“A New County to Be Called Snyder”

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

Snyder is a small rural county covering 327 square miles with a population exceeding thirty thou­sand. Situated near the center of the Commonwealth, it is bounded on the northwest by Jack’s Mountain, on the southeast by the Mahantango Creek and on the en­tire eastern end by the beautiful Susquehanna River. Most of the remaining boundaries are unrelated to natural features. Geologically, the land’s origin is of the Ordovician, Silurian and Devonian periods, and thus approaches one­-half billion years of age.

Recent study has challenged some of the past concep­tions about prehistoric Snyder County. For example, since the Susquehanna River touches the county, it has been assumed that the main Indians in the area must have been the Susquehannock tribe. However, of a sample of seventy-three local prehistoric pottery fragments (rim sherds) identified by Dr. Barry Kent (1972), just one sherd was of the Susquehannock cultural type. What then, is the more accurate picture?

Evidence from the Meadowcroft archeological site south­west of Pittsburgh and the Sheep Rock site near Hunting­don, reveals human activity in western Pennsylvania as early as 12,000 B.C. and before. By inference then, we can assume that man has existed in the Snyder County area for perhaps ten thousand years or more. Of the various native cultures that visited or lived in the area, the one most in evidence is really one that is not well-known. This cul­tural type, now designated as “Shenk’s Ferry,” has been but recently studied. These people lived throughout the central part of Pennsylvania west of the Susquehanna and were on the verge of extinction when Europeans arrived. There are no historical references to them, but of the pottery samples mentioned above, 60 percent of the sherds were identified as Shenk’s Ferry! By the time the Europeans were fully settled in the Snyder County area, how­ever, the Shenk’s Ferry culture had been replaced by that of the Delaware people to the east.


The Pioneer Period

By 1400 A.D., these aboriginal people were just leaving the stone age and had begun to use copper and develop agri­culture. They lived not in tepees, as the Great Plains Indians did, but in longhouses within villages surrounded by circular wooden stockades. As they fought against their environment, and occasionally each other, they could never have imagined that four thousand miles away, on another continent, a stronger, “more advanced” people was coming to life and would soon arrive to shatter and destroy the native Indian culture. The Snyder County area, as elsewhere, was shaken as the native culture struggled to survive.

The conflict between Indians and white colonists in Snyder County lasted less than five decades from the 1740’s until the early 1780’s. White the Albany Treaty of 1754 officially opened the area to European settlers, some had already been there for a decade or more. Al­though we tend to dwell on this cultural conflict, there was little serious trouble if we discount the periods of the French and Indian War (1754-63) and the American Revo­lution (1775-81).

The “Penn’s Creek Massacre,” in which thirteen whites were killed, occurred during the former war. This incident was followed by a skirmish between an investigating party, led by John Harris, and a group of Indians. The encounter resulted in a dozen killed on both sides.

After 1756, Snyder County’s defense was much influ­enced by Fort Augusta which was erected just across the Susquehanna River on the site of present-day Sunbury. The fort was one of the largest in the province, but even its presence did not bring an end to the frontier incidents. A final ugly episode in this clash of cultures occurred in 1781 east of present-day Globe Mills when a group of In­dians attacked the family of Melchoir Stock, eventually killing six of the family members. After the Indian raiding party was pursued northward, overtaken and defeated, the area’s frontier strife was ended.

Pioneer life, of course, is valued much more than conflict with Indians. Early settlers also struggled continuously to create a home in a rugged and unpredictable environment. What some believe to be the oldest structure in Sny­der County, a small stone house on a rural crossroads west of Freeburg, was built by the efforts of the Meyer (Moyer) family about 1768. For some years it served as the Bridle Path Inn, a wayside hostelry. This and about one-half dozen other eighteenth-century buildings still stand in the county as reminders of the pioneer attempt to forge a home in the wilderness.

The pioneer spirit is a gambling spirit. The frontiersman gambled on surviving in an unfamiliar and sometimes hos­tile environment, a place where essential goods were often many days distant. There was risk, but the rewards for winning were considerable – personal freedom and economic gain. Records do not tell us precisely who the very first settlers were, but several early ones are identified. In early times, as today, the lure of the river was strong, and most early colonists lived near its banks. The first cluster of cabins was along the lower waters of Penns Creek, and it was the settlers of that area that George Gabriel served with the trading post he established near the creek’s mouth about 1745. Ten years later his buildings were burned during an Indian attack and he fled with his family, but he later returned to resettle in the area.

Along with George Gabriel, history records the names of numerous persons who moved into, or were born in, the Snyder County area during this period. The following, somewhat arbitrary selection, is offered because each per­son named is unique in some way. Mathias Schoch, for example, gained passage to America as a redemptioner to Conrad Weiser, got a warrant for lands along Middle Creek and settled in the area of Kreamer. Ner Middleswarth came to own a half-dozen businesses and seventeen farms in the central-western part of the county. In addition, he served as a captain during the War of 1812, a thirteen-term state representative, two-term Speaker of the House and a state senator. He even served as a U.S. Congressman and still found time to father twelve children. John Steese – reputed at one time to be the wealthiest man in the area – was a master craftsman who helped to build over fifty mills.

But, from the historical point-of-view, one nineteenth-century citizen of the area towers above the rest-the last man to serve the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as gover­nor for three terms {each term then being three years). That man was Simon Snyder. He moved into the Selinsgrove area in 1784, owned a mill and a store there and was the local justice of the peace for a dozen years. Later he was elected a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and in 1802, became the Speaker of the House. After an unsuccessful attempt to be elected governor of the state in 1805, he ran again in 1808 and this time was elected. Snyder, an early opponent of both slavery and capital punishment, was twice re-elected.

While governor, Snyder’s youngest son became the object of a kidnapping plot. The plan was devised by a woman hoping to gain gubernatorial pardon for her husband, a convicted murderer. The plot was discovered, however, and the conspirators were arrested north of Harrisburg before reaching Selinsgrove.

After serving as governor, Snyder returned to Selins­grove and in 1816 built a small stone mansion which stands today as one of the county’s principal landmarks. In 1818, just one year before he died, he was again honored by the area’s citizens and elected to the state senate. A monu­ment, erected in 1885, marks his burial site in Selinsgrove’s First Lutheran Church cemetery. Simon Snyder was easily the area’s most prominent historical figure, and naturally, it was his name that was applied when Snyder County was finally established.


Formation of the County

Before 1855, Snyder County did not exist as a separate political unit. As the counties of Pennsylvania were gradu­ally defined, the area was successively part of several large early counties. After 1772, it was placed within the jurisdiction of newly-created Northumberland County and so remained until 1813 when Union County was created. For the next forty-two years the land which now comprises Snyder County was part of what was then Union County.

By 1855, however, strong differences of opinion over several key issues, including the erection of a new courthouse in the county seat of New Berlin, began to emerge. These disagreements eventually resulted in a petition being sent to the state legislature demanding political division. Citizens of Selinsgrove, in present-day Snyder, and of Lewisburg in present-day Union, strongly favored division, hoping to see their respective towns designated as the new county seats. Interestingly, in the state-mandated election on the issue, most citizens of the mother county voted to create the new county, while most citizens of the pro­posed county voted against it! The total vote, held on March 16, 1855, was 2,553 in favor of division, and 2,508 against it, thus creating, in the words of the state act, ” … a new county to be called Snyder.”

That same year saw Lewisburg realize its wish to become the county seat of a reduced Union County. In Snyder, though, three communities competed for the distinction: Freeburg, Middleburg, and Selinsgrove. When the vote was tabulated, centrally located Middleburg received more votes than Freeburg and Selinsgrove combined and so became the county seat.


The Church

Churches played an important role in Snyder County since early in its history. Frontier congregations formed and established churches which were often poor, sometimes having little more property than the prayer books of their pious worshipers. The largest of the early county congregations were Lutheran and Reformed, both of which employed the German language in their services for over a century. The Zion Lutheran Church at Freeburg seems to be the first formally organized congregation (c. 1770); however, the oldest existing congregation, begun in the 1760’s, appears to be that of Salem Lutheran just west of Selinsgrove. Their first church was thirty feet square and, with galleries on three sides, could seat about four hundred faithful. The county’s third known congregation – in a union church – was, and still is, a rural congregation known as Grubb’s or Botschaft’s Church near the tiny village of Pallas. Other early congregations were Hassinger’s Lutheran and Reformed, near the center of the county; St. John’s Union and Beaver Springs Union, both serving the western area; Zion’s Union Church at Kratzerville; and finally, Sharon Union Church in Selinsgrove.

Presently, there are over one hundred churches of many denominations within the county, but their impact on society has diminished somewhat since pioneer days. Few things were so much a part of Snyder County’s early culture as the rural and small-town churches. While none of the original church structures stands today, their old grave­yards – some woefully abandoned-are reminders of those reverent frontier congregations.



Transportation in the area, in pioneer days, was limited to horse or horse-drawn wagon. That is still a form of travel for some of Snyder County’s citizens today. However, these modes of transportation are now preferred for cul­tural and religious reasons and not, as some would like to believe, because Snyder County is still in the eighteenth century.

The first improvements in transportation came about with the natural expansion of the road system. These early roads followed the valleys west from the river, linking the isolated farms and mills. Many of these roads can still be noticed angling off between the fields along U.S. Routes 35 and 522.

The first real change in transportation came, however, after 1831 with the opening of the Susquehanna Division of the Pennsylvania Canal. The section of the canal in Sny­der County paralleled the Susquehanna River from Northumberland south for thirty-nine miles. Within that stretch was a series of three or four locks and an aqueduct which passed over Penn’s Creek. Once operating, the canal pro­vided many jobs on the boats, at the locks and in the taverns and inns by the way. Its primary value, however, was still the reduction it brought, in both time and cost, to the moving of freight. A dam in the Susquehanna below Sunbury, brought river water into the canal. But, in 1904, an ice gorge smashed the dam bringing use of the canal to an end. Long before that time, however, the railroads had already made canal transport much less attractive.

When steam locomotives first appeared in England in the early eighteenth century, cries of alarm were common. It was charged that the noise and smoke were so frightful that cows would not give milk nor hens lay eggs. But, the railroad stayed, and came to America.

The Sunbury and Lewistown Railroad opened the coun­ty’s first railroad in late 1871. It puffed through the Middlecreek Valley from Lewistown to Selinsgrove and across a bridge to the eastern side of the river, there connecting with tracks of another company. After only three years, financial problems forced it to stop running in 1874. A group of investors gave $500,000 for the line at a sheriff’s sale, only to sell it later for $161,000. After July 1, 1876, it operated under a lease held by the Pennsylvania Rail­road which eventually purchased it.

By the turn of the century, the line ran several passen­ger and freight trains daily. However, as highways were improved and the use of automobiles and trucks cut into the rail business, the Middlecreek Valley service declined. Passenger service stopped in 1932. As freight tonnage dwindled, the number of daily runs was reduced and. finally, the western part of the track was abandoned bit by bit. Today, the Kreamer Feed Store five miles west of Selinsgrove is the present end of the line. For most of Sny­der County, the railroad is gone; but the impetus it gave to the several towns along its tracks has been of continuing benefit.

Snyder County was also blessed, at one time, with a trolley line. From 1907 until 1934, the busy line operated between Sunbury, in Northumberland County, and Rolling Green and Selinsgrove in Snyder. The route served pri­marily to carry visitors to Rolling Green which was a very popular amusement park during those years and until the early 1970’s.

It was the automobile, however, that revolutionized the country – Snyder County being no exception. It carried passengers where railroads never could, and it ended the stagecoach business that had long flourished in the area. About 1907. Charles M. Kearns started producing a “motor buggy” in Beavertown which was actually a transitional machine, part carriage and part automobile. The company, with Albert Mutschler as the General Superintendent, manufactured trucks and small automobiles which were sold for about $900. The car was popular overseas and sold well, but the coming of World War I disrupted the trans­portation of raw materials and export problems forced the company to close. When manufacturing stopped in 1916, there were over three thousand unfilled orders. Had the war not upset things, Detroit might still be feeling the economic shock!


Agriculture and Industry

Today. Snyder County is a showplace for agriculture where its evolution from colonial times to the present can be witnessed. Various stages of development can be seen, from the use of horse-drawn wagons hauling the harvest and hand-tied shocks of grain standing in neat bundles in the fields, to farmers using the most advanced equipment and newest techniques of agronomy. The average county farmer is somewhere in-between these extremes, sometimes holding a second job to allow him to farm a plot too small for a regular livelihood. It is the farm population that most nearly resembles the early residents of the area, with phy­sical labor. diversity of skills and close family and church ties still prevalent in their lives. Today about 870 farms pro­duce crops with an estimated value of about $17,000,000.

One county farmer, Gordon Baker of the Beaver Springs area, was named state Conservationist of the Year in 1977. Another, Raymond Kerstetter, a Freeburg area farmer. held various state and federal positions and, in 1976-77, was Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Agriculture. Numerous agricultural organizations also exist in the county, includ­ing an active 4-H and, since 1940, the Beaver Community Fair Association has sponsored an excellent small agricul­tural fair. But, the most notable feature of the historic development of Snyder County agriculture has been the greatly reduced number of individual farms, coupled with a considerable increase in farm productivity.

Snyder County’s industry got off to a solid beginning with outstanding early craftsmen. They produced, among other things, saddles, boats, whips, shoes and rifles. They milled, tanned, lumbered, mined iron ore and dredged coal. About five clockmakers lived in the county, Michael Wittenmeyer and John Scharf being 1the best known. Sny­der County also had its share of distillers, for when grain is far from the markets, distilling has considerable appeal. As a result. many distillers worked in the area; some even ignored the restrictions of the Prohibition years and con­tinued their activities throughout that era.

Of all the early craftsmen, none has brought more notice to Snyder County than the riflemaker. He made superior Pennsylvania (or Kentucky) flintlock rifles, and usually left his name stamped on his product. Many of the rifles – now valuable collectors’ items – still exist, bearing such local names as Laudenschlager, Wetzel, Specht, St. Clair, Keen and, the most prominent, Joseph Long of Beaver Springs. Interestingly, these rifles are again becoming popular, with thousands of flintlock clubs in existence and many reproductions of the antique weapons on the market. The only present-day shop equipped to make especially long barrels (up to fifty inches) for the flintlock, is the Getz Brothers shop in Beavertown.

Modern machine production has replaced most individual manufacture. Mills and plants were built to produce silk, brick, clothing and cabinets. Most recently, the county has acquired plants tor the production of packaging material and mobile and modular homes; yet, in the midst of all this modern manufacturing, a craftsman in Heister Valley is still producing Early American style tinware.



Public education in the county began with the Free School Act of 1834. The county is fortunate in still having one of those early wood-frame buildings used to educate her youth. Located north of Salem, Herman’s (or Boyer’s) school has been restored and refurnished to stand as a reminder that accomplished scholars are created by factors other than the costly machines and devices which seem so vital to education today. Since 1940, two major reorganizational changes have been spurred by state legislation. Firstly, three separate school districts were established to cover the county. After 1970, more changes were neces­sary, and two districts merged to form the Mid-West district, serving the central and western parts of the county. Selinsgrove School District serves the more populous eastern zone.

Snyder County’s lone institution of higher learning is Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove. It was founded in 1858 by Dr. Benjamin Kertz, a Lutheran minister who first established two separate schools – Missionary Institute and the Susquehanna Female College. After 1873 the school became a pioneer co-educational institution and in 1894 the school was given its present name. The past two decades under the presidency of Dr. Gustav Weber, who recently retired, saw exceptional growth of the student body, faculty, facilities and academic quality. The university, on a tree-shaded campus, is noted for its programs in music, business and liberal arts education.


Recent History

The most recent history of Snyder County tells the story of drastic change within its boundaries. Collectively, the citizenry of the area has resisted change and held to the past, but economics has a way of eroding tradition. Evidence of this change has been the recent establishment of county and township planning commissions; county and regional agencies for tourist promotion; large new industries and greatly expanded older ones; organized recreational developments; and the completion of a large shopping mall. The traditional might still be recognized, however. Snyder has remained a rural county. largely Protes­tant, ethnically Pennsylvania German, and politically conservative, although all of these elements are somewhat less noticeable than in the past.

Nevertheless, even with these changes, nature still re­mains close at hand. In June of 1972 tropical storm Agnes spun its way along the nation’s eastern seaboard. It missed Snyder County, but the accompanying rains caused tremendous damage. Swollen streams rushed into the Susquehanna and silt from one hundred miles up the river was deposited high on the walls of homes downstream. There was damage along all of the creeks in the county; but Agnes was simply a reminder that nature can still exert itself in ways virtually uncontrollable by humans. The floods of 1865, 1889 and 1936, and the unusually heavy snows during the winter of 1977-78 (“The year of the fallen roofs”). as well as other incidents, are all testaments to that fact.

Although nature remains at times awesome, many people of the county still purposely seek a closeness with it. One such resident became famous doing just that. He and his wife first came to Snyder County in 1964 and moved into an old house near Troxelville. From there, he struggled to get his writings published. Eventually a book was accep­ted, and sold well. Others soon followed. Before long, the author had articles written about him, was awarded an honorary degree, was hired to do television commercials and, finally, had jokes told about him on national television. Euell Gibbons, after years of struggle, had become famous. He lived in that same house near Troxelville until his death in 1975.

Others in Snyder County have received attention. Mrs. Gereon Salavan of McClure discovered several new bacteria during a distinguished career in bacteriology. George Bucher of Freeburg has achieved artistic prominence for his unique twine sculptures, and the late Randy Steffen of Selinsgrove was a successful painter of western themes. Much earlier, in 1894, a man born in Snyder County, decided to dramatize the problems of the unemployed by leading a march to Washington D.C. At the time, the march gained little more than publicity and a brief jail term for its leader, Jacob S. Coxey. Now, references to “Coxey’s Army” can be found in many history books.

Snyder countians have also gained recent recognition in the field of sports. One of football’s greatest coaches, A. A. Stagg, concluded his exceptional career at Susque­hanna University as a co-coach with his son, A. A. Stagg, Jr. Their 1951 Crusaders team was undefeated and one team member, Rich Young, became Little All-American quarterback that year. In the early 1960’s, under coach Jim Garett, the S.U. football team had an undefeated string of twenty­-two games, longest in the country at the time.

Three other names which are recognized far beyond the county borders, are company names: Weis, Dutch Pantry and Wood-Mode. All three began as small, local operations. The first became a large grocery chain, the second an East Coast restaurant franchise and the third a quality cabinet manufacturer.

Snyder County has moved far from its rural origins. Modern schools, industries and methods of agriculture have slowly replaced the traditions of early pioneers. Contem­porary Snyder County, however, still displays the impact of a complex historical heritage which was shaped by thousands of its humble citizens.


Snyder Mansion Placed on National Register

The Governor Simon Snyder Mansion, 119-121 North Market Street, Selinsgrove, was entered in the National Register of Historic Places on August 25, 1978.

Built in the early 1800’s on the northeast corner of what was then the square of the village of Selinsgrove, the two and one-half-story structure built of native limestone re­tains much of the original interior hardware and woodwork. Several fireplaces still remain as well as a Victorian Era side porch. The mansion suffered some exterior damage in a fire of 1874 which destroyed fifty.four of Selinsgrove’s early buildings.

Governor Snyder was the third governor of Pennsylvania (1808-1817) to serve under the Constitution of 1790. He held the distinction of being the first governor elected on the Democratic ticket, the last governor to serve three successive terms, and the first governor elected from the rank and file of the Pennsylvania German population. He served several successive terms in the legislature before his election as governor and acted as Speaker of the House. Governor Snyder’s political career began when he served as a delegate to the convention in Philadelphia which drafted the Constitution of 1790.


Mr. Graybill, whose articles on history and other topics have appeared in various publications, is a World Cultures teacher in Middleburg and a mem­ber of the Snyder County Historical Society. He gratefully acknowledges the assistance of David Herrold of Selinsgrove and Dewey Herrold, also of Selinsgrove and president emeritus of the Snyder County Historical Society, in the preparation of this paper.