The Cookport Fair

When the school directors of Green Township in Indiana County hired Donald Patterson to be supervising principal they could not have foreseen that this energetic schoolman would establish a simple school fair which would grow into the Cookport Fair and during the next hundred years become one of the outstanding fairs in Western Pennsylvania.

Patterson’s idea of a school fair found favor with the teachers and pupils of the scattered and mainly one-room schools in his district, and on October 20, 1917, the first fair was held at centrally located Cookport.  The initial fair must have been greeted enthusiastically.  When the one-room school became too crowded with the produce from local gardens and the handiwork of pupils, the old blacksmith shop across the street was used to house the overflow.  Farm families frequently used gaily decorated wagons to transport their children to the scene.  The first fair awarded prizes for the best float, posters, and produce.  J.C. Leasure of the First National Bank of Cherry Tree procured the money for premiums.

After the success of the initial fair, plans for a second fair were quickly set.  It was to be held at Cookport on October 5, 1918.  Added to the list of features for the second fair were a stock judging contest to be conducted by County Agent John W. Warner and athletic contests under the direction of Patterson.  The exhibitors brought their displays to the Cookport schoolhouse the day before the fair, but it went no further.  An outbreak of infantile paralysis, as polio was then commonly called, forced the cancellation of the remainder of the program.

This setback did not deter the fair organizers. They quickly planned and then executed a successful fair in 1919.  The printed premium list for the Green Township Agricultural Fair, as the fair had come to be officially titled, called for it to be held at Cookport on September 20.  No premiums were to be awarded to anyone except the school children of Green Township, suggesting perhaps that the fair had already drawn attention beyond township boundaries.  No entrance fee was to be charged for exhibitors.  Ribbons were to be awarded for stock judging and athletic events while there were banners for the best float, wall display, and the school winning the largest number of premiums.  Other prizes were paid in cash in the amounts of $1.50, $1.00, and $.50. Bird houses made in that year, vegetables, fruit, needlework, baked goods, cut flowers, poultry, and rabbits qualified for the cash prizes.

The 1919 fair was not held in the school but in the Cookport Community Building, and that fact merits consideration.  In 1913 John W. Henry had built a large hall in the community to serve as a skating rink.  The site was opposite the former hotel of “Uncle” Ben Williams, founder and editor of a local newspaper, The Port Monitor.  A grist mill and a barn had to be dismantled to make way for the new entertainment establishment.  Henry, a versatile and enterprising man, also owned a sawmill and a tract of timber in the area, and he cut much of the lumber used in building the hall.  He did, however, purchase special, thick, narrow, hardwood flooring to withstand the roller skating.  When enthusiasm for roller skating lessened, Henry converted the building to a garage and sold Oldsmobile and Reo cars.  On December 26, 1917, he sold the building to William “Billy” Meekins.  The hall remained in Meekins’ hands less than two years.

During 1917 a number of local citizens conceived of the idea of purchasing the hall as a community center.  They formed the Green Township Community Association and on July 27, 1918, presented a petition for incorporation to Justice of the Peace John T. Kinnan.  The certificate was filed with the Prothonotary, advertised in both the Indiana Progress and the Indiana Messenger, reviewed, and the charter granted by the Honorable J.N. Langham, President Judge of Indiana County.  It was recorded in the Charter Book, volume D, page 272, on September 17, 1918, by J. Clair Longwill.

According to the charter, the purpose of the corporation was “to promote and enjoy educational, political, agricultural, and benevolent activities and for the pleasure and benefits of social enjoyments, amusements, and recreations except dancing and skating; and to this end to purchase and hold necesary lands in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and to erect thereon suitable buildings and enclosures.”  The prohibition of dancing and skating as recreational activities suggests that some of the citizens had not warmly accepted Henry’s original use of the building and that one idea behind the charter might have been to prevent the building from returning to its original role, or even worse, being converted to a dance hall.

The new corporation issued capital stock in the amount of $2500 which was divided into 100 shares with par value of $25.  There were forty-seven shareholders at the time of incorporation.  All were men except Miss Lottie Brown and Mrs. T.H. Boucher, who, as President of the Cookport Lutheran Church Ladies Aid, represented that group’s share.  Ford B. Decker, President of the Patriotic Order Sons of America, represented that organization’s share.  The executive committee for the first year consisted of C.A. Haskins, Ford D. Decker, A.P. Stephens, F.J. Fleming, O.J. Cartwright, and G.T. Learn, all of whom lived in the Love Joy Rural Delivery Area.  C.A. Haskins served as President, H.R. Spicher was Vice President, F.B. Decker, Secretary and W.H. Buterbaugh, Treasurer.

The fair held Saturday, October 2, 1920, marked the beginning of sponsorship by the Green Township Community Association.  Premiums were for school children only, but any resident of the township was permitted to exhibit articles for show or for sale.  The fourth annual fair was extended to three days and began on September 22, 1921.  Now there were two separate lists of premiums; one for school children and a second for any resident of the township, providing they paid an entrance fee equal to ten percent of the first premium.  Horses and mules, dairy cattle, swine, sheep, poultry, and grain were included in the official list for the second category.  An enlarged float competition also testified to the growth of the fair; five classes now competed for banners: agricultural, floral, industrial, educational, and fantastical.  The school having the largest number of premiums and the best wall display also received a banner.

The old battery light plant which had illuminated the hall for roller skating was replaced in 1922 by a more efficient system which cost $800.  Thus, it was possible in 1923 to keep the fair open in the evening from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. in addition to the daylight hours.  In 1924 the fair extended the privilege of exhibiting to citizens and the adjoining townships of Pine, Cherryhill, Rayne, Grant, and Montgomery, but retained the restriction of permitting school children from only Green Township to exhibit.  A fair premium book financed by advertisers was initiated in 1925.  By this time a pattern had been fairly well established.  Schools of Green Township were closed on Friday of the fair and pupils were admitted free.  Saturday had become a day of reunion as former residents came back to join the crowds of local enthusiasts.

Beyond the happy crowds and excited school children who attended the fair, the sponsors had to deal with the reality of money.  It was not always easy.  Over the years there were financial problems.  At times the Association had to borrow from banks and from members of the Board of Directors.  Fair records report that on February 6, 1922, $200 was paid to the Indiana Red Cross, “this money having been held in trust by the Community Association.”  The records do not give us a complete story, but it is possible that this represented money which the Cookport Red Cross Auxiliary of World War I may have loaned to the fair to help meet its early needs.  Fair income came from the sale of stock, hall rental, gate receipts, commissions from entertainers, and exhibitors’ fees.  In 1923 the fair secured its first state appropriation, $251.  In 1927 fair records show a state appropriation of $723 for two years.  In 1937 fair premiums amounted to $807.50, but the state appropriation was only $575.98.  The Directors must have established a policy of paying out almost every penny they took in; in 1941 the balance in the treasury at the beginning of the year was only $4.38.  The weather also added to the job of keeping the fair financially afloat.  In 1950 extremely bad weather during the four days of the fair made it necessary to borrow to pay the premiums and the bills.  Beginning in 1927 the County Commissioners appropriated $250 annually, and in 1976 they doubled that figure.  In 1964 the fair received a state appropriation of $403.94, and harness racing funds from the state brought in another $2,000.

The fair continued to grow throughout the years.  It attained Class B status in 1974 which entitled the Association to a state appropriation of $10,000 plus one-half the cost of the premiums.  By 1976 they had grown to $11,203.35, a significant increase because of the expanding number of categories, a larger number of entries, and the increasing value of the premiums.  The value of the premiums and the increase in fair acreage has enabled the fair to receive a Class A rating.

Over its history, the fair has engaged in numerous real estate transactions and has acquired several properties.  On April 17, 1919, the Green Township Association purchased its first property, the former roller rink, from William H. Meekins and his wife for $1,510.  Two lots comprising of 1.1 and 1.62 acres respectively, were purchased from Mrs. Sarah M. Henry on November 5, 1920, for $412.50.  As the fair continued to grow, more land was needed for rides, contests, and parking.  The fair bought a parcel of land from Alva E. and Dora L. Learn on October 2, 1940, for $600.  Delbert and Ruth Montgomery sold the Association a right of way for $75 on September 20, 1960.  Nine hundred dollars was paid to Iva Pickup on July 12, 1967, for a portion of her land.  On September 17, 1967, the Association made a major purchase from Ella Henry.  It paid $7,500 to her for 2.75 acres and buildings.  Later, John McCracken bought from the fair 1.18 acres of this land including the buildings.  With the encouragement of George and Katherine Baker the fair bought at auction on July 14, 1975, the 68.036- and 103.99-acre farms on the Blair Hartman estate for $75,000.  Portions of this tract have been sold for residential and agricultural purposes only to George and Katherine Baker, Franklin P. and Catherine Woods, and Clyde and Helen Ober.  On June 30, 1976, the Association purchased property from Weldon and Helen McCoy for $300. This purchase established State Highway 240 as a boundary line for fair property.  The Association now owns approximately eighty-two acres, and with the sales of land and aid of state matching funds for improvements, the debt incurred with the purchase of the Hartman farm has been reduced to $1437.50.

The Association also erected additional buildings to meet the needs of a growing fair.  Early in the fair’s history, a cookhouse was erected so organizations could serve meals or snacks.  About the same time a poultry shed was also constructed.  The purchase of a second-hand merry-go-round in the early days of the fair prompted the construction of a building known as the Round House.  However, this delightful machine was considered unsafe all too soon and was sold at auction in 1923.  The building was then used for exhibits until 1966 when it too was condemned, sold, and dismantled.  A less charming but more utilitarian rectangular exhibit hall was built the same year and an addition was made in 1975.  A large stock barn, planned in 1945, was finally erected in the early sixties. In addition, the fair gains rents from the Hartman Farmhouse.

Entertainment at the fair has varied from local talent to nationally known performers.  The Cookport Band, quality organization under the leadership of Hoyt Keating, was paid $150 to play at the fair in 1922.  The Sheepskin Band with Clyde Lloyd, fifer, appeared for many years.  The Purchase Line, Penns Manor, Marion Center, and Harmony Joint high school bands have been engaged, as have the Penn Run Kitchen Band and the Keen Age Fun Band.  The Jaffa Temple String Band was present in 1971. Galbreath Brothers, Grove City Plaidettes, Prairie Playboys, Dutch Campbell, Doc Williams, Ed Schaughnessy, Slim Bryant, Sweet Adelines, Bob Frick, Ken and Candy Snyder, and many others have displayed their talents at one time or another.  The Dairy Princess and Queen Evergreen have added a touch of royalty.

In 1924 the fair engaged the Corey Carnival, and later either the Smith or Merle Beam carnivals regularly supplied concessions and rides.  In 1955 local groups were solicited for concessions, and the Gabrick Engineering Company of Centre Hall, Pennsylvania, furnished rides.  Horseshoe pitching contests, pet parades, log sawing contests, and horse and tractor pulls also add to the entertainment.

The growth of the fair has been evident in various ways.  In 1947 the Cambria County townships of Barr and Susquehanna were invited to become exhibitors.  In 1949 all of the residents of Indiana County were invited to exhibit.  Pupils of elementary and secondary schools in these areas could also exhibit.  The Future Farmers of America, Grange, 4-H, and elementary grade displays have added much to fair interest.  As the production of Christmas trees emerged as a major industry in the county, the fair added competition for tree growers, and ten varieties of evergreens are listed for premiums.

Since at least 1958, and perhaps earlier, a popular feature has been the awarding of gate prizes contributed by area merchants.  In 1949, a five-day fair was instituted, and in 1971, a Sunday evening worship service was instituted to open the week of events.  The week following the Labor Day week has been set for the annual celebration. By-laws were amended to increase the nine-member board of directors to thirteen in 1971.

Over the years many dedicated men and women have unselfishly promoted the interests of the Association.  Ira Reithmiller ably served as President from 1927 to 1953.  O.W. Baker was Treasurer from 1937 to 1948 and Vice-President from 1928 to 1934.  T.D. Hooley was Treasurer from 1950 to 1967.  Lewis Henry retired in 1975 as janitor and caretaker and was named an honorary director.  Mrs. Henry’s assistance was also recognized.  They had served from 1922 through 1925 and again from 1937 until retirement, a total of forty-two years. In 1975 a monument was erected on the site of the Round House with the inscription “In Memory and Honor of All Who Contributed Time and Effort to the Success of the Cookport Fair.”

None of the charter members of the Association are still living, but if we were to pose the question as to whether or not their objectives are still being fulfilled, the answer would certainly be yes.

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 !!


Play On: The Indiana Shakespeare Club

Under the bare headline Local Items, a birth announcement of sorts appeared in the Indiana Democrat on December 4th, 1879:

“A select literary circle is being organized in Indiana.”

Unremarkable among 53 other one-liners, the note gave no name nor even the date of birth.  Who could have guessed the newborn would grow up to be a supercentenarian honored as “the oldest social and literary organization in Indiana County”?

Notwithstanding its little-noted beginning, the Amateur Social Club (as it was first christened) had as its parents “the choice and master spirits of the age,” as Shakespeare might say.  It was conceived by Josias Young, Chairman of Indiana Normal School’s language department, and its first complement of members included the likes of State Supreme Court Justice Silas Clark, Civil War General Harry White, Congressman Summers Jack and the grandparents of future actor Jimmy Stewart (see photo).  And while its purpose was the social integration of incoming Normal School faculty and their spouses, Professor Young’s choice of Shakespeare studies as the means to that end may have been prompted by a performance of Othello put on here by Pittsburgh’s Shakespeare Club the week before.

play on
SOME ORIGINAL  MEMBERS, L to R :  Standing – Augustine Purington, Anna White, James M. Stewart, Louisa Sutton, Silas Clark, Bela B. Tiffany, Summers Jack, Agnes Porter, George W. Hood, Edward H. Wilson.   Second Row, Seated – Eliza Purington,Thomas Sutton, Clarissa Clark, Harry White, Josephine Tiffany, John McWilliams, John W. Sutton, Mary Wilson.  Front Row, Seated – Ella Sutton, Margaret Jack (?), Cordelia Barr (?), Edward Sutton.

In any case, Professor Young and twelve others became charter members when that group met at photographer Bela Tiffany’s home on November 27th; thirteen more men and women were invited to become members the following day at the Club’s first formal meeting.  That number – thirteen married couples – remained the standard complement until it was increased to sixteen couples in the 1990s.

Membership was recruited from the academic, professional and commercial sectors of Indiana society, by invitation of existing members.  The seemingly narrow “couples only” tradition was in fact a progressive provision ensuring gender-balanced point of view on the varied and sometimes controversial topics to be addressed.  Spouses sat separately to encourage independent thought, and seating arrangements changed from meeting to meeting to avoid formation of cliques.

With the exception of Christmas week, meetings were held Friday evenings during the academic year (September-April) in members’ homes or at the Tea Room on special occasions.  Hosts and topics were scheduled a year in advance and printed in the Kalendar, a booklet given to each member.  After six years, the Club had gone through Shakespeare’s entire surviving folio, so they decided to pursue instead the popular Chautauqua course of morally-based adult education.  Many members “found it too much labor,” so when the course was completed in 1889, the Club stopped meeting.  But old members decided ambition should be made of sterner stuff; the Indiana Shakespeare Club reconvened in 1890, and has continued with remarkably few changes down to the present.

Tradition and stability have promoted the Club’s longevity.  There have been just eight presidents since its formation, from the redoubtable John Sutton (served 1879-1942) to second-generation member John Barbor.  Even little things contribute; chocolate and ice water have been served at the end of each program since the beginning, a holdover from when both commodities were expensive rarities.  And the Shakespearean tradition that the show must go on is upheld by the priority given meeting-attendance: the week of 9/11, members sang the National Anthem and headed to the Apple Theater in Delmont as scheduled.  Only World War II was allowed to interrupt, with just nine meetings held during those 45 months.

Some things have changed.  Perhaps due to the acceleration of life’s pace over the last century, meetings have gone from weekly or biweekly to monthly.  Men and women no longer retire to separate rooms to socialize after meetings adjourn.  And the Shakespeare Club has had five different names since its inception as the Amateur Social Club, including 1884’s Hyperion Shakespeare Club, a probable reference to the “quest for enlightenment” described in John Keats’ The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream.  But, what’s in a name . . .?

Examining the Kalendar of a particular year in its life gives us a good idea of the Club’s character and interests.  The booklet for the 1914-15 season is titled “The World’s Mine Oyster” on the cover and closes with the Club Toast, a parody of the song Maryland: “(W)ith cult of knowledge, love and mirth….”  Every page leads off with a quote from Shakespeare, Byron, Goethe, or the like.  Each week’s topic fits within the theme for that year – itself derived from current events – and is presented in a Shakespearean context when possible.  History, travel, science and civics are mainstays.  Some examples from that year’s Kalendar:

  • Count Zeppelin and his Inventions
  • Edison and his Achievements
  • Kaiser Wilhelm as Man and Father
  • Women in the Politics of 1915
  • Shakespeare and Democracy
  • A View of Socialism
  • Commercial Morality
  • The Shakespeare Tourist in Belgium, Serbia and Germany
  • The American Melting Pot

As you can see, the war in Europe and a comparison of America’s perspective with the combatants’ was that year’s theme.  Each host had months to prepare, and guest speakers with relevant experience or knowledge could be added at the last moment.  “Magic lantern” travelogues were a Club favorite.

At present as in past, one or more field trips may be made during the year.  Most are to theatrical or concert venues within a day’s travel, but in recent years the Club has even shown up at Pirates baseball games!  Perhaps the most memorable trip was in 1959, when the group traveled in a special Pennsylvania Railroad car to New York City.  There they attended a United Nations session and were given a guided tour of that institution by Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold’s executive assistant . . . who just happened to be club-member Ralph Cordier’s brother.

The Indiana Shakespeare Club was founded with the original intent of community integration and liaison, and that function is not absent today.  Members are drawn from every segment of society, and friendships forged between members tend to be lifelong and resemble family ties.  There is even an organizational sibling of sorts; the Ingleside Club, likewise founded in the 19th century, has many a literary interest in common with the Bard’s brood, and the two sometimes host each other’s meetings.

And so it goes.  Ah, but you ask how long the light of our Shakespeare Club will shine?  Ask not, for in Indiana County as in Stratford-upon-Avon, ignorance is the only darkness.  Say rather: How far that little candle throws its beams!

(How many hidden Shakespeare quotes canst thou  find in this script?)


Fads are funny things.  At first we look upon them with amusement; once they have us, we can’t imagine life without them, and after they’re gone, we look back with embarrassment and nostalgia.  Most are never heard from again (remember Furbies?).  But one fad has returned time and again since it first hit Indiana County in the 1880s: roller skating!

Though “patinage” (as it was then called) had been around since the mid-1700s, it wasn’t until the steerable quad-skate was invented in 1862 that roller skating really caught on.  Pennsylvania’s first modern rink opened in Philadelphia in 1877;  its asphalt surface was revolutionary, and with its gas lighting, in-house band and professional instructors, it set the standard for decades to come.

It was also controversial.  Some Pennsylvanians thought it a “corruptor of morals,” and upper-class folk stayed away once skate rentals drew crowds into what had been an exclusive sport.  Parents cited the frequency of injury, and police noticed that rinks attracted pickpockets and other predators.  But fun won out, and by the early 1880s it was a rare Pennsylvania town that didn’t  have a rink.

In that respect, our county may have been ahead of the curve.  In 1875, an Indiana stock company was formed to purchase land at Philadelphia and 4th Streets (where Sheetz is now) “for the purpose of establishing a skating rink in this place.”  Was it a roller rink?  Quite possibly, though not certainly.  While the Democrat reported that “water was turned into the skating park” before its opening that winter, neither ice skating or roller skating were ever mentioned; since ice was used for construction of some roller rinks at the time, it may have been either.  In any case, Indiana’s first rink was in operation for less than two years, and the property was sold at Sheriff’s Auction in 1878.  Perhaps a single-purpose, winter-only park just wasn’t profitable.


Our then-stringent moral climate may also have contributed to the first rink’s failure.  As chronicler Walter Jackson would later note, Indiana County was “slow getting its nose out of its elevated position” until well after rinks had come to Latrobe, Kittanning and Johnstown.  Even when our rinks finally did open, ads and articles were careful to stress that “no disorder will be tolerated, nor any improper characters admitted.”

But open they did – and all at once, or so it seemed.  In the seven months starting September 1884, no fewer than thirteen roller rinks opened here.  Plumville’s was the first and the last was in Cookport, with Indiana (3), Blairsville (2), Saltsburg (2), Marion Center, Clymer, Burnside and Smithport opening between.  Some of them found creative ways to avoid the here-today-gone-tomorrow perils of investing in a fad: the freight room of Indiana’s old depot, rented from the borough, hosted one rink, while the Marion Factory Skating Rink was intentionally designed for conversion to industrial use “as soon as it should fail to be a paying investment.”  But the three biggest were constructed with a single purpose in mind, and the competition between them became the stuff of legend.  They were Indiana’s Pavilion and Church Street rinks, and Blairsville’s Silver Lake.

Located where the municipal parking garage now stands, the Pavilion Skating Palace had a level skating floor of 180’ x 60’ and a gallery that could accommodate half the borough’s population. Plans originally called for that floor to be made of glass, but it was formed of oak in the end, “solid and perfect with no splinters.”  Lit by gas and heated by coal, it was in operation year round.  Admission was 10¢ and skate rentals were 15¢.  The capacity crowd on opening night (Sept. 25th) saw a professional troupe from Brookville perform and was entertained by the Indiana Cornet Band.

Like the proverbial other shoe dropping, the competition opened just eight weeks later behind where the present Post Office stands.  The Church Street Rink’s thousand-plus first night guests took turns circling the maple arena; skaters were given professional instruction, and “skate boys” helped novices adjust and oil their rentals.  A raised, railed gallery encircled the floor, and the house band played from a suspended platform at one end.

Not to be outdone, Blairsville chartered special trains to bring patrons from Indiana and Saltsburg to the opening of its Silver Lake Rink at East Brown and South East Lane.  The Indiana Progress, calling it the social event of the season, voiced the hope that it would “modify the bitter feeling that has existed between the citizens of these two towns for several years.”  And while something of a competition did develop that evening, “everything went as merry as a marriage bell.”  Silver Lake proved to be one of the county’s more enduring rinks.

Not everyone was welcome at the rinks.  In a front-page blurb, the Progress opined: “It is slightly comical that the roller skating rink managers object to negroes enjoying the privileges of the rink, yet are mighty glad to get ahold of greenbacks which are not good unless countersigned by Blanche K. Bruce, a negro.”  [Bruce was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury.]  The paper also reported that “(t)he colored people of Blairsville have a rink of their own.  No white trash admitted.”

Competition breeds invention.  At first, special events were of the “Ladies Only Night” variety, but the draws quickly became less subtle.  There was the Pavilion’s Mile Race, first won by Frank Hildebrand in 3:12, followed by Church Street’s Candle Race in which a still-burning wick was needed to win.  Both were topped by the Marion Factory Rink’s Turkey Race: “A bell will be put on the turkey.  Participants will be blindfolded, and whoever catches the fowl gets it as the prize.”  Touring professionals boosted attendance, too.  There were the midget Norwegian Acrobats, eight-year-old champion Hattie Gould, and the Robinson Combination Skaters (whose headliner Lulu Ruggles wore a then-scandalous knee length skirt).  Even Ringling Brothers Circus got in on the act, featuring stunt skaters when they passed through in 1885.

And then there was polo.  Developed from what was known locally as “shinny,” it was essentially field hockey on skates.  The sport must have been known here already, since the Indiana team’s first exhibition came just weeks after the Pavilion opened.  Team members (mostly late teens) were: Elmer Ansley, John Daugherty, Morgan Ellis, Frank Hildebrand, William Pitts, Reed Porter, and W. Frank Wettling.  They were wildly popular throughout the county, winning consistently against other SW Pennsylvania teams and hosting semi-pros from as far away as Chicago.  Polo stats were reported in our papers’ sports sections.

Indiana newspapers had a roller-related competition of their own.  Separate editorial sections being then unknown, the conservative Democrat and liberal Progress traded front-page barbs on the purported costs and benefits of rink attendance.  Viewpoints notwithstanding, each ran ads for skates from stores as distant as PittsburghThe Democrat had a section of witticisms called Rinktoms, and sly skate-poems dotted the Progress.

But fads are fickle things.  Just one month after the last of those thirteen rinks opened, they began to close, victims of our short attention-span.  The Pavilion was sold at Sheriff’s Auction in April 1885 and converted to buggy manufacture.  Six more followed by year’s end, and three more in 1886.  Cookport’s, the last to rise, was also the last to fall, closing in 1890.  One newspaper exulted, “Prayer meetings have filled up again!  Mothers don’t sit up nights for their rink-crazed dears, and papas don’t hear the cry for skates anymore.”  Yet two rinks rose again.  The Church Street Rink was remodeled and re-opened in 1887 as a multi-purpose opera house called Library Hall, but it welcomed back skaters part-time in 1888 by popular demand.  Its old rival the Pavilion was resurrected as a part-time rink as well in 1889.

The legacy lives on.  Reborn roughly once per generation, the “roller craze” has been taken up by young folk in five of the past twelve decades.  Hollywood has taken notice of it in films from Charlie Chaplin’s The Rink to Olivia Newton-John’s Xanadu.  Pittsburgh’s Steel City Rollers are one of nine Pennsylvania roller derby teams, and even Smicksburg’s Old Order Amish have adopted skates for commuting since the inline revolution of the 1990s.  Hmm . . . that makes it twenty-odd years since the last go-round.  Isn’t it about time to get craze-y again?