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.

Aunt Jane

“Miss Jane E. Leonard is selected for Congress Democrats of this District will give women a chance.”  This mundane headline appeared in the March 25, 1922 edition of the Indiana Democrat, and it seemed to understate the newsworthiness of an event.  It was a historic occasion.  Miss Jane E. Leonard, as the Democratic candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania’s Twenty-seventh Congressional District, was one of the first women to seek a national political office as a major party candidate in Pennsylvania.*  Since only ten women in the entire country ran for congressional seats as choices of major political parties in 1922, Miss Leonard attracted national attention.

Jane E. Leonard was the former preceptress of Indiana State Normal School (known today as Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP)).  The former Leonard Hall on the IUP campus had memorialized her name.  She served “the Normal” from its opening in 1875 until her retirement in 1921.  Then, less than a year after her retirement and at a spry eighty-one years of age, she ran for Congress.  This episode is both more incredible and, at the same time, less incredible than it seemed at first notice.

The 1922 election was only the second national election following the enfranchisement of women by the Nineteenth Amendment.  Miss Leonard had not been that active in politics; her life was spent in education.  And at eighty-one, it was an amazing age to be launching a new career.  She was, moreover, a Democrat in an area dominated by the Republican party. Despite this, she ran extremely well, polling a far larger percentage of the votes cast than any other Democratic congressional candidate in a ten-year period.

“Aunt Jane,” as Miss Jane Leonard was affectionately known by the thousands who attended the State Normal School in Indiana, came to Indiana from the Clearfield County area.  She was born on December 27, 1840, in Leonard, Pennsylvania.  Her family was so well established in the area, that there is reflected in the vicinity’s place names – Leonard Station, Leonard House, Leonard School, and Leonard Run as well as the town itself.

It is likely that her early education was at Leonard School, a gift to the rural community from her father.  Her life-long involvement in education began at the age of fifteen when she first taught in the public schools of her native Clearfield County.  Later, desiring more advanced educational preparation, she entered Millersville State Normal School, the first institution of its kind in Pennsylvania.  Then she spent some time teaching in Lancaster County schools.  Her attainments as a student at Millersville, her teaching experiences, and her personal qualities led to Miss Leonard joining the Millersville faculty in 1868 as instructor of history and mathematics.

1d3c5-jane
Jane Leonard

In 1875, the Board of Trustees of the new State Normal School at Indiana asked Dr. J.P. Wickersham, Pennsylvania’s superintendent of education and the founder and first principal of Millersville State Normal School, to recommend a candidate for the position of preceptress and instructor of English literature.  He recommended Jane E. Leonard.

For the next forty-six years, Miss Leonard served Indiana.  When she retired in 1921 she was awarded emeritus status and given permission to continue occupying her apartment in John Sutton Hall.  As an education she always stressed that her students should be ambitious both for themselves and their communities, that they should be active and participate in their world, that they should shoulder the responsibilities offered to them, and that they should work to better the world they lived in. In that educational philosophy lie clues which make “Aunt Jane’s” political adventure less incredible than it first suggests.

Although she could not even vote in a national election until she was seventy-nine years old, Jane E. Leonard had developed an active interest in politics. She was lauded as having a wide knowledge of politics and political men.**  As a member as the Indiana community, Miss Leonard while not seen as a political firebrand, had not been politically bashful.  She was accustomed to interrupting her return from Sunday church service to impose herself on one of the local newspaper editors or political leaders in talk over the public issues.  According to the March 23, 1922 Indiana Weekly Messenger, Miss Leonard “was one of the campaigners for years for equal franchise and has campaigned also for prohibition.  She never neglects an opportunity to assail the monopolistic practices of the tariff barons and speaks for National economy, friendly relations with other nations, universal peace and human advancement.”

Her political orientation appeared foreordained.  The Indiana Weekly Messenger said bluntly, she is “a democrat by nature and it was inevitable that with the enfranchisement of women she would be found aligned from the outset with the Democratic party.”  Her affinity for involvement in her interests, an “Aunt Jane” trait, made it rather natural that she later gravitated toward political stewardship when the opportunity presented itself.  In 1922, she was chairman of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Fund, devoted to soliciting monies for Wilsonian goals, chairman of the Indiana County Ladies Democratic Committee, and president of the Indiana County Democratic Women Voters League.  The octogenarian was one to give her personal time and support to those matters that personally touched her.

The challenge of being the Democratic candidate in the Twenty-seventh District’s congressional race was not a quest that she eagerly sought.  The distinguished lady had to be sought out, and, according to the Indiana Evening Gazette, “Her friends…demanding a fit representative in congress insisted that she permit her name to be used.  Miss Leonard did not make any effort for the nomination, letting her name be used but not spending a cent in a campaign or making one speech.”

The days preceding her nomination for the Democratic primary, Miss Leonard had another and very different, political interest – to secure the Republican gubernatorial nomination for Indiana’s native son John S. Fisher.  Although she was serving as the chairman of the Indiana County Ladies Democratic Committee, she strongly endorsed Fisher.  She attended the formal opening rally of his campaign in front of the Indiana County Courthouse, she wrote an open letter to the alumni of the Normal School urging their support for Fisher, and she later addressed the annual reunion meeting of the Allegheny County ISNS Alumni Association stressing the need of their support of his candidacy.  The Indiana Republican press praised her as a “grand old lady.”

While such incongruent activities might have branded Miss Leonard as a political maverick, they were in keeping with her character.  John S. Fisher, as a former Indiana Normal student, was one of “her boys” in whom she had confidence.  She declared that “Democrat though she was, she’d vote for him for governor if he’d capture the Republican nomination for that office.”  Her open support of the Republican Fisher was simply an indication that she never was and never could have been a narrow political partisan.

The primary campaign was very quiet since Miss Leonard was unopposed, and her opening political activity reflected that situation.  If any event served as a campaign kickoff it was the Democratic Ladies Tea which was held on March 30.  Miss Leonard presented the opening remarks which contained some advice on the Indiana County Democratic campaign.  The state chairman of the Women’s Democratic Committee of Pennsylvania was in attendance.  The Indiana Democrat hailed the event as “A Fine Success.”  The first public endorsement of Leonard’s candidacy, and the only known one in Indiana County, came on April 5 when the Joseph M. Blakely Camp, No. 71, United Spanish War Veterans unanimously endorsed her.  These were the only public acknowledgements in the Indiana press of the Leonard campaign prior to the May primary election.  Of course an active campaign is not required of an unopposed primary candidate.

The fall general election, however, was a different situation.  Miss Leonard’s political interests and knowledge must have suggested to her the seemingly insurmountable obstacle she was facing.  Pennsylvania in 1922 was essentially a one party state – Republican.  The Twenty-seventh Congressional District was solidly Republican, and Indiana County was rock-ribbed Republican. The primary returns reinforced this general knowledge.  In Indiana Borough, for example, only 124 Democrats bothered to vote while 1,481 Republicans cast their ballots.  In Indiana County, running unopposed, Leonard received 667 votes while a total Republican vote of 8,633 was split among three contestants.  In the fall when the voter registration for the Twenty-seventh Congressional District was announced it favored the Republicans over the Democrats, 68 percent to 23 percent.  Certainly a bleak prospect faced the novice candidate.

To make matters worse, her Republican opponent was formidable.  He was Nathan L. Strong, the incumbent Congressman from Brookville, Jefferson County.  Certainly everything was a disadvantage: Miss Leonard was running for her first elected political office, her opponent was an incumbent seeking his fourth congressional term.  She was eighty-one years of age, her opponent was sixty-three.  She was a woman, he was a man.  The odds were staggering.  There was little wonder that William K. Hutchinson, a national news correspondent, included Miss Lenard among the five feminine congressional candidates who had only “a chance in a hundred” of winning.  It could be suggested that perhaps, at least in “Aunt Jane’s” case, Hutchinson was even underestimating the odds.

It could be argued that Miss Leonard was not really a serious contender.  If newspaper advertisement is any indication, the Democrats spent little money on the campaign.  The Leonard campaign trail in Indiana County was not overly onerous.  It is possible that the Democrats, faced with the impossibility of winning the election, had conceded from the start.

Jane E. Leonard, nevertheless, seemed to use the public exposure to continue to stress ideals important to her. During her campaigning, light though it was, she worked to further her causes.  “Aunt Jane” challenged women to involve themselves in politics.  “We are in politics,” she declared, “and we are going to do our duty.  Our duty is to do the best we know how.”  In another instance she lectured the newly enfranchised women on “the importance of women taking the responsibilities which are now theirs with the assuming the principles of enfranchisement, an action which at the present time they are not prone to do.”  She became known for her positions on what were to her the vital issues, some of them most progressive – the inclusion of a secretary of education in the president’s cabinet, a tariff used only for revenue, measures to insure fiscal responsibility in national government, and election victories for Democratic candidates.

Miss Leonard, always bound by her principles, could not be bound by party lines.  She acclaimed the educational program of Pennsylvania’s Republican Governor William C. Sproul.  That program had been embodied in the Edmonds Act which aimed at consolidating schools, increasing aid to education, increasing aid to education, and standardizing curriculum, teachers’ qualifications, and salaries.  She publicly acknowledged that Dr. Finegan, the Republican-appointed superintendent of public of public education, had “done more to advance education in the past three years than had been accomplished in the preceding ten years.”

She apparently did not have many opportunities to express her ideals.  Her reported public appearances following the primary were at the Indiana County Congress of Women’s Clubs meeting in June and the one day Democratic County Tour in September.  It was an incident at the Cookport Fair, one of the stops on the County Tour, that permits a glimpse of “Aunt Jane” on the hustings.  One writer described the scene this way: “As she climbed aboard the hay wagon, the veteran educator carried her 83 [sic] years as though they were a mere 50.  She had a sprightly step and her voice was strong as she urged the assembled voters to support the Democratic candidates from top to bottom.”

Given the light campaigning effort, given the political realities, the November election results were surprising.  The eighty-one year old, former educator carried 37 percent of the vote in the Twenty-seventh Congressional District to her opponent’s 54 percent, and 30 percent in Indiana County to his 55 percent.  The popular vote was 18,682 to 12,927 and 5,071 to 2,764 respectively.  A loss by a landslide, yes, but a comparably minor landslide.  In 1920, Strong’s victory was 66 percent to 25 percent in the District and 70 percent to 16 percent in the County; in 1924 Strong would win by 59 percent to 18 percent and 59 percent to 13 percent.  The neophyte, maiden politician had done remarkably well.

The full story of Miss Leonard’s relative success rests more in events outside of the Twenty-seventh Congressional District since the Pennsylvania Republican party that year had been severely splintered by internal struggles.  The election of 1922, nevertheless, was a surprising story, and “Aunt Jane” really fared no worse than any of the other nine female candidates who were running for Congress – they all lost (even Alice M. Robertson, the incumbent congresswoman from Oklahoma).

Miss Jane E. Leonard, an Indiana institution as an educator, probably considered herself to be continuing her educational goals as a politician in teaching by example the duty of personal responsibility and active participation, expounding one’s convictions and ideals, and attempting to better the world.  If there was a loser in the 1922 election, it was not “Aunt Jane.”  Her “political whirl” was the giving of a practical lesson – she was engaged, as always, in educating.

*Ellen D. Davis was, in the same election, running for the congressional seat in Pennsylvania’s Second District.

** The “Indiana legend” that James Buchanan, fifteenth president of the United States, had proposed marriage to Miss Leonard has no basis in historical fact.

A.W. Taylor: Prominent Attorney, Political Figure, Man of Affairs, and Landholder

There are so many street names in Indiana that are named for prominent people from around the County, one of those is Taylor Avenue, named for Alexander Wilson Taylor, Esq. Mr. Taylor was a prominent attorney, political figure, man of affairs, and landholder.

Alexander was born March 22, 1815 to John and Mary Wilson Taylor, in Indiana. He had strong ties to the history of Indiana; he was the grandson of Alexander Taylor, who had settled in Indiana County in 1790 on a farm on Saltsburg Road about four and one-half miles southwest of Indiana.

A.W. Taylor
A.W. Taylor

While growing up, A.W. Taylor’s father filled many important positions in Indiana including Country Treasurer (1817-18); Deputy Surveyor (1815 and 1825-27); Burgess of Indiana (1819-20), and Prothonotary (1818-21). In later years, John Taylor was a member of the Pennsylvania Legislature, Associate Judge, and Surveyor General for Pennsylvania. He was also an editor and publisher of the “Indiana Free Press.”

A.W. was educated at the Indiana Academy (located on the present site of the Silas M. Clark House) and at Jefferson College. He interrupted his studies in 1836 when he moved back to Indiana to serve as a clerk in his father’s office, who at the time was Surveyor General of Pennsylvania, a position he held until 1839. It was in 1839 that he entered law school in Carlisle, PA and studied there for one year. He continued his law studies at Judge Thomas White’s office and was admitted to the Indiana County Bar in 1841.

After being admitted to the bar, Taylor became a successful practicing attorney. He served as clerk of the Indiana Borough Council in 1843, 1844, and 1845. Then from 1845 until 1851, he served as Prothonotary and clerk of courts of Indiana County.

A.W. Taylor married Elizabeth Ralston, daughter of David Ralston, Esquire, on May 8, 1849.

Politically Taylor was a member of the Whig Party and he was strongly anti-slavery and took part in the establishment of the Republican Party in the 1850s, of which he remained a member until his death. He was elected to the Pennsylvania House in 1858 and 1859; while there he circulated a petition for the pardon of Absalom Hazlett at Harper’s Ferry and opposed proposals to create Pine County partially out of Indiana County territory. Taylor’s service did not stop there, he served as Burgess of Indiana in 1863. He was also chairman of a meeting to raise Civil War volunteers.

Then in 1872, he became a representative of Indiana, Westmoreland, and Fayette Counties as a Republican in the 43rd Congress where he served on the Committee on Railways and Canals. It was also in 1872 that he introduced Horace Greeley to a crowd at the Indiana County Fair.

Although not a practicing farmer, A.W. Taylor was interested in agriculture. Hence, Taylor served as President of the Indiana County Agricultural Society. In 1873, Attorney Taylor was elected Trustee of the Agriculture College of PA (a forerunner of Pennsylvania State University). Then in 1878, he served on the Board of Trustees at the Indiana Normal School.

Mr. Taylor was also a temperance advocate. It was on June 26, 1875 that he presented a lengthy argument in Court against the granting of liquor licenses. Taylor attempted to run as an independent candidate for judge but was defeated by Harry White.

It was in Mr. Taylor’s home, that John S. Fisher (future Pennsylvania governor) lived while he attended high school and Indiana Normal School. Taylor also owned an extensive amount of land, part of this land was developed into the Greenwood Cemetery beginning around May 21, 1879.

Alexander Wilson Taylor continued practicing law. In 1891, Taylor became helpless due to a paralytic stroke and was confined to his home for two years until his death on May 7, 1893.