was truly the project’s Indian(a) Summer. . .
But winter wouldn’t be denied. Something must have put another chill on the project, for a spate of articles denying loss of momentum appeared in December and January: interest was “not on the wane” and “onlysleeping.” This time the rallying-cries even went national, with a stories appearing in The Electrical Engineer and Electrical Age. Ironically, the latter’s claim that the company had already been formed was the last time our chimera would be mentioned in print until 1896, save for a postmortem that spring. The paper that first broke the story now had the last word: “We wonder if the electric railroad through this place is slumbering so soundly that it cannot be awakened,” mused the Independent.
So just what pulled the plug on the Electric Express? No one knows. Perhaps the investors Judge White spoke of backed out, or the $250 blocks of stock that were to have been offered to “citizens and farmers along the route” proved too expensive for most. Then again, the combine that included Jefferson County’s Low Grade Railroad may have found a way to ensure that the switch would never be thrown. Yet it was all academic in the end, for the second worst depression in American history struck that February.
The Panic of 1893 virtually shut down commercial credit for three years; five hundred banks failed nationwide, dragging countless projects with them, while Coxey’s Army and the Bituminous Miners’ Strike made Pennsylvania ground zero. So in a way, whatever stopped our Electric Express did us a favor in the end, avoiding what may well have been the last straw for local banks, landowners and investors.
We dreamed of our Electric Express one last time in November 1896. With the Panic at last behind us, our papers again noted a push by unnamed backers and another survey, this time by engineers from Western Electric. Though the articles were positive (and again, similarly worded), they didn’t make the front page. Once burned, twice shy? That caution proved wise, for the Electric Express was never heard from again.
Or was it? The Indiana, Punxsutawney and Sagamore Street Railway Company was launched in 1907 when “trolley fever” swept America. Okay, so it wasn’t a real cross-country railroad with electric locomotives – we loved it while it lasted. Sometimes our children have to finish the dreams we start.
America has long prided itself in creating a classless society, one without bars to participation. We fought a Civil War to end slavery, amended our Constitution to ensure women’s suffrage and abolished the poll tax. But few recall that in those same days we also fought to include our country’s biggest group of outsiders, and that the uniformed heroes of that fight were the postal carriers of Rural Free Delivery.
Before the Civil War, all Americans picked up their mail at the post office. Home delivery in cities began in 1863 and in midsize towns by 1890. A letter could go from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia door-to-door, but . . . between farms in Indiana County? Nope. Both parties had to travel over miles of dirt roads to the nearest P.O. or hire a courier to do it for them. And forget about speed – it took less time for mail to get from Chicago to Boston than from Covode to Boltz. Rural Americans thus became second-class citizens who had to “pay to play.”
The obvious solution had surprisingly little support. Expansion of mail service into the countryside was championed by the Grange, a farmer’s fraternity that began lobbying Congress in 1870. Fearing financial disaster, politicians and the Post Office Department resisted for two decades. But legislation was finally passed, and in 1896, Pennsylvania became the third state to establish Rural Free Delivery.
It didn’t happen all at once. After experimental routes in Westmoreland County succeeded, applications were accepted from across the state. Preference was given to “small towns having thickly-settled farming communities about them in a radius of four miles;” petitions had to be sponsored by a congressman and signed by the heads of at least 60 households along the proposed route. The roads themselves had to pass inspection as being “in good condition – drained and graded, unobstructed by gates and without unbridged or unfordable streams.” Some 20% failed first inspection.
But even before a route’s approval, it had the effect of empowering the farmers it would serve. Congressmen realized that rural Americans were in the majority, which meant votes come election day. Representative Summers Jack became our tireless advocate, personally examining each proposed route ahead of inspectors and “wheeling and dealing” for road improvement funds. And our newspapers, eager for the potential boost in subscriptions, beat the editorial drum for rural delivery.
Our county’s first RFD debuted in September 1899. It looped out through White Township from Indiana and returned, serving 115 families spread out over 25 miles. Its first carrier was one James McKee. It took him and his wagon-horse Daisy six hours to finish the route in good weather. But rain or shine, snow or mud or flood, McKee made the trip six days a week from 1899 through 1931. A quarter-million miles without missing a day – now that’s dedication!
‘Course, you really had to be dedicated to be an RFD carrier. A bond was required, and it was forfeit if you missed a single day. And you’d never get rich on the $400 annual salary, which had to cover horse feed, wagon repair and blacksmith fees on top of your own living expenses. But carriers enjoyed high social standing in the community and were even considered a “good catch.”
And not all carriers were men! One hundred fifty of Pennsylvania’s earliest routes were “manned” by women. Anna Devers was our county’s first. She spearheaded the drive for approval of Blairsville’s second route in 1903, then served as its carrier for 13 years after testing highest of six applicants. Grace Barr, who made the rounds on Grant Township’s Route #3 by car in the 1920s, was said to be “so efficient and accommodating that a mere man was not considered” when several applied to replace her.
A rural carrier had to be something of an octopus as well. Their wagon was in effect a mobile post office, carrying stamps, envelopes and postcards for sale. They accepted cash for money orders to be mailed back at the P.O., and until 1910, farmers could leave coins in the mailbox to cover postage for outgoing letters. RFD wagons even displayed a set of signals communicating the Weather Bureau’s daily forecast, an invaluable service to farmers. (At one point, sixteen grateful Indiana County farmers made their carrier’s life easier by mounting all their boxes on a horizontally-rotating wagon wheel atop a post at the crossroads!)
Success breeds success. By 1903, each of the county’s larger boroughs had several routes serving their surrounding townships, and Star Routes – those hauling mail between post offices – added RFD service to homes along the way. In 1915, it was announced that Indiana County was so thoroughly covered that individual householders could petition for new routes directly. And our carriers’ reputation was such that Blairsville and Indiana were chosen to host the state Rural Letter Carriers conventions of 1911 and 1914. Their service could come at a price: many minor post offices like those in Crete and Clyde were closed, since their towns’ populations were small enough to be served by RFDs.
Solving the greatest challenge to rural delivery had the side-effect of boosting farmers’ inclusion once again. Our roads were, in a word, abysmal. Horses sank in spring mud and winter snow, and wagon-wheels broke in hardened summer ruts. The Gazette opined that “many routes may have to be abandoned” when inspectors returned, as had happened in Washington County. To the rescue came the Good Roads Movement, a coalition of local and national interests which secured passage of our state’s Sproul Road Act and the federal Rural Post Roads Act of 1916. Even the Great Depression contributed to the solution: Pennsylvania’s make-work Rural Roads Act appropriated 477 miles of Indiana County roads for pavement and extension as “Pinchot roads” in 1931.
The hard times of the 1930s and ‘40s brought out Americans’ adaptability, and postal employees were called upon to do their part. To avert layoffs and route eliminations, rural carriers were required to take unpaid furloughs totaling 11 days per year from 1932 to 1934, and the maintenance allowance for automobiles was eliminated. The uniformed troops of RFD showed their mettle again after Pearl Harbor, when carriers sold Defense Savings Stamps and accepted War Bond applications from customers. And like police and firemen, they were given priory for tires and gas by the county Rationing Board.
The world continued to change, and so did rural delivery. As far as can be told, faithful James McKee was our county’s last carrier to use a horse; by 1929, the year the highest percentage of Americans were served by RFDs, autos were in use on almost all Pennsylvania routes. As roads improved and America moved to the suburbs after WWII, route-lengths increased but the total number of rural households declined. Yet even today, only Texas has more carriers than the Keystone State. And it can truly be said that our farmers are second-class citizens no more.
Reading the history of Indiana County, you might get the impression that we’re a down-to-earth people not much given to flights of fancy. Truth is, we’ve had our head in the clouds for nearly 200 years . . . .
Pennsylvanians have been eager participants in “balloon mania” from the very start. Ben Franklin was present when the Montgolfier brothers launched their Aerostat in 1783; America’s first balloon launch, manned ascent and parachute drop were all made by Pennsylvanians, and only New Yorkers have held more airship patents.
Indiana County’s involvement probably began in 1837 when Richard Clayton’s Star of the West, on its 13th flight from Pittsburgh, was forced down on the bank of the Conemaugh River near Boltz. Its sudden appearance from a storm cloud delighted passengers on a canal boat, while some on shore thought it was a demon and prayed for deliverance. By mid-century we’d grown more accustomed to them. At the Indiana County Fair of 1858, Luther Martin of Blairsville “sent off a balloon which ascended to a great height and sailed out of sight.” Fifteen years later, the Fair began a tradition of manned ascensions that continued unbroken into the 1920s.
With the transition from free balloons to powered and maneuverable “dirigibles” in the late 1800s, many ships of unique and innovative design passed this way . . . or tried to. One that never made it was the state-of-the-art Campbell Airship America: football shaped, buoyed by coal gas and maneuvered by hand-cranked propellers, it was to have made five loops out from Punxsutawney in 1889 but was lost off Atlantic City earlier that year. Fate was kinder to the famous Stroebel Airship. The 54’ dirigible’s rudder broke during a test flight at the 1909 Indiana County Fair, but pilot Frank Goodale cut the engine and brought his ship down safely. It was repaired, and made daily figure-eights around the Fairgrounds and Courthouse as scheduled.
Balloon pilots were the celebrities of their day. These “aeronauts” had to be a cross between scientist, stuntman and vaudevillian, and most were called Professor (remember Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz?). Typical of those who performed here were John Wise and Joe Steiner, veterans of the Union Army Balloon Corps. Thirteen year old John Wise Junior became the world’s youngest aeronaut when he ascended solo from Indiana in 1874. And not all aeronauts were men! Blairsville’s own Madame Zeno (Alice Huonker, 1869-1964) performed acrobatic stunts on a parachuting trapeze dropped from her balloon for audiences across America.
Even the balloons were stars. Ads for McConn’s Restaurant on Philadelphia Street offered “Hoffman’s Ice Cream and a Candy Blimp for 5¢.” A banner headline in the Indiana Democrat proclaimed, “The Airship Age Is Here!,” and a tongue-in-cheek blurb run by the Weekly Messenger in 1901 predicted, “The dirigible will not displace the trollycar for a year or two.” Ironically, just five months separated Indiana County’s last trollycar run and its last dirigible visit.
Some of those visitors were quite famous.
The giant zeppelin ZR-1, soon to be renamed USS Shenandoah upon its delivery by the Imperial German Army, flew directly over Indiana on October 1, 1923. Four year old Clarence Stephenson, future author of Indiana County 175th Anniversary History, witnessed its passage:
“The author…recalls vividly seeing the ZR-1 pass almost directly over his home. While playing…he became aware of the noise of engines. (L)ooking up, he was astonished to see a big, cigar-shaped objectPoking above the hill. Running as fast as his legs would carry him, he told his mother…to come see the monster passing over!”
Seven years later, a smaller craft made an even bigger impression on us. The Goodyear blimp Vigilant visited Indiana in September of 1930 to promote Rising Brothers, its aptly-named local tire dealer. Sixty-five citizens got to see Indiana County from 400 feet, four at a time, before the Vigilant left for Uniontown the next day. Declared by the Gazette to be our county’s all-time greatest aeronautical event, it was eclipsed just five weeks later when none other than Charles Lindbergh landed here to wait out an ice storm. And Vigilant’s sister ship Resolute passed over while searching for Thomas Settle and his missing stratosphere balloon Century of Progress in 1933.
Yet for all the warmth of its citizens’ welcome, Indiana County’s terrain could be downright hostile to airships on occasion. Winds that funnel through our valleys have contributed to at least six crashes. In 1910, a racing balloon flying from Indianapolis was brought down by “eccentric air currents” onto the farm of Hugh Peddicord near Homer City, and in 2015, IHGS’s own Chuck Spence extricated stranded balloonists from a tree near Plumville. But the most celebrated crash happened in 1918 when a military observation balloon loaded with scientific equipment lost its pilot near Akron and drifted 150 miles, ending up in Blacklick Creek near Heshbon. The balloon was deflated and brought to Indiana’s National Guard Armory (present site of the Historical Society!) to await transport home; meanwhile, an enterprising officer of the 110th Infantry stationed here mounted the gondola and used it as a “powerful boost for recruiting.”
By the 1920s, America’s aeronautic fascination was shifting to heavier-than-air craft and their pilots. No longer the cutting-edge technology they’d been for 130 years, balloons now had to share the stage with barnstorming biplanes at public events. Though surrounding counties’ Fairs continued to feature them through the mid-1930s, Indiana County’s continuous string of ascensions was broken in 1925. The Airship Age had ended. You can still catch the occasional hot air balloon floating over our county – there was one at this summer’s Airshow – but look no more for the likes of John Wise or the shadow of a zeppelin.
“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!