Socialist Women in Black Lick and Socialville

The coming of the Great Depression brought major economic and political changes to the county, as poverty and unemployment became more oppressive and pervasive, creating a situation which led some of the unemployed and their supporters to organize and protect.

The problems of the coal industry, the major business and the leading employer in the county, illustrated general conditions.  Many mines which had operated through the lean years of the 1920s had closed by 1932.  County residents also suffered when the unemployment rate reached 25.4 percent in 1932.  In that year the county fair was canceled for the first time in the twenty-five year history, because of the state of the economy.  Other indicators of the county’s economic plight included more than twenty-five thousand property liens issued by the tax collector in 1932, and more than nine hundred children unable to attend school because of a lack of clothing.

The Depression created great hardships, and county residents searched for new solutions to their problems.  The unemployed responded to this economic crisis by affiliating with national and state activities and groups and by establishing their own organizations.  When the national Bonus Army passed through Indiana County in the spring of 1932, local people gathered to cheer them on.  Father Cox’s Hunger March received a warm reception in Blairsville as they marched from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.  On the local level, the Worker’s Unemployment Council of Indiana County emerged in 1933.  The Workers Federation of Pennsylvania was also becoming active at this time.  Both groups held meetings and conducted protests highlighted by a giant action at the County Relief Board held by the Workers Federation in July 1933.  County and local unemployed groups had a diverse membership and leadership.  Socialists, including women such as Marie Widdowson and Florence McNutt, played prominent roles, through their activities.  Yet this along with the growing presence of the United Mine Workers and the Democratic Party failed to dislodge the Republican Party and the business elite from their dominant roles in Indiana County.

The Republican Party dominated politics in Indiana County prior to the mid-1930s.  This dominance reflected the realities of the state and the political power of the business community in the county.  Socialists failed to threaten this supremacy even with the opportunities provided by the Depression of the 1930s.  However, a different story unfolded in a small enclave around Black Lick and Socialville, a community named after the Socialists who lived there.  This enclave contributed many socialist candidates, hosted numerous speakers and provided a sense of community for participants in socialist activities.  Although socialist men contributed to these achievements, it was socialist women who played the pivotal roles.

Socialist Women Newspaper
Socialist candidate campaign advertisement from election of 1934.

Prior to 1930, Indiana County socialists engaged in a number of political contests.  In the election of 1912, Eugene Debs, the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, polled 6% of the countywide vote, but did much better in the Black Lick and Socialville areas.  Reuben Einstein, a prominent Blairsville merchant, entered several local races, and in 1917 won 45% of the vote in a race for burgess of Blairsville.  Davis A. Palmer, a leading Black Lick merchant, ran several races for state and national offices on the Socialist Party ticket in the 1920s.

Socialists continued to run for office in the 1930s, with women joining men as candidates.  Marie Widdowson, a prominent Black Lick socialist, ran for a seat in the Pennsylvania General Assembly in the 1932, 1934, and 1936 elections.  In the latter year, Florence McNutt, another key Black Lick socialist, also ran for a Pennsylvania General Assembly seat.  While they won negligible proportions of the total vote, usually 2-3% in these races, in the races for local offices they achieved more impressive results.  Florence McNutt was elected as inspector of elections in Black Lick, and Marie Widdowson became the township auditor.

Black Lick and Socialville socialists maintained contact with the Socialist Party and other progressive causes by attending state and national conferences.  Florence McNutt attended socialist conferences held in Reading and Harrisburg, while Mrs. Eugene Morton of Socialville attended a socialist conference in Reading and Marie Widdowson and Rhoda Lowman of Socialville attended a state socialist convention in Harrisburg.  Mrs. Widdowson also attended a meeting of the Worker’s Federation held in Harrisburg and a meeting of the Continental Congress of Workers and Farmers for Economic Reconstruction held in Washington, D.C.  In addition, she represented Indiana County as a delegate to a meeting of the Women’s International League for Peace held in Pittsburgh.  Florence McNutt served as a delegate to the 1932 Milwaukee Convention of the Socialist Party which nominated Norman Thomas for President.

Socialists also hosted a variety of local activities which attracted large audiences and brought outsiders to the area.  Campbell’s Mill Park, in Black Lick Township, provided the site for outdoor activities, particularly the very popular annual Labor Day basket picnics.  In 1932, party members and friends from Indiana County and surrounding counties, including Allegheny County, attended the event.  The celebration featured athletic events, speakers and a supper served to over 300 persons.  Mrs. Mary Bennett (“Grandma Bennett”) won a special prize for being the oldest person at the picnic.  On a smaller scale, the enclave received some attention when Mrs. Eugene Morton hosted a meeting of the Young People’s Socialist League’s State Executive Committee at her home in Socialville.

Campbells Mill
Campbell’s Mill Park, location of socialist gatherings in the 1930s.

In addition to these special features, local socialists organized many ongoing services and activities. Some of these activities were directly related to socialism while others were of a general progressive nature.  The socialists established a reading room on Main Street in Black Lick for the benefit of the community.  While it housed some socialist literature, it also included a wide variety of reading materials, especially those which covered current events.  Regular meetings of the Black Lick local, often held in conjunction with an active Young People’s Socialist League branch, attracted approximately forty-five participants from both Black Lick and Socialville.  At these meetings members received pamphlets from the national office and discussed national and local issues.  The Young People’s Socialist League published The Rising Sun, a newspaper which contained articles about local and national history, and political commentary often written by Florence McNutt, as well as a page of ads for local businesses.  Local socialists also devoted much of their efforts to aiding the unemployed.  Several socialists played leadership roles in unemployed groups.  For example, Florence McNutt and Marie Widdowson served on a local committee to provide relief work for the unemployed.

Socialists also participated in more informal activities which included paying one another frequent visits and periodic bingo parties.  Socialville socialists, especially Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Morton, hosted most of the bingo parties, but Black Lick socialists also held parties.  These events raised funds for the Young People’s Socialist’s League and provided entertainment for guests who often numbered from twenty-five to forty-five.  Local socialists often exchanged visits and socialized and traveled together.  A few items from the many examples in the Blairsville Dispatch illustrate some of the personal connections which linked enclave socialists.  Florene and Darius McNutt and their children and Mrs. Widdowson were guests of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Morton in June 1932.  Later that month Mrs. Morton was a guest of the Widdowson family.  The McNutt’s, the Widdowson’s and Mrs. Morton attended a meeting sponsored by the Saltsburg socialists held the following month.  In February 1933, Mrs. McNutt and Mrs. Widdowson were guests at the Morton’s, and later that month they attended a meeting of the Federated Council of Churches in Pittsburgh.  In November 1934, the Widdowson’s were guests of the Forest T. Lowman’s of Socialville.

These activities reflected and reinforced a strong sense of community which resulted from ideological affinities and connections based on family and friendship ties.  Florence McNutt was a cousin of Marie Widdowson who was the wife of Dr. Widdowson and the daughter of Jessie Palmer, both prominent Black Lick socialists.  Mary Jane Bennett (“Grandma Bennett”) played the pivotal role in Socialville both as a co-founder of the Socialist Party in Indiana County and as a mother whose daughters helped to spearhead enclave socialism in the 1930s.  For example, one of her daughters married Forest T. Lowman, a Nash dealer in Blairsville, and both of them became prominent local socialists.  Bonds of friendship helped to form ties between Reverend Theodore Miner, the leading Socialist in Saltsburg, and Black Lick and Socialville Socialists.  He joined the Black Lick socialists when they attended major meetings in Pittsburgh, and he came to many meetings in the Black Lick area.  He and his family were guests of the Forest T. Lowman family of Socialville in July 1933.  The following month Mrs. Lowman joined Reverend Miner and his family for an evening at Campbell’s Mill Park.  In November, Reverend Miner and his family were guests of the Widdowson family.  Furthermore, a strong friendship formed between Florence McNutt and Mrs. Miner.

In the Black Lick-Socialville enclave, women served as political candidates, convention and meeting participants and organizers of social events.  More crucial, however, was their role as initiators and catalysts.  Mary Jane Bennett played that role in Socialville and Marie Widdowson in Black Lick.  She brought Dr. Widdowson and Florence McNutt into the Socialist Party.  Under her tutelage his politics shifted from a conservative Republic stance.  Florence McNutt also experienced a political awakening through discussions with Mrs. Widdowson.

A small corps of women supported by men built a movement which produced annual picnics, a reading room, an ephemeral newspaper and frequent meetings.  They attended events in other locales, and attracted speakers and spectators to their local activities.  They saw the plight of people and worked through their own channels, unemployment organizations and government agencies to alleviate their problems.  They built a sense of community which sustained and nourished them.  They offered some residents of the area a temporary alternative or supplement to mainstream politics, information and entertainment.  Even after the demise of the local Socialist Party some of the women found other outlets for their civic-mindedness, with Florence McNutt playing a crucial role in the development of the community center and the park in Black Lick.

A Labor Trilogy Part I: The Greenback-Labor Movement in Indiana County, 1878-79

National monetary policy played a big role in national politics in the 1870s.  Toward the end of the decade Pennsylvania became a stronghold of Greenback-Labor Party sentiment.  The northern counties dependent on agriculture and lumbering proved particularly responsive.  The race for governor in 1878 illustrated support for the party in Indiana County.  It polled 30% in the county compared to 11% statewide.  Some townships registered totals in the 50% range.  The party never duplicated this showing, but the following year the county received much attention with the nomination of Peter Sutton for State Treasurer.  Sutton outdistanced the Democratic candidate in Indiana County.  James Weaver’s race for the presidency in 1880 produced disappointing results.  Nevertheless, Indiana County cast more than 1,000 votes for him, a figure matched only by Tioga County.  The count exceeded the 1,000 figure in the elections of 1881, 1882 and 1884 to rank as one of the county strongholds of the Greenback-Labor Party in the Commonwealth.

Declining farm prices and tightened credit helped to set the stage for protest movements in Pennsylvania.  The Grange gained popularity and many farmers used it to complain about the railroads.  The Depression of 1873 aggravated conditions and as late as 1878 the agriculture and lumber sectors remained unimproved.  The economic crisis buoyed the prospects of the Greenback-Labor Party which polled over one million votes in the congressional election of 1878; Pennsylvania, a stronghold of the movement, included a number of counties in which the party surpassed 30% of the total vote.

Peter Sutton
Peter Sutton, Greenback-Labor Party candidate for State Treasurer, 1879

The Indiana County party took more tangible form with its county convention in May 1878.  The twenty-four delegates included twelve representatives from Green Township.  The following month Blairsville demonstrated its interest by organizing a Greenback Club and hosting a speech by W.R. Allison, a party stalwart on July 4.  The National Labor Tribune, a leading labor newspaper published in Pittsburgh, described the Greenback-Labor Party of Blairsville as flourishing and adding to its numbers.  By July, the club held weekly meetings in the Town Hall.  Other communities also hosted Greenback-Labor meetings and other activities.   Jacksonville held a June meeting and a July 4th celebration at Pine Flats that included a dinner, speeches, reading of the Declaration of Independence and music.

The pace of campaigning intensified in September.  Local meetings continued but the emphasis shifted to larger and more dramatic activities.  The Greenback parade featured a large delegation from Green Township, the Elderton brass band and six martial drum corps.  A convention in late September attracted a sizable turnout with estimates ranging from 300 to 600.  A week before the election the party held another convention.  This activity drew a large crowd well supplied with banners and flags.  They heard a speech by the Greenback-Labor candidate for governor.

The election returns illustrated the strength of the Greenback-Labor ticket in the county as its candidate for governor polled 30% of the vote.  The party carried a number of townships, winning in Burrell, Rayne, Washington, Canoe, Green, and Grant.  It also won Homer City.  Green Township, the party stronghold in the county, produced 60% of the vote for the Greenback-Labor ticket.

Census figures for 1880 provided an occupational breakdown for areas of strong party support.  The vast majority of adults males listed themselves as farmers with their sons recorded as farm hands and their wives as keeping house.  Variations occur, however, most notably in Homer City with a population composition heavily weighted to laborers, sawmill workers and teamsters, and in Burrell Township with railroad workers, laborers (especially at the fire brick yard), coal miners and carpenters as well as the more commonplace categories of farmers and farm hands.  Washington Township included workers in the trades such as masons and carpenters and Canoe Township contained some grist mill and saw mill workers in addition to carpenters.

1879 began auspiciously for the party with a meeting of the county committee in early January.  Good news continued the following month with the entire Greenback ticket elected in Burrell Township and two Auditors victorious in Blairsville.  June featured the county convention which met at the Indiana Courthouse.  The representatives chose delegates to the State Convention and instructed them to support Peter Sutton for State Treasurer.  Sutton won the party’s nomination.  He came from one of the oldest families in the county and established a personal reputation as a well-to-do merchant and former Associate Judge of Indiana County.  The Party publicized his campaign with a biographical sketch and the party’s platform.  In his speeches Sutton condemned the current ruinous financial system.  A tremendous Greenback-Labor meeting at Marion Center in September highlighted the campaign.  The event attracted an audience of 5,000 which heard eight bands and several speakers.  The speakers encouraged laborers to join the struggle for universal justice and human rights.  Ox roasts and picnics produced large audiences and gave Sutton and other party orators an opportunity to spread their message.  Peter Sutton outpolled the Democratic candidate in Indian County and Tioga County.  He polled a statewide vote 10% of the winner’s total.  The party continued to operate in the 1880s publishing a newspaper, the Indiana Banner, and amassing vote totals of over 1,000 which compared favorably with party showings elsewhere in the state.  However, the revival of prosperity undermined the party’s appeal and the attempt to bring farmers and workers into solidarity remained relatively dormant until the revival of a more favorable climate in the 1890s.

This episode links developments in Indiana County with protest movements elsewhere in the state.  It also deepens our knowledge of a protest tradition in the county.  The role of the abolitionists and the organizing campaign of the United Mine Workers in the 1930s has received some attention, but there are other notable movements to chronicle.  The Greenback-Labor Party provided farmers and other discontented groups with a channel for expressing their discontent.  Peter Sutton’s campaign gave Indiana County voters an opportunity to support a man of recognized probity, integrity and uprightness who presented himself as “The Farmer Candidate and Mechanic’s Friend.”

Almost

Let’s face it: we history buffs are spoiled.  Sitting here in the present, we have the luxury of browsing through heroic successes and happy endings, a habit obliged by four centuries of positive Pennsylvania history.  But is it really those outcomes that we savor, or is it the character of the players – their vision, faith and ingenuity, win or lose?  Surely the latter.  So come with me back to Indiana County at the close of the Guilded Age for a tale of dreamers and what might have been. . . .

Marion Center’s Independent broke the news in August 1892, a coup for that town’s tiny paper.  Unnamed backers were proposing a 28-mile link between Indiana and Punxsutawney, in a corridor which had no train service at the time.  But that wasn’t the half of it: it was to be the first long-distance electric railroad in the United States!  America’s first electric trolley had debuted four years earlier in Virginia, and contiguous towns like Altoona and Hollidaysburg had been connected by electric “street railways” since 1891, but. . . cross-country?  Unheard of!

There were four challenges facing such a project from the start: technology, geography, economy and monopoly.  Then-standard DC power had to be resupplied at intervals along a line to compensate for losses during transmission, and this limited a railroad’s length outside urban power grids.  We’d have to build a generator mid-way at, say, Marion Center.  Geography ran a close second, since electric locomotives couldn’t handle grades steeper than 6%.  Ever driven between Indiana and Punxsy?  As for economics, well, remember that public works were often private works in those days, so funding for things like mass transit came not from tax dollars but from venture capital.  Six figures worth of it, in this case, which meant a lot of fundraising.  Finally, monopoly: traditional railroad companies did not take kindly to such competition, and they weren’t known for playing fair.

There were critics, of course, but we didn’t flinch.  As the Reynoldsville Star observed, “There are always those who make light of a matter and think it an impossibility, yet these very fellows are ever ready to enjoy the blessings of prosperity that result from the enterprise of energetic citizens.”  And isn’t that the difference between a critic and a dreamer?  So the backers, still anonymous, went to work.

almost.jpg
Electric Locomotive, 1890s

General Electric’s chief engineer arrived in early autumn and surveyed each of several possible paths.  “There are two very desirable routes which we would not have difficulty utilizing,” he told the Gazette after his inspection.  “Of course, the future depends on the reports of a civil engineer.”  He returned with just such a fellow a few weeks later.  Pittsburgh’s S.L. Tone concluded that “The grades are not so heavy that they cannot be overcome, (and) it can be done with much less work than first supposed.”  Ultimately, the route recommended was: Indiana > Kellysburg > Marion Center > Rochester Mills > Covode > Horatio > Punxsutawney.

So much for technology and geography.  How ‘bout economy?

That was a different matter.  Though low operating costs ensured a reliable profit for investors once the line was up and running, estimates of construction cost rose by 25 then 50 then 75 percent as the autumn weeks passed.  Potential investors started wavering.  Time to bring out the big guns!  The chief of those previously-anonymous backers stepped forward.  It was none other than Judge Harry White.

The idea had come to him in Beaver, of all places.  On his way there the year before, Judge White had gotten off at the wrong train station; he was transferred to Beaver Valley’s electric line for the final leg, by the end of which he’d conceived the Indiana-to-Punxsutawney project.  “With the proper energy, effort and support of our counties’ people,” he told the Gazette.  “I am sanguine of success.  I think it would be possible and politic to have at least half of the stock subscribed by citizens and farmers along the route.  If that is done, I know where the rest of the money can be secured.”

That was enough to calm the jitters.  Would-be investors and every newspaper along the route resumed their enthusiasm for what was dubbed the Electric Express.  Articles peppered with White-isms (like the archaic use of “sanguine” to mean “confident”) appeared almost daily, touting the advantages to citizens and urging farmers to grant free right-of-way.  The Messenger even printed a schedule showing that one could travel from Punxsutawney to Pittsburgh via Indiana, go shopping and return before 9:00 PM, a day-trip not possible on existing lines.  Yes, that November was truly the project’s Indian(a) Summer. . .

But winter wouldn’t be denied.  Something must have put another chill on the project, for a spate of articles denying loss of momentum appeared in December and January: interest was “not on the wane” and “only sleeping.”  This time the rallying-cries even went national, with a stories appearing in The Electrical Engineer and Electrical Age.  Ironically, the latter’s claim that the company had already been formed was the last time our chimera would be mentioned in print until 1896, save for a postmortem that spring.  The paper that first broke the story now had the last word: “We wonder if the electric railroad through this place is slumbering so soundly that it cannot be awakened,” mused the Independent.

So just what pulled the plug on the Electric Express?  No one knows.  Perhaps the investors Judge White spoke of backed out, or the $250 blocks of stock that were to have been offered to “citizens and farmers along the route” proved too expensive for most.  Then again, the combine that included Jefferson County’s Low Grade Railroad may have found a way to ensure that the switch would never be thrown.  Yet it was all academic in the end, for the second worst depression in American history struck that February.

The Panic of 1893 virtually shut down commercial credit for three years;  five hundred banks failed nationwide, dragging countless projects with them, while Coxey’s Army and the Bituminous Miners’ Strike made Pennsylvania ground zero.  So in a way, whatever stopped our Electric Express did us a favor in the end, avoiding what may well have been the last straw for local banks, landowners and investors.

We dreamed of our Electric Express one last time in November 1896.  With the Panic at last behind us, our papers again noted a push by unnamed backers and another survey, this time by engineers from Western Electric.  Though the articles were positive (and again, similarly worded), they didn’t make the front page.  Once burned, twice shy?  That caution proved wise, for the Electric Express was never heard from again.

Or was it?  The Indiana, Punxsutawney and Sagamore Street Railway Company was launched in 1907 when “trolley fever” swept America.  Okay, so it wasn’t a real cross-country railroad with electric locomotives – we loved it while it lasted.  Sometimes our children have to finish the dreams we start.