Mifflin County: The Crossroads of the Commonwealth

County Feature is a series of articles on each county in Pennsylvania and its history.

Mifflin County will celebrate its two hundredth birth­day on September 19, during a customarily beau­tiful month when glowing foliage sweeps over four hun­dred and thirty-one square miles of farms, small towns and wooded mountains. Ex­tending from Bear Gap to Kistler Borough through rug­ged and scenic valleys to the banks of the Juniata River, it’s just fifteen miles from the Seven Mountains border to the Pennsylvania State University in adjacent Centre County. Located nearly in the center of the Commonwealth, and erected in 1789 from Cum­berland and Northumberland counties, it has served as the “Crossroads of the Common­wealth.” Many early settlers and their descendants moved west from here as new lands opened. East-West stage coach routes, the canal and, later, the railroad traversed the county, named for the first governor of Pennsylvania, Thomas Mifflin (1744-1800).

In 1731, James Le Torte and Jonah Davenport came up the Juniata River and stopped for a friendly visit at the Indian village, Chesson, now Lewis­town, the county seat, which an early trader described as, “Chesson upon the Chionata, distant from Sasqueki 60 miles, Shawnee 20 families, 60 men, chief Kissikahquilas.” Besides the Shawnee there were Iroquois, Tuscaroras and Delaware Indians who hunted for the plentiful deer, bear and beaver, a Mingo Chief, Logan, who became a close friend of Squire Brown in Reedsville. A popular legend still recounts how Brown’s young daughter went to the Logan Spring for a bucket of water. She saw Lo­gan’s reflection in the water, but was not afraid. Together, they walked to Brown’s cabin where Logan asked the mother if the child could visit his cabin for a day. The mother hesi­tated, but finally consented. True to his promise, he re­turned the little girl at sunset wearing a new pair of mocca­sins. Chief Logan stayed in the valley for several years, then finally moved to Ohio.

The Indians claimed Mifflin County by conquest; William Penn claimed it by a charter granted by England’s King Charles II. Penn’s relationship was friendly, but as soon as his sons acquired the land in 1754 through the Albany Purchase, friction erupted. The Indians ravaged the white settlers’ fields and cabins, and in 1755 the Pennsylvania government ordered a chain of forts be built to protect the settlers. In July 1756, the Indians and French attacked Fort Granville, west of Ohesson, set it on fire, killed the men and seized the women and children as cap­tives. Encouraged by Gen. Edward Braddock’s defeat at Fort Duquesne, the Indians forced the white settlers to flee again and take refuge in Car­lisle in 1763. Two years later, according to missionary Cha­rles Beatty, “these sturdy pioneers – 80 families­ – returned to Mifflin County soil – this time determined to stay.”

In 1755, the Commonwealth’s Land Office opened in Harrisburg, and twenty-two warrants for land in Mifflin County were issued, a period during which wealthy Phila­delphia speculators grasped enormous tracts of land. Even Governor Mifflin acquired 1,234 acres. Arthur and Dorcas Buchanan arrived in 1754 and became prominent leaders in the community; in fact, the first court session was held in their home. Dorcas, buried in the Lewistown Old Town Cem­etery, is credited as the coun­ty’s first white woman settler.

The first tax assessment was levied on land, cabins, cows, slaves, tanneries, grist mills and whiskey stills. As the settlers became more prosper­ous they traveled Indian trails by stage coach. The Erie­Meadville lines from Erie through Bellefonte, Lewis­town, Harrisburg and York to Philadelphia cost twenty dol­lars. An expense account at­tached to the will of William Smythe for a trip from Belle­fonte to York was made in 1829, and at hostelries along the way, for a supper, break­fast and over night lodging, he paid fifty-six cents.

The earliest settlers were mostly Protestant Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and German Lutherans who maintained a steadfast interest in religious practices. According to mis­sionary Philip S. Fithian, pio­neers listened to long sermons in open fields or in a barn. The first Presbyterian church was built in Bratton Township. As more European immigrants arrived, Catholic settlers erected their first chapel, All Saints (now Sacred Heart) in 1828 in Lewistown. Presently, eighty-six churches of various denominations are scattered throughout Mifflin County. In addition to their fervent reli­gious convictions, the early settlers also believed in educa­tion. The Lewistown Academy was founded in 1815 and the Belleville Seminary in 1854, both of which emphasized a classical curriculum, including astronomy.

The Pennsylvania Canal was the first connecting link between western Pittsburgh trading posts and eastern Philadelphia markets.

In 1824, Canvas White, with Erie Canal experience, was hired by the Commonwealth to select the best route for a canal via the Juniata and Con­emaugh rivers. After much political bickering, ground was broken on July 4, 1826, in Harrisburg for the canal cost­ing $22,000 per mile. On Sep­tember 22, 1829, an important artery of trade opened as water was let into the first level at Lewistown. Canal boats were constructed in Lewistown at a boat yard on Water Street as early as 1835. The largest boat could carry a cargo of iron ore, barrels of flour, kegs of whis­key and tubs of butter.

When a canal boat arrived in the small villages lining the canal, there was much excite­ment. In Lewistown, the local band would march to Jackson’s Wharf to welcome visitors, some of whom were famous, including Sen. Henry Clay who advocated “Internal Im­provement” for the country. Mrs. Martin Sullivan of New York was so impressed with the valley’s beautiful scenery that she wrote a song entitled The Blue Juniata. Charles Dick­ens spent four days on canal boats during his travels across the United States, but com­plained about the monotony of the food, the gambling of the passengers and their foul language. It was not for him a “cheerful experience.”

Although the canal brought much profit to Mifflin County traders for many years, by 1850 financial problems developed and the canal was supplanted by the faster, more efficient railroad. The Pennsylvania Railroad system was an excit­ing epic of bold and prudent management, of new inven­tions to improve the first wood-burner engines and of building passenger and freight lines from material resources to manufacturing plants near Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Although the region’s first survey was made for the canal in 1824, it provided invaluable information for first railroad plans. This original survey was difficult because of the rugged mountains, dense forestation and inaccurate knowledge of heights of summits or gradi­ents of water courses were available. Trained engineers were few. Later, a pamphlet entitled Superior Advantage of Railways and Steam Carnages Over Canal Navigation was published, and public interest and support for the railroad spread rapidly.

Construction of track be­tween Philadelphia and Lan­caster began in 1832. As it reached Harrisburg, it opened new trading territory. Due to the burgeoning competition for Pennsylvania trade by New York and Maryland, Pennsyl­vania’s legislators met in Har­risburg and the charter incorporating the Pennsylva­nia Railroad was signed by Gov. Francis Rawn Shunk on April 13, 1846. It included many detailed provisions, among which typified Quaker conservatism; “Pay due regard to cost of construction, man­agement and maintenance … build lateral branches within the small counties traversed by the main line … issue stock of 150,000 shares at $50 par value to finance the venture.” As construction advanced along the Juniata River, across from the canal, the first train arrived at Lewistown August 23, 1849, an event celebrated with suffic­ient quantities of champagne at the Lewistown Junction, the oldest station in Pennsylvania. (Presently the Pennsylvania Technical Society is restoring the station for use as an Ar­chives Center for Pennsylvania Railroad records.) After nearly a century and a half of service, the Pennsylvania Railroad continues, but in a state of decline. However, Amtrak whistles can occasionally be heard reverberating along the Juniata River.

Another chapter in railroad history in Mifflin County was written by the Kishacoquillas Valley Railroad or, as the Amish called it, “Ol’ Hook and Eye.” It made its first run from Belleville to Reedsville June 26, 1893, a distance of nine miles. Operated for forty-seven years, it was the most impor­tant form of transportation in Kishacoquillas Valley for mov­ing lumber, agricultural products and farm machinery. It served the public by making a stop at Gibboney Park for a Sunday school picnic upon request. To offset rising ex­penses, the Ol’ Hook and Eye experimented with Saturday Night Specials to Lewistown for a movie using two old passenger coaches purchased from the Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad.

As the Pennsylvania Rail­road system expanded into the rural areas of the county to exploit the abundant natural resources, several important industries developed.

The Mann Axe factory was founded by William Mann, pioneer of the world-famous axes. From 1801 to 1922 there was never a name, except Mann, connected with the business because of the skilled management, inventiveness and integrity. James Mann patented the “Red Warrior” in 1868; William Mann invented the “Bitt Trip Hammer.” The first Mann factory was built in Mann’s Narrows near Reeds­ville because of the plentiful water supply, but later was located in Lower Mann, Yeagertown. By 1911, electric power was installed and a grinding stand with a suction attachment carried dust away from the operator, which helped to prevent “Grinders Consumption:’ The maximum production in axes, hoes and edged tools was eight hundred thousand annually. Mann’s foreign business began in 1870 when Frank Mann started to collect foreign postage stamps; ten years later, Mann axes were sold in six countries.

The Thompson Knitting Mill, founded in 1870 by James Thompson in Milroy, manufac­tured women’s and young girls’ cotton hosiery. It em­ployed about one hundred and twenty-five persons, over half of whom were women who produced two hundred and fifty pairs of stockings each day. After the four Thompson brothers incorporated the factory, a branch opened in Lewistown in 1896. As World War I became imminent, two shifts of employees produced woolen socks for the Army, a venture which proved to be financially successful. Follow­ing the death of the last Thompson brother, the busi­ness ceased after sixty-six years of operation.

Belleville, in the Kishaco­quillas Valley, provided the ideal setting for a company to produce farm machinery and to eventually become known as the “Hayrake Capitol of the World.” That company was Hentzler and Zook.

Founders Thomas E. Zook, who worked in Big Valley as a farmer and, in his youth, on the KV Railroad, and Israel Zook Hertzler, who studied mechanical engineering by a correspondence course, formed a partnership in 1889 and opened a machine and buggy repair shop. As busi­ness grew, they incorporated on February 11, 1909, with fifteen thousand dollars in capital. By 1912, the company acquired more land and built a larger machine shop, and by the following year employed about fifty men. The compa­ny’s specialities were hay rakes, grain mills, fertilizer spreaders and wood-saw equipment. Hertzler and Zook later merged with New Hol­land Machine Works in Lan­caster County. In 1948, the Sperry Corporation purchased New Holland Company to become the world’s largest manufacturer of specialized farm equipment. Presently the Belleville plant is owned by the Ford Motor Company.

In 1920, construction of the large Viscose plant began in Lewistown and by July I of the following year, the first rayon yarn was spun. The plant started with a work force of four hundred but expansion was so rapid that 1500 local men and women were em­ployed by 1922. The company produced six million pounds of yarn annually, and contin­ued to expand production to twenty-three million pounds during the Great Depression. When employment reached its peak of 3600 workers a local newspaper headline read “American Viscose Annual Payroll was 22 Million Dollars.”

On March 18, 1936, Viscose met its first disaster – the worst flood in Lewistown’s history­ – as the Juniata River almost destroyed the entire south side of the community, as well as Viscose buildings and machin­ery. It took months just to clear the mud away. In August 1963 the company was purchased by the FMC Corporation which added products such as tire fabric and polyester. But in 15)72, disaster struck again: another flood! The company never fully recovered and finally closed after fifty years of operation.

Burnham Standard Steel, the direct descendant of the Freedom Forge, founded in 1811, smelted its own iron into bars, rods and plates, which were shipped by barge down the Juniata River to black­smiths, wagon makers and shipwrights. This iron eventu­ally became wagon wheels, cooking utensils and fittings for whaling vessels. Methods were crude, but with plentiful ore, hardwood forests and water power, the industry had the potential to emerge a spe­ciality iron-maker.

By 1856, the Freedom Iron Company installed the first ring mill in the United States to manufacture railroad tires which fit over cast iron wheel cores. The first year the com­pany produced more than two thousand tires, and as the railroad networks spidered the continent, it kept pace, not only in production but also in patented improvements. As a result, the company’s motto, “Standard Rings Circle the Earth,” became very real.

During World War I, when associated with Baldwin Loco­motive Works in Eddystone, Burnham produced parts for a hundred engines each month, thousands of shells for the British Navy and gun barrels and howitzers for the United States. World War II generated another surge for war imple­ments, and in 1943 the War Department conferred the Army-Navy Production Award for “outstanding achievement in producing war equipment.”

Even though Burnham Standard Steel has had differ­ent names because of division mergers during a period span­ning nearly two centuries, it is Mifflin County’s oldest exist­ing industrial contributor to a richer economy. At its peak, it employed about four thousand workers and put a forty mil­lion dollar renovation program in place. Burnham Standard Steel has come a long way from wagon wheels to metals and superalloys used in nu­clear reactors, supersonic aircraft, rockets and missiles!

Located in Lewistown, the Mifflin County Industrial De­velopment Corporation (MCIDC) is the most diversi­fied and fastest growing group in the county today. First formed in 1953 to provide jobs for returning Korean veterans. its two major properties are the seventy acre Plaza with fourteen industries, and the Industrial Park covering 220 acres, where eleven industries operate.

Despite their zealous dedi­cation to local industrial devel­opment and commerce, citizens of Mifflin County have participated in all the wars of the United States. Five hun­dred men from that part of Cumberland County which now comprises Mifflin County served in the Militia during the American Revolution, and fought at Quebec, Long Is­land, Princeton and Brandy­wine. After 1m most units were assigned to fight Indians on the frontier.

Between 1812 and 1814, companies from Mifflin County fought on the Cana­dian border, at Lake Erie and on the Chesapeake fronts. Daniel Dobbins, a native of Mifflin County, was responsi­ble for reporting the British advances on the Great Lakes to Pres. James Madison. His accuracy and knowledge of the Great Lakes convinced the president to build a fleet to protect the Lakes. The fleet included the Lawrence and Niagara commanded by Com­modore Oliver Hazard Perry who defeated the British on September 10, 1813 (see “The Battle of Lake Erie: A Victory for Commodore Perry” by James E. Valle in the fall 1988 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage).

Two countians gave their life at the Alamo. For the Mexi­can War, the county contrib­uted two full companies – the Juniata Guards under Capt. William Irwin and the Wayne Guards under Capt. James Caldwell – which were part of the First and Second Pennsyl­vania Regiments. They fought from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. Juniata Guards Lieut. Thomas F. McCoy later became a briga­dier general in the Civil War.

Hundreds of countians fought for their country during the Civil War. The most fa­mous of the many companies was the Logan Guards, a vol­unteer military organization. When Fort Sumter was at­tacked and Pres. Abraham Lincoln issued a call for troops, they assembled and departed for Harrisburg. Al­though the second company to arrive, the Logan Guards was the first to report to Gov. An­drew Curtin and one of the first five to arrive in the nation’s capital. The company ever since has been honored as “The First Defenders: During the Civil War, coun­tians helped make up the legendary Civil War regiments, the 42nd or first “Bucktails,” the 44th or 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry, the 45th (which in­cluded the Belleville Fenci­bles), the 46th (which included the Second Logan Guards), the 107th commanded by then Col. Thomas McCoy and the 149th or “Second Bucktails.”

Three decades later, Mifflin County was well represented in the Spanish-American War, and nearly two thousand an­swered the call to serve in World War I. More than fifty soldiers gave their lives in France. While the county also surpassed its goals in all five Liberty Bond drives, the local steel mill and powder factory helped supply the equipment for her soldiers. World War II saw those from Mifflin County fighting on all fronts. Many others saw service in Korea and Viet Nam. Mifflin Coun­tians remain proud that for years they have served their country as “first defenders.”

In sharp contrast to Mifflin County’s industrial aggressive­ness and its staunch patriot­ism, are its three sects of Amish. The Nebraska “White­tops,” so called because of their white-topped horse­drawn buggies, are the most conservative. Descendants of the Anabaptists persecuted in Switzerland during the Protes­tant Reformation, they safe­guard a Biblical commitment to the soil: “The Lord put man into the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.” They look after their own poor and aged and infirmed. They refuse military service. They do not accept Social Security nor Welfare benefits. As a group, they believe in strict conformity. They dress simi­larly and conduct worship services in their homes. After the Bishop’s three-hour Sun­day service, whether in a well­-to-do or poor farmer’s house, the same modest menu is always served: bean soup, bread and butter and half­moon apple pie.

One law which separates the often confused Amish from the Mennonites is “shun­ning.” If shunned or ex­communicated from the church, members are never again accepted by their own people. Another rule which differentiates the group is the use of hook and eye on cloth­ing by the Amish and buttons by the Mennonites. In con­trast, the Mennonites are more modern, progressive in educa­tion and drive black automo­biles.

The Amish, much like the early frontier farmers, produce grain crops, such as corn, wheat, oats and rye. Today, specialized agricultural busi­nesses have developed, includ­ing dairy, poultry, fruit, cheese and wine-making. According to 1987 statistics, 680 farms owned by the Amish, Menno­nites and “English” in Mifflin County yielded more than thirty-nine million dollars in cash receipts. Agriculture was – and is – the county’s first and foremost industry.

For recreation, Reed’s Gap in New Lancaster Valley is a popular, invigorating spot in a beautiful mountain setting of tall pines and towering hem­locks.

In the early nineteenth century, neighboring farmers drove by horse and buggy on Sundays to enjoy a picnic and Listen to a circuit preacher at a Bush Meeting. It wasn’t until 1933 that Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his fight against soil erosion and declining timber sources, signed the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) bill utilizing unem­ployed men. At Mifflin Coun­ty’s 5-113 Camp, the first enrollment was limited to two hundred men, between the ages of eighteen and twenty­-five. They were paid thirty dollars per month, of which twenty-five dollars were allot­ted to a dependent. With in­creasing employment and a brighter future in sight, the camp closed in 1941. In the 1960s, the Bureau of State Parks was formed and a park superintendent was hired to coordinate extensive recrea­tional programs including the construction of a modern swimming pool.

Mifflin Countians enjoy their own unique Goose Day, September 29. Participants believe that if a person eats goose on that day he will not be poor for a whole year. Shrouded in mystery, the idea may be based on an European legend that every September 29, Michaelmas Day, a renter must pay his rent and present a fat goose to his landlord. The Mifflin County Commissioners issued a proclamation in 1973 for a Goose Day parade, and every year since more activities have been added with the admonition: Eat Goose For Good Luck.

In Mifflin County, it is individuals who make things hap- pen. Maj. Gen. Frank Ross McCoy (1874-1954) gave his boyhood home to become the McCoy House Museum; the McCoy wills established a substantial endowment. His sister, Hannah McCoy, distributed food in Europe after World War I, and upon her return, she organized the first Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Lewistown. William P. Woods (1863-1949) founded Boy Scout Troop Number 4, the oldest char­tered group in the United States. Joseph T. Rothrock (1839-1922) of McVeytown, “Father of Forestry in Pennsyl­vania,” developed fire control, reforestation and scientific forest research, and made Mt. Alto an early training school for foresters.

Recognizing Mifflin Coun­ty’s rich heritage, George R. Frysinger (1841-1933), editor of the Lewistown Gazette, wrote editorials arousing the public’s awareness of the county’s rich heritage, and founded the historical society. Martin S. Stroup (1896-1975), editor of the Lewistown Sentinel, orga­nized the moving of the county artifact collection from the Municipal Building to the museum, while his wife, Sarah, interested in genealogy, arranged the basement library. Raymond M. Bell, now a retired professor from Washington and Jefferson College and a distinguished genealogist, together with Stroup, tirelessly devoted days to researching county military records in Washington, D.C., the archives in Carlisle and the Land Office records in Harrisburg. They eventually pub­lished their findings.

After traveling through two centuries of county history, many Mifflin Countians may agree with the observations of Alec de Toqueville in Democ­racy in America: “Society changes, humanity its condi­tions, new destinies are impending.”


For Further Reading

Commemorative Biographical Encyclopedia of the Juniata Valley. Chambersburg, Pa.: J. M. Runk and Company, 1897.

The Genesis of Mifflin County, Pennsylvania. Lewistown, Pa.: Stroup and Bell, 1973.

History of Mifflin County, Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Joseph Cockran, 1879.

History of the Susquehanna and Juniata Valleys, Mifflin, Juniata, Perry, Union and Snyder Counties. Philadelphia: Everts, Peck and Richards, 1886.

Hostetler, John H. Amish Soci­ety. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963.


The authors wish to publicly acknowledge the help of many fellow countians who assisted in lite preparation of this article to mark Mifflin County’s bicenten­nial.


Helen McNitt received her bache­lor’s of arts degree from Wilson College, Chambersburg, and her master’s of arts degree from tire Pennsylvania State University. A retired professor from York Col­lege, York, her interests include history and literature.


Charles L. Eater, a graduate of Dickinson College, Carlisle, was awarded his medical degree by Temple University. A retired physician, he serves as editor of the Mifflin County Historical Society’s newsletter.


Jeri Leonard died on December 5, 1988, leaving many friends and admirers in Mifflin County. Noted for her enthusiasm, dedication and broad knowledge of both regional and state history, she assisted generations of students and scholars in their research. In addition to serving as curator of the McCoy House Museum, she was involved in numerous com­munity activities.