Centre County

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

Centre County, as its name implies, geographically is Pennsylvania’s central county. The first known residents to inhabit its lands were the Munsee and Shawnee Indians from the Delaware River.

Before 1725 these Indians began to move westward, first to the Susquehanna, later to the Ohio. The Iroquois, who claimed the Susquehanna country, assigned one of their chiefs – a man best known by his Shawnee name Shikellamy – to oversee the Indians from the Delaware River. Shikellamy, who died at the site of present Sunbury in 1748, was survived by three sons, the eldest of whom, known as John Shikellamy or John Logan, is commemorated in Centre County by the Logan Branch of Spring Creek, Logan Street and Logan Fire Company in Bellefonte and Logan Gap of Nittany Mountain.

The best known Munsee Indian in this area was Waupelanne or Bald Eagle, whose residence, Bald Eagle’s Nest, was near present Milesburg, and is commemorated by the name of Bald Eagle Creek and Valley.

Logan moved to the Ohio country about 1771, and Bald Eagle must have left about the same time but was suspected of taking part in attacks on local settlers during the Revolution.

The first white settlement in the county was that of Andrew Boggs, who located near Chief Bald Eagle’s vacated “nest,” about 1769.

In 1763, Capt. James Potter and a companion, Thomas Thompson, on leave from Fort Augusta at Sunbury, made their way up the West Branch of the Susquehanna River to a point where the Bald Eagle Creek flows into it. For years, Potter had nurtured a dream: he believed that somewhere in the forests of Pennsylvania there must be a majestic land that surpassed all others. And so, in search of the fulfillment of that dream, he pursued Bald Eagle Creek to its juncture with Spring Creek, thence south through the gaps in the mountains to the top of Nittany Mountain. Captain Potter viewed the woodlands and prairies in the valley at his feet, then, turning to his companion, he exclaimed: “By heavens, Thompson! I have discovered an empire!”

The men hurried down into the valley and camped by a spring near present-day Old Fort. For two days they ex­plored the area before returning to Fort Augusta. They chose the name “Penn” for this, one of the broadest and most fertile valleys in the county.

As soon as he could, Captain Potter traveled to Philadelphia, where he filed his claim to the valley which he had discovered. But he had to share his claim with one Reuben Haines of Philadelphia. Haines claimed the eastern half of the valley, and Potter the western half, which is about twenty-five miles in length. Within several years, Potter led a group of settlers into Penns Valley, building his own home beside the spring that he had found on his trip.

At the onset of the Revolutionary War, British agents went among the Indians, inciting them to action against the colonists. Centre County was wild, frontier country, and Indians were frequently seen. As a defense, Potter fortified his home and it became known as the Upper Fort – now Old Fort.

An estimated fifty families then lived in the county, and a request was made that soldiers be stationed in this area for defense against the increasingly agitated Indians. Within a short span of time, three soldiers had been killed in two separate incidents, and Indians had attacked the Lower Fort, with the loss of life unknown.

On May 9, 1778, the Jacob Standford family was massacred in its home which stood about four miles west of Old Fort. Stories were circulating of Indian attacks and killings in the West Branch Valley. These, coupled with the local incidents, aroused all families in central Pennsylvania to an action known as the Great Run-Away of 1778. Fearing for their lives, settlers returned to the comparative safety of settlements farther east so that not one family remained in what is now Centre County.

Following the Treaty of Peace which ended the Revolutionary War, many families returned to their homesteads in the county and additional settlers joined them. Joseph J. Wallis and Daniel Turner of the Pennsylvania Land Office were chosen to survey the first applications for warrants to Nittany Valley. In 1784, they discovered iron ore on those tracts. An assay of the ore revealed it to be the highest quality of iron yet discovered in any part of the colonies.

When this news finally reached Philadelphia, iron men with capital looked toward the frontier country of the present Centre County with immediate interest. Col. Samuel Miles, who later became mayor of Philadelphia, and Col. John Patton purchased a block of the surveys where iron ore had been found. Immediate plans were made to erect a furnace. A small-time ironmaster, Philip Benner, working some low-grade deposits of iron ore in Chester County, also heard the news of the Nittany Valley discovery while on a business trip into Philadelphia. He, too, began making plans to purchase land in the valley and to move there.

On May 2, 1792, Centre Furnace was put in blast, with Colonel Patton as the resident manager. Benner arrived in 1793, but it was not until a year later that he was able to start producing iron. He bought pig iron at Centre Furnace and worked it at his own forge, known as the Rock Iron Works, located on Spring Creek four miles west of present Bellefonte, which was then called “Lambs Crossing.” When Benner delivered his first load to the iron merchants in Philadelphia, they declared it to be the highest quality iron that they had yet seen.

Benner enlarged his plant to two furnaces and two forges. The Rock Iron Works also included two copper shops, a grist mill, saw mill, a slitting mill, Benner’s own sizable home and several other dwellings, none of which exists today. He is also credited with beginning the publishing of a newspaper in 1827, known today as the Centre Democrat.

Benner sold his iron in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The Pittsburgh merchants were so pleased with its quality that they paid $250.00 a ton for it. And Benner was equally pleased: it had only cost him $75.00 a ton to produce and deliver it. The Pittsburgh merchants promised to pay that price for all that he could deliver to them. As Pittsburgh was then the gateway to the West, this iron was transported cross country to the Mississippi, thence to New Orleans where there was a great demand for good iron.

Within forty years there were about twenty-five or thirty iron establishments in the county, no doubt con­sidered the leading iron center of the country.

Centre County, formed from parts of Huntingdon, Miff­lin, Northumberland, and Lycoming Counties, was erected in February of 1800. The boundaries remain the same to­day, with but one exception: in 1839 a strip was taken from the northeastern sector when Clinton County was formed.

The county seat of Centre County is Bellefonte, which dated from 1795 when Col. James Dunlap and his son-in-­law, James Harris, laid out lots beside what is now referred to as the Big Spring. This was but a short distance up Spring Creek from the tiny settlement of Lambs. Its French name is said to have derived from a statement made by the Marquis de Tallyrand who was visiting with Colonel Patton at Centre Furnace about that time. The spring continues to be one of Bellefonte’ s prized possessions, and a great tourist attrac­tion. Visitors are intrigued by its bubbling waters which produce a flow of 11,000,000 gallons daily and whose year-round temperature remains about 54 degrees.

The first county courthouse was built in 1810. It has been remodeled and additions have been made, but the original central section is intact. It stands in its own plaza in the middle of the town, its Greek style of architecture em­phasized by six Ionic columns.

The iron industry brought to the county a measure of wealth, which, in turn, attracted a caliber of people with the ability to achieve positions of leadership and fame in various fields. One of these, in the field of the arts, was George Grey Barnard, who gained international renown as a sculp­tor. The statuary figures on either side of the steps of the capitol in Harrisburg are the work of Barnard.

 

Home of Many Governors

Centre County has been the home of many persons out­standing in Pennsylvania government. Andrew Gregg Curtin was Civil War governor of Pennsylvania and advisor to Presi­dent Lincoln. John Bigler, first governor of California, and his brother William, elected governor from Clearfield Coun­ty, were one time newspaper publishers in Bellefonte. James A. Beaver and Daniel H. Hastings, each in turn, left their law practices in Bellefonte to serve as governors of this state. William F. Packer was a Centre County native who be­came a successful newspaper publisher both in Harrisburg and Williamsport and later was elected governor of Penn­sylvania.

Jonothan Walker, an early judge of this judicial district later served as U. S. District Judge at Pittsburgh. His son, Robert J. Walker, served as secretary of the Treasury under President Buchanan and was appointed territorial governor of Kansas. Walker was a strong influence in persuading this country to annex Texas and to lay claim to the Oregon country.

The agricultural interests and abilities of the county were well represented in Leonard Rhone who was exceptionally active in the Grange, and who was one of the initiators of the Farmers picnic, now known as Grange Fair, held annually since 1874 at Centre Hall. The event is unique in that thousands of people live on the fair grounds in tents and trailers during fair week. Rhone later served as master of the State Grange and received a presidential appointment to a national agricultural meeting in New York.

Frances Tipton Hunter gained fame as an artist whose works and illustrated books reached the covers of the maga­zines of that era. Although a resident of Williamsport and Philadelphia, she was a native of Centre County where the Tipton family is listed among early pioneer settlers.

Wealth such as was created by the iron industry not only attracted persons of leadership, it also attracted the adventurer as well as the fortune hunter. Centre County has its list of this type of person, too, headed by Lewis and Con­nolly, notorious highwaymen in the eastern part of the country during its early history. They operated in Pennsyl­vania, New Jersey and New York, but no matter how far they went, they always returned to their native Centre County and always seemed able to elude their would-be captors. Finally, in 1820, they robbed a wagon train bring­ing a load of goods from Philadelphia. Two posses were formed and the bandits were cornered in the wild mountainous northern part of the county. In an exchange of shots, Connolly was mortally wounded and died en route to the jail in Bellefonte. He is buried on the Great Island at Lock Haven. Lewis, having refused medical treatment for a shattered arm bone sustained in the fight, died in the Belle­fonte jail of gangrene poisoning.

These same rugged mountains that provided sanctuary for such as Connelly and Lewis and impeded the earlier settlement of the county also proved unfavorable in another way. After rich iron ore deposits had been discovered in the Lake Superior district, it was found that the ore there could be transported down the lakes, via rail to Pittsburgh where it could be manufactured more cheaply than by transporting iron over the mountains from Centre County. Thus Centre County lost to Pittsburgh its distinction as the country’s iron center.

While much of Centre County’s forests were cut to make charcoal, the necessary fuel for the iron industry, the for­ests of the northern half of the county, located on the Allegheny Plateau, escaped that fate. When the lumber boom came in the virgin timber industry of Pennsylvania’s northern counties, Centre County timber, too, was floated down the West Branch of the Susquehanna, contributing its part in making Williamsport and Harrisburg the “sawdust cities” of the east.

Following the lumber harvest, the underlying coal beds were revealed, and increased activity and population were brought to Snow Shoe and Philipsburg, located on the eastern edge of the Clearfield coal fields. This bituminous coal is of superior quality and makes excellent coke. Three railroads were soon constructed into that plateau area to bring out its riches. One used the engineering marvel known as a “switchback,” whereby a train would zig-zag back and forth up the side of the mountain. Vestiges of the roadbed can still be seen, demonstrating how a train attained the altitude of 1,200 feet to Snow Shoe in a horizontal distance of a few miles.

 

Churches and Schools

Each successive wave of settlers arriving in the county brought its particular religion with it. The earliest settlers, the Scotch-Irish, brought Presbyterianism, as evidenced by their many churches in the county. The Pennsylvania Ger­mans built Lutheran and Reformed (now United Church of Christ) churches in the villages and countryside. Many of Penn’s Friends found their way into Centre County’s mountains, establishing communities in Half Moon Valley, Union­ville and Bellefonte. Methodists, too, were in the religious vanguard. Their congregation at Curtin, known as The Curtin Society, established in 1789, is the oldest organized church group still in existence in the county.

The first school in the county was opened by Pennsylvania German settlers in 1789, just east of Aaronsburg, which was a considered location for the state capitol. All instruction was carried on in the German language.

Early in the nineteenth century, private academies for higher learning were formed throughout the country, and Centre County has its share. In all, six were once in existence, the earliest and most famous being the Bellefonte Academy, established in 1805. Its reputation and the quality of its education, particularly in the classics, were well known. Early in this century, a more liberal trend was followed, with athletics gaining undefeated seasons in 1928 and 1929, traveling to Oklahoma and Texas for playoffs. These victories won the national preparatory school championship for the Bellefonte Academy.

In 1855, the Pennsylvania legislature passed an act pro­viding for the establishment of a Farmer’s High School. Its purpose was to give children of working class parents an opportunity to further their education along agricultural and technical lines. Gen. James Irvin, ironmaster, offered two hundred acres of land and a liberal money contribution as an inducement to locate the school in Centre County. His offer was accepted; the school grew and today is known as The Pennsylvania State University. Around the university, and with it, has grown State College, now the largest town in the county, with a population of some 25,000, exclusive of the resident student enrollment, which is almost equal to that of the town.

About 1912, prison reformers brought forth the concept that a prison should not only be a place of punishment, but should also provide opportunities for rehabilitation. Accordingly, the Commonwealth set out to purchase a large block of land on which to construct such a prison. For many years, Maj. W. F. Reynolds had operated a dairy farm of two thousand acres in the heart of Centre County. The Commonwealth purchased this from Reynolds and erected Rockview Penitentiary. Now known as the Correctional Institution at Rockview, it has been operated through the years as a minimum security prison, with emphasis on re­habilitation.

When the Pioneer Air Mail was begun in 1919, Belle­fonte became the first regular stop on the New York to San Francisco flight. Because of the unpredictable weather over the Alleghenies, airmail pilots referred to them as the “graveyard of the airlines.” Local historians believe that more pilots crashed and lost their lives in this section than on all other parts of the route combined.

The end of the iron industry in Centre County brought manufacturing almost to a standstill. Discovery of a vein of high grade limestone underlying the county soil brought renewed industrial life. Three companies are now engaged in the manufacture of lime and gypsum products marketed internationally.

In 1915, the late W. P. Sieg opened the Alpha Metal Company, a rolling mill for brass rods between Bellefonte and Milesburg. Two years brought three changes: the name to “Titan,” the location to Logan Branch just south of Bellefonte, and the process to extrusion of brass rods. To­day, the much-enlarged plant is a branch of Cerro Corpora­tion, producing a variety of brass products sold through­out the world.

Until the close of World War II, lime and brass were the only significant industries in Centre County. The war brought increased emphasis on scientific research at educational centers, with Penn State University no exception. One of its contributions was work on the Norden bomb sight. There are now numerous research and development companies in the county whose work is almost entirely of a highly technical nature.

Centre County’s industrial future is definitely allied to the development of technical and scientific areas related to the growth of these fields at Penn State University. It has become one of the largest and most modern universities in the nation.

Other major attractions include Penns Cave, America’s only all-water cavern; Columbus Chapel, 28th Division Shrine and Pennsylvania Military Museum, all at Boalsburg, and the restoration of the Curtin Iron Works – the nation’s last iron furnace to go out of blast (1921).

The Centre County Historical Society, chartered in March, 1904, now has a membership of approximately 200. Surrounded with such a rich historical heritage, it is attempt­ing to meet a great need in society today: an appreciation and understanding of how Centre County developed historically. At the threshold of the nation’s Bicentennial, the answers the society can provide take on greater significance.

Officers of he Centre County Historical Society are Everitt R. McLaughlin, State College, president; Mrs. James Beaver, Bellefonte, first vice-president; Mervin S. Lucas, Bellefonte, second vice-president; Mrs. Florence Thomen, Bellefonte, secretary; Mrs. Mary Fisher, Milesburg, treasurer; and Blair Bice of the Penna. Mirror, Benner Pike, Bellefonte, curator.

 

Sources

History of Centre County by John Blair Linn.

“Centre County – The County in Which We Live” by J. Thomas Mitchell.

“Centre County and Roundabout” by J. Marvin Lee.

 

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles to high­light historical events and persons within various counties. Focus will also be directed at the counties’ historical societies.

 

J. Marvin Lee and Vivian Doty Hency are Centre County residents and are active in the historical society there.