Indiana County Ghost Stories Part I

As we enter into the spooky Halloween seasons, we thought it would be fun to share some local ghost stories that were collected by Frances Strong Helman.  They are just that stories, but as with many stories passed down through the generation there is some truth to them. These stories are reprinted as they were originally published in 1963, should you have any local “ghost stories” we would love to hear about them in the comments.

The Ghosts of Watt’s Hill

Watt’s Hill is located west of Indiana on Route 422.  As early as 1889, travelers on that section of road reported seeing strange things.

One story was that a little hunched figure could be seen several yards back from the road, and one young woman felt sure that she had seen the apparition as she rode along the road with her father when she was a very small child.

From another family came the tale about the little hunchback.  It was recalled that a family lived just at the foot of the hill, and the crippled child was a part of the household.  It was not known if he was their very own or if he were a homeless waif they allowed to share their roof.  The little fellow received very cruel treatment at their hands, and finally one day after an unmerciful beating he crawled away into the woods.  Except for the little hunched figure sometimes seen at a distance – over a period of many years – nothing more was ever known about the unfortunate little boy.

The second ghost attached to the hill always made its appearance nearer the top of the hill.  A man was hanged from a tree near that spot – some say he was a peddler.

Before 1890, a group from Indiana saw this ghostly figure.  They had driven by horse and buggy to Shelocta for supper.  It was a fine fall evening and they were in no hurry to return home, and it was after dark when they started back to the county seat, but after they were half way up Watt’s Hill the fun ended for most of the group.

They all claimed to have seen the famous ghost of the hanged man.  The young people had passed by when someone noticed “the thing.” At first a few of the couples were brave, got out of the buggies, and started walking back down the hill to investigate, or hold a consultation with the ghost.  The ghost seemed to move forward to meet them.  That was all that was needed to complete the investigation! They turned and ran back up the hill.  One of the young ladies fainted and had to be carried to her buggy near the top of the hill where she was revived.  Except for being scared they arrived home safely.

The entire group declared the ghost was eight to ten feet tall, it floated along six feet from the ground, and it was all white.  The wind seemed to blow it backwards and forwards just as the remains of the hanged man must have swayed in the breeze.

Years have passed, the route of the highway has changed, and the settlers responsible for what happened on Watt’s Hill have gone to their reward.  The ghosts of the woe-begone creatures must be satisfied for they are seen no more.

The Fiddling Ghost of Mahoning Valley

Indiana County’s musical ghost inhabits a little house at Smicksburg, in West Mahoning Township, and has been named the “fiddling ghost of Mahoning Valley.”

The story begins in the days when the Baltimore and Ohio railroad was being built through the township, soon after the turn of the century.  Two cronies came to work on the railroad and took up their abode in the little house with its high steep roof.

One of these fellows played a fiddle.  He played everywhere he was asked to play; at any neighborhood gathering he had toes tapping with his rollicking tunes.  He also played at the temporary diggings in the little house; and he played without invitation from his friend – early in the morning and late at night.  Finally, there came a day when the friend could stand no more.  When the fiddler and his companion did not show up for work some one went to the house.  The musician was found stabbed to death, his violin broken, and the companion gone, bag and baggage.

When fall arrived, strange stories were whispered about.  Yes, there was “something funny” about the little house.  A few folks swore they saw and heard the dead fiddler, and of all places – he was sitting astride the house roof.

As years rolled along it was found that on frosty nights a vapor seems to envelope the top of the house, and as an unfelt breeze clears it away the old fiddler is seen on the roof and the weird tunes are faintly heard.

As late as 1955, the old boy was heard if not seen.  It was just about Hallowen when George Swetnam aired the almost forgotten yarn in the Sunday Pittsburgh Press.  A group of students from the Dayton high school decided to visit the old house just for kicks.  The weather was exactly right, and as they came to a halt near the building, the eerie strains of a violin was heard.  Not one of them bothered to look up at the roof as they tore out of the area.  One boy fell while leaping across a ditch for a near-cut and almost broke his leg.

Without question the fiddling ghost of Mahoning Valley is the noisiest in the county.

Headless Apparitions

Two headless apparitions have been reported in the county.  The first was seen in the Starford neighborhood, out in Green Township.  This one was a traveler who walked along the road carrying his head under his arm while in the opposite hand he clutched a rolling pin.

The first man who saw him ran as fast as his legs would carry him until he reached the village store.  There he babbled incoherently about the “awful sight” until someone brought the minister who managed to quiet him, and the unbelievable story was told.

The story seemed true for soon others declared they met the headless ghost walking along the same stretch of road, still carrying his head under his arm and swinging the rolling pin.

This restless spirit must have wrought vengeance upon the proper person or persons for he is seen no more.

The second headless man made his appearance at the foot of the Trimble Hill on Route 286, between Indiana and Clymer.  It is said that this was the ghost of a murdered peddler.  He did not get busy until exactly midnight in the dark of the moon.  Then he stepped from the side of the road and grabbled the bridles of passing horses.  A sharp cut of the whip was all that was needed to throw the ghost of balance.  The writer never fails to think of the headless peddler on dark nights, but either the time has been wrong or he dislikes automobiles.

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.