Send in the Clowns

Lions and Tigers Loose in the Streets of Blairsville!

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

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

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

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Indiana County native Benjamin Wallace was a major circus proprietor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John Park – Founder of Marion Center

It seems that John Park, the founder of Marion Center, has been lost to history or if not lost just temporarily forgotten by the hustle and bustle of modern life.

Park was born in 1776 in Ballywatter County Down, Ireland.  The Park family came to America in 1794, landing in one of the main ports, Philadelphia.  His father, Robert Park, taught mathematics, navigation and survey in Philadelphia; and the skill of surveying was passed on to John, who at the age of 19 came to Western Pennsylvania to survey the land that is now Marion Center for James Johnston.

A year after the arrival in Philadelphia, John Park’s father passed away, and his widow, Jane Bailey Park, married Colonel James Johnston, the same man for whom John was surveying land.

It is important to interject at this point to discuss some of the conflicting views between the settlers and the Native Americans.  Before settlers arrived in Western Pennsylvania, the Native Americans roamed the lands freely, because they had a different view of ownership and the use of the land than the settlers.  This conflict sparked many battles between the two, but much of this trouble had passed when John Park initially came into what is now Indiana County.

When John Park first arrived to survey the land in northern Indiana County, in 1795, it was described as “a trackless forest.”

In 1798, John’s stepfather received a patent for the land and John purchased a second, and it was there that they erected a log house near what is now the Marion Center Community Park.  The home was completed in 1799.  The cabin was 20 by 16 feet and was the first house north of the Purchase Line.  Among those who helped to build the home was Fergus Moorhead, the first settler in the neighboring town of Indiana. One may wonder why this spot was chosen to construct a home and the reason was that it was the location of a spring, which still today provides water for the park.

Mr. Park purchased 408 acres of land in the area and called it “Greenland,” and reportedly camped at the site of his cabin while the Native Americans resided in their wigwams on the opposite side of the run.

On February 5, 1807, John married Mary Lang, and it was at this time that he took up permanent residence.  The two had nine children: Margaret; Robert; Jane; Mary B.; James L; Ann Eliza; James Martin; John; Amanda; and Linton.

Mary Lang, John’s wife, was born April 15, 1783.  Her father was a Presbyterian minister, who immigrated to the New World from Scotland and preached his first sermon in a saw mill, which was opened at both sides.

In the early days, travel was an issue, and only two trips a year were made to the post office in Greensburg.  In 1808, a petition was presented to the Indiana County Court for the creation of a road from Brady’s Mill on Little Mahoning Creek to Sandy Lick Creek at Port Barnett east of Brookville.  John Park was a proponent of the road, and it was probably constructed around 1810.

With the improved transportation routes, additional settlers made their way to Park’s settlement.

As the community grew, Mr. Park was constantly developing new services needed by the citizens of the town and the surrounding area.  In 1810, he started a tannery, which was located on South Manor Street.  Later he erected a small animal powered grist mill, which was followed by a water powered mill in 1834 on the rear of the tannery lot.

Education being important, led to the building of a school, although it was a crude school, it had a fireplace and oiled papered windows, and was built on North Manor Street.

It was in 1842, when Mr. Park devised a plan of lots and began to sell them, priced from $16 to $30, thus marking the beginning of the town he named Marion, in honor of General Marion of Revolutionary War Fame.

The community continued to grow and develop with the second generation of the Park family.

James began the first cabinet works and carpenter shop.  He also started the first hotel in 1844 and along with his brother John they built the City Hotel in 1856.

James and Linton are credited with the first planning mill. Robert Park was a member of the first borough counsel.

The founder, John Park, only lived two years after the town was laid out, but his impetus and direction guided the community for many decades after his death on August 10, 1844.

The borough was officially incorporated on March 28, 1869.  By the turn of the 20th Century, the leaders in the community had concern for community improvement and in 1904 the water system was installed, which included a fire protection system.  It was around this time that the railroad arrived to Marion Center, which marked a turning point in the growth of the town.  Since there was easy access by rail to more distant services, the factories and mills of Marion Center found it difficult to compete.

These industries of the little community slowly dropped by the wayside, falling victim to the steam locomotive, which opened new avenues of transportation and trade.

Both John and Mary are buried in the Gilgal Presbyterian Church Cemetery in a grave located at the top of the hill marked with a stone that identifies them as the founders of Marion Center.

The Village of Newville

Located at the intersection of Route 110 and 954 just northwest of Indiana lies the little rural town of Creekside.  In 1854, the town was laid out by David Peelor and originally known as “Newville” because it was a new village.  Like most rural communities, it is filled with history and at one time was a bustling town, thanks to being a junction of the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh railway.

The citizens of Creekside, petitioned for the incorporation of town as a borough on May 1, 1905 and on June 5, 1905 the court granted the petition and the village of Creekside became a borough.

Being a new town, there were no elected officials, so the court ordered that the first election be held on July 11, 1905 in Gibson Hall.  After the election the officers were: J.C. Speedy, judge; J.M. McFeaters and J.A. Stuchell, inspectors; J.M. McFeaters, burgess; C.B. Sloan, J.C. Speedy, W.R. McElhoes, auditors; W.H. Faith, F.C. Clowes, W.E. Gibson, J.S. Bothel, S.W. Zimmerman, J.F. Gibson, school directors; D.A. McKee, assessor; J.J. McCracken and J.C. Carnahan, justices of the peace; J.M. Kidd, constable; E.G. Wilhelm, high constable; W.H. Byers and Curt Smith, overseers of the poor; J.A. Stuchell, M.L. Carnahan, J.C. Walker, A.G. Wilhelm, W.H. Faith, J.T. Gibson, James Lohr, council.

Indiana Street became the location for many merchants including: an upholstery business, grocery store, jewelry store, and a clothing store. Other businesses included Rose Pitzerell’s Restaurant and Jim Marsico’s Barber Shop.

Like all towns, there was need for law and order, so the borough had a jail. And Squire McCracken who served as Justice of the Peace, also served as the town’s undertaker.

The first fire department in town was a bucket brigade and later the town received its first fire truck, a new Model-T Ford which was procured from Joe Johnston, who owned a Ford agency, in 1923.  The town had three fire alarm bells to alert the firemen of a fire.

The town, small as it was, was sure bustling in the early days.

Transportation

After the days of horse and buggy, the transportation world began to change.  First came the trains; the Buffalo, Rochester, and Pittsburgh railroad track was laid in 1902, stretching from Punxsutawney to Indiana.  Daily round trips from Punxsutawney to Indiana occurred twice a day beginning in 1904; this train not only served as a passenger train but also as mail delivery to the various stations between Punxsutawney and Indiana.  The final run for this train was June 11, 1950.  Passenger, freight, and coal trains ran in all directions when leaving Creekside.

Then in 1907, the streetcar came to town; service ran between Indiana and Creekside, with the first trip occurring on July 4, 1907.  Passengers wishing to ride the street car had to climb 18 wooden steps to reach the three sided waiting station.  There were eight daily round trips, some examples include: the 6:20 a.m. car was for the working men; the 7:30 for high school kids on their way to school; and the 4:30 p.m. for the returning students. The streetcar was in service every day, except for Sunday.  However, streetcars were short lived with the last run occurring in 1933.

Automobiles in the early days were not as prevalent as they are today, and it was near impossible to travel during the winter months because of the muddy condition of the roads.

The Borough Churches

Creekside United Methodist Church

The Creekside Methodist Episcopal Church of the Pittsburgh Conference – formerly known as the Newville Appointment – was formed in the spring of 1871.  At first, services were held in a school house, until the fall of 1886 when a lot owned by Mason L. and Kate McFarland was sold to Thomas Johnston, James Nesbit, and R.B. Carroll as trustees for the church.  The total sum was $150.

The church grew and in January 1915, a section was added to the church measuring 24 x 30 feet, along with the installation of new front doors and a new coat of paint on the exterior.

In 1938, a sunrise service was held at 6 a.m.

Center Presbyterian Church

The Presbyterian Church was formed around the same time as the town in 1851, with 35 original members. For the first year, the congregation met in a barn on the farm of Michael Kunkle. The church was built in 1852 on its current site, but it burned in 1889 (the cause is unknown), and was rebuilt on the same site.

In the spring of 1923, the congregation voted to purchase the nearby property of Jesse Kunkle to be used for a manse. Other church endeavors over the church’s history included the remodeling of the basement in 1953, the erection of the brick bulletin board in 1982, remodeling of the exterior in 1984-85, and an addition to the rear of the church in 1989.

FIRE!

Like most places, Creekside also has some darkness in their history, from 1979 through 1981, there was a rash of arsons in the sleepy town of Creekside; the fire department responded to an increasing number – more than 50 – of suspicious fires.  These fires occurred in vacant homes, hunting camps and barns mostly occurring in the evening hours.  With each blare of the fire whistle, fear in the community rose.  Residents began sleeping with their loaded shotguns beside their bedside.

On February 11, 1979 during the early morning hours, there was a barn along Route 954 just south of Creekside that was burned.  Just two days later, the firemen were dispatched at 12:20 a.m. to a vacant, two-story frame house, just off Route 954 about a mile and a half south of town.  By the time firemen arrived, the structure was fully engulfed in flames.  Both fires had a suspicious origin.

The state police fire marshal was called, and this seems to have scared the arsonist because things returned to normal in the small town; that is until March 1980.

On March 18, two fires broke out.  The first destroyed a barn in Fulton Run, the second was in a one-room schoolhouse on the Indiana side of Fulton Run. Unfortunately, the arsonist grew braver.  There were five suspicious fires in April, followed by seven – one each month – from June through December.

To get a sense of how many calls were received from 1976 to 1980 – the Creekside Volunteer Fire Department responded to: 16 in 1976; 23 in 1977; 19 in 1978; 30 in 1979 and 45 in 1980.  By June 1, 1981 – a barn owned by George Craven was set ablaze for the second time – the fire department had answered 33 calls.

In 1980, the suspicious fires destroyed four barns, six vacant homes, a garage and a restaurant.  The three-month period from March through May 1981, saw four barns, three vacant houses, an abandoned trailer and two garages set ablaze.

Dick Kerner, Creekside volunteer fireman, said at the time that all the fires had things in common: they were in remote, secluded areas in unoccupied buildings, and started with road flares.  There was a suspect but was never charged, because authorities didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute; but the suspect seems to have felt the heat as the arsons stopped.

*The History of Creekside 1854-1994 published September 1994.
*Creekside Borough. Indiana Gazette July 8, 2003 pg. 11

Buena Vista Furnace

Background

Buena Vista Furnace was used in iron making, which was an important industry in Pennsylvania. However, before the making of iron could commence, land needed to prospected for ore, limestone, and timber. Also needed was a stream located nearby for power. Once all the necessary elements were located the “iron master” began to construct the furnace and put it into operation.

These furnaces were located near hillsides, so the ore, charcoal, and limestone could be dumped into the top of the furnace by workers called “fillers.” A bellows provided air to raise the temperature to the point when smelting occurred.

When enough iron was melted, the furnace was tapped and iron ran into channels located in the sand floor of the casting house located in front of the furnace. The main stream of molten iron was called “sow,” and the side channels called “pigs,” henceforth the product which was produced was known as “pig iron.”

Before the pig iron could be used it had to be further refined before it could be used. The iron bars from the furnaces were hauled by wagon to the Pennsylvania Canal and further transported to a forge in Pittsburgh. It was in Pittsburgh where the iron was turned into products such as utensils, stoves and other items.

The Workers

The lives of those who worked at the iron furnaces, did not live easy lives; and their lives varied by skill, responsibility, and social status. The things which the workers needed, ranging from clothing to food to housing was provided by the furnace owner. Workers pay was “in-kind” rather than in cash. The workers included fillers, guttermen, moulders, colliers, miners, laborers, teamsters, and woodcutters. All of their work was supervised by the iron master.

The iron master was considered a capitalist, technician, market analyst, personnel director, bill collector, purchasing agent, and transportation expert.  This means that in order to be a successful iron master one needed to have a combination of numerous qualities including: wealth, respect and pride in producing a good quality product.

The Buena Vista Furnace

Buena Vista Furnace located in Brush Valley Township, located along Black Lick Creek, half a mile downstream of the Route 56 Bridge. The Furnace was erected in 1847 by Henry T. McClelland, Stephen Alexander Johnston and Elias B. McClelland, it has also been known as McClelland’s Furnace.

The story begins on April 29, 1847 when the partners obtained a deed to a tract of about 90 acres for the sum of $300. By December, the partnership acquired additional land so that they had 421 acres.  The Buena Vista Day Books contain entries of purchases of food, supplies and equipment with entries beginning May 7, 1847 and ending in 1849.

If you know about American history, Buena Vista will be familiar to you as a battle in the Mexican War. This battle occurred on February 22-23, 1847 when Santa Ana’s 14,000 Mexican troops met Zachary Taylor’s 5,000-man army near the small hacienda of Buena Vista, Mexico. Taylor’s troops were mostly inexperienced and badly outnumbers, but the two armies fought to a draw. Thanks to Taylor’s efforts at Buena Vista he won fame and later contributed to his presidential victory in the 1848 election. This battle is the namesake for the furnace.

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Buena Vista Furnace

The furnace began operating in 1848 with about 61 men and boys and 30 mules were employed at the furnace. A summary from an 1850 Sheriff’s Sale, the site contained a store, three houses, seven log cabins (called furnace houses), a blacksmith shop, two log barns, and a saw mill.

There was speculation in 1848 that the Pennsylvania Railroad would construct a line through the Blacklick Valley, which is the likely reason why the site was chosen for the furnace. However, the railroad was not constructed in this area until 1903, and by that time the Buena Vista Furnace was already out of business.

The furnace was 30-foot tall cold blast furnace, and used local iron ore, limestone and charcoal to produce about 400 tons of pig iron in 1848, but the furnace went out of blast in 1849.

In 1850, the Indiana County Sheriff seized the 822-acre property and sold at it at Sheriff’s sale. The Sheriff’s deed was made to Dr. Alexander Johnston, father of Stephen Johnston. The property consisted of 822 acres which included the furnace, a saw mill, “seven small frame and log dwelling houses, called furnace houses” and various other houses, barns, etc.  It was reported that the Furnace produced 560 tons of iron out of shell and bog ore in 1854. The furnace finally closed in 1856, ending a very short business life of less than 10 years.

Another change in ownership came in 1900, when Stephen Johnston sold a 67-acre parcel which included the Buena Vista Furnace to Judge A.V. Barker for $20,000. Barker then sold it and other properties to the Lackawanna Iron and Steel Company in 1902. The property passed again in 1917, this time to the Vinton Colliery Company.

There was a rumor in the 1930s that Henry Ford had an interest in purchasing the Buena Vista Furnace and planned to transport it to Greenfield Village in Michigan via rail. The proximity of the furnace to the railroad would have made dismantling and loading it relatively easy. However, there was then a movement to acquire the furnace and keep it in the local area, this movement may have been sparked by Ford’s interest.

In 1930, the Buena Vista Park Association was organized, with the purpose of preventing the furnace from being moved. There was a hope that the state would acquire the property and turn the property into a historical landmark or public park. As with most projects during the Great Depression, the establishment of the park was stalled.

The Historical Society purchased the furnace in 1957 from the Delano Coal Company. Through the efforts of Clarence Stephenson, county historian, improvements to the site began in the mid-1960s. Then in the summer of 1965 and continuing through 1966-67, a work-training project, through the Indiana County Public Assistance Office, completed site improvements.

The Failure of the charcoal iron furnaces

There are various reasons for the failure of the charcoal iron furnaces. One of those reason was the change of the anticipated railroad route thru the Conemaugh valley instead of the valley of Black Lick Creek. This change negatively affected Buena Vista Furnace. Another reason is the low grade and sometimes unreliable supply of carbonate iron ore. Third was the outmoding within a few years of the charcoal cold-blast method of iron making. Finally, were economic reasons, there was a lack of protection from cheaper foreign iron afforded by the low tariff o 1846. The average price of a ton of iron fell from $53.75 in 1815 to $24.50 in 1849.

The situation was so bad that by around 1850, most or all of the local furnaces were forced to close, some for good. There was an upsurge in the price of iron within a year or two. By 1856, two furnaces were operating in Indiana County, probably the Black Lick Furnace and the Indiana Iron Works, together producing about 2455 tons of iron.

Today the remains of the Buena Vista Furnace are what remains of this once thriving industry.

Annual Christmas Open House

Last week was a busy week at the Historical Society as the holiday season is in full swing.  On Wednesday afternoon the public was invited to join the Historical Society to view recent interviews of long-time residents of Indiana County conducted by students from IUP’s history department. It was a great afternoon as we got to experience what life was like during the first half of the 20th Century through individual stories.  These stories ranged from life in the coal towns, to time at the University, and military service. We would like to thank everyone who came out and shared the afternoon with us along with the students from IUP’s History Department who completed the interviews, and of course the residents of Indiana County who shared their memories.

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IUP Community Choir

Then on Friday evening the Historical Society welcomed the community to celebrate the Christmas Season.  The weather was perfect, as the rain held off for most of the evening. The community came together to tour the festively decorated Clark House while enjoying holiday refreshments and to tour the museum. There were even gifts in the gift shop for people to do some holiday shopping for family and friends.  Our guests enjoyed holiday music provided by the IUP Community Choir, afterwards guests made their way to the Clark House for a holiday sing along around the piano in the parlor. If you were lucky you got to have a conversation with some historical figures, including Harry and Anna White who were in the Clark House. Thanks to all who came out to celebrate the season with us and to the Evergreen Garden Club for decorating the Clark House for the holiday season.

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Harry and Anna White

As a reminder the Historical Society will be closed from December 22, 2018 through January 1, 2019. We will reopen on January 2, 2019. We are excited to see what the new year holds in store, stay tuned for future events such as programs and fundraisers, or just come in to visit the museum or do some family research in our library. Whatever the reason for your visit we can’t wait to see you at the Society. We wish everyone a happy holiday season and a happy new year.

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Clark House

The Legend of Cherry Tree Joe

Everyone has heard of Paul Bunyan and his famous blue ox, but Indiana, Cherry Tree to be exact has their own Paul Bunyan, Joe, “Cherry Tree Joe.” He was widely known across the country before his death in 1895. Joseph McCreight McCreery was born in 1805 near Muncy, Lycoming County, and he came to Indiana County with his parents, Hugh and Nancy McCreery, when Joe was about 13 years old. This would have been around the year 1818, Indiana County was officially formed in 1803, and Cherry Tree was still wilderness, and Joe had lots of exercise helping his father clear the land.

At this time, Cherry Tree was not a town, it had no post office, but it was well known during the time. Native Americans called the place “Canoe Place” because it was the highest canoes could go up the West Branch of the Susquehanna at normal water. It was at this place where a large cherry tree grew and was a principal marker of the line drawn in 1768, under a treaty with the Penn Family which the natives permitted settlers to move, legally, into the area west of the Allegheny Mountains. The area provided some of the world’s finest timber; the white pine provided the 100-foot masts for clipper ships while the white and red oak and black walnut provided the beams, planking and trim.

Mostly likely Joe began rafting when he was 15 years old and probably went down river with the logs his father sold while clearing the farm. Joe was big and husky, but also agile and quick; as a logger needed to be in order to live long. Whether rain or shine, hot or cold, one had to be out when time and water came for the long drive. When a long turned under one’s feet it was a question of a quick jump or risk being crushed to death, and one had to remember the icy water they were floating on.

As in modern times, Joe an athlete of his day, loved to show off. He would make a long spin just to show how well he could handle it. Joe was remembered as a man over six feet and weighing 200 pounds with a long beard. He was also a great hunter, meaning he dodged work when he could. Despite this he became a kind of patron saint of the local industry.

Sometime around 1840, there was a move to improve the West Branch channel at Chest Falls, where rafts often came to grief. Some lumbermen wanted to build a dam inorder to raise the water level, but Cherry Tree Joe insisted against this, instead suggesting that the rock be blasted away. The final outcome of the blasting was much of a failure, as very little rock was moved. The Falls continued to serve as a hazard and everyone blamed Joe when there was a raft that wrecked there.

There are many stories told about Cherry Tree Joe, one of those stories was the Joe ran a raft right over the famed cherry tree, now marked by a monument, during the flood of the Spring of 1845. Another was that Joe, single-handedly, broke at 10-mile log jam at Buttermilk Falls and at the famed Gerry’s Rocks on the Susquehanna he lifted a timber raft clear, set it down in safe water, and then jumped aboard.

Joe also did logging and rafting on the Clarion, Allegheny and Kiskiminetas Rivers. But it was on the West Branch where he was called to clear up a bad log jam. The run of timber was birch and while Joe studied the problem, he pulled out his knife and began to whittle, and before he realized what happened he had whittled the whole raft into little sticks – and that’s how the toothpicks were invented.

While Joe was rafting on the Kiski, he met and married Eleanor R. Banks of Blairsville in 1834. However, legend say that Cherry Tree Joe was quite the “ladies’ man.” The two had a total of six children, all boys: John O. McCreery; Morgan; Bill; Aquilla; Albert; and Joshua. In 1861, even though he was past 56 years of age, Joe joined the Eleventh Pennsylvania Calvary serving until he was discharged on a surgeon’s certificate in March 1862.

One of Joe’s final acts was risking his life during the 1889 Johnstown Flood in which he pulled a house up on the bank as it came riding the crest of the flood waters. The venture was worthwhile because it saved the lives of two sets of triplets.

Joe died on November 23, 1895 in Cherry Tree; although Joe always swore he would dies with his boots on, that did not happen. Instead as Fall 1895 came, Joe had become ill. Even after his death, Cherry Tree Joe was not forgotten, and raftsmen would share stories of Joe when they met; they even carried Joe’s boots to the reunion and hung them up as a memorial to the great man.

*Pittsburg Press, October 2, 1955.; Indiana County Has Modern Paul Bunyan, Oct 19, 1950; ‘Cherry Tree Joe’ Legend Like ‘Superman’ of Today

A Place Called “Marlin’s Mills”

For those residents of Washington Township, Indiana County, they are familiar with the town of Willet, originally known as Marlin’s Mills. Washington Township was formed in 1807 from a portion of Armstrong Township, just four years after the formation of Indiana County in 1803. The Township was named in honor of General George Washington, under whom many of the first settlers in the area served during the Revolutionary War. 

The name Marlin’s Mills came from the first settler on the tract of land, the Marlin family. Jesse Marlin built a sawmill in the town in 1832 and a gristmill in 1834. The grist mill stood along Plum Creek. The gristmill had one run of country stone and another of burrs, measuring 30 by 32 feet, it had two stories and a basement and used a “rye fly” wheel. A second mill was erected on the site in 1871, which measured 32 by 38 feet, but built in the same manner as the original mill, except this mill used a reaction wheel instead.  

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Marlin’s Mills

Jesse Marlin was born in 1804, the son of Joshua Marlin. Joshua Marlin bought a 305-acre tract of land in 1785 and was the first settler in the area. It is said that when Mr. Marlin first came to the area of Willet, there were Indian bark huts along Plum Creek. 

The post office in Willet was establish on December 28, 1853 with Jesse Marlin serving as postmaster; the office closed on February 28, 1906. 

In 1890, a productive filed of natural gas was discovered and the gas was piped to Indiana from this field. 

Marlin’s Mill had good farm land and a good supply of water coming from the South Branch of Plum Creek. The mill also helped as people settled in the area. As the town grew, so did the business which included: farmers; millers, dealing in flour, grain, and feed; there were merchants, and general store, and Justice of the Peace. There was also a wagon and carriage manufacturer along with a blacksmith. 

The town boasts two churches: Harmony Grove Lutheran, established in 1861, and Plum Creek Presbyterian, which has graves in its cemetery dating back to 1832.