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.

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.

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.”


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.

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.


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.”

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.

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!)

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.

Invisible Assets

There are a few things you should know about the ghosts of Indiana County.  First, that they are quite tradition-minded, conforming to age-old classics of type, habit and hangout.  Second, that they are a patriotic lot whose habits change abruptly when war is declared.  And third, that their age and popularity are directly related: the older the manifestation, the more willing we are to believe in them.

Traditions?  Our ghosts got ‘em covered: spurned lovers, suicides, the wrongly condemned and guilt-ridden souls of every sort.  We’ve two spirits of the headless variety, one of whom carries around his noggin and a rolling pin; there are three “ladies in white,” four hanged men and no fewer than five bridge-haunters.  Some are crossovers, like the headless lady-in-white who favors Allen Bridge in Cherryhill Township.  And one – a despondent chap who hangs around in Eliza Furnace on the Ghost Town Trail – even boosts Indiana County tourism.

Like all good Pennsylvanians, our spooks respond when the bugle calls!  During the Civil War and WWII, the words “ghost” and “haunt” all but disappeared from our county newspapers.  Whereas some 28 local ghosts were mentioned here during the Depression, they vanished from print between Pearl Harbor and VJ Day.  Hmm.…  Enlisted, or just busy with war work?

Surprisingly, we seem to have been less credulous about ghost stories in the 19th century than we are now . . . or at least our newspapers were.  Typical of papers back then, the Weekly Messenger quipped in 1882 that “Brookville claims to have a ghost which drops out of sight through the pavement when approached.  We are not surprised.  Individuals much more real are likely to go through that town’s pavement!”  Conversely, our current journal prints ghost-hunters’ claims at face value, and more of us than ever seem willing to suspend disbelief – especially about the oldest stories.

When it comes to classic types, one of the world’s oldest must surely be the predatory innkeeper.  And boy, did we have one!  John “Yank” Brown came here from New England and settled in West Wheatfield Township, opening an inn on the Huntingdon, Cambria and Indiana Turnpike.  Soon, rumors spread that not all travelers riding in to “Yank’s Tavern” rode out.  John, brother Lewis and son John Jr. were convicted as members of an interstate horse-theft ring in 1856.  In 1874, an elderly accomplice confessed on her deathbed that victims’ horses (temporarily) and bodies (permanently) had been stashed in Nugen Cave between Armagh and Blairsville.  What’s more, “two kegs of gold and silver and a bushel of watches” remained in that long-hidden den.  Many a treasure hunter sought the stash, but after some (it was said) encountered Yank’s ghostly gang driving their herd though the darkness, most stopped looking.  Those who didn’t . . . well, let’s just say they may still be up there.

invisible assets.jpg

Our county has several ghost towns, at least one of which earned that title the hard way.  The wild mining town of Whiskey Run had 26 violent deaths over its lifetime.  Perhaps the most notorious was that of Moiden Nune.  Paralyzed from the waist down by a bullet, he accused his landlady of shooting him in revenge for refusing to elope with her.  Mrs. Mancanelli was arrested and imprisoned with her baby.  Just before dying of his wound, Nune confessed: it was he who’d been rebuffed and then shot when he wouldn’t take no for an answer.  Old-timers would later claim that Whiskey Run was abandoned by its citizens in the next decade not just because the mine was running out but because Nune’s limping phantom roamed the streets, wailing as it sought Mrs. Mancanelli and absolution.

If there’s a Top Ten list of Indiana County wraiths, the Mahoning Valley Fiddler must be #1 with a bullet . . . or knife.  In 1899, two friends came to work on the B&O Railroad’s line through West Mahoning Township.  They rented a house near Smicksburg where the tracks crossed Mahoning Creek.  One of them was an accomplished violinist who earned extra income by playing at dances, barn-raisings and the like.  One autumn day, the two didn’t show up for work; the fiddler was found stabbed to death at home, his beloved Guarneri shattered beside him and his housemate long gone.  Jealousy?  Robbery?  An argument over volume control?  The killer was never found.  But not long after – and for many autumns after that – folks would hear a mournful fiddle-tune when passing the house at night.  And if conditions were right, they claimed, the moonlit fiddler could be seen playing astride the rooftop.

The house survived into the 1950s, but the legend had almost been forgotten when historian and columnist George Swetnam wrote it up in the Pittsburgh Press on the day before Halloween, 1955.  Said he: “If you go there tomorrow night, you may see the ghost yourself (and) catch the strains of ‘Hell’s Broke Loose in Smicksburg’.”  Some Dayton High seniors did just that; as they approached the house, an old-time fiddle tune was heard, and the boys retreated in such haste that one of them was injured.  Not saying, but you don’t suppose a respected history-columnist would…?  Nah!

Whatever the case, we’re indebted to a handful of writers who collected and published Indiana County’s ghost stories before they were forgotten.  Just as the coming of written works once doomed the oral transmission of history, our collective memory has nowadays been abbreviated (and distracted) by the Smartphone and its kin.  So in a way, our spirits’ survival can be credited to the likes of George Swetnam, Clarence Stephenson and Frances Strong Helman.  And yet….

Something that usually doesn’t happen when writers record a ghost story is “organic development,” the buildup of narrative depth over time as each re-teller adds their own embellishment.  So as a tip of the hat to all those Indiana County raconteurs since the days of Fergus Moorhead, this article’s author has introduced one new element to each of the three preceding yarns which, while not drawn from (or contradicting) known fact, makes them tastier.  Bon appetit!

Finally, where better than a museum for Peter Venkman’s real-world counterparts to seek lingering legends?  Both the Allegheny Mountain Ghost Hunters and IUP’s Paranormal Society have visited HGSIC.  At the Clark House, a whispering shade is said to have obliged the Paranormals’ request to make an electric light fluctuate, and the Ghost Hunters claim they saw Silas’ daughter Clara in a rocking chair there.  Each sought evidence of rumored hauntings at the Armory – a patricide and a basement-dwelling Librarian – using a detector called an EMF Meter.  Who ya gonna call?

Send in the Clowns

Lions and Tigers Loose in the Streets of Blairsville!

That somewhat overstated headline ran atop a quarter-page ad for Colonel C.T. Ames’ New Orleans Circus in the 1869 Blairsville Press.  What it really announced was the end of a drought.  The fourth to visit Indiana County that year, Ames’ show was welcomed by an entertainment-starved community that had seen just one full-sized circus in seven years.  The Civil War had gobbled up men, horses and capital through 1865, and the re-formed troupes took a while to return to non-metropolitan venues.  Not that we were unknown territory, even then; shows as large as P.T. Barnum’s Colossal Menagerie and as small as Professor Hamilton’s Flea Circus had made regular stops here since 1847.


Why such commotion over a mere circus?  Well, imagine for a moment that computers, TV, movies and even the phonograph have yet to be invented.  Now add twenty hours to your work week, and top it off with a legal requirement not to entertain yourself on Sundays.  Suddenly, a caravan of exotic animals, acrobats, trick riders and clowns “nearly a mile in length” rolls into town; there’s a calliope up front, a brass band in the middle and a tethered hot-air balloon at the end.  Are you excited to see them?  You bet you are – to you, that’s Disney World rolling down Main Street!

Pennsylvania was intimately involved in circus history from the start.  America’s first circus opened in Philadelphia – our nation’s capital – in 1793, with President Washington attending.  In the 1800s, Pennsylvania native Adam Forepaugh almost single-handedly put the business and art of circuses on equal footing, allowing them to survive and thrive in the Industrial Age.  And Benjamin Wallace, whose show was second only to Ringling Brothers’ in its heyday, was born right here in East Wheatfield Township.

Indiana County native Benjamin Wallace was a major circus proprietor

The golden age of the American circus was 1870-1930.  Those sixty years between the opening of the West and the coming of “talkies” coincided with the greatest population growth in our history.  America’s rapidly-expanding transportation system and migrating populace made the traveling tent-circus the ideal entertainment of its day . . . and a perfect fit for still-rural Indiana County.

It wasn’t all hearts and flowers.  Like much of Pennsylvania, Indiana County had a love/hate relationship with the circus, and with good reason.  The smaller the show, the more victims of pickpockets, card sharps and con artists were left in its wake.  Brawls between “carnies” and “rubes” were common, and even some who weren’t circus people took advantage of our love of the Big Top.  A Mister Sharpe made the rounds of Indiana businesses in September 1877, putting up posters for an October visit by the Springer Circus; after having posters for the show’s next stop printed on credit, the bogus business agent vanished, having first enjoyed free lodging, meals, and “numerous potations of whiskey.”

Continuous evolution was at the heart of any circus’ success.  While there were constants like animals and acrobats, the big draws were changed often to exploit whatever novelty was then capturing public attention.  Balloon ascensions, roller-skaters and (gasp!) an electric light were featured in the 1880s, while automobiles circled the ring in the 1890s and cowboy film stars led circus parades of the 1930s.  Of course, some shows were not above manufacturing their own novelties.  A painted pachyderm was passed off as the world’s only white elephant, and one menagerie displayed its “rare Tartarian Cow-allapus” to credulous county residents.  Circuses and performers even stayed novel by re-naming themselves periodically.  A year after its 1869 visit, Bryan’s Grand Caravan and lion-tamer Herr Conklin returned here as the Campbell Zoological Institute and Monsieur Conqulin!

Yet most circus evolution was legitimate and even forward-thinking.  Starting in 1827, touring by rail allowed any circus to have the entire country as a potential audience, and by switching to performance in tents instead of existing structures, they were no longer limited to the big cities or bound by a host’s schedule.  Trucks began replacing trains in 1906 when, as the Gazette observed, railroad costs became “a source of growing alarm for circus proprietors.”  And when the postwar boom proved to be a suburban one, most circuses returned to performing in arenas (Ringling’s final tent-show was in Pittsburgh, 1956).

The number of circuses visiting our county varied widely from year to year, even during their heyday.    Economics was the biggest factor.  The Depression of 1877 and the Panic of 1896 each dropped the annual number to zero, while good times brought three or more per season.  Curiously, the second-greatest number of troupes in our history visited during the first full year of the Great Depression: 1930 saw six circuses pass this way, each augmented by performers thrown out of work when vaudeville died.  It was all downhill from 1931 to 1945, with a rebound nipped in the bud by WWII’s gas rationing and the draft.  Ah, but then came the Boom….

What’s the life-blood of a circus?  Children!  It was no coincidence that the highest (and final) peak for circuses in Indiana County and nationwide came in the year 1953.  GIs returning from WWII had married and started families in record numbers, and their first kids were turning six and seven that year.  The local economy was soaring, too.  Between April and October, SEVEN circuses (including two Shrines) visited our boroughs.  Circus toys were top sellers that Christmas; in theaters, films like Elephant Walk and Man on a Tightrope packed ‘em in, and three circus-themed shows ran on network television.  Anybody remember the Buick Circus Hour?

But as Baby Boomers passed into adulthood, good times for the circus seemed to pass with them.  Television and the advent of home computers increased the postwar trend away from public entertainment, while the Internet and mobile devices further encouraged our cocooning in recent years.  Animal rights activism has had a profound effect for better and for worse, even closing Ringling Brothers in 2017.  Just five circuses came to our county in this century’s first decade – fewer than in the single year of 1953, and the lowest ten-year total ever.

Will there be an end to this drought?  Could be.  The success of recent films like The Greatest Showman and Dumbo imply a renewed (albeit historical) interest.  And to our east and west, fundraising Shrine circuses (a Pennsylvania innovation) still draw crowds to their permanent Altoona and Pittsburgh venues.  But live or die, the Circus has left an indelible mark on our collective consciousness, even for those who have never heard the ringmaster’s shout of “Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages…!”  See those ten notes below?  A 1993 Oberlin study says you’re more likely to recognize them than any opening riff but Beethoven’s Fifth when heard.  They’re from Entrance of the Gladiators, played as performers entered the ring in almost every American circus since 1901.  Hey Rube !!


Up In The Air

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.

Campbell Airship  America  (1889)

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.

Goodyear Blimp  Vigilant  (1930)

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.