History of Luzerne County Pennsylvania

H. C. Bradsby, Editor
S. B. Nelson & Co., Publishers, 1893




HISTORICALLY this is not to be classed any more as an agricultural county. Yet it was these rich valleys and many productive hills that originally were the sole incentives that brought that peculiarly hardy and brave race of men whom it would seem were the only men then on the earth capable of finding their way to this remote and generally rugged region, and fight out the battles that they crowned with such signal victories.

Forty years ago and now tell the story of agriculture in Luzerne county. The coal man and the manufacturer who naturally hunts for the cheapest fuel have nearly completed the change; but another century and then. The next fifty years will see one continuous city of the county with its heaviest artery along the valley [p.464] of the Susquehanna. In the famous long and wide Wyoming valley are the largest tracts of fruitful lands. Practically to-day all these are given over to the coal companies. And the urban population is growing at a tremendous pace, while the rural is disappearing at a nearly corresponding ratio. A vast city, made up possibly of many small towns, but that are linked so closely, in area as to occupy the available portion of the county. And wealth seeking out the lakes and the tallest mountains for "cottages." This is now almost as fixed as fate for Luzerne county.

We are told that another 100 years will exhaust these great and finest coal fields in the known world. What then? It is hardly possible that then the people will or can go back to the occupation of their ancestors and peacefully till the soil. Is the world wearing out? Here and there, but in the end, surely everywhere the agriculturist is to be driven from the fields.

Forty-two years ago some of the leading men in the county met in Wilkes-Barre, realizing that agriculture was perceptibly declining, and proposed to make an effort to revive it. This meeting (1850) appointed delegates to the farmers' convention, to meet at Harrisburg; the meeting adjourned to meet again in January, 1851. At this last meeting it was resolved to act and the Luzerne County Agricultural society was formed. Able addresses were made by Judge Conyngham, George E. W. Sturdevant, S. F. Headley and others. April following officers were elected: Gen. W. S. Ross, president; S. D. Lewis, treasurer; George H. Butler, recording secretary, and Washington Lee, Jr., corresponding secretary; Charles Dorrance and William P. Minor, curators. Two hundred leading farmers became members. That was all there was of it. The chronicler of the day says the "coal speculation ended it."

In 1858 another brave attempt was made to put on its feet another agricultural society, at a meeting in Kinaston. Charles Dorrance, president; Gen. E. W. Sturdevant, Samuel Wadhams, Benjamin Harvey and C. D. Shoemaker, vice-presidents. A constitution was adopted, and all was prepared to hold a county fair October 27 and 28, 1868, near the village of Wyoming. The fair was held and pronounced a success; owing to the exertion and influence of Col. Dorrance largely.

In January, 1810, the Luzerne County Agricultural society, was first organized, in the old courthouse at Wilkes-Barre. Jesse Fell was chosen chairman, and Dr. R. H. Rose secretary of the meeting. A constitution was adopted, and the following officers were chosen for the year: Jesse Fell, president; Matthias Hollenback, vice-president; Thomas Dyer, treasurer; Peleg Tracy, recording secretary; and Dr. Rose and Jacob Cist, corresponding secretaries. The preamble to the constitution declared the object of the society to be for the improvement and advancement of agriculture, by introducing improved breeds of horses, cattle, sheep, swine, and the best grain, such as wheat, rye, corn, etc., and the improvement of the soil by lime and manure.

The prominent and efficient actors in this movement were Dr. Rose and Jacob Cist, both enterprising men, laboring for the advancement of useful knowledge, and possessing perhaps a greater share of scientific agricultural information than any other two gentlemen in the county.

No proceedings of the society have been preserved other than a report made in 1811, on nineteen specimens of cloth, presented by Mr. Ingham, all of which were pronounced creditable. The pieces particularly noticed were those wrought by Miss Luckey, Raphael Stone, R. Ingham, A. Stevens, N. Stevens and Joseph Ingham.

There is preserved also a list of premiums proposed in 1824, as follows: For the best field of wheat, less than thirty acres, $5; for the best field of corn and rye, $5; for the best field of oats or buckwheat less than 30 acres, $3; for the best acre of potatoes, $3; for the best half acre of flax, $4, etc.

In this list of premiums there was not enough consideration given to the [p.467] women's department. All real life then was, as they supposed, in the tendency of the broad acres and the deft women who handled the spindle and the flax were considered hardly as secondary adjuncts to the men and their work.

Nearly all the first settlers in Luzerue county were farmers, who handled the axe and the plow, who sowed the grain and gathered the harvest. Their wives and daughters did not scorn the labor of the kitchen; they prepared the rich milk, the delicious butter and cheese, and, when occasion required, assisted their husbands and fathers in the field. Their hands were familiar with the wash-tub and the dough-tray, they spun flax, and wove cloth for the backs of the men, and carpets for the floors of their houses. Almost every house contained a loom, one or two spinning-wheels, and a dye pot. The men were agriculturists, and the women were manufacturers. The young ladies of one neighborhood or township frequently vied with those of another in spinning, weaving, and coloring cloth. It was not uncommon for young ladies to spin 100 knots in a day. Miss Mary Smith, of Pittston, frequently spun 120 knots in a day. In 1828 Miss Rachel Jenkins spun and reeled 135 knots in twelve hours, and Miss Selinda Jenkins spun 136 knots of filling in the same time. The farmers on the east side of the river contended with those on the west side, in raising wheat, rye, corn and vegetables, the most and best on a given lot of ground. It was the high ambition of the young men to become good farmers, and wed industrious and accomplished girls, such as Rachel and Selinda Jenkins.

In such communities never comes congested wealth, nor the dawdling butterflies of society, nor the commonwealth of poverty and crime—those sub-cellars of social life reeking with filth, abomination and despair—these districts of uninvited famine of food and morals where souls are polluted and bodies worse than damned.

In 1851 another Luzerne county agricultural society was organized, with Gen. William S. Ross president, Hon. John Coons and Hon. William Hancock vice- presidents; S. D. Dewis, treasurer; George H. Butler, recording secretary Washington Lee, Jr., corresponding secretary, and Charles Dorrance and William P. Miner curators. Although the society had 200 members and gave great promise of usefulness, its existence was brief, by reason of the speculation in coal lands which at about that time overshadowed almost every other interest.

The third society was organized in 1858. From the records of this society the following facts concerning it are gleaned: On the 25th of September of that year a meeting of persons interested in farming and gardening was held in the "house of Mr. Wambold," at Kingston. Rev. Thomas P. Hunt presided, and William P. Miner acted as secretary. Col. Charles Dorrance reported a constitution and by- laws for the organization then and there to be formed, which were adopted. The constitution named the association the Luzerne County Agricultural society; declared the object to be "to foster and improve agriculture, horticulture, and the domestic and household arts;" fixed the fee for annual membership at $1, and for life membership at $5; provided for a meeting on the third Tuesday in February of each year, at which should be elected a president, nine vice-presidents (of whom "three- fourths" should be practical farmers or horticulturists) to look after the interests and report the condition of agriculture, recording and corresponding secretaries, a librarian and an agricultural chemist and geologist; also a general meeting in connection with the fair, and special meetings as called by the executive committee, which was to consist of the officers and five other members.

At this meeting 136 men joined the society. They chose for president Charles Dorrance, corresponding secretary, Thomas P. Hunt; librarian, L. D. Shoemaker, and the following vice-presidents: Charles D. Shoemaker, Kingston; Samuel Wadhams, Plymouth; E. W. Sturdevant, Wilkes-Barre; Benjamin Harvey, Huntington; William W. Bronson, Carbondale; David G. Driesbacb, Salem; Clark Sisson, Abington; Abram Drum, Butler, and Calvin Parsons, Plains. At a meeting of the executive committee two days later Anson A. Church was elected treasurer, and Thomas P. Atherton recording secretary.

[p.468] James Jenkins offered fair grounds at Wyoming for four years free, fenced and provided with a trotting track, and the offer was accepted. Since the expiration of that time the grounds have been rented from several proprietors.

In the summer of 1859 an exhibition building, 100 covered stalls and a secretary's office were constructed, and a well was dug. The expense of these improvements was $1,436.48. In arranging for the fair of 1859 it was voted that there should be no "shows or Jim cracks" on the ground.

At the annual meeting held February 21, 1860, the number of vice-presidents was changed to twelve, and the time of meeting there-after to the second Thursday in February.

By invitation of this society the State Agricultural society held its fair on the Wyoming grounds in 1860. Additional sheds and stalls were built for the occasion, which were bought by the county society for $100.

The proceeds of the fair of 1862 were appropriated to the aid of the families of soldiers engaged in the suppression of the Rebellion.

November 14, 1867, it was announced that James Jenkins, J. B. Schooley and John Sharps, Jr., wished to resume the occupancy of portions of the fair ground belonging to them, and arrangements for reducing it were made accordingly.

On July 5, 1873, it was voted to reorganize the society on a stock basis, shares being offered at $10 each. August 16 the reorganization was completed by the election of officers, including John Sharps as president, and ten vice-presidents, of which John B. Smith, of Kingston, was "first vice-president." That officer and the president, secretary and treasurer were made the executive committee.

At the annual meeting of 1879 it was voted to pay John Sharps $50 per year for the use of the fair grounds. The annual meetings, as well as the fairs of the society, have been held at Wyoming. Quarterly meetings of the executive committee were held under the old regime.

The presidents of the society have been as follows: Charles Dorrance, 1858-68; Payne Pettebone, 1869—resigned September 11, and Peter Pursel was elected for the unfinished term and the next year; Ira Tripp, 1871, Steuben Jenkins, 1872-3; John Sharp, August 16, 1873, after the reorganization, and for the snceeeding term; John M. Stark, 1875; J. B. Smith, 1876-9.

In 1891 the grounds were plotted and laid off into lots, and are now a part of Wyoming borough.

The fair association had dissolved previously, and the grounds had been deserted for fair purposes. This ended practically the struggle between agriculture and coal in the valley.

The only representative of the agricultural interests now in the county, represented by a fair association, is that of Dallas, and this is appropriately located in the north part of the county, the only portion that can longer be classed as exclusively agricultural.

Concerning early industries in the country we take the following items from Stewart Pearce's Annals:

In 1812 Messrs. Backingham, Cahoon, Tuttle & Parker erected a paper-mill on Toby's creek, in Kingston township, near the present flouring-mill of Col. Charles Dorrance and the first paper manufactured was used in the printing office of the Gleaner during the same year.

In 1829, when the mill was owned by Mathias Hollenback, four men, one boy and ten girls were employed, producing, when working on foolscap writing paper, eight reams per day; when on super royal, five reams; and when on wrapping paper, ten reams per day. The entire work, except preparing the rags, was performed by hand, and the annual sales of paper amounted to about $7,000. It was the first paper manufactory erected in this county. It was abandoned several years ago, but it manifested the spirit and enterprise of the people of that day.

In 1778 John and Mason F. Alden erected a forge on Nanticoke creek, near [p.469] Col. Washington Lee's gristmill in Newport township. It contained a single fire and one hammer. This hammer was brought from Philadelphia, in a Wagon, to Harris' Ferry (Harrisburg) and thence up the Susquehanna in a boat. The iron ore of Newport produced about thirty-five per cent of metal, and was manufactured into bar iron, affording the only supply for the smith shops of that day. As to the quality of the iron, we have the testimony of several persons who used it, and who declared it to be of a superior sort, equal to the best bar iron of Centre county. In 1828, a short time before the works were abandoned, Col. Lee, then owner, sold bar iron at $120 per ton of 2,000 pounds.

In 1830 E. & J. Leidy erected a forge on the Nescopeck creek, in Nescopeck township, containing two hammers and three fires. They manufactured bar iron and blooms from the iron ore of Columbia county, and also from pig-metal. For several years Gen. Simon Cameron was connected with this forge, which finally passed into the hands of S. F. Headley, Esq., who enlarged the buildings, increased the number of fires and conducted the business successfully. The works were in operation until 1854, since which time they have been unemployed.

In 1811 Francis McShane erected a small cut-nail manufactory in Wilkes- Barre, and used anthracite coal in smelting the iron. He conducted a successful business for several years, selling nails by wholesale or retail to suit purchasers.

In 1836 George W. Little built a small charcoal furnace on Toby's creek, near the site of the old paper-mill. The wood for the charcoal was procured from the neighboring hills and mountains, and the iron ore was brought from Columbia county in boats to Wilkes-Barre, and carted thence to the furnace, about three miles, in wagons. Mr. Little and his successors, Benjamin Drake and others, found the business unprofitable, and after a few years the works were abandoned.

In 1842 H. S. Renwick, of New York city, erected an anthracite furnace, operated by steam-power, at Wilkes-Barre, eight feet in the boshes. These gentlemen carried on the manufacture of pig-iron for about one year, after which the furnace was suffered to lie idle until 1854. It was then purchased by John McCauley and the Messrs. Carter, of Tamaqua, who enlarged it and put it in blast.

The iron ore and limestone were transported by canal from Columbia county; and the works, under the direct management of Mr. McCauley, yielded six tons of iron per day. The establishment was consumed by fire in 1856, and has not been rebuilt.

In 1847 Samuel F. Headley, Esq., and the Messrs. Wilson, of Harrisburg, erected a charcoal furnace of water-power, eight feet in the boshes, at Shickshinny, and for several years manufactured a considerable quantity of superior pig-iron from the Columbia county and Newport ores, which they mixed. The charcoal-iron of this furnace was sought after by the owners of foundries in Bradford and other counties, as being, superior for stove purposes. In 1852 Messrs. Headley & Wilson sold this furnace to William Koons. Mr. Koons built another furnace on Hunlock's creek, 11½ feet in the boshes, and capable of manufacturing seventy-five tons of pig metal per week.

In 1840 Thomas Chambers, E. R. Biddle & Co., erected a large rolling-mill and nail factory at South Wilkes-Barre, about one mile from the courthouse, at a cost of $300,000. While these works were in operation, during a year or two, Wilkes- Barre increased in population and business; but the establishment becoming involved, it was finally sold on a debt due the Wyoming bank. It was purchased by the Montour Iron company and transported to Danville. It seems strange that our capitalists would allow these works to be sold for one-fifth their value, and to be conveyed away to a neighboring county. This circumstance will act as a discouragement to others, who, looking to our location in the midst of a superior coal field, might be inclined to establish manufactories here. It is beyond all question that a superior quality of iron can be profitably manufactured in Luzerne county by combining our ores with those of adjoining counties or States. What are essential to [p.470] success are intelligence, experience and prudent management. Surely, the day can not be very distant when the smoke of scores of furnaces will ascend from the valleys of Wyoming and Lackawanna.

The first engine constructed in the county for service was manufactured in Wilkes-Barre by Benjamin Drake and J. C. Smith, in 1836. Its cylinder was nine inches in diameter, with three feet stroke, and 15 horse power. It was placed in Smith's gristmill in Plymouth.

History of Luzerne County Pennsylvania; H. C. Bradsby, Editor
S. B. Nelson & Co., Publishers, 1893
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Updated: 23 Aug 2003