Happy Birthday, Blossburg!Aug 01, 2021 12:00PM ● By Gayle Morrow
Blossburg’s Island Park is a green and lovely sixty-plus acres, a community hub tucked between Route 15, the Tioga River, and Ward Manufacturing’s (most everybody still calls it “the Foundry”) Plants 1 and 2. On a cool June morning, it’s the epitome of what we consider to be small town America at its best, with a couple of hundred people gathered to celebrate a 2021 high school commencement—Mansfield-North Penn. Full disclosure—my granddaughter is in that graduating class, and we’ll hear from her later. But, back to the Island.
Borough records cited in the official Blossburg centennial (1871-1971) commemorative book detail the beloved park’s establishment was somewhat irregular. On December 27, 1909, borough council members met in a special session to discuss the purchase of the property, known even then colloquially as the “Island,” for a public park. Evidently the man who owned it was not interested in selling or leasing, so, on January 7, 1910, council members adopted Ordinance #74, which cited state legislation enabling the borough to condemn the land for its own use. Rumor has it the fellow was mad at the borough for the rest of his life, and probably justifiably so.
Oh well, when you’re 150 years old, there’re bound to be a few skeletons in your closet.
How About a Bath, Peter?
It was 1792. Just five years earlier, on December 12, 1787, Pennsylvania had followed neighboring Delaware, the first colony to take the plunge, and ratified the new Constitution, thereby becoming, officially, the second state in the new union. Now, a group of immigrants, characterized as “principally German redemptioners,” were making a road from Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, to Painted Post, New York, under the direction, at least partially, of brothers Robert and Benjamin Patterson. The road is said to have followed trails established by Native Americans, in this case members of the Seneca Nation. Redemptioners, by the way, were those Europeans who gained passage to the American colonies or states by selling themselves into indentured (or involuntary) servitude to pay back the shipping companies which had advanced the cost of their trip. They came from areas that we know today as Germany, and also from the British Isles. It sometimes took years for them to repay their debt.
Anyhow, as the centennial book and other local history sources relate, a man by the name of Sir William Pulteney paid for the road so that his holdings in New York State were “accessible.” You might call it another colonial case of “build it and they will come” and you, subsequently, will make lots of money. A Mr. Charles Williamson served as his agent, thus “Williamson Road” as the name of Blossburg’s main thoroughfare.
So, there they all are, working their way north, but they have to eat and sleep sometimes, right? Various enterprising folks along the way established taverns, blockhouses (blockhauss, as the Germans said), depots, and other sorts of accommodations, not all particularly pleasant or welcoming, but the only game in town. Peter’s Camp was one such establishment. It’s not clear if Peter was the man’s first or last name, but he was a baker with the Pulteney/Williamson/Patterson party, turning out his breads, cakes, whatevers, from “an immence [sic] oven” that must have been very near or in present-day Blossburg. Peter was a man not noted for his “cleanliness of person; and his comrads [sic], unable any longer to tolerate his filth, caught him and commenced the necessary ablution by pouring sundry buckets of cold water upon his head...” Those co-workers were about to dunk him in the river, but the “superintendent of the road interfered.”
It seems fortunate that Blossburg bears the name of Aaron Bloss and not the baker who didn’t like to bathe. Aaron Bloss had come to Peter’s Camp in 1802 via travels from his original home in Connecticut, to Chenango County in New York, and finally to Covington. He owned one successful hotel/tavern at Peter’s Camp, then another, and around 1821 gave the community his name.
The Other Black Gold
Who was actually the first to discover that in those hills around Peter’s Camp there was not gold but coal? Most history gives credit to the Patterson brothers for the initial find. As for who did the first digging, digging to sell, that is, David Clemons (sometimes seen as “Clemens”) seems to be the likely candidate. He reportedly began digging in Bear Run around 1812; Aaron Bloss also opened a vein in Bear Run around the same time. There is speculation that one or two of the German or English redemptioners, who perhaps were coal miners in their homelands before they crossed the Atlantic, may have also seen or dug some coal.
Blossburg coal soon made a name for itself—locally, regionally, and beyond. Various coal companies came and went, as did the multitudes of businesses and industries that supported coal mining. The railroad between Blossburg and Corning opened in 1849, making it easier for coal, and people, to get from here to there.
On August 29, 1871, just seventy-nine years after construction began on the Williamson Road, Blossburg was incorporated. Before and after that momentous date, Blossburg had, as did small towns everywhere in a growing country throughout the 1800s, its periods of prosperity and its times of troubles. There were fires. Reliance on “extractive industries” means booms and busts. There were banks, hotels, churches (even a synagogue!), assorted shops, post office, tannery, saw mill, silk mill, glass factory, blacksmith, and dry goods/grocery stores. There were a number of schools, including the first one, built in 1835 at the southern end of town on the river bank, then one on Granger Street, one on North Williamson Road, and, in 1850, one called Union School, which was two stories and could accommodate 200 students.
And though he was born in Scotland, the country’s very first secretary of labor, William B. Wilson (1862-1934), was a “Blossburg boy” for most of his life, also a miner and an outspoken and tireless advocate for miners’ rights. He was, in fact, blacklisted by Tioga County when he was just twenty years old. Why? Because of his work on behalf of miners and his promotion of trade unions.
Things that make you say “hmmm.”
In Between Then and Now
At the borough office on Main Street, borough secretary Cheryl Bubacz admits she and Shane Nickerson, the mayor, are Blossburg history freaks. So, it’s a good place for somebody who is also interested in Blossburg history to poke around.
One old newspaper clipping housed there describes a downtown fire in February of 1906 that may have been caused by spontaneous combustion in a bale of cotton.
The lead story in the June 25, 1915, edition of the Blossburg Advertiser (safely ensconced in plexiglass) is “Beautiful Blossburg.” The borough is touted for its “many fine residences of modern style and considerable architectural beauty,” for its variety of businesses and opportunities for “manufacturing purposes,” and even for its dentistry. Dr. Howard S. Kiess, D.D.S., has “exceptionally fine dental equipment,” we’re told, and has “wisely adopted these painless methods of dentistry.” Thank heavens!
In 1926, members of the Blossburg Chamber of Commerce visited the Ace Motorcycle Factory in town, where the motorcycles were assembled. Ace had had its beginnings in Philadelphia several years earlier under the ownership of William G. Henderson, and was a precursor to the Indian motorcycle brand.
In 1937, Island Park was the scene for the Old Home Days celebration. The official program book from that three-day event is dedicated to William B. Wilson, for whom American Legion Post No. 572 is named. Weekend activities included dancing at the park’s new pavilion; a softball game between “the old residents of Morris Run and Arnot,” with the winner to play Blossburg the following day, boxing matches between the guys working at the local CCC camps, band concerts, and National Guard demonstrations.
The centennial celebration in 1971 included a ball with 500 guests, many in period costumes, and the presentation of “Ole King Coal”—a historical accounting of Blossburg in twelve episodes, with a cast of characters whose names you would recognize today if you’re lucky enough to have any familiarity with Blossburg folks. It looked as though it was a blast to be in, and must have been a joy to see.
And, throughout almost all of the past nearly 100 years, Ward Manufacturing has been one of Blossburg’s cornerstones. The J.P. Ward who started it all was Joseph Patrick Ward (1885-1938), who had been in the foundry business in Elmira with his father and brothers. In 1924, following discussions with some Blossburg business leaders, he came to the borough, put up a couple of steel buildings, and began churning out an assortment of pipe fittings. It was hot, dirty, physical work, but it provided many, many area families with a livelihood—the economic impact on Blossburg and the county cannot be overstated. Today, as a subsidiary of Hitachi Metals, Ward employs several hundred, and its products, including the innovative WARDFLEX gas piping system, are sold all over the world.
A Group of People...
When you’re coming into Blossburg from the north on old Route 15, Blossburg Beverage Company is one of the first businesses you’ll see. It’s on the left at 334 North Williamson Road, and it’s a fun place, with all kinds of beers and wines and ciders to choose from. You don’t have to buy by the case, so that makes trying something new way less of a commitment. If you’re a fan of regional craft beer, this is the place to be; there are tastings, too, throughout the summer.
“That’s worked out really well,” says owner John Martin. “It’s become sort of a social event, and has helped us move into the craft business.”
John bought the business in 1976 from Jim Bogaczyk, noting he’s just the third owner since Prohibition ended in 1933. He grew up here, then, like so many others before him, moved away for school, for a career, for different/better opportunities. But, after the flood of 1972, Blossburg needed him. All it took was for a “town father” to call, he remembers, and “I was here” to oversee flood recovery operations. He’s still here.
“Blossburg runs in our blood,” John says. “It just does.”
Son Tim, who partners in the business with his dad, agrees. He came back, too, and remembers right after the move that his son got on his bike and rode over to the Island. All by himself. He hadn’t experienced that kind of freedom before. Tim’s on borough council. He laughs when I ask him how long. “Four or six years—I’ve lost track now.” He gets thoughtful and adds that “there always seems to be a group of people who are there, keeping the town going,” He names a few, adding, “I’d like to think I’m part of that.” He says the town is constantly evolving, and “we push for that on council.” He thinks Blossburg seems to be “a new place for commuters,” with folks who work in places like Williamsport or Corning choosing Blossburg as their home.
Drive on a little further, past some of those “many fine residences,” cross the river, and you’re downtown, where you’ll find the Farmer’s Table, across Main Street from the borough office. Owner Dave Crawley opened the restaurant in 2019 and says business, “generally speaking,” is good, although it was touch and go during the height of the COVID-19 shutdown. Blossburg came through for him, however.
“This community is a special community,” he says. “They knew they had to support it [the restaurant] during the pandemic, and they did.”
An unexpected source of customers came from the Laurel Health Clinic across the street in the Riverside Plaza. Hungry pharmaceutical reps would want food for themselves, and they’d often buy lunch for the office. Since they couldn’t come into the restaurant, Dave would deliver; when the reps visited other Laurel Health clinics in the county, they’d call him and he’d deliver there, too.
“What a tremendous piece of business that turned out to be,” he says.
He adds that the new electric car charging station in the borough has been a help, too, as people come in the Farmer’s Table and frequent the other shops in town while their vehicles are charging.
Does Dave want to compete with himself? Maybe. He recently purchased a former office building, also across the street, and is in the process of renovating it into a pizza place. He bought a wood-fired brick oven (it came in a crate and has been assembled inside the building) and plans to offer not only pizza but subs, soft serve ice cream, and bakery goodies/desserts.
From the Farmer’s Table it’s a straight shot to the borough building, where Cheryl Davis Bubacz, the history buff, has been borough secretary for a couple of years. She loves the job, and clearly also loves Blossburg—she’s lived here all her life.
She remembers some of the businesses that aren’t around anymore—Alfred’s Hotel, Stash’s, Dipsy-Doodle—she remembers the library being on the corner, and hearing that there are two houses in town thought to be part of the Underground Railroad.
“It was the typical small town,” Cheryl says of the Blossburg of her youth. “My dad was chief of police, so I didn’t do anything he didn’t know about before I got home.” She had younger siblings, and she’d take them to the Island, as “it was the place to be.”
“It still kind of is,” she muses.
She makes a quick phone call, and, shortly after, Mayor Shane Nickerson arrives. He’s been mayor almost eight years, he runs a construction company, and he and his wife, Jill, are 110 percent devoted to Blossburg and its residents. They’ve purchased downtown buildings and given them new life, started downtown businesses, and are part of that group of people Tim Martin mentioned earlier, the ones who keep the town going. One of Shane’s latest ventures is making skateboard decks (the part you stand on). There is a skate park on the Island, and Shane says his dream is to have a skateboard factory in Blossburg. He’s got some of the equipment already, and he even has a name: Mayor’s Skateboard Company.
“The point is to make where you are the best you can be,” says Shane. That doesn’t mean you ignore the big problems you hear about, but that you do think local, because “lots of times it’s easier to make real change in a small community.” He credits the Blossburg community with having great volunteers, and acknowledges the residents’ strengths and tenacity.
“There is a certain amount of grit and determination that comes with mining coal and pouring iron,” Shane states. “In Bloss, we argue about issues but at the end of the day we’re all pulling on the same rope in the same direction.”
That direction is keeping downtown Blossburg alive. A little ways on past the borough building, on the opposite side of the street and adjacent to the Victoria Theatre, I find Tonya McNamara, a recently retired registered nurse and newly established as the proprietress of the Blossburg Company Store. She and her husband, Tom, and her father are responsible for purchasing the long-shuttered Victoria about a dozen years ago, then renovating and reviving it. It is a pleasure to see a film there, whether it’s a Hollywood production or one of our local documentaries.
Blossburg Company Store, which opened in March, is a knitters’ paradise, with all kinds of yarns, knitting supplies and knitted products (cozy slippers, anyone?), classroom space, even sinks to wash wool. The McNamaras purchase of the building, which had been a restaurant for years and years, was another of those ventures undertaken by that group of people interested in keeping the town going. Tonya says she was concerned about it being empty, and since it was next to the theatre, maybe there could be some mutual use? Anyway, she and Tom bought it. It needed new windows, flooring, wiring, and plumbing; they exposed some of the amazing old interior architecture—the brick and the tin ceiling. Tonya admits she’s “always been kind of craft-y,” and says that in the 1980s, when knitting got popular, “I kind of picked it up.” She has Roseville-area knitting/wool expert Kathy England helping as a “consulting partner,” and she hopes at some point to have a “signature brand” of yarn in the BCS.
At the end of this block is Bloss Hardware. Owners Ivan and Rosemary Erway have been here since 2012; the store itself is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year. They carry everything you’d think a hardware store should, and then some. There are locally made products, like the handcrafted copper rose and the Pennsylvania-made wooden clothes drying rack, as well as shovels and nails and plumbing supplies.
“We’re trying to make it look more like an old fashioned store,” says Rosemary. “We try to have something that will fit everybody’s needs.”
Ivan remembers that when he was a kid the building housed a meat market. There’s no cornerstone, but the iron décor on the front makes it a circa-1870s structure, they believe, putting its construction right around the same time the borough was incorporated.
In the Middle of Everything
Remember I said you’d hear from my granddaughter the graduate? Braydden Spencer has lived in Blossburg all her life.
“I think it was a good experience,” she says. When I asked her what she liked about growing up here, she said she liked how everything was easily accessible. One of her friends lived just down the street by the school, and they could get together and hang out at the playground. Blossburg is very safe, she acknowledges, and “there are good places to eat, too!”
“Everybody knows everybody,” Braydden continues, and agrees with a laugh, as Cheryl Bubacz did, that can be good and bad. “I like the small-town feel, but I personally like a little bigger city. It’s just your individual preference.”
Braydden will be attending Salon Professional Academy in Altoona, but says that since Blossburg already has a salon [Beautifully Bliss], she’s not now planning to come back and open one here herself. You never know, however. As she observes, Blossburg seems to be, “like, in the middle of everything.”
The festivities around Blossburg’s 150th anniversary are set for August 27 from 5 p.m. to midnight. Main Street will be closed so everyone can safely enjoy all the fun, including a DJ, bingo, cornhole, ping-pong, climbing wall, Keith Lindie (Blossburg’s late, beloved historian) films, food trucks, airbrush tattoos, birthday cake and cupcakes, volleyball, and more. From 8 p.m. to midnight, add bands, BYOB, T-shirt gun, glow sticks, and fireworks.
If you’d like more information about this once-in-a-lifetime celebration and how you might be able to help make it the best birthday party ever, contact the borough office at (570) 638-2452.