McKean County Historical Society

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The first county historical society was formed in Bradford in 1901, although the charter of this early society was not entered into the county records until January 9, 1932. Formally chartered as the McKean County Historical Society, this organization was generally referred to as the “Bradford Society,” since its origin and emphasis was in the Bradford area and of the over 200 members who belonged to the society by 1926, most resided in that town. In addition, the office and collection of the society oc­cupied the first floor of the Carnegie Library in Bradford. Among its holdings were some impressive collections, especially of Lewis Emery and Thomas L.Kane, and a number of letters and signatures, including those of Thomas McKean, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Albert Gallatin and many others.

Another historical organization, the Canoe Place Historical Society, was form­ed on October 29, 1923 in the Port Allegany area. Both the Canoe Place and Bradford societies became members of the state Federation of Historical Societies, although after the death of noted historian R.B. Stone in the late 1930s, the Bradford Society became inactive.

By early 1938, however, there was renewed interest in creating a new coun­ty historical society which would be headquartered in Smethport, the county seat. To assist in these efforts, the coun­ty commissioners granted office space within the courthouse to the newly form­ing historical society in March 1938. Shortly thereafter, on July 11, 1938, an organizational meeting was held and Russell Ross Lindsley of Smethport was elected the first president. In order to avoid confusion with the prior Bradford Society, the members of this organiza­tion decided on a new name, the Governor Thomas McKean Historical Society. One of the first efforts by the new socie­ty, spearheaded by Bertha Hall Helmar of Port Allegany who became the second president, was to bring some attention to the Mt. Equity Plantation. This 299-acre parcel of land, purchased by Gov. Thomas McKean to counter Connecticut claims in the area, was the first deed for­mally recorded in the county.

The society’s first annual meeting was held on November 31, 1939, and in the same year, a tri-county organization was formed consisting of the historical societies from McKean, Potter and Cameron counties. Annual picnics were held, and this tri-county organization lasted into the 195Os.

The year 1941 proved to be an impor­tant one for the young organization, for in that year the Governor Thomas McKean Historical Society joined the state Federation of Historical Societies, Even more important, however, was the meeting held at the Methodist Church m Smethport on April 15, 1941. At that meeting, representatives of the Gover­nor Thomas McKean Society, the Brad­ford Society, the Canoe Place Society and the Carnegie Library met to discuss the possibility of a merger. Fortunately, a merger was agreed upon and from that meeting emerged a new organization. the McKean County Historical Society.

Judge F.P. Schoonmaker, the last liv­ing member of the Directors of the Brad­ford Society, authorized the transfer of all the effects of the Bradford Society to the new organization, including the con­stitution, by-laws and charter. In addi­tion, all relics and other records were also relinquished, with the under­standing that the new society would care for and preserve all objects and tradi­tions of the Bradford Society The coun­ty commissioners immediately arranged for permanent quarters in the county courthouse and for the care and display of the valuable collection which the Bradford Society had secured over near­ly half a century. As a result, the new McKean County Historical Society ob­tained tons of records, including many original documents as well as numerous displays and rare artifacts.

Immediately thereafter, in 1942, a museum was established in the court­house in order “to provide a visual, educational, and genealogical history of McKean County, and to provide the ser­vices and assistance needed to further explore and understand its place in history.” In 1976, the museum was com­pletely renovated for America’s Bicentennial celebration. As a result of the renovation, visitors can now ex­perience over twenty permanent ex­hibits, including a miniature diorama of early Smethport and displays on the history of glass in McKean County, the Bucktails’ role in the Civil War, and the early oil and lumber industries. Other exhibits depict “period” rooms, such as an 1840 kitchen, an early twentieth-century general store and “Grandma’s” attic. The McKean County Historical Society Museum also has an extensive library collection of books, documents, newspapers, letters and over 2,000 photographs. Genealogical information is available for research at the museum, which is open free to the public with group tours available.

Today, the McKean County Historical Society consists of a Board of Directors and 150 members. Its primary functions are to maintain and improve the museum and to further the cause and importance of historical preservation and the appreciation of history in McKean County.


Terry L. Hess is director for the McKean County Historical Society.