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.

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.

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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.

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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!

Early Days of Agriculture

Agriculture has always been an important industry in Indiana County.  There were some improvements to the industry during the early 1800s, these improvements included the cast iron mold board plow, the horse-drawn drag rake, the horse-drawn cultivator with cast iron shovels, and the use of iron teeth on the A-frame harrows. Grain was still being cut with cradles and threshed by flails and hay was cut with scythes. In the rough areas, sleds were more common than wagons in both summer and winter.

To give an idea of how agriculture had grown, the 1820 Census listed 1,950 persons with agriculture as their occupation, this figure grew to 4,507 in the 1840 Census.

Early visitors to the area got the impression that most of the farms and farm houses were rather miserable looking.  Charles Dickens, traveling by canal, reported that some of the settlers had “Cabins with simple ovens outside, made of clay; and lodgings for the pigs, nearly as good as many of the human quarters; broken windows, patched with worn-out hats, old clothes, old boards, fragments of blankets and paper; and home-made dressers standing in the open air without the door, whereon was ranged the household store, not hard to count, of earthen jars and pots.”

In the early days of farming, stray animals were an issue, as time progressed straying continued but was gradually brought under control by the use of rail fences. The 1820 Census listed 5,995 “neat cattle” and 2,715 horses in Indiana County. Some matters, like the services of stallions and bulls, were advertised rather discretely. In 1835, Joseph Loughry of Blairsville, advertised that his stallion “Sir Thomas Hickory,” a thoroughbred, was available at $6 cash the single leap, $8 the season, or $12 for insuring a foal.

The farm animals got little feed during the warm months, they lived on the grass and other naturally growing plants. During the winter cows lived on ferns, and the hogs lived on acorns and hickory nuts. Wild animals caused a problem for farmers; in some areas the sheep were herded into the old blockhouses to protect them from the wolves at night. Bears were also a problem, not just for livestock, but for the crops; it was reported that they would destroy whole fields of corn. In another instances, many hogs were killed by bears in Cherryhill Township.

Not much is known of the crops during the early years of agriculture, but production was probably poor. A major known crop was wheat, the 1820 Census reported 16 grist mills that ground 48,000 bushels of grain. Some grain was converted into 18,000 gallons of whiskey by the 27 distilleries. By 1830 there were 22 grist mills and by 1840 there were 51 and three steam-powered flour mills, but there were only seven distilleries making 5,740 gallons of whiskey. The three flour mills produced 2,750 barrels of flour. There were two major forms of power for grist mills, the first was water power, and where that was not available then horse-powered mills were used. A large water-powered grist mill on Blacklick Creek about ten miles outside of Blairsville, was described as having a heavy overshot water wheel capable of grinding 100 barrels of flour per day.

As the 1800s progressed, so did new farming implements and machinery. A July 1840 advertisement stated that the manufacture of threshing machine had begun. The machine was simple and compact, and was suitable for either barn or field. Some early threshing machines were inclined treadmills on which a horse walked, which revolved a fly wheel attached to the cylinder of the thresher. Although it was simple, it could cause accidents, this was seen in 1845 when Samuel Doty of Blacklick Township had to have his arm amputated above the wrist due to a threshing machine mishap.

On August 11, 1841, Robert Fallon of Indiana advertised an “Improved Stump Machine,” which could “with the aid of one horse, a little labor and a small moity (sic) of the farmer’s time, will soon extract all the stumps on the plantation.” The cost of the machine would not be over $75.

Enoch Farmsworth of Indiana County designed a stump pulling machine that was later manufactured at the Indiana Foundry. He was also the original inventory of the sled lock, which was used to prevent a horse-drawn sled from sliding too fast down a snow-covered steep grade.

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Another early machine was the “Coleman’s Patent Grain Refiner,” patented by John Coleman on March 20, 1844. The claim by Coleman was that the machine would remove chaff, dust, cheat, cockle, pigeonweed, sticks, nails, stones and rat direct and would save farmers anywhere from 2 ½ to 5 bushels out of 100.

The early days of agriculture were difficult, but the invention of new machinery agriculture was becoming more simplified and more efficient.

It’s Fair Time!

This year marks the 156th Indiana County Fair, and this week has always been a great time for those living within Indiana County. As with all fairs there is the usual exhibitions of animals, agricultural products, home-made goods, etc. but there are also fun features such as harness racing, balloon ascensions, medicine shows, carousels, and more. 

There were some notable balloon ascensions at the Indiana Fair. In October 1873, A “Professor Light” made a balloon ascension which onlookers came very near being involved in an accident. At the time there was a western wind which blew the balloon into a large tree, so Professor Light saw the danger and threw out some of his sand bag ballast. The balloon raised enough to escape danger, but the sand bag struck Mrs. Myers on the back of her head, but she was not severely injured. The balloon descended in Cambria County and Professor Light was back in Indiana County the next morning for another trip. 

In 1874, Master John A. Wise, age 13 made a balloon ascension at the Fair. As he ascended he waved the American Flag. It was reported that this was his first aerial voyage alone. His father was a noted balloonist, hailed as the “Father of American Ballooning,” he made the longest balloon trip in America – he traveled 800 miles in 1859 – a record which stood until 1910. Little John landed four miles north of Indiana. 

In 1890, there was another exciting balloon exhibition at the Fair. There was a balloon ascension that featured parachute jumps, this was never seen in Indiana County. This was featured as part of a balloon race and after achieving the height of two or three thousand feet, a signal was given and both men jumped from the balloon and opened their parachutes. 

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Hand painted plates that were entered in the 1890 Indiana County Fair art division 

Another popular event at the Fair were the horse races. At first the tract was only one-fifth of a mile long, but this was lengthened in 1876 to one-third mile. An annual “Ladies Riding Match” was held on the Friday afternoon of Fair Week. This featured proud equestrians on well-groomed mount, with flowing skirts and natty accouterments, and the side-saddled up and down the tract. 

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A horse race on August 26, 1949 at the Indiana County Fair

Some other noteworthy Fair happenings: 

In 1887, a troupe of 25 Indians dressed in full Indian costume was advertised for the Fair. 

In 1888, Indiana merchants offered a list of gifts to a couple who would be publicly married in the Music Stands at the Fair Grounds. 

In 1889, the Fair had a “large steam flying machine” that was brought from Idlewild Park. It featured 24 artificial horses and a number of carriages which were located on a forty feet diameter platform, run by steam, along with music. Fair goers could ride the carousel for 5 cents a person. 

The 1896 fair drew crowds thanks to a display of a “petrified woman.” 

In 1915, there was a bomb-dropping demonstration. 

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A group of eight, possibly normal-school girls, posing in front of the Smith Photography barn at the fair in 1895. 

See Clarence Stephenson’s 175th Anniversary History.