Crawford County: Welcoming the 21st Century

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

We passed over some good land since we eft Venango, and through several extensive and very rich meadows, one of which, I believe, was nearly four miles in length, and consid­erably wide in some places.

Twenty-one year old George Washington, who would in time become a major landholder and land specula­tor, described Crawford County in 1753 as he carried a dispatch demanding the com­mander of the French military withdraw the occupation of the Allegheny River basin. Widely published, Washing­ton’s report probably influ­enced settlement patterns when the western lands were opened following the Revolu­tionary War.

Whatever may have im­pelled them to select this re­gion, settlers followed the footsteps of David Mead and his party, who in 1788 entered the region by way of French Creek. Consequently, by 1800 the counties of northwestern Pennsylvania had been carved from Allegheny County, and their administrative seat had been established at Meadville.

In spite of isolation, Indian incursions and the hardships of rigorous frontier life, the early settlements of Crawford County flourished. In 1812, when the British threatened to invade from Canada, one thousand militiamen en­camped at Meadville. Its founder, Gen. David Mead, directed the recruitment, train­ing and logistics of the western defense. In 1815, its residents established Allegheny College under the leadership of a Har­vard graduate, Timothy Al­den, and in 1820 began construction of Bentley Hall, named for William Bentley, the New England scholar who donated his library to the fledgling school.

The first pioneers – whether claiming lands as Revolution­ary War soldiers or on grants made in compensation for land lost in eastern title disputes – were joined by Atlantic seaboard and Euro­pean immigrants who had, for the most part, purchased land from the giant Holland and North American Land and Pennsylvania Population com­panies. From the area’s earliest days, its residents were a rich mixture. Scotch-Irish Presbyte­rians settled in the Fallowfields south of Conneaut Lake, while Irish Catholics settled at Cen­terville and at Crossingville, the oldest congregation in the Erie diocese. Among the earli­est German settlers were Hes­sian soldiers who had remained in America after their British service expired. They were soon joined by other Germans seeking reli­gious tolerance and good farm land. For seventy-five years French settlers came to one of the few French enclaves in the New World outside Quebec and Louisiana – Frenchtown, where the gravestones echo its history.

Roger Alden, the first agent for the Holland Land Com­pany, brought an entrepre­neurial energy that shaped much of the county’s early development. His dams, mills and outpost stores dotting the county’s one thousand square miles supported new settlers as they cleared their home­steads. The Meadville Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Manufacture and the Useful Arts flourished under his presidency, and is today the nation’s third-oldest Chamber of Commerce and the oldest in Pennsylvania. Alden was a prime mover of the Northwestern Bank of Pennsylvania, opened in 1814 to relieve local dependence on distant financial resources, and led the drive in 1815 to build the Waterford and Mead­ville section of the Susque­hanna Turnpike, which would open the west to trade. A more successful promoter than busi­nessman, he went bankrupt. He was later appointed quar­termaster and postmaster of West Point, an appropriate retirement for a Revolutionary War veteran who had served from Lexington to Yorktown.

Alden was not the only entrepreneur during the area’s early settlement. Henry Baldwin arrived with his new Jaw degree to become the first district attorney. Appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by Andrew Jackson in 1830, he served for fourteen years. Harm Jan Huidekoper, arriving in 1805 to preside over the Holland Land Company and make his fortune, founded the Meadville Unitarian Church and the Meadville Theological School. John Reynolds, whose Dissenter father had brought his family here to escape reli­gious persecution in England, helped develop the western canal system. Thirty years later his son William was instru­mental in the coming of the railroads to the county.

The “extensive and rich meadows” that Washington noted supported the agricul­tural economy. Corn and rye grew well, feeding residents and their livestock. The sur­plus went to the production of excellent whiskey, a major industry until prohibition. Residents claim that bottles of Meadville Rye Whiskey are still stored safely away, await­ing important celebrations! Huidekoper introduced me­rino sheep and wool was added to the flax already pro­duced. In 1820, fifteen thou­sand pounds of wool were carded, a figure which rose to one million pounds in 1850.

The first sawn timber was shipped downstream to Pitts­burgh from David Mead’s mill in 1789. With its excellent stands of hardwoods and extensive forest cover, the county remained a supplier of lumber and wood products throughout the nineteenth century. Every village boasted its “turner,” and lathes, saw and shingle mills, barrel and stave shops, coopers, and bowl and chair makers ap­peared at nearly every cross­roads on an 1865 map. Today, specialty wood products are again a growing industry in the eastern part of the county. But when William Magaw wanted to develop a process for making paper that was more economical than rag paper, he turned to straw as a raw material and invented and manufactured straw paper at his Maguffintown mill.

By the late 1820s, the county was a major producer of sugar, with 145,821 pounds recorded. Today, the county remains a major producer of maple products, some of which are shipped to New England and sold under Ver­mont labels. Leon Magaw, whose father had seen the future in straw paper, looked at the many small cheese fac­tories scattered around the county and organized them as the Magaw Cheese company, later Penn-Kraft, putting Crawford County cheese on the tables of the nation. In the 1800s the county was produc­ing more cheese than the rest of the state combined. The Carnation and the Mohawk Cheese companies both pros­pered from the county’s milk production, highest in the state during the nineteenth century and ranked tenth today.

Stock improvement and the scientific breeding of cattle and livestock were a continuing priority of the farming commu­nity. Local fairs began as early as 1852, when the Crawford County Agricultural Society staged its first event at Con­neautville. Many communities followed suit and the fairs did much to improve the area’s stock and crops. In 1894 the State Fair was held at the Meadville Fairgrounds, and today community fairs con­tinue at Cochranton and Spar­tansburg. The Crawford County Fair held each August is the largest agricultural fair in Pennsylvania, excepting the State Farm Show in Harrisburg each January.

Of the dozens of the coun­ty’s stock breeders, two significantly influenced the industry. The Powell brothers of Shade­land at Springboro introduced the Holstein in the late 1870s. Edward, the youngest of four brothers and an attorney, served as the first president of the Holstein-Friesan Associa­tion of America. Edgar Huide­koper, whose farm was located at Fredericksburg, also a char­ter member of the association served as its president in 1889.

In 1871, the Dairyman’s Association was organized in Meadville and, four years later at its annual meeting in Con­neautville, it became the Penn­sylvania State Dairyman’s Association. In 1875, the Dairyman’s Board of Trade was also formed and two years later sponsored the first dairy fair in the United States.

Stock breeding – and its success – was not limited to dairy cattle. At their Shade­land farm, the Powell brothers bred such excellent horses that the Clydesdale Stud Book of Great Britain showed more horses registered under the Shade­land mark than the following five firms combined. Their draft horses were sold throughout the world, as were their swine, sheep and cattle.

The success of Crawford County’s stock operations encouraged a number of sec­ondary operations and en­deavors. Today the cutters handcrafted by the Graves Carriage and Sleigh Works of Springboro are eagerly sought by collectors. At Conneaut Lake, then known as Evansburgh, George DeArment designed the best in farrier’s tools, counting among his customers King Edward VII of England.

The building of the French Creek Feeder Canal connected the center of the county both west to the Beaver and Lake Erie Canal and east to slack water navigation of the Allegheny River. The stem-wheel steamboat Allegheny was introduced by David Dick of Meadville, making steam navigation of shallow inland rivers possible. Manufacturing and industry began to thrive and the county’s economy to diversify. By 1850, three foundries and a tin and sheet-iron manufacturer had joined the chair makers and woolen mills on the county’s tax rolls.

Two occurrences, happening almost simultaneously, assured the industrialization of the county: the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad connected the county to the Port of New York and oil was discovered at Titusville. Titusville’s population leapt from seven hundred in 1859 to seven thousand a year later. Townville, Centerville and Spartansburgh became suppliers for Titusville, offering wood for oil barrels and food for people too busy prospecting and drilling to farm.

Col. Edwin L. Drake’s famous discovery at Titusville was not the first oil producing well in the county. In 1819, Daniel Shryock conducted a salt operation in Beaver Township. In the frontier economy, salt was a valuable commodity, and in an effort to increase production, Shryock deepened his brine well to three hundred feet, striking oil. The oil ruined the quality of his salt beyond salvage, and because the unwelcome by-product had no market at the time, the saltworks closed.

Meadville, as the railroad and banking center, burgeoned. The Atlantic and Great Western Railroad shops occupied several acres between two branches of French Creek with roundhouse, foundry, carpenter and locomotive shops, business offices and the McHenry House, the largest hotel-restaurant-station complex outside New York City. In 1864, editor Horace Greeley advised his New York Daily Tribune readers to break their journey there. John Wilkes Booth, in the vicinity to examine his oil investments, is believed to have been the author of the dire message, Abe Lincoln departed this life Aug. 13 1864 of the effects of poison, found scratched on a hotel room windowpane. The window, long on display at the Ford’s Theater Museum, Washington, D.C.,is now at the National Park Service’s Harpers Ferry facility.

The county’s growth accelerated in the post-war period in spite of the horrendous losses suffered in the Civil War. Oil and the railroads played their part, but so did a growing industrial base built partly on the seemingly endless inventiveness of the county’s residents. Amos Densmore, responding to the difficulty of shipping oil, invented the first railroad tanker car (see “Almost on the Right Track: The Densmore Tank Car” by John H. White in the summer 1985 edition of this magazine). His brother James, working with inventor Christopher Sholes’ rough model, developed the first workable typewriter and contracted with Remington for its production. David Dick produced practical applications of his “anti-friction press” which could pull a stump, as well as drag a ship into dry-dock. Justin DeVoge, a carpenter from Frenchtown, patented a mitre box. Thomas C. Minniss patented the first “caterpillar” tractor, which his patent papers say could replace horses on the canal’s towpaths, but which found application in the lumbering camps of the Pacific Northwest. E.A.L. Roberts invented the nitroglycerine torpedo which fractured oil wells to increase their production. Henry Beman’s Automatic Oil Can, developed to allow merchants to bring liquid goods from storage barrels in the basement to the sales room above, eventually found its greatest market in supplying gasoline at the curb.

At the turn of the century, two major industries were founded at Meadville. Col. Lewis Walker took Judson’s unsuccessful hookless fastener and, teaming with the engineering genius of Gideon Sundback, produced the Talon zipper. For seventy years the leading industry in Meadville, the zipper flew to the moon on astronauts space suits before falling to foreign competition. At about the same time, a Conneaut Lake blacksmith who had set out to build superior farrier’s tools, developed special hand-tools for the trades. Today, known as Chan- nellock, the company is the standard setter for the hand tool industry worldwide.

Today’s tool and die industry – more properly called the tooling and machining industry – is a direct outgrowth of the Talon zipper industry. Talon apprentices set up shop on their own to supply the high tech, low machining tolerance needs of other industries and today Crawford County is the center of the tooling and machining industry in the country. More than one hundred and fifty companies supply the needs of customers, ranging from NASA and Lockheed to General Motors and Hewlett-Packard.

An early industry which changed the shape of the world – or at least the female portion of it – was the Spirella Corset Company. Based on M. M. Beeman’s invention of the NuBone (steel) Stay, the company attributed its success to its genteel practice of train­ing fitters who visited cus­tomers in the privacy of their homes. Advertising was not so modest. The 1905 Daily Mes­senger‘s industrial edition boasted: “A feature of the Spirella stays is that they are absolutely unbreakable and support the stoutest woman with perfect ease and do not break or bend out of shape at the waist line.”

Since LaFayette’s visit in 1825, tourism has been a sig­nificant industry but it reached its earliest peak at the turn of the century with two major developments – the mineral springs phenomenon and train and trolley destination parks. At Cambridgeboro, Dr. John Grey discovered a high-flow, heavily mineraled water sup­ply while probing for oil. A trip with a patient to Hot Springs showed him how he could turn this disappoint­ment to profit, and he re­turned home to open Grey’s Mineral Springs and Spa which became the Riverside, one of the major mineral spring resorts in the country. Still operating today, the hotel became as well known for its fine food and gracious style as for its Russian Baths and “sa­lubrious” waters. Other min­eral spring hotels sprang up at Titusville, Springboro and Saegertown, but the Cam­bridge Springs Spa led the way with its dozens of hotels, boarding houses and sanitari­ums, claiming to cure most ailments, from rheumatism to cirrhosis of the liver.

Destination parks also sprang up around the county on trolley and train lines, the most successful of which was Exposition Park. Opened in the 1890s at Conneaut Lake by Frank Mantor who envisioned a Chautauqua, the park was soon purchased by the Pitts­burgh and Lake Erie Railroad as a vacation resort for the Pittsburgh area’s potential train riders. The park con­tinues today as Conneaut Lake Park, maintaining its turn-of­-the-century flavor with the first and largest of its hotels still welcoming guests. Inter­urban trolleys and trains brought thousands of tourists to stroll its tranquil streets, watch speedboat races and aquaplane tests on the state’s largest lake, and fish for record setting muskelunge.

Today, the eight lakes of the county draw sportsmen and water enthusiasts with their endless variety of activities. Pymatuning, a flood control reservoir created on the Shenango River along the Ohio border, is one of the largest bodies of water in the Commonwealth and its park the most heavily visited in the state system.

In 1798, the blockhouse, no longer needed for defense, was converted for an “English School” to supplement the school opened by Jennet Finney before 1790. In 1800, as a condition of becoming the county seat, residents of Meadville pledged a little more than forty-five hundred dollars for an academy. Across the county itinerant school teach­ers taught in homes and log schools, reflecting the pio­neers’ commitment to an im­proved life for their children – but the 1836 salaries of twelve dollars a year for male and less than five dollars a year for female teachers did not draw individuals of im­pressive calibre. For profes­sional improvement, teachers established a teacher’s institute in 1850, the first in the Com­monwealth outside Philadel­phia. For seventeen years it was conducted every six months until such programs were mandated throughout Pennsylvania and held annu­ally. Today, four districts within (and three bordering) the county serve students with modern buildings, state cham­pionship teams and dedicated teachers, but still many of the nearly three hundred “little red school houses” remain, converted to other uses, yet a reminder of the early commit­ment to education.

Isolated as the county was during its formative years, higher education for students drew substantial support. The founding of Allegheny College in 1815 and the laying of the cornerstone of its first building five years later were heavy demands on the frontier community. Nevertheless, the support for Alden’s “Harvard of the West” was solid. In 1833, the college took a new direc­tion under the presidency of missionary Martin Ruter and the Methodist Conference; today it is recognized as one of the finest small liberal arts colleges in the country. Among its graduates – and non-graduating students – were Clarence Darrow, Pres. William McKinley, antarctic explorer Paul Siple, Gov. Ray­mond P. Shafer, journalist and Lincoln scholar Ida Tarbell, R2D2’s creator Ben Burtt, nov­elist Hildegarde Dolson, docu­mentary filmmaker Julian Krainin, Chautauqua Institute president Daniel Bratton, exploration geologist Samuel Pees, retired manager of the Kennedy Space Center shuttle projects Robert Gray, Chil­dren’s Hospital chief of pediat­ric cardiology Robert Zuber­buhler and at least a dozen of the leading names in today’s world of medical technology.

Allegheny College was not to be the county’s only college. H.J. Huidekoper, finding its church orientation limiting, founded in 1844 the Meadville Theological School. Succeed­ing her father as chairman of its board, Elizabeth Huideko­per was one of the first women in the country to hold such a position. The school offered a non-denominational, tuition­-free education and in 1926 became the divinity school of the University of Chicago.

Other colleges sprang up. The Pennsylvania College of Music was organized in 1887 as was the Meadville Commercial College, which succeeded the Bryant Stratton School, originally founded in 1866. In 1912, the Polish National Alliance opened a college in Cambridge Springs which, for seventy-five years, worked to support and promote the culture of the Polish-American community. In 1963, the University of Pittsburgh opened a campus in Titusville serving the students of eastern Crawford, Forest, Warren and Venango counties.

Allied with the commitment to education was a dedication to the exchange of information. In January 1805, Thomas Atkinson printed the first edition of the Crawford Messenger, the first western Pennsylvania newspaper outside Pittsburgh. In 1832 it was joined by the Meadville Courier, and in 1836 by the Crawford Statesman, until in the 1890s more than a dozen papers were published simultaneously. Among the early journals and special-interest publications which also sprang up were the German language Freie Presse, the Pennsylvania Farmer and The Chautauquan Magazine. While traveling Chautauquas carried mainline culture to the rural areas of the nation, The Chautauquan Magazine, under Theodore Flood, took its educational and liberal message into the homes of interested readers. It was in this training ground that Ida Tarbell began her remarkable career. One of the first female graduates of Allegheny College, Tarbell found a teacher’s life unsatisfactory and joined Flood at his Meadville publishing house. Later, at McClure’s, she established her reputation as a leading “investigative reporter,” and in 1906 moved on to found the American Magazine with kindred spirits.

Flood’s decision to locate The Chautauquan Magazine in Meadville was a logical one, because the area had been the cultural center of northwestern Pennsylvania since its founding. The first library opened in 1812 and its 1868 rules indicate that individuals could become borrowers by donating one book and paying one dollar annually. In 1879, the library association was reorganized as the Meadville Library, Art and Historical Association and three separate boards operated the various divisions. Libraries appeared around the county, with a very strong collection established at Titusville’s Benson Library.

During the post-Civil War period the county became a center for music. The Northwestern Band and Orchestra and the Philharmonic Society provided professional musical performances. Many exceptional voices developed and the Tinker sisters gained a national reputation through their tours. Juvia Tinker Hull founded and became the director of the Conservatory of Music, which continued until 1962 as the Pennsylvania College of Music. The Temple of Music at Conneaut Lake was the scene of a long series of remarkable performances by the Festival Chorus one thousand voices strong, and visiting symphonies and opera companies from Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Rochester, even New York and Boston. From 1930 through 1965 the Allegheny College Singers, under Morten Luvaas, toured nationally every year. Today Allegheny’s Summer Music Festival and the jazz festival at Conneaut Lake continue the tradition of quality musical fare for county residents and visitors.

Theatre groups – from the early Thespians to today’s Community Theater – have presented live theatre to the area. In early days such productions were often given at inns or hotels, later in private residences. At least two houses in Meadville remain equipped with proscenium arches for such performances. A community orchestra and a theatre group at Cambridge Springs involve the community’s citizens in performances today.

Located midway between Chicago and New York on the mainline railroad, Meadville was a natural stopping point for traveling theatre companies during the last half of the nineteenth century. The canal prosperity of Conneautville and the oil prosperity of Titusville supported opera houses. Prominent performers of the period regularly appeared, and in 1885 Ernest Hempstead built and opened the Academy Theatre at Meadville. Designed by J.M. Wood, foremost theatre architect of the era, it offered sophisticated staging equipment, excellent dressing rooms, elegant design and comfortable seating for a thousand to hear performers Fanny Davenport, Richard Mansfield, Lawrence Barrett, William Gillette, Mme. Schumann-Heink and Otis Skinner. In the 1930s and 1940s, the College Playshop at Allegheny College directed by John Hulbert claimed a national reputation for the quality of its performances and of the students it trained, successfully undertaking performances of such outstanding productions as Elizabeth the Queen by the county’s native son Maxwell Anderson.

From the day in 1827 that naturalist John James Audubon set up shop in Colson’s store to recoup the funds stolen by a cut purse as he prepared to embark on a lake packet from London Ontario to Presque Isle, the county has produced artists. David Mead’s daughter Catherine executed competent likenesses of herself and her husband, exhibiting a pioneer economy in her reuse of old canvases. As early as 1839 Thomas Steuart invited area residents to have their likenesses “taken” at his studio above his brother-in-law’s general store.

Today a strong core of practicing artists and performers forms the basis for the Meadville Council on the Arts. Located in the 1870 Market House in Meadville, the group regularly presents recitals and art exhibits, and encourages original productions by local writers.

Crawford County has sent its fair share of sons and daughters into the world to make their mark. Joseph C.G. Kennedy earned the gratitude of today’s family tree researchers when, as superintendent of the 1850 and 1860 censuses, he revised the process to record full information about families. John Heisman played high school football in Titusville and Ray Harroun left his father’s post office at Spartansburgh to become the winner of the first Indianapolis 500.

Political figures also sprang from the county’s active political life. In 1842 the primary election system was first developed here when both the Democrats and Republicans could not agree and held small pre-elections in boroughs across the county to choose their candidates for county office. In 1890, George Wallace Delamater, whose family had sheltered their former neighbor John Brown’s son Owen as he escaped from Harper’s Ferry, was narrowly defeated for governor. Seventy-six years later Raymond P. Shafer would run the same race successfully. The county also claims the home of Alice Bentley, first woman to preside over a state legislative body.

One of the continuing benefits of the county’s varied history is its rich architectural heritage. The museum of the Crawford County Historical Society, the Baldwin Reynolds House, is an outstanding example of classical revival architecture. Built by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Henry Baldwin as a retirement home, it duplicated the residence of his son whose estate, Hunter’s Hill, was adjacent to Pres. Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. Only slightly modified during a century and a half, it dominates in a three acre park on the site of the 1812 militia encampment.

Bentley and Ruter Halls are also beautifully preserved vestiges of the area’s heritage, gracing the heart of Allegheny’s campus. The Unitarian Church, designed in 1835 by George Cullum, the architect of Fort Sumter, as a replica of the Philadelphia Unitarian Church stands at southern end of Meadville’s central park area known as the Diamond.

Titusville, with its long and hectic period of oil prosperity, boasts a long list of Victorian era architectural treasures. The Pennbank and Algrunix buildings are outstanding examples of commercial architecture of the period. The McKinney House, now an important part of the University of Pittsburgh campus at Titusville, was built by J.C. Bryan, who supplied much of the machinery needed in the early oil fields, and later enlarged by J.J. Carter, a successful oil entrepreneur and one of the county’s three Medal of Honor holders from the Civil War. Saegertown offers the handsome Saeger house and the McGill House, built in 1802, the oldest log house remaining in the county. Cambridge Springs boasts the Riverside Hotel and the beautiful octagonal Springs House, now a private residence. Every village and borough features at least one architectural treasure and the country roads offer glimpses of the history of agriculture with their farmsteads and wide variety of barn styles, from the octagonal barn at Miller’s Station to bank barns and Victorian period board and batten barns.

Whatever a resident’s or visitor’s interest – pioneering, education, industry, agriculture, entertainment or architecture – Crawford County offers a rich meld of heritage and culture. As countians celebrate the bicentennial of Crawford County’s founding, they celebrate, too, the many traditions and legacies which they have enjoyed and so graciously shared with fellow Pennsylvanians, as well as Americans. Since its settlement, Crawford County has played well its role in pioneering the frontier, enabling both the Commonwealth and the nation to prepare ably for welcoming the next century.


For Further Reading

Bates, Samuel P. Our County and Its People. Meadville, Pa.: W A. Ferguson and Company, 1899.

History of Crawford County. Chicago: Warner, Beers and Company, 1885.

Reynolds, John Earle. In French Creek Valley. Meadville, Pa.: Crawford County Historical Society, 1938.

Reynolds, William. The Diary of William Reynolds, 1841. Meadville, Pa.: Crawford County Historical Society, 1981.


Anne W. Stewart of Meadville serves as outreach director of the Crawford County Historical Society, a position she has held since 1981. In addition to coordinating many of the society’s projects and programs, including its Baldwin-Reynolds House Museum Restoration Fund Drive, she edited and published Crawford County INFO-LINE in 1985 for the Crawford County Community Council. The author is currently involved with the Crawford County Planning Commission, the Meadville Area Bicentennial Celebration Committee, Meadville’s Main Street Program and the Meadville Historic District Committee. She is also a member of the Advisory Council for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Project, conducted by the State Library.