Perry County: A Sportsman’s Paradise

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

Despite its proximity to Pennsylvania’s bustling and heavily urbanized capital city, Perry County remains a sportsman’s placid paradise with its thickly forested moun­tains and lushly verdant val­leys. Much like its neighboring counties – Franklin, Cumber­land, Juniata and Dauphin­ – Perry County claims a topogra­phy that is neither unique nor unusual: its mountains give way to broad fields which have supported farmers since the earliest settlement. And like so many other counties, Perry’s history typifies early Pennsyl­vania settlement patterns.

The history of Perry County begins with the first inhabit­ants: the Native Americans. The Tuscarora, driven from their settlements in the Caroli­nas, arrived in the region about 1713, followed a decade later by members of the Chouanon (Shawnee) and Lenni-Lenape (Delaware) tribes. The lands the Indians inhabited were fertile hunting and trapping grounds, still attracting hunters to the county today.

Perry County’s first white settlers were “squatters,” whom the Indians attempted to evict by appealing to authorities in Carlisle, the Cum­berland County seat. At the time, provincial law forbade white settlers to intrude on Indian territory, but by 1751 more than eleven hundred settlers – mostly Irish and some German – settled in the area that is present-day Perry County. The area, which in­cluded today’s Perry County, opened to settlers through the Treaty of Albany on July 6, 1754. In February 1755, a land office was established in Lancaster to promote the sale of land in the region. The individual credited as the first authorized resident of the region now called Perry County was Andrew Montour, whose name was lent to a small stream in the county’s western section.

Following Gen. Edward Braddock’s defeat on July 9, 1755, during the French and Indian War (see “Into the Val­ley of Death” by Iola B. Parker in the winter 1988 issue), bands of Delawares began attacking settle­ments in the region. Several massacres occurred, including one near Loysville where the George Robinson family had erected a log fort and stockade as a protection against such attacks. Three individuals were killed when the fort was attacked in July. Dozens of settlers in the area known as Sherman’s Valley – along Sherman’s Creek, which empties into the Susquehanna River­ – were massacred or taken pris­oner during the bloody attacks in 1755-1756.

Until a treaty with the Indians was reached in 1763, ambushes and skirmishes plagued the mountainous region. A hunter, Patrick Jack, reputedly saved several lives during the Indian attacks and even – as time-honored stories recount – recruited a band of vigilantes. Simon Girty, another early inhabitant, was said to have joined the Indian forces during the French and Indian War, and supposedly served the British as Indian interpreter during the American Revolution. Local histo­rians have discounted many of the heroic feats ascribed to Girty, but a rock formation between Duncannon and Liverpool resembling a man’s profile bears the name Girty’s Notch because legends con­tend that he inhabited a cave in the notch.

At the close of the French and Indian War, Indian tribes began abandoning their holdings in central Pennsylvania, including land that makes up present-day Perry County. In their place, Scotch-Irish, Welsh and German settlers inhabited the area. The proliferation of Presbyterian, Lutheran and Reformed (now United Church of Christ) congregations evi­denced the strong hold the earliest settlers claimed.

It was not until nearly three-quarters of a century following the French and Indian War that Perry County was formally created by an act of the state legislature. On March 22, 1820, the county was separated from Cum­berland County to give residents relief from traveling as many as forty difficult miles over the Kittatinny (or Blue) Mountains to Carlisle to attend court, conduct land transac­tions and engage in commerce. As the population of the northern reaches of Cum­berland County burgeoned, the residents clamored for a local seat of government. The issue soon evolved into a vig­orously debated and hotly contested question; in fact, some families even divided­ – and a few remained enemies for years – over the proposed county. Finally, the northern­ers petitioned the General Assembly of Pennsylvania during the 1819-1820 session to “renew their prayers for a division of Cumberland County, because of its local situation and the convenience and prosperity of the people of Sherman’s Valley imperiously require a decision.”

The petition presented by the residents of Sherman’s Valley counted twenty-two hundred taxable inhabitants, forty-eight grist and merchant mills, sixty sawmills, ten full. ing mills, eight carding ma­chines, four oil mills, a forge, a furnace, two tilt hammers and a powder mill.” The petition concluded by arguing that the division of Cumberland County was “what nature intended because of the natural barrier” of the Blue Mountain. “The people on our side labour under the most intoler­able inconvenience, by reason of their having to cross the Mountain, whenever business of a public nature is to be transacted.” In spite of opposition by Carlisle residents­ – whose economy was bound to suffer should the county be divided – the state legislature granted the petitioners’ request.

Even though the establishment of Perry County was somewhat difficult, its naming was not. Just six months be­fore its creation, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the American hero of the battle of Lake Erie in 1813, had died in Trinidad and the news was just reaching the Inland area. Zechariah Rice, credited with the suggestion of the name Perry, was unaware that the naval hero had died, but the residents unanimously agreed on the choice. Other accounts, however, suggest that a com­mittee was well aware of Per­ry’s demise and selected his name in tribute. Other names were considered, including Sterrett, Lawrence, Tyrone and Commodore Perry’s mid­dle name, Hazard.

The selection of the site for the new county seat was as difficult as the county’s actual creation. Landisburg, the town nearest to Carlisle, as made the provisional county seat, pleasing many who believed that the community should be the permanent seat of government. In an effort to ensure that Landisburg would be named the new county seat, residents raised sixteen hun­dred dollars for the construction of courthouse and county offices. Meanwhile, residents of Cedar Run in the county’s western end raised nearly three thousand dollars for the selection of their village as the county seat. Soon other contenders followed suit; also participating in the fierce competition were Millerstown; Reider’s Ferry (now Newport), and Clark’s Ferry (now Dun­cannon), all along the Juniata River.

The first site-selection commission appointed by the state legislature recommended that the county seat should be established on the farm of Capt. William Powers, located about two miles west of Bloomfield and supposedly the exact geographic center of Perry County. Residents of Landisburg bitterly protested the decision and, in a vote taken by a separate committee, Landisburg was chosen. Havoc ensued. Another commission selected Reider’s Ferry. The third commission favored Landisburg, but a new committee protested, arguing that the village was too distant for residents of the county’s eastern section. Finally, a fourth commission recommended a site on a farm owned by George Barnett in what is now Bloomfield. But Landisburg’s residents continued petitioning. The commission stood fast, citing the Barnett farm as a logical choice because of its central location.

Carlisle residents and merchants, ironically, feared the failure of their economy once Perry was seated from the northern tier of Cumberland. The new county did support varied industries for some time – mills, distilleries, and iron operations – until the automobile replaced the wag­ons, the canal system and the railroads. The economies of Duncannon, New Buffalo, Liverpool and Newport relied extensively on the canal sys­tem serving the region. The Pennsylvania Canal along the Susquehanna River included locks at New Buffalo, Mont­gomery Ferry, Mt. Patrick and a little hamlet known as Dry Sawmill. Operated between 1828 and 1901, the canal sus­tained several large boatyards at Liverpool and New Buffalo. Concurrent with the operation of the Pennsylvania Canal was the Juniata Canal, which served Perry County from 1828 through 1898. The section between Millerstown and Newport was known as the “Rope Ferry” because the canal crossed from the west to the east bank of the Juniata River.

When the county seat was firmly – and finally – placed at New Bloomfield, the Perry County Courthouse was erected in 1825, and subse­quently enlarged in 1871, 1892 and, most recently, 1974-1975. The community is also the site of the Carson Long Military Institute, the oldest military preparatory school in Pennsyl­vania. The academy’s roots date to 1837 when it opened as Bloomfield Academy. The academy moved to its present location three years later, con­tinuing as a preparatory school until 1919 when it became Carson Long Institute, renamed by its owner, Theodore K. Long, as a memorial to his son, William Carson Long. Although military training was added to the curriculum, and enrollment limited strictly to male students, Carson Long has emphasized academic instruction in the tradition of its predecessor. Carson Long’s cadets-which number about two hundred and fifty-are familiar to local residents, as they parade, in full dress, in events and activities through­out the area.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of Perry County’s history is a ten acre tract near New Bloomfield which supports the box huck­leberry (gaylussacia brachycera), which scientists believe is the oldest living plant on earth, tracing its origins to the pre­glacial period, eleven thou­sand years before the birth of Christ. The box huckleberry was discovered in the early nineteenth century by French botanists in the Virginia por­tion of the Appalachians, which extend into Pennsylva­nia and, naturally, Perry County. The tract in Perry County was found in 1875 by Spencer F. Baird, later presi­dent of the Smithsonian Insti­tution, Washington, D.C. A second growth, discovered just north of Duncannon in 1920, was destroyed by the construc­tion of a major highway route. The authenticity of Perry County’s box huckleberry has been analyzed and proven by noted scientists; in fact, the only other colony discovered in North America has been located in Delaware. New Bloomfield’s box huckleberry tract was deemed a national natural landmark by the Na­tional Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1968.

In addition to the box huck­leberry, the hemlock – Pennsylvania’s official state tree – claims a showcase set­ting in Perry County. One hunched and twenty acres, protected by the Common­wealth as a significant natural area, includes not only virgin white pine hemlock, but stands of yellow and black birch, red maple, and red and chestnut oak. The trees range between three and five hun­ched years old and at maturity tower between seventy-five and one hunched and twenty-five feet. The designated Hem­locks Natural Area offers visitors an opportunity to see the state tree in much the same setting u the first settlers of the area did more than two centuries ago. Since the ad­ministration of Gov. David L. Lawrence, the Common­wealth’s official Christmas tree at the State Capitol has been cut from the Hemlocks Natural Area section of the sprawling Tuscarora State Forest.

Perry County’s great tim­berlands have played a vital role in the region’s economy. The country’s demand for storage barrels during the nineteenth century prompted a thriving barrel manufactur­ing on the East Coast. Much of the finest-quality hickory for barrel hoops was felled in the county’s woodlands.The county’s canals and roads for transporting the great trees gave it a strong foothold in supplying the much-needed lumber.

As much as Perry County has been recognized for its deep, thick forests, it is host, too, to numerous natural springs. The Big Spring in New Bloomfield supplied water for travelers and their horses, as well as the entire community. Two popular resorts, the Warm Springs Lodge and the White Sulphur Springs Hotel, were erected near sulphur and magnesia springs. Today, the Warm Springs Lodge continues as a country hotel and restaurant.

Perry’s extensive natural resources hallmark it as a tranquil and idyllic retreat, far, it seems, from the daily pres­sures of rampant industrializa­tion and urbanization. But Perry County is much, much more.

One of its engineering marvels is the graceful Rockville Bridge spanning the Sus­quehanna north of Harrisburg. For years, it was considered the longest stone-arch bridge in the world. Owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, the four-track bridge contains twenty-eight thousand tons of Pennsylvania sandstone, shaped by Italian immigrants who settled in Marysville to work as masons.

The Perry County Soldiers and Sailors Monument, lo­cated in New Bloomfield’s town square, has been informally recognized as the coun­ty’s trademark and has been used by television stations in broadcasts concerning the area. Dedicated in 1898, the monument bears witness to the stalwart citizens of Perry County who fought for the Union cause during the Civil War. The monument also rec­ognizes the fact that, of the states in the Union at that time, Pennsylvania supplied the most soldiers with Perry County sending the most.

The Bank of Landisburg, established in 1903, is one of only fourteen banking institu­tions in the nation which have remained independent – its assets are not protected by the federal reserve system and it cannot be called a “national” bank. The bank operates en­tirely under local control. It was one of the few banks in the country to remain open in 1933 when Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the landmark bank holiday. Bank direc­tors responded to the president’s message by defi­antly remaining open, claim­ing the Bank of Landisburg held enough assets and could withstand the dire situation. And stay open – and in business – it did.

Even the Youth Develop­ment Center at Loysville, administered by the Pennsyl­vania Department of Public Welfare, enjoys a distinctive heritage. It was originally founded as the Tressler Or­phans Home in 1865 by Col. David Tressler, a Union Army officer, for children orphaned by the Civil War. Three years later the institution admitted Lutheran orphans and enroll­ment eventually peaked at two hundred and seventy-five students. The Commonwealth acquired the historic property in 1963.

In the mid-nineteenth cen­tury, countians who advanced to state government earned the rather derogatory moniker “hoop-poler.” If called hoop­-polers by their neighbors, Perry Countians are in good stead. Chester I. Long, a.na­tive of Greenwood Township, was elected a United States senator representing Kansas; William Bigler, born in Spring Township, served as the Com­monwealth’s twelfth governor; John Bigler, born in Landis­burg, was elected the third governor of California; Stephen Miller, born in Carroll Township, was Minnesota’s third governor; and Gen. James A. Beaver became Penn­sylvania’s twentieth governor.

The “pennant county” – so named because of its rough, triangular shape that appears to be flying westward – is iso­lated by the Blue and Tus­carora mountains, although they contain its rural charm and heritage. Perry County’s heritage – whether natural or man-made – is a rich meld, contenting the resident or delighting the visitor. Its abounding natural resources­ – once spawning significant industries – now prompt sportsmen and hunters to return year after year.

 

For Further Reading

Eby, Eugene E. Perry County Grist Mills, 1767-1978. Harris­burg: Triangle Press, 1978.

Hain, H. H. History of Perry County, Pennsylvania. Harris­burg: Hain-Moore Company,1922.

Long, Theodore K. Tales of the Cocolamus. New Bloomfield, Pa.: Carson Long Institute, 1936.

Pollard, Alberta C. Long Since. Camp Hill, Pa.: Pollard, 1970.

Steinmetz, Richard H. and Fre­derick A. Kramer. Bells and Whistles in Old Perry. Morris­town, N.J.: Compton Press, 1974.

Wright, Silas. History of Perry County, in Pennsylvania, From the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time. Lancaster, Pa.: Wylie and Griest, 1873.

 

The editorial staff of Pennsylvania Heritage wishes to acknowl­edge the gracious and generous assistance of Donald R. Brown, who has supplied numerous vin­tage and rare postcards to serve as illustrations for this and similar county history feature articles. The staff is greatly indebted to the lender who, despite building one of the most definitive collections of Pennsylvania postal view cards in existence, continues sharing his expertise and, particularly, items from his vast collection to serve as illustrations for this magazine.

 

Duane E. Good is managing editor of the Perry County Times. A graduate of West Perry High School, he has been a jour­nalist for twelve years and assisted in the final writing of County Grist Mills (1978) by Eugene E. Eby. The author is a native of Perry County and resides in New Bloomfield, the county seat.