George Clymer

George Clymer was frequently described by his colleagues at the Constitutional Convention of 1781 as a diffident man who could work effectively behind the scenes.  He worked effectively for the American revolutionary cause, as he was one of only eight Americans to have signed both the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution in 1787.  For Indiana Countians, Clymer’s political career stirs special interest because he is a fellow Pennsylvanian and he donated the land upon which our county seat was built.

Clymer was one of the wealthiest men who signed the Constitution.  At his death, his family was reputed to own as much as two million acres of Pennsylvania land.  These vast holdings caused many of his contemporaries to label him as a land speculator rather than a statesman.  His involvement in the formation of Indiana County, after it was carved out of Westmoreland County in 1803, demonstrates both his savvy for land speculation and his interest in the development of Pennsylvania.

Clymer owned large tracts of land in Indiana County along Twolick Creek near present day Clymer Borough.  In order to make this land more valuable, Clymer and his wife, the former Elizabeth Meredith, generously donated 250 acres to the newly appointed Indiana County Commissioners to sell in lots for Indiana Borough.  The proceeds therefrom were used to erect a courthouse, jail and other public buildings that once stood at the corner of Philadelphia and North Sixth Streets.  Although there is no record of Clymer ever visiting Indiana County, he did travel through western Pennsylvania on his way to Fort Pitt during the Revolution, and he rode as far as Bedford during the Whiskey Rebellion.

clymer
George Clymer

Clymer’s dedication to the growth of Pennsylvania and the new county can be attributed to his family history.  His ancestors on both sides of his family had arrived in Philadelphia from England by 1700, and by the Revolution the family had become economically prosperous.  Clymer’s early years in Philadelphia, however, were marked by tragedy.  His mother died one year after his birth, and his father died by his seventh birthday.  Thereafter, his mother’s sister and her wealthy husband, William Coleman, formally adopted him.

Clymer enjoyed many luxuries while living in the Coleman household.  He was educated formally in his uncle’s extensive library, eventually graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a concentration in law and literature.  During these years he also clerked at his uncle’s business.  The early foundation prepared him to become a widely respected financial advisor to the federal government in his later years.  It was not, however, until his marriage in 1766 that he became active in politics.

Clymer’s father-in-law, in addition to introducing him to young George Washington from Virginia with whom Clymer was destined to develop a lifelong friendship, made him a partner in the family’s enormously profitable coffee and tea import business.  When, therefore, the British began imposing harsh taxes on the import of tea, Clymer and other colonists similarly employed rebelled against the Crown.  Clymer served as Chairman of the Philadelphia Tea Committee, successfully persuading merchants all over Philadelphia to refuse to import tea with the British tax stamp on it.

In 1776 Clymer became a Captain in General Cadwalader’s “silk stocking” regiment and on July 7, 1775, he became one of the Continental Congress’ first treasurers.  He immediately exchanged all his English specie for Continental Currency.  This act so enraged the British that after the Battle of Brandywine, British troops made a special detour to burn Clymer’s estate in Chester County.

After the Revolution, Clymer was elected to the Confederation Congress, but by 1886 he advocated that a new body must convene to correct the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.  In his view unless Congress were given jurisdiction over commerce and finance, the government would collapse.  It was in this spirit that he joined the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia during the sweltering summer of 1787.

After the first meeting, the 55 delegates (the eldest was Ben Franklin at age 80) swore themselves to secrecy, sealed the windows in Independence Hall and began to draft a new constitution.  Most details and compromises were handled in the various committees.  Here Clymer excelled.  Well respected for his business acumen, he sat on the financial affairs committees, lobbying for a strong national government.  His influence can be found in the famous commerce clause of the Constitution, which gives Congress sweeping power over the nation’s commerce.

After the convention, Clymer, as a member of the Pennsylvania state legislature, spearheaded the movement to ratify the Constitution in the Pennsylvania Congress.  Even though most members opposed the ratification, Clymer succeeded in his goal by using clever maneuvers.  When the vote came up, Clymer personally saw to it that not enough of the opposition could be present to out vote him.

When the new Constitution had been ratified by all the states, Clymer was elected in November 1788 to serve in the first session of the United States House of Representatives.  He served in the House until 1791 when he was appointed Supervisor of Internal Revenue for Pennsylvania.  He resigned, however, shortly before the culmination of the Whiskey Rebellion and went on to serve under his long time associate, President George Washington, as collector of excise taxes.  Later, Washington asked him to be one of the three commissioners to negotiate a treaty with the Cherokee Indians in Georgia.  This assignment was to be his last public act.  Thereafter, he retired and served as the first president of the First Bank of Philadelphia.  He also became the first president of the Philadelphia Academy of Arts.  He died in January 1813, and was buried in Friends Meeting burial grounds, Trenton, New Jersey.

Although historians may rank Clymer’s achievements at a more modest level than those of Jefferson, Washington or Madison, he deserves, nevertheless, to be considered among the pre-eminent political leaders of the revolutionary era.  His prodigious record of public services evidences his dedication to the ongoing success of the American republic.

Silas M. Clark

One of the most distinguished citizens of Indiana was Silas Moorhead Clark. He was born January 18, 1834 in Plum Creek Township, Armstrong County. He was the son of James and Ann Moorhead Clark and came from a long line of notable ancestors on both his parent’s sides. On his maternal side was his great grandfather, the pioneer, Fergus Moorhead. Mr. Moorhead was one of the first persons to settle near Indiana in 1772. It was in 1777 that Fergus was captured by Indians and taken to Canada during the Revolution. Not long after, Mrs. Moorhead, while alone in the wilderness, gave birth to Fergus Moorhead, Jr., Silas Clark’s grandfather. His paternal great grandfather, Captain James Clark, was among the defenders of Hannastown when it was attacked in 1782 by Indians and Canadians and burned it to the ground.

The Man behind the House: Silas Clark
Silas M. Clark

Silas and his family moved to Indiana when Silas was about a year old. His father was in business for 37 years as a tannery operator and held the offices of school director and justice of the peace. Silas only received a basic education in the public schools; at the age of 14 he began attending the Indiana Academy, which was the first institution of learning equivalent to a high school. His classmates included: Matthew S. Quay, who later became Pennsylvania’s Republic “boss,” and Harry White, later serving as judge and Congressman. Not only was Clark studying at the Academy, he also worked on his father’s farm and carried the mail for a year between Indiana and Blairsville.

Once his education was complete at the Indiana Academy, Mr. Clark entered Jefferson College at Canonsburg, Washington County (now known as Washington & Jefferson College). In 1852 at the age of 18 he graduated fifth in a class of sixty people. Following graduation, he became a teacher at the Indiana Academy, for two terms, instructing 45 young men.

It was in 1854 that Mr. Clark began the study of law at the office of William M. Stewart, an Indiana attorney who later became Solicitor for the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1856, Clark founded, along with Joseph M. Thompson and John F. Young, a Democratic newspaper, The Democratic Messenger. After a few months, Clark sold his interest in the paper, which later became the Indiana Messenger.

In September 1857, at age 23, Clark was admitted to the Indiana County Bar and the following year he became a junior partner of attorney Stewart. The firm of Stewart & Clark was said to have had the “largest and most lucrative practice in Indiana County.” The partners are believed to have never had a written agreement and never had a disagreement. Their association continued for sixteen years until 1873 when Stewart moved to Philadelphia; Clark continued the practice alone. His office was in the Edward Nixon house, North Sixth Street, which is now the Delaney automobile lot.

Clark’s next move was into the political world, being elected to Indiana Borough Council in 1859, and he was reelected in 1861 and 1865. In 1869, he was elected a school director for the borough and continued to hold this position for many years. It was said, “To his [Clark] judgement and energy are the public schools (of Indiana) are largely indebted for their prosperity.”

His law practice quickly attained a reputation as “a strong and logical reasoner and an eloquent advocate.” His personal inclination was to shun litigation wherever possible and settle cases peaceably out of court. It is claimed that Clark never sued anyone himself nor was he sued by anyone. Much can be said about Clark as a lawyer by the following quote, “Whether arguing questions of law before a court or questions of fact before a jury, the strong points of his case were so forcibly presented that the weak ones were likely to be lost altogether.”

In his personal life, Clark married Clarissa Elizabeth Moorhead on April 26, 1859. She was not related to Silas’ mother’s line.

The Family behind the House
Clarissa Elizabeth Moorhead Clark

Clark’s political career continued, on July 4, 1862 while in Harrisburg attending a State Democratic Convention, he was elected chairman of the Indiana County Democratic Committee. Now during this time, the Civil War was raging, and many people looked upon Democrats with suspicion as “Secessionists” and “Copperheads” allied with their rebellious brethren in the South. Clark made a proposal that both Republicans and Democrats of Indiana County, who had previously announced public meetings for the same day, cancel the meetings and campaign without political meetings; Clark pointed out that “the present is indeed no time for partisan strife.” The Republican candidate for Congress, was Clark’s law partner, William M. Stewart. But Clark received no reply to his proposal, so he suggested a joint meeting of both parties, but I.M. Watt, the Republican chairman, declined to consider either idea.

As Clark’s professional and political career prospered, he began the erection of his mansion in 1869. During construction, a newspaper item in October mentioned that he had been struck on the head by a failing brick and he was somewhat stunned for a few hours. The location of the home was on the site of the old academy, where Clark had attended as a boy, and had burned in 1864. The house was said to cost $12,000 and was completed in 1870. It was during this time that, without his knowledge, Clark was nominated by some friends at the State Democratic Convention for Justice for the State Supreme Court. He received forty or fifty votes, but the choice of the Convention was Cyrus L. Pershing.

This was just the beginning of Clark’s career in the judicial-political sphere. In 1871, he was unanimously chosen as the Democratic candidate for President Judge of the Tenth Judicial District – consisting of Armstrong, Indiana, and Westmoreland Counties – but Clark was defeated by James A. Logan of Greensburg. Logan was a solicitor for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and on Election Day trains were sent out along the PRR lines in the three-county area to haul voters to their polling places free of charge. Even though these tactics were employed, Logan only had a majority of some 400 votes. In the years that followed Clark declared “Judge Logan was a good, able and just judge.” By this time, Attorney Clark was considered one of the best attorneys in Indiana County.

Clark did not give up running for office, he was successfully elected on October 8, 1872 as a delegate from the 24th Senatorial District to the Convention which framed a new Pennsylvania Constitution. As a member of the Convention, he was named to a committee to make rules for governing the Convention; he also served on the Declaration of Rights Committee, Committed on Private Corporations, and the Revision and Adjustment Committee.

Again in 1874 Clark was nominated for the State Supreme Court, receiving 41 votes, but he was once again defeated with the nod going to W.J. Woodward.

Clark continued to be active in both business and politics. He was a delegate to the National Democratic Convention in St. Louis in 1876, in which Samuel J. Tilden for President. It was said “Silas M. Clark is not one of those men who avoid politics as a filthy pool in which honest men should not dabble. He holds it the right and duty of every good citizen to vote; he recognizes that good men should not shirk their share in party management.” In 1879, he was elected to serve as president of the First National Bank. He also served several terms as president of the Indiana County Agricultural Society.

In 1882, the Democratic Party of Pennsylvania, unanimously chose him as its nominee for Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Following the Election of November 7, 1882, the entire Democratic ticket has been elected. Clark was elected, and surprising had won Indiana County, breaking a rule since the days of Andrew Jackson that no Democrat could carry the county.

Once the Indiana County Court adjourned on December 23, 1882, the members of the Bar organized and passed resolutions “highly complimentary of the character and ability of Judge Silas M. Clark” who severed his long connection with the county attorney’s association. On December 28, General White entertained the members of the Bar and other guests at an evening party in honor of the Supreme Justice-elect. The following day, Clark left to take his seat on the bench of the high court, with a salary of $8,000 per year.

Clark was highly esteemed on the bench, “his opinions, always brief, were couched in the simplest and choicest language, and were as readily understood by laymen as by lawyers.” Clark was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from Lafayette College in 1886. However, there was sorrow during his term as Justice, with the death of his wife, Clara, on January 17, 1887.

Following the death of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Morrison R. Waite in 1888, many Pennsylvania newspapers pointed to Justice Clark as being qualified for his replacement. However, this was not meant to be.

Clark House
Silas M. Clark House

Late in September 1891, while holding court in Pittsburgh, he suffered from a large carbuncle on the back of his neck, but he continued to sit on the Bench until early November when he was obliged to come home. His physicians could not do much and gave up all hope of his recovery. On November 20, he lapsed into a coma and died about 9:15 p.m. at the age of 57.

Funeral services were held at the Presbyterian Church Monday afternoon at 2:00 pm on November 23; this was a remarkable demonstration of respect and affection, and it is likely that Judge Clark would not have wanted all this fuss. The Courthouse was draped in black; business establishments were closed until 4:00. John Sutton Hall was also draped in black and the bell tolled during the services. The church was overflowing, every available seat upstairs and down was occupied, there were many standing in every possible space, and there were more than a hundred waiting outside. At 11:20 a.m. a special train arrived in Indiana carrying Governor Pattison and five of Clark’s fellow judges, plus attorneys, county and state officials and other judges. At the conclusion of the service, the processional to the cemetery was delayed permitting Normal School faculty and students to file by for a last farewell. Afterwards, hundreds of others who had been patiently waiting outside walked silently past. Justice Silas M. Clark’s final resting place in Oakland Cemetery is marked by a simple stone bearing the words “S.M. Clark.” This was fitting for such a humble man as Silas.

In 1893, a boy’s dormitory was built on the Normal School campus, and it was named “Clark Hall,” in Silas’ honor. After it burned in 1905, another was erected and rededicated on January 12, 1907. After an “open house,” there was a ceremony held in the chapel of John Sutton Hall where a large portrait of Justice Clark, festooned with carnations, hung on the wall above the rostrum. Attorney J. Wood Clark, a son of Clark, presided.

Members of the Clark family continued to reside in the house until 1915 when J. Wood Clark moved to Pittsburgh. The house was rented to F.M. Fritchman, General Superintendent of the R&P Coal Company, until January 19, 1917, when the surviving Clark heirs sold the house to the County Commissioners for $20,000 less $1,000 which was donated by the heirs. The intention was for the house to be a veteran’s memorial and so it was known for years as “Memorial Hall.” It served various veterans’ groups, patriotic organizations, the Red Cross during World War I and II, as civil defense headquarters, and the Historical Society; it was also used as a polling place.

The Clark House continues to serve the community as a museum for the Historical Society. It serves as a “time capsule” a look into the past to see how the Clarks would have lived. Come visit us for one of the many events held at the Clark House or set up a tour of the Clark House to learn more about this fascinating and interesting house.

Der Belsnickel

It was 1911, and little Mary Easterday was really looking forward to what she’d find downstairs that Christmas morning.  Last year’s stocking had fairly bulged with gifts and treats, and dear old Kristkindl might be just as generous this year.  After all, she’d been an angel!  Okay, so she’d stolen a bite from each of her brother’s chicken wings last Sabbath, but the saint would surely overlook a harmless prank like that, right?  But what Mary found when she got downstairs wasn’t candy, and it wasn’t left by Kristkindl: a stocking full of. . .coal?  Oh, no – Der Belsnickel had come!

Mary was my grandmother.  Her Pennsylvania Deutsch parents, keen storytellers, had passed down the legend of Kristkindl’s servant.  Long ago, they said, the saint had saved Belsnickel from a life of crime; in gratitude, the fellow had asked to come along as his helper on the annual pre-Christmas visit to the homes of the poor.  But the servant’s heart was harder than his master’s, and Belsnickel soon began replacing gifts left for the böesen kinder – naughty children – with hazel switches or lumps of coal after the saint stepped out.  For most children, a visit by Der Belsnickel was enough to reform their behavior in the coming year.

A quick lesson in Deutsch terminology is in order here.  Kristkindl was the name for Saint Nicholas, shortened from a very long German word meaning “He Who Announces the Christ Child.”  Depending on which authority you believe, Belsnickel (pronounced Bell-schnickle) meant either “Fur-Covered Nicholas” or “Nicholas the Walloper.”  And of course, Deutsch is what folks from southwestern Germany and their Pennsylvania descendants were called.  Got it?  Okay….

Belsnickel changed considerably over time.  He came to Pennsylvania with refugee German Anabaptists about 300 years ago, and the stern childrearing practices of those Amish, Mennonite and Brethren immigrants found expression in their Christmas folklore.  At first, Belsnickel functioned as a tough-love counterbalance to kindly Kristkindl, scolding and meting out discipline to wayward offspring when he and his master showed up on December 24th.  Saint and servant were secretly portrayed by family or community members, so the dour “anticlaus” knew everything you’d done that year!

As time went by, both Der Belsnickel’s habits and appearance mellowed as Deutsch culture set aside harsh corporal punishment and absorbed America’s increasingly English Christmas habits.  A naughty child of, say, 1840 might no longer be thoroughly “switched;” Belsnickel strewed candy and nuts before the tikes, and as they dove for the goodies, the naughty ones would get a single switch-stroke on the backside as they passed.  By 1880, he might deliver a stern lecture, place lump of coal in the böses kind’s hand and extract a promise of reform.  And in the early 20th century (by which time gift-giving had come to be accepted in many Deutsch homes), he’d make late-night visits without confrontation, switching not the child but the stocking-stuffers.

belsnickel
Belsnickel and Kristkindl visiting together;  Belsnickel solo.

Der Belsnickel’s startling appearance added to children’s dread of being caught by the fellow.  His garb varied from place to place;  here in southwest PA, he wore a multicolor patchwork coat fringed with bells and/or thorns, a fur cap that matched his wild black beard and a knapsack full of coal…all the more alarming by contrast with Kriskindl’s white beard, bishop’s robe and miter cap.  Sometimes he simply followed his master through the front door, but when visiting alone, Belsnickel announced his arrival by banging on windows.  Now that could be scary!

Was there a real, historical “servant of Saint Nicholas?”  Probably not.  Mythographers suspect Belsnickel was a fusion of the old German kobold (sprite, elf) called Knecht Ruprecht and the Lord of Misrule who presided over ancient Rome’s “backwards day,” Saturnalia.  Alright, but how did he come to be in 19th century Indiana County?  After all, the Amish only arrived here in the 1960s and the Mennonites in the ‘80s.  Ah, but the Brethren have been here since 1838, a time when some Deutsch families migrating from eastern PA to Ohio halted at promising rural areas in between.  Today they can be found in at least eight of our townships.  But as to whether Der Belsnickel still comes to call on our Brethren, well….

There’s one expression of Belsnickel which seems never to have caught on here as it did in eastern PA.  Several communities there put on a rowdy Parade of Spirits not unlike Mardi Gras, a “mummer’s holiday” mentioned in Philadelphia papers as early as 1820.  There, hundreds of masked “belsnickelers” danced through the streets, accompanied by loud music as they played often-destructive pranks on householders and bystanders.  Thankfully, Der Belsnickel’s only non-Christmas manifestation in our county was benign:  some families welcomed a hybrid “Saint Belsnickel” on New Year’s Day, when he brought gifts rather than coal and correction.

After being absorbed into Santa Clause and fading away in the early 20th century, Belsnickel had brief returns to popularity after World Wars One and Two but has seldom been heard from since.  Still, he is not without an ongoing legacy.  The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in A Christmas Carol is thought to have been influenced by Charles Dickens’ research into America’s Christmas traditions – guess who?  Oweds Vor Grisctdaag (The Night Before Christmas), a 1943 play with a Deutsch twist, follows not Saint Nick but Belsnickel on his rounds.  And in an episode of the popular sitcom The Office, character Dwight Schrute visits as you-know-who; you can watch it on YouTube, where it’s just one of 38 Belsnickel videos!

So merry Christmas, HGSIC, and a “Ho, Ho, Ho!” – or more aptly, a “No, No, No!” – from Der Belsnickel, the Pennsylvania Anticlaus.

So Shall Ye Reap

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

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

reap1.jpg
Wood’s Reaper, one of eight models at the 1869 trial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

reap2.gif
Manual grain-cradle scythe

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

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

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

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

Mission accomplished.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Hello, Central

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hello central
Our first exchange opened in 1895.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almost

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

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

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

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

almost.jpg
Electric Locomotive, 1890s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

R.F.D.

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

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

rfd1
Pennsylvania’s Rural Free Delivery began in October 1896.

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

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

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

rfd2
James McKee was our county’s first RFD carrier (1899-1931)

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

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

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

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

rfd3
Early RFD carriers used their own automobiles.

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

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

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

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