Decoration Day 1869

May 30, 1868 was the first national commemoration of Memorial Day, when Union General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, set aside that day “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, hamlet and churchyard in the land.”

At the time, there was no GAR post in Indiana County, so it is uncertain how the day was celebrated in the County.  However, there is an old postcard marked “First Decoration Day in Blairsville, Pa., 1868, in Market Square at Everett House.”  Later that year, on September 15, Kearney Post No. 28, GAR, was organized in Indiana.

For a number of years it was the only veterans’ organization in Indiana County. The first post commander was Col. Daniel S. Porter.  The other officers were Henderson C. Howard, senior vice commander; John Weir, junior vice commander; William R. Black, adjutant; Geoge A. McHenry, quartermaster; Dr. Robert Barr, surgeon; Theodroe Henderson, officer of the day; and John S. Fleming, officer of the guard.

When Memorial Day (also known as Decoration Day) came on May 29, 1869, Post 28 invited the other fraternal orders in Indiana to participate.  The Committee of Arrangements, consisting of George R. Lewis, S.A. Douglass, W.R. Loughry, Charles H. Row and William S. McLain, announced the following program:

            10am – The Post will meet at its hall and march to the Presbyterian Church followed by the others orders.

            At the church – Music on the organ titled “Lincoln’s Funeral March.” Reading of Gen. Logan’s general Order No. 21, Headquarters, GAR, and General Order No. 4, Headquarters, Department of Pennsylvania.  Prayer.  “Star Spangled Banner” by the choir.  Orations by Col. D.S. Porter and the Rev. J.H. Young.  Announce the order of procession to the cemeteries. Prayer.

            11am – Form in procession and march to the cemeteries.  A string band directed by H. Hargrave will halt at the head of each grave and play an appropriate march while the procession passes by on either side of the grave, each member dropping one or more flowers on the grave.  Return to the halls of the respective orders for dismissal.

The merchants of Indiana were requested to close between 10am and noon.  “It is hoped that so far as it is possible every one will join with us in strewing the graves with flowers, or dropping a tear over those who, when their country called, did not refuse to die.  Come one, come all, and make this one day sacred to the memory of our departed comrades.”  Afterward a complete account of the Memorial Day proceedings was published in the Indiana Register and American, occupying about four columns.

From this time on, similar ceremonies took place each year, and the day was long known as Decoration Day because of the custom of decorating the graves of soldiers with flowers. There were not nearly as many soldiers’ graves to be decorated then as now, only four years after the Civil War ended, so it was feasible to arch to each individual grave.

Unlike many other communities and counties, neither Indiana nor Indiana County ever erected a monument to its Civil War soldiers, but Saltsburg did on May 31, 1876, and that monument still stands in Edgewood Cemetery.

Civil War Monument Edgewood Cemetery, Saltsburg, PA

On that day, a few minutes after 3pm, the 8th and 9th Divisions, 13th Regiment of the Pennsylvania National Guard, took positions around the monument.  Division officers and bands were on the east side, the rank and file on the south and west sides, and an “immense throng of civilians” on the north side of the monument.

The 8th Division band played “a solemn dirge, the melancholy notes of which seemed to impress the vast audience with the full import of the occasion.”  This was followed by a prayer by the Rev. Adam Torrence.  Simon Portser, secretary of the cemetery board, read the list of contents of a box which had been sealed in the monument.

W.I. Sterett, president of the cemetery board, announced the officers of the day, including Major Samuel Cooper, a veteran of the War of 1812, president; nine vice presidents and two secretaries.  Adjutant General James W. Latta made brief remarks and unveiled the monument.  General Harry White delivered the dedicatory address, followed by the Rev. Major Core and Col. C.W. Hazzard.  Then the band played another selection and the Rev. W.W. Woodend pronounced the benediction.

Saltsburg on this occasion did not have GAR post, but the R. Foster Robinson Post 36 was organized the following year on July 5, 1877, and was the second GAR post in Indiana County.  Findley Patch Post 137, Blairsville, organized June 20, 1881, with 99 charter members and was followed soon by John Pollock Post 219, Marion Center, on August 20, 1881.

Several other GAR posts were organized in later years.  To each of them fell the responsibility of observing Decoration Day, and the pattern in all the communities for many years was similar to the one in Marion Center in 1883:

MEMORIAL DAY as observed in Marion

“Wednesday, Memorial day, was observed with marked attention at this place.  John Pollock Post, No. 219, GAR, having made necessary arrangements, met at their hall at 9 o’clock, when details were sent to Gilgal, Mahoning and Washington.  An audience was in attendance at each place, and after performing appropriate services, they returned to this place.

“At about 2 o’clock the Post, with a large number of citizens, assembled at the hall.  At 2:30 the procession, containing from three to four hundred persons, formed and headed by the Marion Cornet Band, which discoursed suitable music, marched to the cemetery.  After the usual services by the Post, the assemblage was addressed by Squire Kinnan of Gettysburg (now Hillsdale), after which the procession marched to the M.E. Church, where after music by the choir, W.L. Stewart, Esq., of Indiana, delivered the memorial address.  The oration was well delivered and was listened to with unusual attention by the large audience.  After the services in the church, the procession again formed and marched to the hall, where the audience was dismissed.”

As the ranks of the Civil War veterans thinned and aged, the responsibility for Memorial Day was assumed for some time by the Sons of Union Veterans and by their auxiliaries and then by the American Legion, VFW, and other veterans’ organizations.

Prior to the Civil War, there were no organized veterans’ groups in Indiana County.  The GAR might, therefore, be considered the inspiration and the ancestor of our present veterans’ organizations, who have adopted much the same type of organization and in some cases naming their posts in the same way for leaders or deceased members, for example, Joseph A. Blakley Camp 227, Spanish-American War Veterans, Indiana; Richard W. Watson Post 141 American Legion, Indiana; or John W. Dutko Post 7412, VFW, Homer City.

Another notable Memorial Day took place on May 30, 1925, when the Doughboy Monument in Indiana’s Memorial Park was dedicated.

The granite shaft was donated by the Farmers Bank of Indiana and the statute by Vernon Taylor.  A parade formed at the YMCA (now the Indiana Free Library) and marched to the park.  Richard W. Watson was chief parade marshal.  At 10 a.m. John S. Fisher gave an address.  The monument was presented and dedicated by Juliet White Watson and unveiled by the Gold Star Mothers.  James W. Mack, president of Indiana Borough Council, accepted the monument.  The Boy Scout Band provided music.

Doughboy Statute in Memorial Park

Accurate figures are not available for the number of Indiana County men and women who have served in our nation’s wars, but the 73 who served in the Revolution were buried in scattered cemeteries.  Forty-four served in the War of 1812 and an unknown number in the Indian wars.  About 20 were in the Mexican War.  The Civil War or “War of the Rebellion” called upon 3,680 Indiana County citizens, who served with great distinction.  One hundred eighty-three answered the call to the Spanish-American War.  Those who were in the World War II do not seem to have been tabulated correctly.  The number of World War II form Indiana County has been estimated at more than 13,000.  The number in the Korean and Vietnam wars is not available.

Major Samuel Cooper of Saltsburg, who died December 21, 1881, may have been the last veteran of the War of 1812. When Conrad Pifer of the Rochester Mills area died January 14, 1911, he was the last veteran of the Mexican War.  John C. Featherstone of 7 South Third Street, Indiana, was said to be “the only survivor of the Indian wars in this section” when he celebrated his 86th birthday in August 1938.

Dr. W.S. Shields of Marion Center, who died September 11, 1946, was the last of the Civil War veterans.

As we carry on the tradition of Memorial Day, it might be well to heed the admonition of General Logan in his first Memorial Day order in 1868: “Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages or time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of a free undivided republic.”

That Gallant Company

Many histories have chronicled the events of the Civil War, but all too often the individual fighting man has been submerged beneath a deluge of grand strategies, potbellied generals, tactical evolutions, and glorious sacrifices.  “Billy Yank” of 1861-1865 counted his Civil War service as the greatest and most memorable event of his life.  Among his myriad experiences, the most frightening and influential was the initial exposure to enemy fire.  This first blooding hardened the green, romantic recruit into a mature, professional veteran who would carry the war through to its conclusion.

Indiana County provided several companies of men for the Union war effort.  Among these was Company B of the Eleventh Regiment of the Pennsylvania Reserves Division.  Raised from throughout the County in May 1861, Company B joined the Eleventh Regiment at Camp Wright, near Pittsburgh.  Company B shared the same heritage and background of the Eleventh Regiment, which was recruited entirely from that part of Pennsylvania west of the Alleghenies.  The one hundred men and four officers of the “Indiana Guards” rapidly settled into the time-honored army routine of drilling and conditioning.  Later, at Camps Tenally and Pierpont near Washington, D.C., they spent the winter of 1861 shaking down into fighting order.

Col. Samuel M. Jackson enlisted with the Eleventh as a company commander and finally became its commanding officer.

The soldiers’ dispatches home displayed the cocky confidence of untried warriors.  In August, one wrote, “Let them come, we’ll give them a warm reception.” Lieutenant Hannibal K. Sloan reported in January, “Never been in better health or better condition. Eager to meet enemy on the open ground. All seem to enjoy camp life.”

Their letters were concerned with camp life, rather than the military regimen.  Mitch, an anonymous correspondent of the Company whose letters frequently appeared in the home town newspapers, reported on August 27 from Camp Tenally, “The health of the Indiana National Guard is good.  Our rations are generally very good.  Our rations are generally very good.  The Guards have the best cook in the Regiment.” One member, however, found the army fare too coarse for his delicate palate, and complained, “Every day it is the same.  Bread, meat, coffee, and bean soup.  If you can send us some elderberries, corn, tomatoes, or anything of that sort…a little butter when the weather gets colder, would be very pleasant.”

Col. Thomas Gallagher of the Eleventh was captured at Gaine’s Mill.

Toward the end of their stay, Mitch summed up what he called the “Monastery of Camp Life;” “we have had a very pleasant time in Camp Pierpont, having enjoyed ourselves as well as could be expected of men in our condition.  Of late we have originated debating clubs, which, by the way, is a variety.”

With warm weather came the opening of a new campaign season, and Union Commander George B. McClellan opened his Peninsula Campaign aimed at Richmond and the vitals of the Confederacy.  Company B waited impatiently, fuming at having “To remain behind while other corps are welding their power to the destruction of the rebellion…the men are eager to participate in coming struggle.  They are indignant at even a hint of being held in reserve.”

On June 12, the Eleventh Regiment joined the Army of the Potomac at White House, Virginia.  Assigned to the Fifth Corps, the reserves proceeded to Beaver’s Dam Creek near Mechanicsville, where they assumed their position on the extreme right of the Union Army.  Lt. Col. Samuel Jackson wrote on June 18, “Expect a general engagement this night. Our boys anxious for the fight.”  On June 26, the Confederate commander, Robert E. Lee, initiated a flanking movement designed to crush the Union right.  In fighting that lasted until dark, the Confederates repeatedly tried the Federal entrenchments.  The Eleventh Reserves guarded the Corp’s left flank.  “From our position on picket, firing soon became heavy, and the musket balls, shells, and solid shot, were flying over our heads in greater profusion than was pleasant.”  They remained without sleep for two straight nights, and that evening they covered the withdrawal to Gaines Mill.  After a seventeen-mile night march, and a brief covering skirmish that cost Company H one man, the Eleventh passed through Union lines for what proved to be a brief respite.

Fighting continued on and off June 27, and by 3:00 p.m. the action became general as Lee again resolved to crush the Federal right.  The Eleventh had just been ordered into the fighting when Company B was detached to put handles into five hundred axes urgently needed to build fortifications.  Working near a field hospital, they were subjected to the worst possible scenes that war could muster.  Sgt. John Sutor wrote, “I will not cause you to shudder by telling you of the many horrible sights we were beheld.”  Meanwhile, Lee’s men slammed brutally against the Federal lines.  With units beginning to fragment under the incredible onslaught and unable to rejoin their regiment, Company B was formed in an attempt to stem the retreat.  Suddenly engaged in “a fight that almost beggars description,” their ranks were raked by shot and shell.  With two men killed, Company B joined the Fifth Corp’s frenzied retreat to reunite with McClellan’s Army.

Shaken by these twin defeats, McClellan withdrew to a new supply base on the James River.  He did this without the Eleventh Reserves, which had been captured at Gaines Mill.  One hundred and six survivors, primarily from Company B, were organized into two companies attached to the Seventh Reserves for the remainder of the Seven Days Campaign.

Lee continued his attempts to roll up the Army of the Potomac.  At Glendale, on June 30, the Seventh Reserves, with Indiana’s Company B, were on the right rear of the Reserve’s Division battle line.  Lee’s determined men attacked about 4:00 p.m., and the gray regiments tackled the Seventh as the sun was beginning to set, providing eerie illumination for what was one of the few true bayonet fights of the war.  The Seventh Regiment began to crumble, and in the confusion and twilight, nobody really determined what happened after that.  What is known is that the men from Indiana charged without hesitation into the fray.  Cpl. Henderson C. Howard, a six-foot giant of a man, captured a Confederate battle flag.  Pvt. James J. Oatman was knocked down by the windage of a shell and taken prisoner.  Lt. Hannibal K. Sloan wrote that “this battle, I do not think, can be exceeded for fierceness.  The butternuts were piled up in perfect heaps.”  The fight ended at nightfall in mutual exhaustion and disorganization.

Monument to the Eleventh on the Wheatfield, Gettysburg National Military Park.

Of the one hundred six men that Capt. Daniel S. Porter and Lt. Sloan had taken into action that day, nine were dead, fifteen wounded, and ten missing.  That night the battered survivors retired to Malvern Hill, where they were placed in reserve.  From here, they marched to Harrison’s Landing for a period of needed rest and recuperation.

The much desired and long awaited event had finally come.  In the vernacular of the period, they had “seen the elephant.”  Pvt. Leo Faller of the companion Seventh Reserves wrote his parents, “If any one tells you that the Rebels will not fight just tell them to come down to this neck of the country and try them on…This is the last of the fighting for that time and I hope the last altogether but if the Rebels are not satisfied I am willing to pitch in again.  Tell some of those patriotic young men…that now is the Appointed time and they should come accordingly.”

Lt. Hannibal K. Sloan proudly told Indiana, “Gen. McClellan says we have done as well as men could do, so that he will put us to the rear of his army and let us rest…probably we have seen our last battle.  I am in first rate health and spirits at present.”  Sgt. John Sutor reported on July 15, “Good deal of sickness among soldiers (but) boys are again beginning to assume their formal jovial dispositions.”

A reunion of Company B veterans.

The Indiana Guards faced further struggle at Second Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg, but their first battle, their most arduous test, was behind them.  From this experience, they would mature into one of the Army of Northern Virginia’s “most dreaded foes…always in deadly earnest.”  On the battlefields of Gaines Mill and Glendale, their sacrifices and experiences first earned this reputation.

Harry White: General, Senator, Judge, and Master of Croylands

For a Judge in Indiana County to bear on his arms the teeth marks of bloodhounds employed to track down escaped prisoners is quite unusual, but Harry White was a most interesting person in Indiana County history.  In fact, his long and eventful career is likely unsurpassed in local annals with respect to versatility, public service, and sheer drama.

Harry White was the fourth and youngest child of Thomas and Catherine White and was born in Indiana in 1834.  His father was the distinguished Judge of the 10th Pennsylvania whose only fault, according to a lawyer friends, was that “I sometimes thought he leaned a little against me in a trial lest it would be thought that his friendship affected his fairness and impartiality on the bench.”

harry white
Harry White

Young Harry received his early education at Indiana Academy (located on the site of the Clark House) and from private tutors.  In 1850, he entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) which awarded him his degree in 1854.  Although he desired to go south which one of his classmates and teach school, he yielded to his father’s request to return to Indiana and begin the study of law.  After serving a two-year apprenticeship in his father’s law office, Harry passed the bar examination administered by a special committee of three lawyers. Characteristically, he assisted in the trial of a case the day following his admission to the bar.

That same year, 1856, the Republican party emerged as a power in national politics.  Despite the fact that this was the first national election in which the 22-year-old barrister voted, he became so actively engrossed in the new party’s anti-slavery stand that he was named the first Chairman of the Republican party in Indiana County.  He made his maiden political speech in Blairsville which he followed up with such a vigorous campaign that Fremont, the Republican Presidential candidate, swept the County by a whopping majority.

Assured of a bright future, Harry White in 1860 married the lovely Anna Lena Sutton whose family occupies a prominent position in Indiana County.  They had two daughters and two sons.

Attorney White’s political zeal and prowess were noted by party leaders who marked him as a comer in the party.  In 1859-60 he entered local politics by getting himself elected to the Indiana Borough Council.  However, the outbreak of the Civil War interrupted White’s rising political stardom for four years.  Organizing a company which elected him Captain, he tendered the unit to Governor Curtin who politely rejected it.  When Captain White inquired why the Governor had not accepted his offer, Curtin replied: “I did not accept you because of the request of your father.  You know, Harry, how highly I esteem your father, and with tears in his eyes he besought me not to accept you for service as you were all he had at home.” (Harry’s sister, Juliet, had died in 1853 and his two older brothers, Richard and Alexander, had left Indiana.)

After cogitating a moment on the Governor’s explanation, Harry replied: “I am sorry to distrust my father, but I feel it my duty to go into the serve and I am going, if I have to carry a musket.”  Sensing White’s firm resolve, the Governor rejoined, “If that is the way of it I will commission you as Major of the 67th Regiment, which is struggling in recruiting at Cammacks Woods at Philadelphia.”

Upon receiving his commission, Major White proceeded to recruit and organize his regiment which went into active service during the early part of 1862.  For a while the regiment was detailed to protect the railroads around Washington, after which it was sent to Harper’s Ferry and Berryville which commanded the approaches to Virginia’s lush Shenandoah Valley, “Breadbasket of the Confederacy.”

While White was thus serving with the Union Army in Virginia, the votes of his senatorial district, which then comprised of Indiana and Armstrong Counties, elected him to the Senate of Pennsylvania.  President Lincoln granted the Major a leave of absence to attend the legislative session which convened in January 1863.  During the ensuing months, he occasionally slipped away to visit his troops, and he turned over his entire Senate salary to the Soldiers’ Relief Fund of Armstrong and Indiana Counties.

In the spring of 1863, he rejoined his regiment just before General Lee began his northern invasion which culminated in the battle of Gettysburg. White’s force marched his regiment to Winchester to reinforce General Milroy whose division was crushed and swept aside by the advance of General Richard Ewell’s corps as it surged toward Pennsylvania.  In this decisive engagement the redoubtable 9th Louisiana Tigers captured Major White.

At this stage of the war, the combatants had discontinued the practice of exchanging prisoners.  Hence, Major White was incarcerated at Libby Prison in Richmond.  Here he languished until the fall of 1863 when an agreement was reached for the exchange of surgeons.  Seeing in this ruling an opportunity to escape, White disguised himself as a surgeon and was taken aboard a flag-of-truce steamer which sailed down the James River toward City Point where the exchange was to be effected.  As the boat neared its destination, the Confederate commissioner in charge of the exchange received word that Major White was aboard disguised as a surgeon.  Thereupon he ordered the prisoners to line up and demand that Major White “come forth.” The Major manfully complied without hesitation, but contended that he had a right to employ any stratagem to escape.  The Confederate commission did not dispute this point, but nevertheless returned his charge to Libby where he was confined in a dungeon until Christmas.  Then he was transferred to the prison at Salisbury, North Carolina where he was placed in solitary confinement for the remainder of the winter.

The severe treatment meted Major White was occasioned partly by his effort to escape and partly by a political situation.  The latter centered around the equal division of the Pennsylvania Senate into “hawks” and “doves” with respect to the prosecution of the war.  As White was an avowed “hawk,” the Confederate government resorted to extreme measures to bar his escape or exchange even though the Federal government offered a captured Confederate Major General and several officers of lesser rank in return for the Indianian.

During the spring and summer of 1864, several attempts were made to move White to notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia, but each time he managed to escape only to be recaptured.  On his last escapade the Major was recaptured after 29 days by vicious bloodhounds which left deep teeth scars on his arm.  In September, after 16 months of debilitating imprisonment, Major White finally rejoined the Union Army near Atlanta by using a ruse to get out of prison and joining a group of prisoners who were being exchanged after the Atlanta campaign.

After serving briefly with General George Thomas in the Nashville campaign, Major White returned home, reaching Indiana on the night of October 5, 1864.  He quickly regained his normal vigor and early in November he attended a reception in his honor at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.  Governor Curtin, the master of ceremonies on this felicitous occasion, called on the hero from Indiana to recount his harrowing experiences.

In the waning months of the war, Governor Curtin commissioned Harry White Colonel of the 67th Regiment, and upon his discharge, President Lincoln brevetted him a Brigadier General.

Returning to Indiana after Appomattox, General White zestfully re-entered the political arena.  Beginning in 1865 he served in the State Senate until 1874 at an annual salary of $1,000. As party leader in the Senate, he sponsored a number of important measures including the Evidence Act of 1869 which permitted interested parties to testify on their own behalf in court cases.  He also spearheaded the drive for a Constitutional convention which met in 1872-73 to reform and update the State Constitution.

Among Senator White’s major legislative achievements was the framing and passage in 1871 of an act which chartered and appropriated $20,000 to establish the State Normal School at Indiana (now IUP).  This grant provided the stimulus and encouragement needed to proceed with plans to purchase land and construct buildings.  For this new educational enterprise, the Senator personally lent his support to the project by attending the meeting in County Superintendent J.T. Gibson’s office at which the Normal School Association was formed. Subsequently, he generously subscribed to stock in the school and served on the Board of Trustees for over 40 years.

About this time, Senator White built Croylands, a commodious 13-room gabled, frame house.  It was erected for $6,000 on land which had belonged to White’s father; Croylands became a prominent landmark.

croylands2
Croylands

In 1872, Senator White became a candidate for Governor but lacking machine support he lost the nomination to General Hartranft.  Four years later, White was elected Congressman-at-Large from the district encompassing Armstrong, Clarion, Forest, Indiana, and Jefferson Counties.  Shortly after assuming his seat in the 45th Congress, White was appointed a “visiting statesman” to assist in the arbitration of the Hayes-Tilden election.

In Washington, Congressman White secured an appropriation for the improvement of the upper Allegheny River designed to make it navigable during all seasons.  He also served on the Burnside Military Commission which revamped the organization of the U.S. Army.  During his first time, he vigorously espoused a Constitutional amendment which would provide for the popular election of U.S. Senators at the polls, but in this he was 30 years ahead of his time.

At the age of 50, Harry White departed the national and state legislatures to run for president judge of his judicial district which covered Indiana County.  He served in this post with distinction from 1884 to 1905.  His tenure was marked by a series of controversial decisions involving the granting of liquor licenses.  As state Senator he had authored a law whereby the court received, heard, and passed on license applications.  Upon ascending to the bench, Judge White adopted the policy of deciding each case on the basis of the petitions which were filed for and against the granting of a liquor license.  The result was that he granted no such licenses during his first ten-year term, and consequently, Indiana County was without a hotel licensed to sell alcoholic beverages.

The liquor interests retaliated by organizing the opposition to Judge White’s re-election, and they almost succeeded.  After winning the contested election by less than 100 votes, Judge White responded to the sentiment expressed by the voters and henceforth approved a number of liquor license applications.

Judge White left the bench in 1905 to resume, after a long interval, his successful law practice and to engage in numerous business and civic activities.  As the largest individual landowner in the county, he frequently inspected his 1,000-acre domain astride his dark mount, Croylands.  His spare figure also was a familiar sight in town where he served as president of the Indiana County Deposit Bank which his father had helped organize.  He was first Master of the Indiana Masonic Lodge No. 313 and served as the commander of the G.A.R. in Indiana.

On the morning of June 23, 1920, Harry White died at Croylands and was buried in Oakland Cemetery.  His 86-year career, which bridged two centuries, constitutes a proud and notable chapter in the history of Indiana County.

Uncle Ben

So, you think you can multitask?  Not surprising; if you’re an urban twenty-something armed with the latest cybertechnology, it’s what you do.  But what if you’re a fifty year old living on the urban fringe, and the highest tech you’ve ever seen is steam?  Well, if you’re Benjamin Franklin Williams of Cookport and it’s the 1880s, you operate a mill, foundry, hotel, newspaper, machine shop, livery stable, roller rink and community center while supporting the local Grange, G.A.R., Odd Fellows and temperance league . . . all while raising a family.  Now that’s  multitasking!

B.F. Williams was truly a man of his time and place and people. His parents came to what is now Cambria County about 1830, bringing with them the “never-say-die” adaptability common to Welsh immigrants of the day. Their firstborn was a credit to that tradition, and was well-named.  Benjamin (“son of my right hand”) was so energetic and reliable that John and Ann split the family farm, built a house on the new parcel, and sent four family members and a servant to be his household there.

Though the 1860 Census lists him as a farmer, the young man seems to have learned the blacksmith’s trade in the previous decade.  Nevertheless, his first job off the farm was as operator of his own planing mill.  The Ebensburg Alleghenian noted in 1861 that “Mr. B.F. Williams, with commendable energy, is making rapid headway toward completion of his mill.  The engine, which has been steamed up several times, is graced with a melodious whistle….”  To its planing apparatus he added a flouring mill, a corn cob crusher and a patriotic name.  That name was not incidental.  The Union Planing Mill opened just as the Civil War began, and its advertising slogan borrowed from Stephen Decatur’s famous toast: “The Union – right or wrong!”

Uncle Ben ad
Ebensburg Alleghenian ad for B.F. Williams’ first business

That same patriotism moved Benjamin to enlist during the Emergency of 1862.  With the Confederate Army at our southern border, Governor Curtin called for volunteers; ninety-two men of Ebensburg formed the “Barker Guards” (Company E of the 4th Militia) and were rushed to the front north of Antietam.  But the armies clashed further south on the line, and only the 4th’s artillery engaged.  The Emergency – and their enlistment – lasted fifteen days.

Every soldier needs someone to come home to, and for Benjamin, it was his Jennie.  Jane Tibbott probably came into his life through a fraternal order called the Sons of Temperance.  Reverend William Tibbott was already a member when Benjamin joined in 1860, and his daughter’s name appeared (controversially for the day) on the Ebensburg rolls in 1861.  The were married by Jane’s father the following February.

Benjamin’s sudden enlistment was not the first or last challenge the couple would meet.  They lost their barn and livestock to a fire three months after they wed, and the Union Planing Mill met the same fate at the hands of an “incendiary” (arsonist) a week before their first anniversary.  The mill’s remaining orders were subcontracted while Benjamin waited to rebuild; its ads continued until the insurance claim was paid in August.

Life chose that very moment to get stranger still.  Though they had already served, members of the mustered-out Barker Guards were declared eligible for the draft of 1863, and Benjamin was among those “drawn from the wheel” that August.  All but two of the drafted veterans were subsequently ruled exempt by the Board of Enrollment, for reasons ranging from disability to family status.  Benjamin Williams and Thomas Lloyd “paid commutation.”

What was commutation, and why did Benjamin pay it?  In those days, draftees were allowed by law to substitute money or manpower for their obligation – someone willing to serve in their stead, or $300 cash (about six months’ income).  As to why a man brave and patriotic enough to volunteer for combat at Antietam would buy his way out of the draft, none can say.  Perhaps he, like the veteran who writes this article, thought the draft inconsistent with American freedoms.  In any case, the announcement of his commutation was the last time Benjamin F. Williams’ name would appear in print for five years.

The couple moved north in 1865, and bankruptcy followed.  The next Census found Benjamin as a lumberman of rural Green Township, Indiana County.  In 1867, the name Williams was added to the proprietors of Indiana’s Excelsior Planing Mill; though the ad gave no first name, its wording resembled the old Union Planing Mill ad’s, so Benjamin – a timber supplier with mill experience – may have been the new partner.

That the couple maintained their Ebensburg ties was apparent.  Benjamin was listed among those paid for services to the Poor and Employment House of Cambria County, and visits by the couple’s relatives were regularly noted in county newspapers.  But Uncle Ben and Aunt Jennie, as they had come to be known, were fast becoming the leading citizens of a town very different from the one they had left behind.

Before the 1880s, Cookport had a reputation as a frontier-style town, a logging community where urban social codes had yet to penetrate.  Something of its nature comes through in the 1871 Atlas of Indiana County: a saloon, a hotel and three planing mills stand opposite one school and a church.  Yet about that time, articles crediting Cookport’s steadily-improving character to people like Benjamin and Jane began appearing in the Indiana Progress:

Several newcomers have made their homes among us, whose deportment is calculated to work quite a change in the morals of this place. A few more … and Cookport may become as noted for the honor and sobriety of its citizens as it has been for their rowdiness and intemperance.  God speed the day!

The name Williams disappeared from Excelsior Planing Mill ads after 1871, but Benjamin was not resting on his laurels.  He built a blacksmithy and wagon-making shop in Cookport that autumn and was elected a township Overseer the following spring.  His neighbor, postmaster William Kinter, was chosen Auditor in that same election.  Their association would extend to at least four businesses and one U.S. patent over the next eight years.

Their first project together was not one you would expect from a lumberman and a postmaster, but it worked.  The Cookport Academy, a private secondary school competing with those in Pine Top and Cherrytree, had succeeded in every sense but financially since its founding; Kinter & Williams “took the school in hand” in 1873, increasing paid enrollment from fifteen to forty-two before returning the Academy to its stockholders.  There followed a sawmill, machine shop and iron foundry before Kinter left the partnership and moved north in 1880.

Not all of Benjamin’s early multitasking was done with a partner.  The business for which he would be best known was launched in 1874 when he renovated the former Fleming House at what is now 3379 Cookport Road and opened a hotel there.  The Williams Hotel would be Cookport’s social hub for the rest of Benjamin’s life, and even the Census would list him as a “Hotel Operator” despite his many other roles.

They say that most men peak in their thirties.  Not so for B.F. Williams, whom the 1880s found at the top of his game.  Assuming the earliest of birth-dates listed for him is correct (they kept creeping up with each Census!), he began that decade at age 47.  In 1880-81 alone, he:

  • Designed and manufactured an improved shingle-making machine that sold for less than existing ones.
  • Erected a sawmill in Blacklick Township with his brother David
  • Supervised a logdrive of “over one million feet” of timber on the Upper Twolick to supply their mill
  • Operated his hotel, livery stable, iron foundry and machine shop
  • Sponsored longtime boarder Napoleon Blatchford’s ventures as restauranteur, confectioner and inventor
  • Served as an officer of three fraternal orders.

Each business Benjamin opened seemed to prosper and attract the notice of journalists.  The Weekly Messenger declared his machine shop to be “the most complete in the county . . . a hive of industry (with) enough work to keep them going for four months,” and that his energy was part of the reason for Cookport’s boom.  “There is more business done here than in many towns twice its magnitude.”

The next year started hopefully, seeming to offer even greater promise.  It delivered, and so did Jane, who at age 47 presented Benjamin with a son the week of their 20th anniversary.  But like the first year of their marriage, 1882 brought a great burden as well.  Little Samuel is mentioned in two articles about his father that March, but never again – not even in the couple’s obituaries.  The void left by his passing was probably why they adopted a daughter two years later.

Benjamin’s resilience in the meantime would have made his parents proud.  He purchased and renovated two failing machine shops in Cherrytree, adapting them to run on the gas that had been bubbling up from a nearby well.  He constructed Williams Hall and opened that 2400 square foot structure (complete with “an elegant organ from S.S. Wilson of Indiana”) for community use in September.  It would be Green Township’s polling place for decades to come.

Though he may have seemed a superman, Benjamin was not invulnerable.  The first episode of “a serious illness” struck him in April 1883; he recovered quickly, but thereafter left operation of the Williams Hotel to Jane.  That autumn he was commissioned to inspect the newly-completed bridge over the Susquehanna, and as the year closed, Uncle Ben donated enough Christmas trees to make that yule the biggest one Cookport had ever seen.

That gracious nature showed itself year-round.  Words like affable, lively and funny accompanied most mentions of Benjamin in county newspapers, even during his times of trial.  Perhaps the greatest tribute was an offhand comment in the Progress: “(T)here is no more genial, whole-souled man in the county than B.F. Williams.”  He would need that whole-souled strength again all too soon.

Fire swept through the heart of Cookport in the early hours of June 12, 1884.  Had it not begun to rain, “the best part of the town would have been consumed.”  As it was, Williams Hall and Benjamin’s grist mill were among the structures lost.  He rebuilt, though insurance covered just a third of the cost.  And as if to punctuate the year, his entire flock of turkeys was stolen a few days before Thanksgiving.

It was probably around that time that Benjamin and Jane, by then in their fifties, adopted the infant daughter of Merle Simpson.  Nellie Williams would attend Indiana Normal School, graduating at age 15.  Since she inherited half of her grandfather’s estate later in life, it is likely that she was raised with knowledge of her birth family.

In the course of his remarkable life, the year 1885 may have been Benjamin’s finest – and busiest.  He founded the Cookport Monitor in January, serving as its editor and wily PR man on top of all the other hats he wore.  Jane was its Society Editor, and reporter Elmer Conrath would go on to edit Johnstown’s Leader and Tribune.

Readers may recall that a roller skating craze swept Indiana County just then.  Uncle Ben opened the last and longest-lived rink of the era in March.  It outlasted those in Indiana by five years; even its end was spectacular, shattered by a tornado eight years after its 1890 closing.

Autumn brought the topper for that best of years.  The G.A.R.’s James O’Neill Post #537 was organized in nearby Mitchell’s Mills that November, and Benjamin was among its founders.  Members often met in Williams Hall, and the “old soldiers” made Green Township’s annual Decoration Day memorable with his help.  He would be the Post Adjutant in his final years.

[Editor’s Note: Post 537’s Descriptive Book – its journal – remains unlocated, so the Records Officer for Sons of Union Veterans asks that anyone who knows of it contact him through the website GARrecords.org]

And through it all, Benjamin ran as many as nine businesses and kept up membership in four fraternal orders at a time.  To these he added political activism for the Greenback and Republican parties.  It seemed that there was always a new profession to be taken up; just when the Monitor’s press was converted to less hectic job printing, he launched Cookport’s new telephone exchange “in his spare time!”  He was appointed postmaster (in those days, a political patronage) as the decade closed.  And even then he could not resist the urge to adapt, designing and installing public lockboxes before those were standard post office features.

But after a long chase, Father Time was catching up to the jack-of-all-trades.

Uncle Ben wore just five hats by 1892.  Perhaps the recurring bouts of illness slowed him down, or he simply discovered that at 59, one’s energy is no longer unlimited.  When Democrat William Lutman replaced him as postmaster in 1893, Benjamin seemed glad to be free of the job.  Another political post followed when he was elected Justice of the Peace in 1894, and he remained a “squire” the rest of his life.  No doubt the happiest act he performed in that office was the marriage of his stepdaughter Nellie in 1902.

As the twentieth century approached, each new venture was progressively more sedate.  But even these showed Benjamin’s versatility: the Program of Institute in Cambria County (a continuing education course for teachers) featured his class on Teaching Geography, and he was appointed Green Township’s “Vice President to the County Fair.”  He was twice elected Township Clerk.

The Census of 1900 was the last of Benjamin’s life.  It found the 67-year-old living with his family and three boarders in the Williams Hotel.  That he still held a Retail Dealer’s License implies that his mill and/or foundry was still in operation, and though the Monitor had long since closed, the Indiana Gazettte referred to ‘Squire Williams as “the news center of Cookport.”

Thinking his appearance a sign of good health (in keeping with beliefs of the time), the Weekly Messenger reported that “Cookport’s jovial landlord and magistrate . . . is growing red and rotund as befits one who lives on the luxuries of the earth.”  But Benjamin and Jane were frequently ill by that point, each from what was probably congestive heart failure.  Both were abed when Benjamin died on February 24th, 1906.

Uncle Ben’s passing was noted by six newspapers in Cambria and Indiana Counties.  It was given precedence in the Gazette’s unusual three-event banner headline that day, above an assault on millionaire W.K. Vanderbilt and a fire in Homer City.  Benjamin Franklin Williams was escorted by a G.A.R. honor guard to Lloyd Cemetery in Ebensburg, where he was buried on his 44th wedding anniversary.  His Jennie would join him there three years later.

A life well lived, and a credit to his community.  Diolch, Ewythr Ben!