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

Referring to the high elevation and the scenic quality of the region, Gov. Martin G. Brumbaugh called Somerset County “the Roof Garden of Pennsylvania” at an annual Farmers’ Day picnic in 1916. Since then. the description has become a familiar and respected title; the words “Roof Garden” have been in­corporated in the names of various businesses, and the complete phrase has appeared often in materials written about the county.

Governor Brumbaugh chose “roof” as a comparison because Somerset County is located on a wide plateau of the Appalachian Mountain system. The hills of the county span the crests of the Laurel Hill and Allegheny mountains, which bound the plateau on the east and west. On this “roof” just north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Mount Davis rises to 3,213 feet above sea level and stands as the highest mountain in Pennsylvania.

The choice of “garden” as a de­scription of the county distinguishes the landscape, which comprises farms, towns and woodlands in an orderly, tranquil setting. It also implies the presence of productivity, which is a characteristic of the region. Although the elevation of Somerset County has long been singular in the state, the sur­face of the land has not always ex­hibited a pattern of civilized variety.

Prior to the advent of European set­tlers, a solid stand of timber blanketed the wavy terrain of Somerset County. In places, meadows of tall grass interrupted the forest, and meandering streams connected these light openings with the dark woods. In 1771, a trav­eler named Harmon Husband wrote. “As to the glades: the grass was as high as a man, of a blueish color, with a feathery head of blueish purple.” He added that beavers, deer and wolves were numerous, and “panthers were destroyed by the hunters whenever encountered” in the high wilderness country.

In the early twentieth century, when Governor Brumbaugh spoke to the farm families at Edgewood Grove, he stood on a site where Harmon Hus­band had viewed beavers building a dam, 145 years earlier. In the span of those years, a garden emerged from the wilderness through various changes that were predominantly encouraged by roads.

Initially, threads of animal paths through the wilderness became Indian trails, which provided direction for the military roads of Braddock and Forbes in the 1750s. These roads were major routes to settlement during the 1800s, when farming was the dominant pur­suit in the county. In the 1870s a railroad was built, generally following the course of Braddock; it spurred devel­opment of coal and timber resources and the subsequent growth of new towns. During the 1880s construction of another railroad began, moving directly from the east as Forbes had done. The rails of this road were never completed, but the roadbed and tun­nels served as the basis for the Pennsyl­vania Turnpike in the late 1930s. This four-lane highway promoted the establishment of services for travelers and encouraged light industries to locate in the area. Briefly stated, military roads, railroads and four-lane highways re­spectively nurtured the growth of farming, mining and tourism; each type of road fostered a different kind of settlement.

Roads and Settlement

“Please send us,” they wrote, “three or four Cross Cut saws to Seperate the numberless, damned, petryfyd old Logs hard as Iron, & Breaks our Axes to pieces.” During the summer of 1758, the Forbes expedi­tion hacked a swath through the wilderness, enroute to oust the French from western Pennsylvania. Three years earlier, Maj. Gen. Edward Brad­dock and his troops had cut a road from Will’s Creek (Cumberland, Mary­land) over the Nemacolin’s Trail through southern Somerset County, but their defeat near Fort Duquesne prompted the English to carve a new approach directly over the Allegheny Mountain.

Under the command of Col. Henry Bouquet, 1,400 men felled timber and removed the enormous trunks from the path. After they had surmounted the steep grades, they bridged the marshes of the glades with the “cordu­roy” surface of logs laid closely to­gether. In November I 758, Gen. John Forbes and his army moved over this wide path across the mountain to Fort Duquesne, where they successfully secured English possession of the re­gion, insuring that historians would call their work “Forbes Road” rather than “la route de Forbes.”

The rough.hewn roads of Braddock and Forbes did not start serving as avenues to the west until a decade later, after the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768 established English ownership of the land. During the 1760s, trappers and hunters used the paths on their treks to gather pelts and hides, and the county’s first permanent settlers ar­rived via these routes. A pack-horse driver who had been with Forbes built a cabin near the summit of the Alle­gheny Mountain, and a small congrega­tion from New Jersey settled in the Turkeyfoot region near Braddock Road. In the central glades, a group of Germans who called themselves “Breth­ren” began clearing the land, which they named “Brueders Thal,” or Brothersvalley. When Bedford County was formed in 1771, Brothersvalley became the name of the vast township that lay west of the Allegheny Moun­tain.

“Welcome, Broder, where you come?” said Philip Wagerline to Har­mon Husband in June 1771 when Hus­band came down from the Allegheny ridge into the clearing where Wagerline lived in the heart of Brothersvalley. Wagerline and his family were settlers in the rolling hills, and Husband was a traveler seeking Isaac Cox, a hunter on the plateau. “Come along; you be hungary, you be tired,” said the set­tler, escorting Husband to the cabin, where he was welcomed with food and conversation. After a restful night, Husband was served a breakfast of venison, boiled rye and potatoes, and the family insisted that he remain with them at least another day before re­suming his travel. The warmth ex­pressed by the Wagerlines inspired Husband to record the encounter in his journal.

When he reached the hunting camp of his friend Isaac Cox, Husband de­scribed his hasty retreat from North Carolina, where he had helped organ­ize opposition to the pro-British governor. A proclamation had been issued, stating that Husband was “liable to be shot by any person what­ever,” so he called himself “Tuscape Death.” Cox suggested “Quaker” as a more suitable name, and Husband soon became known as “the old Quaker” among the local hunters. He never carried a gun, and he occupied his time with sketching a map of the region. Within two years, Husband’s family joined him in the wilderness, where he was influential in establish­ing Brunerstown, later called Somer­set.

As shouts of “Timm-berrr!” rang through the woods during the early 1770s, trees were felled, and land was prepared for planting potatoes, com, wheat and rye. Settlers worked in their clearings with the same resolution that had motivated their migration up the mountain to Brothersvalley, and plumes of smoke rising from openings in the forest signaled the extent of settlement. The first assessment for taxes was completed in 1772, and the new townships of Turkeyfoot and Quemahoning were formed shortly thereafter.

Along Forbes Road, Daniel Stoy started Stoystown on a tract of land called “Lost Turkey” in 1774, and Berlin soon was settled on a hill near “Pius Spring” in Brothersvalley. Crafts­men in these communities fashioned useful items from wood and metal, and groups of farmers loaded pack trains with furs, whiskey, ginseng and maple products, which were carried “downeast” and bartered for iron, salt and other necessities. As the 1770s continued, roads were improved through general use, enabling merchants to transport goods directly to the settlements.

In 1783, Dr. Johann David Schoepf, a young German, accidentally got off the main road while traveling near Brunerstown and met two boys who assured him that he would be welcome in their father’s house. “When we reached the house,” he wrote, “there appeared Mr. Herrman [Harmon] Hus­band (for this was the name of the strange man), barefoot and dressed in worn and dirty clothes.” Husband greeted Dr. Schoepf in the tradition of the Wagerlines, and the young man spent the evening conversing with the family. Husband entertained him with talk of the Allegheny Mountain, com­paring it with a solid wall and even alluding to it as a wall of the New Jerusalem. Dusty maps and further Biblical allusions astonished the doctor, who later wrote that Husband’s “lively powers of imagination and a certain degree of erudition had doubtless given the man this singular humor.”

During the 1780s, agriculture emerged as the dominant pursuit on the plateau, and rye became a primary product because it could be distilled into whiskey and transported effi­ciently as a liquid. When Congress levied a tax on distilled spirits in 1791, farmers throughout southwestern Penn­sylvania united in their opposition to the excise, and some farmers even demonstrated their outrage by rioting and by burning properties owned by the tax collectors. In 1794, President Washington sent 15,000 men to sup­press the uprising in western counties, where the resistance had become re­bellion.

In the young nation’s initial test of federal authority, American troops, rather than English, marched over the roads of Braddock and Forbes and successfully subdued the turmoil. On their return through the Somerset area, they charged Harmon Husband and Gen. Robert Philson of Berlin with promoting riots. These men allegedly had erected “liberty poles,” from which flags had flown pro­claiming: “Liberty and No Excise.” Both men were taken under guard to Philadelphia where they were held for seven months before being released without trial. Enroute home, Husband died in June 1795 from an illness he had contracted in prison. When Philson arrived home, he received political honors and was later elected to the General Assembly and to the United States Congress.

Harmon Husband had been a leader. As a member of the General Assem­bly in. J 790, he had petitioned the legislature to form a new county west of the Allegheny Mountain because residents there endured hardships in traveling to the public offices in Bed­ford, forty miles east. In reply to this petition, the legislature of Pennsyl­vania passed an act on April 17, 1795, by which Brothersvalley, Turkeyfoot, Quemahoning, Milford, Elk Lick and Stoneycreek townships of Bedford County were organized as the county of Somerset, named after the shire of Somerset in England. The first will to be registered in the new county was the will of Harmon Husband.

In less than forty years, the forested plateau region had come from an un­inhabited wilderness to an organized, though sparsely populated, county of Pennsylvania. Somerset County ex­panded when the southwestern corner of Bedford County was annexed in 1800; it contracted four years later when a vast section in the north was given for the creation of Cambria County. This was the last movement in external boundaries, but township lines and borough limits continued to be decided internally.

Growing

With the organization of Somerset County, the name Brunerstown was changed to Summerset Town; another spelling appeared on March 5, 1804, when the rural settlement was incor­porated as the borough of Somerset. By 1807 it encompassed 61 cabins and houses, a school, a jail and a stone courthouse that had been completed in 1801. In addition to serving as the seat of justice, Somerset became the focal point for commercial develop­ment, and narrow dirt roads branched out from the town to connect it with remote parts of the county.

In the early nineteenth century, the National Road and the Pennsylvania Road, respectively initiated by Brad­dock and Forbes, carried westbound “Conestogas” across the county to the “Ohio Country.” Stagecoaches be­tween Philadelphia and Pittsburgh jolted passengers through the mud or dust of the Pennsylvania Road, and inns and taverns comforted aching travelers with a local menu and soft feather beds.

Also during this period, log cabins grew upward to become log houses, and large portions of forests became fields of crops. Production increased as implements were improved in all phases of farming, and neighbors culti­vated a spirit of cooperation in helping each other build houses and barns. Farmers celebrated their common force by sponsoring a three-day fair with horse races, foot races, and fiddling and dancing at Berlin in 1808. The Agriculture Society formally unified farmers when it was founded in 1828, and by 1858 this countywide unit had purchased land on which to hold an annual fair.

Grazing and dairying were com­mon in the early nineteenth century, especially in the central glades where cattle and sheep were raised for meat, dairy products and wool. Many of these animals were herded to eastern markets, but most were pastured for their products. “Glade butter” com­manded high prices in the Baltimore­Washington area, where one county butter dealer sold 25,000 pounds in a record year. Beef gradually supple­mented venison in the local diet, and wool warmed linen in the combination called “linsey-woolsey.”

Voices in the county were first heard in print in the German Farmer, a newspaper printed in English and German script in Somerset about 1804. A publishing house was established a few years later by Frederick Goeb, a master printer from Germany. In his tiny printshop in Somerset, Goeb spent four years setting nearly five million pieces of type for the first Bible printed west of the Allegheny Mountain. More than a foot high and bound in leather over heavy oak boards, the “Goeb Bible” cost approx­imately six dollars shortly after it was printed in 1813.

Beginning with the earliest log churches, sharing faith was an integral part of settlers’ lives; the German “Brueders” worshipped together in the Church of the Brethren, and families at Turkeyfoot formed the Jersey Baptist Church as early as 1775. Three women named Mary Ogle, Mary Graft and Mary Morrison organized the first Sunday school in the county in 1815 as part of an independent Baptist church, that was known informally as the church of the “Three Marys.” Protestant faith predominated in the early nineteenth century, but a few Roman Catholic families constructed St. John the Baptist Church in 1824 at Mosersburg. This town later be­came New Baltimore where a monas­tery was established in 1887 for stu­dents of the Carmelite Order.

“We must learn something every­day” was the maxim of Jost Stutzman, a dynamic teacher who was known throughout Somerset County as the “Grammar King.” Beginning in 1820, he aroused residents with his ardent devotion to teaching and with his enthusiastic statements on the need for education. Discipline and cleanli­ness were trademarks of this year­-round teacher who even opened a night school to help adults learn gram­mar. His son, Joseph Stutzman, was also a devoted educator; as the county’s first superintendent of schools, he organized the educational structure and promoted unity by initiating Teachers’ Institutes in 1855. He was a regular and welcome visitor in schools and was described as “firm as a rock, yet gentle as a child.” After Joseph Stutzman’s death in 1900, county residents commemorated his contribu­tions to their lives by erecting a monu­ment on his grave.

Two sons of Somerset County who achieved national prominence were Alexander Ogle and Jeremiah Black. Ogle, described as the most handsome man in America, was a fiery debater who served five terms in the state legislature beginning in 1803. Fifteen years later, “the Old General” was elected to Congress, where he gained wide recognition, and where he loudly referred to the people of his home county as “the frosty sons of thunder,” a phrase that still echoes in the rolling hills. Jeremiah Black, who was born in the glades of Stoneycreek Town­ship, learned grammar from Jost Stutzman and practiced law in Somer­set. Through a distinguished career as a jurist, he became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and later served as U.S. Attorney General and as Secretary of State under Presi­dent James Buchanan. In 1883, Judge Black died at “Brockie,” his farm in York County, the area from which his paternal grandfather had emigrated about 1760.

As citizens and institutions matured, towns and farms grew, but sometimes progress was hindered by unexpected events. Somerset borough was exten­sively damaged by fire on three occa­sions (1833, 1872, 1876). The most destructive of these occurred on May 9, 1872, when the business section and many residences were destroyed within an hour by fire that had started in an uptown stable. Francis Weimer dis­covered the fire in a bundle of rye straw; as he tried to pull the bundle out of the building, the band broke, flames scattered and the stable was doomed in a minute. Within twenty minutes, every building on Main Street was burning; and four hours later, dazed homeless people wandered through the ashes, wondering why.

At the crack of dawn on Sunday, June 5, 1859, farmers in the county were horrified to discover that a severe frost had settled on the land during the night. The frost had mined crops and all vegetation over a wide region. Farmers paled when maple trees began shedding their leaves. By the middle of the following week, they had deter­mined a solution; they rapidly pre­pared the ground for planting buck­wheat, the only crop that had not yet been sown that season. A record yield of 183,000 bushels of buck­wheat carried the county through the year of the “Great Frost,” or “Buck­wheat Year,” as 1859 is recalled.

The unexpected events of fire and frost helped people learn to begin anew, which was the lesson their grandfathers had practiced during the early years of settlement. In Somerset County, beginning anew was cele­brated annually in the spring produc­tion of maple syrup. During late Febru­ary and early March, sap began to rise in maple trees, and farmers tapped the trees and hung wooden buckets, called “keelers,” beneath spiles to collect nature’s sweet water which flowed freely in the sunshine of frosty morn­ings. The sap was removed to gathering tanks and was boiled in kettles until it reached the viscosity of syrup; some of this was processed further into hard sugar which could be preserved longer than the thick liquid. In the nineteenth century, “maple sugaring” was a family industry that produced, coun­tywide, thousands of gallons of syrup and more than one million pounds of sugar in a good season. Today, keelers on maple trees in Somerset County still signal the beginning of spring, and the “Pennsylvania Maple Festival” at Meyersdale salutes the season with flavor.

Beginning Anew

The final spike was driven at a point near Rockwood on April 10, 1871, and later that spring day, a train direct from Pittsburgh rolled across the spike, puffed through a tunnel in the Allegheny Mountain and steamed to a stop in Cumberland, Maryland. The new railroad had come, not specifically to transport coal and lumber from Somerset County, but to connect points in the rail network of the eastern seaboard.

The county was ready for rails; a ten-mile branch railroad was con­structed from the mainline to Somer­set in 1871. Within ten years, this branch continued north to Johns­town, and shorter lines from it reached outward when additional connections were needed. To the south, near a primary branch leading to Salisbury, the Shaw mines and the Keystone mines shipped coal from that region; beginning in 1872, coal was carted from Keystone down a narrow-gauge track to a tipple beside the mainline.

As early as 1774, a knoll near Keystone had been named “Coal Bank,” and in 1809. blacksmiths were hauling coal from a farm in Brothersvalley to supply their forges. At that time. how­ever, they were unaware that great seams of coal lay in the earth beneath their glowing fires. Above ground. where timber was obvious, more than a dozen small mills cut rough lumber during the early decades of the cen­tury; after 1848, when larger mills were erected, transportation was needed for expansion.

With railroads in place, develop­ment of coal and timber resources dominated events around the turn of the century. Most significantly, the Somerset-Johnstown branch of the B & O spurred development of the northern region, where the Berwind­White Coal Mining Company and the E. V. Babcock Lumber Company emerged in the late 1890s as twin in­dustrial giants.

Berwind-White opened the north with Eureka Mine Number 30 in 1897, and a dozen more mines, successively numbered to 42, gave rise to “coal towns” with their rows of uniform houses. A large well-planned town was centrally laid out on the farmland of David Shaffer, and ‘The Company” invited workers to design their houses as “homes of participants in a great enterprise.” By transposing the final syllables of Charles Berwind, Windber became the name of this dream town. Within three years, over 4,000 people resided in a variety of homes in the county’s most cosmopolitan commun­ity, which had electrical power and water lines. paved streets, churches, schools, five hotels and a chain of Eureka Stores. As such. Shaffer’s former farm was incorporated as the borough of Windber in 1900.

Each day, while Berwind’s Eureka mines carted 10,000 tons of coal to the surface, the Babcock Lumber Company sawed 100,000 feet of hard­wood and hemlock at their Ashtola headquarters just east of Windber. Be­ginning in 1897, double-cutting band saws and mechanized loaders, each powered with high-pressure steam engines, helped the Babcock family become the lumber leader; and as they prospered, their Jogging railroads pro­gressed deeper into the woods of Ogle Township. They erected a shingle mill and turned out finished lumber in their planing mill, both at Ashtola, where boarding houses and sixty dwellings accommodated some of the company’s 500 employees.

Frame houses in “company towns,” like log cabins in earlier times, shel­tered new settlers who came from various origins. Numerous natives of Austria, Italy, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary flooded into the county via the Pennsylvania Railroad at Johns­town and settled throughout the northern and central sections, bringing variety to towns that sprouted be­tween 1900 and 1910. Total popula­tion jumped from 49,000 to 68,000 in this decade, when supplies of timber suddenly dwindled, forcing the Bab­cock Company to remove their mills by 1912. Today, a creek flowing through the timber of Ogle Township carries the familiar name of Babcock, which is also prominently carved in the wooden sign at nearby Babcock State Park.

In 1920 when county residents numbered 82,000, coal production peaked at 10,500,000 tons, having grown from 298,000 tons in 1881. During the coal industry’s adolescence, several labor disputes provoked miners’ strikes, one of which, beginning in December 1903, lasted sixteen months and erupted with riots in Garrett and Boswell boroughs and with two mur­ders in the Meyersdale area. In 1906, during a strike of 3,000 men, an out­break in Windber ended with three people dead, including a twelve-year old boy who was the innocent victim of a stray bullet. Gradually, tempera­ments matured along with the indus­try, and there was no bloodshed in the county during the national coal strike of 1922; however, after this four­-month dispute was settled elsewhere, Somerset County miners remained on strike for nine more months.

The coal industry’s boom period stabilized as lumbering became a memory, and coal mining merged with ever­-present farming as the double main­stay of the county’s economy. During the heyday of lumberjacks and miners, farmers were actively increasing pro­duction with scientifically endorsed methods and mechanized implements, including gasoline-powered tractors. They also strengthened their unity through new associations such as the Farmers Institutes of the 1890s which promoted the “Farm Demonstration Technique,” an idea that eventually be­came the Cooperative Extension Ser­vice.

Together, farming and mining moved the county through the 1920s, when dairying began gaining momen­tum in the farm economy, and when Somerset County led the state in potato production. At the same time, over 12,000 miners cut “black dia­monds” in 92 coal mines, using methods of stripping, sloping, drifting and digging to unearth their yearly average of nine million tons. In 1930, a record dry summer, which reduced gushing springs to trickles and shriveled crops countywide, seemed to prophesy the end of the productive years and the beginning of the Depression.

In 1932, coal production dropped to half its 1927 level, and generally low conditions prompted the County Fair Association to offer free admis­sion to the annual fair. The “Pinchot Roads,” which were constructed during this period, provided employment for many miners and lifted spirits as they brought “farmers out of the mud.” More mud arrived, however, in 1936 when the St. Patrick’s Day Flood in­undated hundreds of acres and caused devastation in the wooden mining towns along the county’s creeks and streams. When the high water receded, “beginning anew” was learned again, and a new road soon came to brighten the scene. After years of Depression, the road was a welcome smile that stretched east and west across the face of Pennsylvania.

A New Era

The Pennsylvania Turnpike, which officially opened on October 1, 1940, realized with cement the dream that William Vanderbilt had hoped to realize with double tracks of steel in the 1880s. The striped co11crete ribbon conquered the mountain barrier and connected east and west, bringing a new era of prosperity to Somerset County. Beginning in 1938, construc­tion workers filled local hotels, and. soon more hotels, motels, garages and restaurants arrived to accommodate the thousands of travelers on the “World’s Greatest Highway,” or as Vanderbilt had called it, “the Ocean to the Ohio.”

Within two weeks after the turn­pike opened, 26,000 vehicles moved across the county daily, and that num­ber has quadrupled through four decades; now, nearly half a million vehicles exit yearly in Somerset borough. During World War II, mili­tary troops and supplies streamed over the new road, and in the ensuing years of peace, trucks transported raw materials to new industries in the Somerset area. Today’s manufactured products include shoes, hose nozzles, atomizers, recreational and camping equipment, shirts, pajamas and other apparel, all of which are shipped via the superhighway.

The traffic flow was occasionally interrupted with a Somerset County snowstorm such as the storm of November 26, 1950, which closed the “all-weather highway” when high speed winds formed mountainous drifts out of twenty inches of snow. Motels filled quickly, and weary, stranded motorists were sheltered that night, as they have been on other snowy nights, in the warm homes and public facilities of Somerset borough. This tradition of hospitality dates back to 1771 when Philip Wagerline wel­comed Harmon Husband to his sparse log cabin in Brothersvalley; the inns along the early roads refined the greeting, and today, many people from coast to coast recall the warmth they unexpectedly found in snowstorms on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The National Highway and the Lin­coln Highway joined the turnpike in promoting the development of tourism during the 1950s. In addition to the continual flow of long distance travel­ers, the county received regular visitors from nearby cities who maintained vacation homes in the area as weekend headquarters for hunting and fishing. The facilities at Laurel Hill and Kooser state parks attracted summer vacation­ers to woods and water, and winter activities supported the nickname “Ski Capital of Pennsylvania” in the late 1950s when local ski resorts were be­ginning to climb in popularity. The ski village of Seven Springs became a borough in 1964, distinguishing it as the highest borough in the county at 2,551 feet, and indicating the extent to which tourism was incorporated in the economy.

More recently, the “Pennsylvania Maple Festival” each March and “Mountain Craft Days” each Septem­ber have brought busloads of visitors to the county, as other festivals and the brilliant autumn foliage have done for many years. With naturally attrac­tive features organized through parks, resorts and festivals, and with access to major highways, tourism developed rapidly and united with farming and mining as significant economic forces. In 1979, the county ranked seventh in the state in tourism, based on the Commerce Department’s travel impact factors; and not to be outshone, 7 mil­lion tons of “black diamonds” spar­kled in sixth place in bituminous coal production figures. As for farming, compared with other counties in the state, oats were number one, hay was fifth, milk production seventh, pota­toes eighth and alfalfa ninth. Added together, they total economic diversi­fication in a rural county that grew with the development of roads.

One last road remains to be com­pleted, U.S. Route 219, extending northward from the Mason-Dixon Line to New York State, is the primary north-south artery in the county. Plans were engineered in the 1960s to rebuild this en tire route as a four-lane highway, named “North Star Way.” A section from Ebensburg to Somerset was constructed and was opened in December 1969, but the remaining portion southward from Somerset to Maryland remains a dream. The fin­ished section has attracted industry to Quemahoning Township, where the world’s largest facility for making rail­road wheels began operations in 1980. If the southern four-lane portion is ever completed, Somerset County will become a crossroads, joining north and south with east and west to begin a new chapter in its history.

 

William R. Gross, a native of Somerset, has taught school in Connecticut and California. More recently he worked with the education program at the Somerset Historical Center and is currently writing views of Somerset County.