If you spend any time outside you may have seen a salamander that is bluish-black with large, scattered white spots on its back. This little six-inch creature is related to Indiana County, the Salamander’s name is Wehrle’s Salamander named after Richard White Wehrle. It was in 1911 that Wehrle discovered a new type of salamander in Indiana County’s Two Lick Hills area and it was in 1917 that the salamander was named in his honor.
Wehrle was born on October 1, 1852 in Indiana, PA; his parents emigrated from Germany. Growing up, he attended the public schools and learned the jeweler’s trade from his father, Blaeus. Richard began an apprenticeship in Brookville, PA with his uncle Sylvester M. Tinthoff, at the age of fourteen. But young Richard did not take the easy way from Indiana to Brookville – he went on foot, a two-day trip, with three dollars in his pocket.
In 1873, Wehrle returned to Indiana County and operated his own jewelry store in Blairsville, which he operated for over 20 years. In 1895, he sold the business and moved to Indiana to operate a jewelry store with his brother, Boniface. The pair operated under the name of B.I. Wehrle & Brother, located at 560 Philadelphia Street, and they remained in business together until Boniface’s death in 1899. It was after his brother’s death that he operated the business under R.W. Wehrle & Co. He was a skilled jeweler and gave personal attention to the repair department. Eyeglasses were also sold, and he functioned as an optometrist would today, even though he was not formally trained.
In addition to the jewelry business, Wehrle owned other business interests as well. In 1889, he purchased two stone quarries, which shipped bluestone and Belgium block paving stone to Pittsburgh. The quarries were sold and he later acquired over one thousand acres of coal and timber land in Center and Burrell Townships.
Wehrle was not only involved in business; he was also a naturalist – he also devoted a lot of his leisure time to the study of the natural history of Indiana County. This included making collections of fish, snakes, salamanders, insects, and turtles in the County, which he submitted to museums.
In 1912, the Boy’s Naturalist Club was established by Wehrle, to provide opportunities for boys to go on field trips and participate in other activities related natural history. He was known as “Uncle Dick” by the children in the community. He also served as a Game Commissioner of the Indiana County Branch of the Wild Life League and was known as the “Bird Doctor” thanks to his efforts to rescue and rehabilitate birds.
Wehrle remained active his entire life and he credited his good health to his outdoor lifestyle. It was on his 70th birthday that he walked from Indiana to Punxsutawney to visit relatives – a distance of 25 miles. He received an honorary lifetime membership in the Academy of Sciences in Philadelphia for his collection efforts on behalf of the Academy. The Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh was also blessed with many collections from Wehrle, which he provided on a regular basis through 1936, a year before his death. Many of these collections came from the Two Lick area and from property he owned near Black Lick, PA.
R.W. Wehrle died on July 4, 1937 at his home located at 36 South 5th Street in Indiana. He is buried in the Wehrle family plot at the St. Bernard’s Cemetery. The pallbearers at his funeral were six men who were members of the Naturalist Club as boys.
Wehrle’s collection of specimens are still in existence. Wehrle is still remembered around Indiana, PA – look up on the building at 560 Philadelphia Street you will see etched into the building “R.W. Wehrle 1904.” There is also a side street in the Borough “Wehrle’s Way.” Although, if you are like most people, you have never heard of this unique individual who hailed from Indiana County devoting his life to the natural history.