It started in 1928, when Frances Strong Helman traced her ancestry to Indiana County pioneer John Lydick. Ten years later, in 1938, in her living room, Helman and five others founded the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County. She loved finding and telling stories – ranging from genealogical to historical to folklore – and she gave generously of her time and talent to the Society’s needs.
The Indiana Evening Gazette reported on April 1, 1939 that the Society had been formed with twenty-six members. The request to move their materials to the Indiana Free Library had been granted. The holdings by the Society included: fourteen books, pamphlets, and tombstone inscriptions from local cemeteries.
By 1940, members reached one hundred thirty-four members and the Society was officially incorporated. The Society was invited to Wilson Hall, on the IUP campus, by Dr. Leroy King, where they shared a room on the first floor and the newspaper files were stored in the basement.
Fast forward a decade to the winter of 1951, when the Society moved into the Clark House, known at the time as Memorial Hall. The story behind the move from Wilson Hall to the Clark House is an interesting one. AS it was the winter, the books from the library were piled onto a sled and then pulled to a parking lot and loaded into a car. This process was repeated once they arrived to the Clark House. At the time, the library collection did not fill the bookshelves in the study of Justice Silas M. Clark. As time went on, the name of the home changed to the History House and then to the Clark House; along with the name change the library also grew, holding over two thousand surname files by the 1960s.
Mrs. Helman was instrumental in the growth of the Society. She used her storytelling ability to add to the library. This began between 1939 and 1941, when she wrote several articles for The Indiana Countian along with serving as genealogical editor. From 1948-66, she published Your Family Tree, which was a quarterly genealogical magazine. Mrs. Helman also traveled across the country doing research and as a professional genealogist. She was a member of the National Genealogical Society as well as serving as the president of the Pennsylvania Historical and Genealogical Association.
There were many articles written about the history of Indiana County, many of which were published but many more that were typed and deposited to the collection in the library. In 1953, Indiana County celebrated its sesquicentennial and Helman wrote a noteworthy article, “History of Indiana County.”
The Society was one of her main activities; she served five terms as president and became an honorary life member in 1955, but she also was active in many other historical activities as well. She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and held office in that organization, and she helped organize and held office in the James Letort Chapter, Daughters of the American Colonists (DAC) and the Ann Letort Chapter, Children of the American Colonists. As general chairman of a five-county committee, she helped plan the 1956 bicentennial of the Armstrong Expedition and the Armstrong Kittanning Trail Society. She also helped organize the Indiana County Tourist Bureau.
On January 1, 1976, Frances Helman was officially honored by the County Commissioners by naming her Indiana County Historian. Also that year the Society did its first reprint, it was of the 1880 History of Indiana County by Caldwell. A reprint of the 1871 Beers Atlas of Indiana County and then a publication came with Clarence Stephenson’s Indiana County – 175th Anniversary History.
Mrs. Helman loved folklore, sometimes to the point of embellishment. Sometimes these embellishments, like those oral stories passed from generation to generation, came to life; however, these embellishments made the truth more difficult to decipher.
Mrs. Helman passed away in 1980, but she did not forget the Society, as she donated her entire collection of historical and genealogical material. In 1982, Attorney and Mrs. Don Miller donated their extensive collection. These materials were combined with the materials already in the Society’s collections, formed the foundation of the current library.
The library outgrew the Clark House. The Society bought the Armory Building and began renovations, and by the early 2000s it was time once again for the Society to move. Thankfully this time, the material only had to move across the parking lot, but it was still a major undertaking. Shelving units, hundreds of volumes, dozens of filing cabinets full of surname and subject folders, and the Helman Collection were rolled across the parking on flat carts and dollies.
Thanks to her love of genealogy, and hard work, the Society has the library and resources to serve the people researching the history of their family who trace their roots to Indiana County, PA. In honor of this marvelous lady the library is known as the FRances Strong Helman Library. We hope to see you at the library to do your research…who knows what neat and interesting stories you may discover.