Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Thanks to Penn State coach Joe Paterno and his loyal fans, it’s not uncommon to find tens of thousands of motorists jamming Centre County roads on autumn weekends. Fifty years ago this fall – Sunday, October 23, 1949, to be precise – thirty thousand people from throughout the United States converged not in State College to enjoy a football game but in the considerably smaller town of Aaronsburg for far loftier purposes: to proclaim nothing less than rural America’s rejection of racial intolerance and religious prejudice.

There was, of course, a reason why so many people came to Aaronsburg and not to some other rural American town that year. Aaronsburg may have resem­bled many other places, but it was uniquely different in the way that its white, Protestant citizens proudly claimed to tolerate other ethnic, racial, and religious groups and appreciate whatever cultural differences there were between them.

It was no accident, for example, that Aaronsburgers had chosen James M. Shannon as minister of their Lutheran Church. While serving in Somerset County during the 1920s, Shannon had gained a reputation for standing up to the Ku Klux Klan at a time when the KKK was reviving its membership in many rural areas of Pennsylvania. Aaronsburg’s citizens recruited Shannon in 1942, because, as the town’s banker said, “it wouldn’t do to have a bigot” preaching in Aaronsburg.

Aaronsburgers traced their tradition of tolerance to the town’s founding in the late eighteenth century. Few people outside of Aaronsburg were aware of the town’s special heritage until 1949, however, when in the spring of that year, writer Arthur H. Lewis (1906-1990), an aide to Governor James H. Duff, was driving through the community on his way to Pittsburgh. Lewis noticed a road marker proclaiming “Aaronsburg, Named for Aaron Levy. Founded 1786,” and wondered why an early settlement in central Pennsylvania bore the name of an individual that sounded Jewish.

Lewis hopped out of his car, spotted a man on a nearby porch – insurance salesman Albert “Abby” Mingle – sat down with him, and began a journey of discovery that would bring him and thousands of others to the realization that Aaronsburg was much more than just an ordinary central Pennsylvania town. Aaronsburg is, in fact, the oldest settle­ment in Centre County; its founding predates that of the county. It was founded, as Lewis surmised, by a Jewish settler, Aaron Levy (1742-1815), a prominent businessman of the Revolu­tionary War era.

Levy migrated from his native Holland in the late 1760s to the frontier settlement of Northumberland in northcentral Pennsylvania. Hostilities during the American Revolution forced him to relocate to Lancaster, and he supported the American cause as a financier and militia member. He also became associated with prominent political figures of the day, including Robert Morris and James Wilson, whom he joined in land speculation and business ventures after the war ended. Levy conducted most of his business on his own, however, and he succeeded in purchasing land throughout central Pennsylvania; at one time his holdings included hundreds of thousands of acres in at least ten counties. He purchased properties from war veterans whom the state had compensated in land rather than currency.

When Levy purchased a tract of three hundred and thirty-four acres known as White Thorn Grove in 1779, only about twenty families lived in the general area. Levy envisioned an uncommonly bright future for the place, however, and had hopes of making his town the seat of government for the county then being proposed – and perhaps even of making it the capital of Pennsylvania, given the site’s geographical location at practically the exact center of the state. Settlements were most often founded because they served some economic purpose – many were bum around mills, for instance-­ but Aaronsburg’s origins were more political than economic.

In 1786, Levy laid out a formal plan for his town, which he named Aarons­burg, and registered it in Northumberland County. He sold lots to local settlers and out-of-town specula­tors, and families began to make Aaronsburg their home. Like other developers, Levy recognized his town’s communal and religious needs, so in 1789, he made two lots available, for five shillings, as sites for a school and a church and burial ground.

When the Salem Lutheran Church was dedicated in 1799, Levy presented the congregation with a pewter communion set that had been crafted by William Will of Philadelphia, perhaps the most recognized pewterer of his time. The gift impressed Aaronsburg’s German community as more than just an artistic masterpiece, and Aaronsburgers came to regard Levy’s offering as a generous gesture of goodwill, a symbol of brother­hood between Jews and Christians.

Unfortunately for Levy, his plans for Aaronsburg unraveled as the Napoleonic Wars caused countries to erect trade barriers with the United States and the American economy teetered on crisis. Waves of immigrants never came to populate central Pennsylvania as Levy had hoped. After Bellefonte was selected as the county seat of the newly created Centre County in 1800, Levy, who suffered other financial setbacks at the time, turned his attention elsewhere. He died in 1815, but the people of the town he founded never forgot his unselfish­ness, vision, and generosity.

In the century and a half after Aaron Levy pulled out, Aaronsburg’s popula­tion remained stable, numbering about three hundred; virtually all residents appeared similar to each other in terms of race, religion, and class. Aaronsburg evolved into the type of small, rural town that people sometimes describe as “timeless,” the kind of place where nothing important ever seems to happen.

Of course, Aaronsburgers saw their community differently, because they­ – and apparently they alone – were acquainted with its history. When Salem Lutheran Church was remodeled in 1914, several church elders suggested that the congregation consider selling Levy’s gift of the Will pewter set in order to raise needed money. This might have been a responsible suggestion elsewhere, but in Aaronsburg people thought better of the proposal and chose, instead, to preserve the historic service in a specially­-designed case so it could be appropriately displayed for townsfolk and their visitors to see and appreciate.

When Abby Mingle told Arthur Lewis about Aaronsburg, he did not base his story on anything he had learned in an American history book. He described how he had learned about his town’s history from his grandfather – who had learned the story of its founding and traditions from his grandfather. Mingle’s great-great grandfather claimed to have known Aaron Levy. Arthur Lewis left Abby Mingle’s porch, but he couldn’t forget Aaronsburg’s story. So driven was he to hear more, he returned the follow­ing day to meet with others, including Reverend Shannon. After speaking with people in and around Aaronsburg, he learned enough to conclude “what Aaronsburg represents is so fundamentally American that it should be told everywhere.”

Lewis returned to Harrisburg and met with his boss, Governor Duff, to apprise him of Aaronsburg’s political potential. Duff, whom Lewis described as “a liberal Republican of the Bull Moose school,” needed little persuasion. He immediately freed Lewis of his regular responsibilities and arranged to support his planning of an event in the Centre County communi­ty through the Commonwealth’s Department of Commerce. Duffs only direction to Lewis was to not make the event a “country clambake.” “Make it big,” he told Lewis, “as big as you can, and involve as many people as possible.”

Lewis began in earnest in Aaronsburg and surrounding Centre County. He and Reverend Shannon had earlier discussed the possibility of presenting a grand historical pageant – one that would feature hundreds of costumed perform­ers interpreting Aaronsburg’s noteworthy history – and locals embraced the idea. The staging of a pageant as the principal civic celebration was, in many ways, out of touch with the times. Historical pageants were extraordinarily popular throughout the United States during the Progressive Era fifty years earlier but historian and author David Glassberg contends “the use of pageants as the centerpiece of an elaborate civic celebra­tion … was over by World War II.”

During the Progressive Era, many Americans had emphasized the continu­ity between past and present and sought to encourage social reform through a heightened awareness of history and tradition. As disillusionment set in following World War I, many Americans longed for a preindustrial past that seemed increasingly remote from harsh modern realities. To many Americans in the twenties and thirties, the past was becoming, in historian David Lowen­thal’s memorable words, “a foreign country.” They left their homes – and their own local histories – to visit artificial, idealized communities like John D. Rockefeller’s Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village in Michigan, where social order was rigidly maintained and conflict seemed unimaginable. Technological change, racial unrest, religious differ­ences, and class distinctions threatened no one in these hybrid, highly romanti­cized places. During the Cold War, patriotic Americans went a step further and used similar historic sites as plat­forms to celebrate their freedom from Communism and foreign influences.

Aaronsburg’s pageant planners may have had more in common with their Progressive Era ancestors than they did with their contemporaries when it came to using their understanding of history to shed light on the present. Like the Progressives, Aaronsburg’s residents remained firmly connected to their past, committed to confronting social prob­lems, and dedicated to building a better future. Much like the sponsors of Progressive Era pageants, too, they saw a clear connection between their local story and the nation’s.

The planners quickly located a professor of rural sociology at the nearby Pennsylvania State University, William R. Gordon, to write their pageant. Gordon titled the production The Issue of an Ideal – a Dramatic Ceremony Commemorat­ing the Founding of Aaronsburg. Planners also secured the support and assistance of practically every civic group in the area, from the Lions and Kiwanis Clubs to local school organizations and volun­teer fire companies. The locals raised cash, and arranged for transportation, printing, bleacher construction, and much more. They scheduled their celebration for autumn, a season when the hillsides would be “their loveliest,” when farmers would have less to do, and when the weather would most likely be cooperative.

Having laid plans for the pageant that would be the focal point of activity, event organizers decided to “press their luck” and invite several “speakers of note.” According to Lewis, Shannon suggested that, since the day would be an “All­American show,” they should ask “a prominent Catholic, a prominent Negro, and a prominent Jew to join the Gover­nor.” They invited General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, who had directed the Office of Strategic Services (later the Central Intelligence Agency) during World War II; African American states­man and diplomat Ralph Bunche, who would win the Nobel Peace Prize the following year for his work in Palestine; and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frank­furter.

When someone pointed out that they had forgotten to include a Protestant in their plans, Lewis and his colleagues invited Dan Poling, editor of the Christian Herald and a prominent spokesman for their cause of brother­hood. Paling’s son had been one of the “Four Chaplains,” a group of interde­nominational clerics who had sacrificed themselves to save the lives of enlisted men during a celebrated 1943 act of heroism. After their ship had been torpedoed, the chaplains had given their life preservers to others. Their sacrifice had come to symbolize the American promise of unity through diversity.

The fact that Lewis knew Poling made it easy for him to put his group’s plans into action. And plans were soon realized. Not only did the group secure the participation of Poling, Donovan, Bunche, and Frankfurter, but they also enlisted Sir Muhammed Khan, vice president of the United Nations General Assembly; Dr. Channing Tobias, chair­man of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Julius Thomas, director of the National Urban League; and a host of luminaries to participate in three group discussions entitled “The Handling of Prejudiced People,” “Religious Intolerance in America,” and “Assurance of Rights to Minority Groups.”

The final piece of the planning puzzle fell into place when the group found a narrator for their pageant. Gordon claimed he could not both direct the show and narrate it, and-perhaps emboldened by the group’s success in recruiting so many prestigious speak­ers – he suggested that Lewis contact “somebody from the theater or movies.” Lewis made a few telephone calls and found actor Come! Wilde honored to be asked. The plans were set.

Neither Lewis nor anyone else had ever planned an event like this, and there was no organizational structure for doing so. The organizers consequently depend­ed on an informal network of hardworking and resourceful coopera­tors, not only in Aaronsburg, but throughout the Commonwealth. The vice chairman of the planning committee, former Presbyterian minister J.W. Claudy, was the warden of the Western State Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, and he assembled a stenographic pool of inmates to handle the committee’s correspon­dence. One of Dr. Claudy’s inmates, a convicted forger, even signed the committee’s letters, leading Lewis to proudJy declare that the committee’s mailings were more attractive than mail received from “distinguished friends .. . with their highly paid secretaries.” Committee members worked with news organizations to arrange publicity, with utility companies to supply power and telephone service, and with the Pennsylva­nia State Police to provide security. They also arranged for comfort stations and food service for a crowd they estimated to number about five thousand.

That number, however, seemed wildly optimistic to Lewis on Saturday, October 22, the day before the event was sched­uled to take place. High winds and cold rain swept through Aaronsburg all day long and devastated stage settings, decorations, electrical wires, and tents at the festival site. He worried whether Bunche and others would be able to fly to State College the next morning – the airport had no paved runways – and when Frankfurter and Poling arrived “wet and tired” Saturday evening, Lewis and his committee considered canceling the event. Donovan was exhausted when he showed up near midnight, but to Lewis’s surprise, he was dry. The rain had stopped.

Lewis rushed from his hotel to the festival site, where he found Aarons­burg’s citizens working by the light of their car headlights to repair the storm damage. Everyone worked through the night and restored order as Sunday dawned. To everyone’s relief, tempera­tures would reach the mid-seventies, and the sun would shine. By eight o’clock, Penn State’s athletic manager estimated that more than twenty thousand people were on the pageant grounds – four times the estimated number – and when he surveyed the scene an hour later, he realized that the crowd would reach thirty thousand or more. Lewis, who would later estimate the crowd at fifty thousand, heard the official mumble, “If we could only average half that many in the stadium!” There were also reporters from the country’s major news organizations, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Daily News.

The event officially began when Reverend Shannon and Rabbi Philip S. Bernstein of Rochester, New York, opened services at Salem Lutheran Church. Muhammed Khan, Channing Tobias, Julius Thomas, and fellow panelists then held their “Brotherhood Institutes” concurrently, one at each of Aaronsburg’s three churches. At eleven o’clock, participants convened at the pageant grounds for what was termed a “Public Meeting Dedicated to Religious and Racial Understanding.”

Having declared that “the history of Aaronsburg typifies what this nation and the world are trying to do in erasing intolerance of religion, race, and color,” Governor Duff introduced the day’s featured speakers: Poling, Frankfurter, Bunche, and Donovan.

In the afternoon, Aaronsburgers presented the main program of the day, William Gordon’s extravaganza. Cornel Wilde narrated the story, accompanied by Penn State’s Blue Band, as more than one thousand costumed townspeople and their neighbors pantomimed the history of their ancestors, focusing especially on Aaron Levy’s gift and the first worship service at Salem Lutheran Church. When the spectacle ended, Dr. Tobias, Rabbi Bernstein, Sir Mohammed Khan, and Governor Duff offered some final thoughts. Duff concluded the day’s events by declaring the last Sabbath in October “Tolerance Day” in Pennsylva­nia, “with the sincere hope that such a day will soon be so celebrated national­ly.”

Winter arrived the following day in central Pennsylvania; temperatures plummeted into the twenties and snow fell Across the country, newspapers from Maine to California described Aarons­burg’s “day in the sun.” The New York Times declared, “Aaronsburg’s great day, in its wide significance, was a great day for all of us.” Now, fifty years later, Americans can look back on that day and soundly agree that Aaronsburg’s signifi­cance was – and is – indeed wide.

Despite hopeful signs – among them the landmark event in Centre County­ – that American society was indeed growing more tolerant after World War II, Aaronsburg’s promise was hardly shared by the majority of Americans. Less than four months after Justice Frankfurter expressed his hope that the idealism being championed at Aarons­burg might make it unnecessary to “fear challenge by any rival system,” Senator Joseph McCarthy made his famous West Virginia speech alleging that more than two hundred Communists worked in the U.S. State Department. McCarthy’s speech may have launched the country into a period of anti-Communist and anti-foreign hysteria, but the country’s mood had actually been set years earlier. After the Second World War, both Republican and Democrats had worked to maintain the sense of national unity that marked the war years by raising alarms about Communist gains in Eastern Europe and Asia, even linking them to anti-imperialist uprisings in the Third World. By the late 1940s, Ameri­cans had voluntarily submitted to loyalty oaths and surrendered many cherished civil liberties in order to preserve that wartime unity, although clearly at the expense of the country’s cultural diversity.

Cold War rhetoric surfaced even at Aaronsburg, especial­ly in some of General Donovan’s more bellicose remarks. He contrasted the evils of Communism with America’ unique democratic heritage – as demonstrated so dramatically at Aaronsburg – and reminded his audience that they needed to maintain a strong moral defense against the dark forces “taking over” China and other places less principled than the United States.

The Aaronsburg Story is best understood as a humane reaction to the politics of the time. Instead of lulling Americans into thinking they were special because they had cleansed themselves of their sins through Aaron Levy’s gift, it warned people that they needed to give up their wartime philosophies and focus on eradicating the universal problems of intolerance and hatred. Ralph Bunche, in particular, declared that “Aaron Levy would find in the world of today, and in abundance, the same racial and religious intolerance and prejudices, the same bigotries, the same hostility toward what is strange, as characterized the life of his day and age.” He argued that there was nothing “so sorely and urgently needed in the dangerous world” of 1949 as a “broad spirit of tolerance toward those whose races, creeds, cultures, and ideologies may differ from one’s own.

“It is not the atomic bomb we must fear,” Bunche continued, referring to the fact that the Soviet Union had just tested its first bomb, only several months earlier, in August. “It is in man’s perver­sity, suspicion, and intolerance that our real danger is to be found …. Indeed, the combination of bad human relations on the one band and the development of modern warfare on the other can only mean that all of us are living on bor­rowed time.”

Aaronsburgers may have been out-of-sync with their time, but just as they recalled the past with their Progressive Era-styled pageant, so too did they create a vision for the future that would be better realized during the country’s civil rights movement and the social and political upheavals of the sixties.

Arthur Lewis and many who had organized and participated in The Aaronsburg Story ought to bring people together once again and rekindle the spirit of the original event. They garnered support from prominent Americans, among them Eleanor Roosevelt, Marian Anderson, and Albert Einstein. In June 1953, organizers hosted the Aaronsburg Assembly, a weeklong series of panel discussions in which more than one hundred ethnic, racial, and religious leaders joined area residents to promote Aaronsburg’s ideals. Participants included civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph and Penn State University president Milton S. Eisenhower, a well a future President and First Lady of the United States, Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

Now a half-century later, as the twentieth century come to a close, Aaronsburg may appear to the casual observer to be just another small, timeless Pennsylvania community. Curious travelers passing through might stop to read the state historical marker dedicated in 1997 and be captivated by Aaronsburg, just as Arthur Lewis had been. They might even make their way to the former Evangelical Church on West Plum Street, where Bruce J. Teeple curates the Aaronsburg Historical Museum. The museum, like Aaronsburg itself, is small and unpretentious, but its message will always be large enough to inspire all Pennsylvanians – and Americans for that matter – to work together to build a better future.

 

For Further Reading

Anderson, Barbara M. Haines Township Life and Tradition. State College: Haines Township Bicentennial Book Committee, 1976.

Fish, Sidney M. Aaron Levy: Founder of Aaronsburg. New York: American Jewish Historical Society, 1951.

Glassberg, David. American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Caralina Press, 1990.

Lewis, Arthur H. The Aaronsburg Story. New York: Vanguard Press, 1955.

Wallace, Mike. “Visiting the Past: History Museums in the United States.” “Mickey Mouse History” and Other Essays on American Memory. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Zinn, Howard. The Twentieth Century: A People’s History. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.

 

The author and editor gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Bruce J. Teeple, curator of the Aaronsburg Historical Museum, who reviewed this piece prior to publication and made available a number of vintage images to illustrate this article.

 

Robert Weible is chief of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s division of history.