Fulton County: Where Country is Still Country

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

When the first settlers wandered into the Great Cove – a deep basin formed by the southern ranges of the Kit­tochtinny and Tuscarora mountains – they discovered strikingly beautiful valleys, incised with sparkling streams, whose only intrusions were Indian trails and remote pack­ers’ paths. During the two centuries since its settlement, the picturesque mountain ridges and sharply falling val­leys of this breath-taking panorama known now as Ful­ton County have delighted both resident and visitor. As early as 1818, a narrative written by Englishman Henry Fearon, commissioned by thirty-nine English families to travel throughout the United States and locate areas suit­able for their residence, elo­quently depicted the region’s rugged beauty.

“Near the summit of the mountain (Tuscarora) we enjoyed a most extensive view of a large and beautiful valley which must contain tens of thousands of acres that have not yet known the hand of the cultivator. The prospect, com­bining some good mountain scenery, was the most magnificent I had ever be­held …. The interest of scene was also heightened by the prospect of M’Connel’s Ville, which we were approaching. This apparently delightful little town appeared secluded from the rest of the world, and one night have imagined it another Eden, cut off by means of woods and trackless wilds ….”

The exact date for the arrival of the first settlers is unknown, but it was shortly after 1730. Having originally been driven to the New World from their native land by religious persecution, Scotch­Irish pioneers relocated to the pristine, fertile valleys from older, settled counties east of the Tuscarora Mountains. Richard Peters, Secretary of the Province of Pennsylvania, reported that in the years 1741-42 settlers from Maryland and other parts of the Prov­ince inhabited the Little Cove and land near the Big and Little Conolaways creeks. (Early usage seemed to be Conol­away; today it is written Tonol­away.)

The oldest title to land in the Great Cove is believed to have been a proprietary warrant, dated November 6, 1749, granted to a David Scott. Provincial authorities could not legally claim the land until nine years later, however, when it was actually purchased from the Six Nations. The area was surveyed in 1760 and early settlers applied to the provincial authorities for a cer­tain amount of land; war­rants were then awarded. Al­though a few were granted to settlers while the Great Cove, shortly afterward designated Ayr Township, was a part of Cumberland County, an even greater number of grants were made while the area was part of Bedford County. A patent was issued only when the settlers paid the authorities for their tracts, but, many pioneers did not satisfy their obligations for sev­eral years. Others totally ignored the formality of appli­cation.

A proclamation against intruders who had illegally set­tled on the lands of the Six Nations was issued by the lieu­tenant-governor and com­mander-in-chief of the Prov­ince of Pennsylvania in July 1749, advising inhabitants “to remove themselves, their families and their effects off the lands on or before the first day of November next.” De­spite this decree, the Prov­ince made no energetic effort to remove the intruding set­tlers until the proprietaries, hoping to avoid trouble, directed Richard Peters and interpreter Conrad Weiser to proceed to the County of Cumberland (formed in 1750) and expel the intruders. They set out on May 15, 1750, joined by the magistrates of the county, delegates of the Six Nations, a Mohawk chief, and Andrew, an interpreter from Ohio. They first traveled to Path Valley (now in Frank­lin County), then to the Augh­wick Settlement and, finally, to the Great Cove, where they convicted the trespassers, compelling them to post bonds both for their immediate removal and for their promised appearance at the next term of court. Many were out­raged. Three cabins in the northern end of Ayr Town­ship were burned by persons who claimed rights to them. The village came to be known as Burnt Cabins, and is so named today.

Restless and courageous settlers, with others willing to risk the wrath of the Indians, returned to their vacated homesteads. In 1754 the chiefs of the Six Nations granted to the proprietors a vast body of land including the Great Cove, but its transfer was not confirmed for another year. On November 1, 1755, Shingas, the King of the Delawares, with about 100 Indians – Shaw­nees and Delawares – stole into the Great Cove, murder­ing the unsuspecting inhabi­tants and destroying their property. Of the ninety-three families in the Great Cove, Little Cove and the Conolo­ways, forty-seven were either killed or captured and the rest quickly fled. The Great Cove massacre is considered one of the major Indian out­rages in Pennsylvania’s his­tory. The burial of those slain marked the beginning of the county’s first public ceme­tery, Big Spring Graveyard. Today, scores of simple field­stone and wooden markers indicate where the brave pio­neers lie.

The first permanent com­munity in Fulton County was developed by a group of British Baptists who settled along the Big and Little Tonolo­way creeks at a settlement known as “The Conoloways.” The area had originally been claimed by Maryland until the Mason-Dixon line finally re­solved the seventy-five-year dis­pute between the Penns and the Baltimores. For protection from Indians, Fort Coombe was erected but in January 1756 a war party of savages at­tacked the Conoloway settle­ment and killed and scalped a settler and two members of one family, and carried off two younger girls. Other settlers escaped to the block­house, as houses and barns were burned, livestock slaugh­tered and provisions plun­dered.

Despite these catastrophic Indian rampages, pioneering settlers continued to arrive and travel through the area on early roads which generally followed Indian trails, wind­ing precariously through gaps in the surrounding mountain ranges. The earliest trails, over which goods and sup­plies were hauled by pack horses or mules, were called packers’ paths. The area’s first real road, built by Maj. James Burd, was established for military purposes on the recommendation of Sir John St. Clair. Burd’s Road, as it was known then, was ulti­mately intended to connect Shippensburg with Braddock’s Road, another important early thoroughfare farther to the west. In just four months, Burd cut the road between Shippensburg and Ray’s Town (Bedford), completing that sec­tion in June 1755.

During the years 1755-58, the British constructed a chain of forts along this new road under the direction of Col. John Armstrong to protect settlers from the fury of the Indians, as well as to serve as much-needed supply stations during the French and Indian War. One of these strategic fortifications was Fort Lyttleton (Littleton), con­structed in 1756 but abandoned in 1765. Today the fort is commemorated by a marker and a nearby village perpetu­ates its name.

One year after Fort Lyttleton was constructed, the road was improved by Gen. John Forbes and became part of the now-famous Forbes Road. In 1764, additional improve­ments were made to the route by Col. Henry Bouquet. It was over this road that supplies and ammunitions were car­ried to the western fortifications throughout the Revolution­ary War. President George Washington used the Forbes Road on his return east after reviewing troops called out to quell the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania in October 1794.

Once completed, the road stimulated other develop­ments. An order in 1761 issued by the Cumberland County court laid out a “bridle path” from Carlisle, through Cove Gap and over the Cove Moun­tain to Ayr Township, to intersect the Forbes Road at the foot of Sideling Hill. The path passed the “stony batter,” birthplace of James Buchanan where his father kept a store with supplies and provisions for packers and traders. President Buchanan was born in 1791 within a few miles of McConnellsburg; had that land not been annexed to Franklin County from Bedford County, the birthplace of the nation’s fifteenth president would have been claimed by Fulton County.

The bridle path was only wide enough for one horse, but when an improved road known as the Chambersburg­-Bedford Turnpike was con­structed in 1814-15, the width was expanded to fourteen feet. A tollgate was situated at each end of McConnellsburg to collect tolls for the road’s upkeep, and the town – later the county seat – became an important stop as the older mili­tary road was inevitably aban­doned. Two blocks of the fledgling community boasted seven taverns and hotels, each filled nightly with the drivers of great Conestoga wagons.

In the early days there was great difficulty in descending the mountains with heavily loaded wagons, often result­ing in many accidents. Rum­bling wagons were halted only by dragging a large log or tree tied to their rear. This began to change when a farmer and wagoner of the Big Cove, George Diven, invented the friction brake, now in universal use without a single change in mechanical structure. Diven was a man of limited means, methodical and systematic, a mechanical genius; yet he never applied for a patent and died in 1858, unhonored and unsung. Nearly eighty years after his death, representatives of the Westinghouse Air Brake Company; the American Brake, Shoe and Foundry Company; and the Mack Truck Company traveled to the county seat to lay a wreath upon the grave of the inventor of the handbrake wagon.

As heavily forested as it was mountainous, the Great Cove comprised land that was initially designated as Air (Ayr) Township. Originally double the size of Fulton County today, the township extended from the Mary­land border to five miles inside the present Huntingdon County line on the north, beyond the Tuscarora and Cove mountains into Little Cove (now in Franklin County) on the east, and beyond Side­ling Hill on the west. Fulton County’s current boundaries, encompassing 442 square miles, date to its organization in the mid-nineteenth cen­tury. The western boundary, separating it from Bedford County, is Ray’s Hill; to the north is Huntingdon County; to the east, the Tuscarora and Cove mountains form the Franklin County line; and to the south is the state of Maryland.

As inhabitants of eastern Bedford County, of which the area had been a part since 1771, pioneers were disgruntled by the county seat’s location at Bedford and they urged the creation of a new county. Their petition requested that the new county be named Liberty. Although passed by the House of Representatives, the bill’s approval by the Senate depended on the votes of two senators, one of whom stipulated that the county be named in honor of Robert Fulton. Finally, the creation and name of Fulton County was approved by an act of the legislature on April 19, 1850.

The act creating the county also provided for the open­ing of several courts in McCon­nellsburg until a courthouse could be erected. The act fur­ther required that the county seat was to be located where the largest amount of sub­scriptions could be guaranteed for the purchase of building lots and the construction of pub­lic buildings. Residents of McConnellsburg and the im­mediate vicinity pledged $13,000 and succeeded in secur­ing the county seat for their community. In January 1851, the plans of local cabinetmaker Jacob Stoner were adopted for the construction of the court­house, and the drawings of a Bedford County resident were selected for the jail. The two-story brick courthouse building with portico, com­pleted for the January 1852 court term, was built for less than $6,000.

The settlement which even­tually became the county seat was actually developed nearly seventy-five years before the creation of the county; McConnellsburg was laid out in the center of the Great Cove in 1786. Although still small in size, the community is characterized by its regularity in design and execution, each lot consisting of a quarter­-acre with streets fifty feet and alleys twelve feet in width. In the original plat, the main street was designed to run east and west through the pub­lic square, but the business of the town centered upon the old road (now Lincoln Way) which remains the principal thoroughfare. Entire I y sur­rounding the town were com­mons fifty feet wide for the pasture of cows and farm ani­mals. Those tracts have since been incorporated into the borough, and lots do not all now conform to the original town plans.

One of the town’s early buildings was the historic Ful­ton House, a large three-story limestone structure erected in 1793 and enlarged in 1820. As a tavern and hostelry it hosted four United States presi­dents: John (and Abigail) Adams, Zachary Taylor, Wil­liam Henry Harrison and James Buchanan. President Buchanan rested overnight at the Fulton House on his way to the summer White House at Bedford Springs. In 1976 the building, now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was restored as a Bicentennial project by the citi­zens of the county and serves as McConnellsburg Town Hall, as well as headquarters for the Fulton County His­torical Society.

Other villages in the county, still bear names such as Wells Tannery and Big Cove Tan­nery, reflecting one of the re­gion’s once most important industries. Three tanneries were located in McConnellsburg, attesting to the great demand for leather goods. In addition to the leather needed for harnesses and the workings of lumbering Conestoga wag­ons, leather was also in great demand for making boots for the soldiers of the Civil War. Also scattered through­out the Great Cove during its early settlement period were at least ten grist mills, two of which still operate today. The eighteenth century Burnt Cabins Grist Mill still pro­duces wheat and buckwheat flours, as well as old-fashioned cornmeal products. Accord­ing to documentation prepared by local historians, the grist mill ground meal for the inhabi­tants of Forts Shirley, Mc­Cord, Loudon and Littleton. Hunter Mill at Webster Mills has operated continuously since it was built in 1812. Even to this day, local farmers still depend on this mill as a supplier for grains to feed their livestock.

Along with the establish­ment of early businesses and in­dustries, religious affairs and education were also of major concern to the growing number of settlers. In 1752 the British Baptists founded the Tonoloway Primitive Baptist Church and built a log struc­ture that stood until the pres­ent brick church, used as a hospital during the Civil War, was erected in 1829. Reformed Presbyterian, Associate Pres­byterian and Presbyterian missionaries arrived in the Great Cove about 1750, setting up their altars in groves or conducting services in cabins before organizing congre­gations and building churches. Daniel McConnell gave three lots in McConnellsburg to the German Reformed, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches in 1799. Today, six churches are located in the county seat and more than sixty-five churches serve the county.

The first school in the Great Cove was established in 1777 at Big Spring, just south of Mc­Connellsburg. Wolves were so numerous that the pupils walked to school in parties or with grown-ups for protec­tion. Several other schools were founded but, even as late as 1814, children were taught by travelers, mostly foreigners, who used the old turnpike. Ayr Township opened five free schools in 1835, and other townships followed so that by 1853 there were more than twenty schools in the county. It was not until 1898, how­ever, that the county’s first high school graduation took place in McConnellsburg. From a total of eighty one-room schools and four high schools in the county in the first
half of the twentieth century, consolidation has resulted in three school districts today.

With the establishment of schools and greater involve­ment in education, interest also developed in county news­papers. On September 20, 1850, the same year the county was organized, the first print­ing of the Fulton Democrat and Farmers and Mechanics’ Ad­visor was issued. The sub­title was soon dropped, but the paper continued until July 1, 1983, when it was sold to the Fulton County News, which began publication on September 21, 1899, and continues today as a local weekly newspaper. Another paper, the Fulton Republican, appeared in 1851 and re­mained in circulation until 1922.

Fulton County’s progress was not always idyllic or tranquil. As a county border­ing the Mason-Dixon line, Fulton was touched by the Civil War. The nearby Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 and the burning of Chambersburg in neighboring Franklin County the next year shot repercus­sions through Fulton County. June 1863 proved an unfor­gettably terrifying month for residents of McConnellsburg, an ordinarily peaceful community. Farmers, worried about the possibility of a Confederate raid, prepared by hiding their horses in the mountains. On Thursday, June 18, some 250 Confederate soldiers under Gen. Alfred Jenkins suddenly stormed into McConnellsburg at daybreak. Two decades later, an 1884 county history noted “the marauding column was spread out from mountain to moun­tain, and swept down through Ayr Township like a cyclone, cleaning up things generally.” Farmers were in the midst of grain harvest. Large sup­plies of fresh grain, along with the wagons it was loaded on, were seized for the South­ern cause. About 300 horses, plus other valuable farm stock were captured. Store owners and town residents also fared badly; by evening the streets of McConnellsburg were strewn with old shoes, boots and hats which had been discarded in exchange for better ones.

The following week, more than ten times as many Con­federates returned to Fulton County, raiding and ter­rorizing both the county’s northern and southern areas for three days. [n some cases, the rebels offered Confed­erate paper money to families for items they wanted. Local farmer John B. Patterson took his share to a “Southern” bank in Hagerstown, Mary­land, and ruefully learned that his $600 in Confederate cur­rency was good only for $3 in gold. At a dry goods store in Webster Mills young soldiers made a game of tying bolts of cloth behind their saddles, then charging their horses up the road with long streamers of colorful cloth unwinding behind them!

Two days before the Battle of Gettysburg, a skirmish in McConnellsburg resulted in the capture of 32 Confed­erates and the death of 2 sol­diers – the first Confederates killed in battle north of the Mason-Dixon line. While local citizens were burying the dead rebels, 400 Confederate re­placements surrounded the town, searched private homes for the captured soldiers and proceeded to plunder in re­venge. Vengeance was wanton and widespread. One sol­dier was even seen leaving town with a lady’s hoop skirt strapped behind his saddle.

It was only one year later that Confederate soldiers again besieged rural Fulton County. The Southern econ­omy was in serious trouble, and there was bitterness over various Northern actions. At dawn on July 30, Confed­erate Gen. John A. McCausland rode into the square of neigh­boring Chambersburg de­manding $500,000 in green­backs or $100,000 in gold. Three hours later he ordered his troops to begin burning the town. Before noon, with the town in flames, Gen. Bradley T. Johnson led his troops across the mountain from Franklin County into Fulton County. Ar­riving in McConnellsburg about five o’clock, the Con­federate officers demanded meals for everyone. The town’s population numbered only 556, but food for an additional 2,600 “guests” was imme­diately prepared. After eating, the soldiers proceeded to rob the town, demanding money at gunpoint or with threats of burning.

General Johnson and his officers spent the night at the Patterson farmhouse at Mc­Connellsburg’s southern edge. They departed for the Maryland border on Sunday morning, but were soon pur­sued by Union troops. A limestone and bronze histori­cal marker erected in the area in 1929 cites this last Con­federate camp on Northern soil. The war ended the follow­ing spring and the county’s tranquility has since remained undisturbed.

Despite these terrifying Civil War episodes, Fulton County is best known for its pros­perous agricultural enterprises, tanneries and mills. But the county also has a rich supply of iron ores which, because the region lacks rail service, has been largely neglected. In fact, Fulton County has the distinction of being the Com­monwealth’s only county with­out a railroad. In 1885, a rail­road almost became a reality when work commenced on the South Penn Railroad in the upper reaches of the county. The endeavor was doomed, however, by unscrupulous in­vestors, as was the McCon­nellsburg and Fort Loudon Rail­road thirty years later. The county’s only claim to any sort of transportation enterprise was one section of track used by Reichley Brothers and Company for its logging indus­try on a portion of the un­completed South Penn grade between the Ray’s Hill and Sideling Hill tunnels. Experi­enced in the lumbering busi­ness, Reichley Brothers and Company in 1908 purchased timberland, consisting of six parcels of land averaging 400 acres each, south of Wells Tannery for $14,000. The company continued purchasing timberland of white pine, spruce, hemlock, yellow pine and hardwoods until 1930, when it sold its holdings of 9,362 acres to the Common­wealth of Pennsylvania. These lands became part of the Buchanan State Forest.

For a century, citizens lamented the fact that Fulton County lacked a railroad, but all that changed with the opening of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1940. Although the old South Penn Railroad was never finished, it paved the way for a magnificent high­way through the picturesque mountains. Commerce has benefitted from the turnpike interchange at Fort Littleton in the northern part of the county; as well as from the four accesses to Interstate 70 in the county’s southwest part.

Today, agriculture is Ful­ton County’s primary industry, with the largest portion of its annual income derived from dairy farming. The number of operating farms is 560, but with part-time farmers in­cluded, farming enterprises total 840. The county has, dur­ing this century, welcomed diverse manufacturing indus­tries which produce indus­trial machinery, hardware, ap­pliances, ethanol, soft sculp­ture and offer much-needed jobs; even so, no smokestacks foul the air or spoil the land­scape.

The natural beauty of the past is preserved. Of the county’s 283,000 acres, approxi­mately 190,000, representing 62.2 percent of the total acreage, remain forest and woodland. State forests and state game lands occupy fully half of Fulton County. With a 42-acre lake for swimming, fishing and boat­ing, the Cowans Gap State Park is a popular camping re­treat. The gap was named for Maj. Samuel Cowans, an officer in Boston during the Revolutionary War, who, with his young bride, bought land from an Indian chief and spent the rest of their lives in the quiet valley. West of McCon­nellsburg lies the popular Meadow Grounds State Game Land totaling more than 7,000 acres and featuring a 205-acre lake well known to fisher­men and boaters. Fulton County has, during the last decade, become a destination for thousands of visitors who have been introduced to the region’s beautiful scen­ery, rustic charm and peace­ful rural ambience by the much-heralded local event, the Fulton Fall Folk Festival, which is held the third week­end of October.

Visitors are not the only ones to savor the beauty and bounty of Fulton County. Many families from urban com­munities have chosen to make homes within the county’s boundaries and have adapted to the pervading placid rural way of life. According to the most recent United States census, Fulton County ex­perienced the sixth highest per­centage of population growth in the state during the period 1970 to 1980. This increase, from 10,766 to 12,842 residents, represents a gain of 19.2 per­cent! And new “settlers,” con­tinuing to arrive, find pic­turesque mountains and steeply pitched valleys, lush forests, quiet meadows and glades, and good roads connecting small towns with quaint villages and farms. Today, residents­ – both old and new – continue to relish the unique traditions and pastoral grandeur of the county where country is still country.


For Further Reading

Cordell, Glenn R. Civil War Invasions in Fulton County, Pa. McConnellsburg, Pa.: Fulton County Historical Society, 1979.

Greathead, Elsie S. The His­tory of Fulton County, Pennsylvania. McConnellsburg, Pa., 1936.

History of Bedford, Somerset, and Fulton Counties, Pennsylvania. Chicago: Waterman, Watkins and Company, 1884.

Hoover, Smith M. Fulton County Centennial, 1950-1950. Mc­Connellsburg, Pa.: Fulton County News, 1950.

Nelson, John H. The Fulton House. McConnellsburg, Pa.: Fulton County Historical Society, 1982.


Anne J. Lodge, a graduate of the Pennsylvania State University, has researched and written numer­ous historical articles, including family genealogies and church histories, for many years. She is a life member and treasurer of the Fulton County Historical Society.