The thing that’s ironic about today’s blog post is as I am putting it together, my family is driving across state to see the place my maternal grandmother grew up. Why did I not go with them? A prior commitment a.k.a. the dermatologist took priority. So while my parents, sister’s family and aunt visiting from South Dakota brave today’s rain, I am nice and warm here at home with my candles and pajamas merely writing about today’s Blogtober topic: Knox, Pennsylvania.
Clarion County should sound familiar to Pennsylvania history buffs. In fact, there is an 800 page book about this historical location. And there’s so much packed within its pages. So much that Clarion could have its own web series. Now I am tempted to do just that once Blogtober is over…. I’ll just shine a light on Knox itself, instead of bogging the page down with a ton of information. However, I foresee some Clarion information sneaking it’s way in.
A Short History of the Borough
A few hours north of Pittsburgh sits Clarion County, Pennsylvania. It is surrounded by Venango, Forest, Jefferson, Armstrong and Butler Counties. In the 1700s counties were much larger, with county lines being longer and more defined. This map is a really cool resource. It shows the progression of county formation over the course of the state’s history, and I could stare at it all day long.
In 1730 much of the Pennsylvanian west wasn’t settled past Lancaster, which was the largest county at that time. Only seven more counties were set up by 1750 as the population slowly moved West, and in 1800 there were only twenty-five counties. By 1810 there were 42, and by the 1930s there were 67 registered counties within Pennsylvania state lines. According to a really cool website called Pennsylvania Genealogy, the first counties to be formed were Philadelphia, Chester and Bucks.
Boroughs are larger, less spacious, and more developed than the relatively rural townships, which often have the greater territory and even surround boroughs of a related or even the same name.source
Some interesting events took place in Clarion County long before York was even thought of, and their subsequent industries found great success in these hills as well. The land was dotted, if not saturated, with iron furnaces. Just a few of these were the Clarion Furnace, the Shippenville Furnace, the Lucinda Furnace, the Tippecanoe Furnace, and the Catfish Furnace. The histories of at least thirty furnaces are discussed in History of Clarion County by AJ Davis.
The Founding of Edenburg
Whereas Knox’s neighbor to the north, Franklin, was founded in 1787 at the start of Pennsylvania’s oil era, Knox came about in 1853, that’s 119 years after Pittsburgh which was founded in 1758. All that to say it is a relatively young place compared to other boroughs and townships this side of Pennsylvania. The website for Knox itself surprisingly lacks early historical data, except when it comes to it’s “horse thieving days.” More on that later.
Knox began life not as we know the name today, but rather Edenburg.
Knox had its beginnings in the early 1800’s when Mr. J.G. Mendenhall purchased 20 acres of wooded land in what is now Elk Township, Clarion County. The village that grew on this site was named “Edenburg” for the natural beauty of the area.source – PAGE 18 WELCOME TO CLARION COUNTY
It was formed from the combined prior lands that made up Elk, Paint and Highland. Edenburg eventually became Knox, though it wasn’t officially named thus until 1833. Some would argue that this debate first began in 1874 when the area was granted its own postal code. The next paragraph is a really cool excerpt from a resource made available on the website from the Library of Congress:
Mr. J. G. Mendenhall, the principal proprietor of his live oil town, was a Quaker by birth, and always used the plain language in his family. He was born in Bald Eagle Valley, Centre county, Pa., on the 14th day of May, 1806. His ancestors came from England in the ship with William Penn, and settled in Chester county, Pa. From these all the Mendenhalls in the United States have sprung. […]
Frugality and industry crowned his efforts, and in six years after he purchased this farm, on account of its mineral value in ore, he sold it to the firm of Black & Co., who had a large furnace near, for the sum of $5,000.source – The Library of Congress
While Edenburg’s neighbor of Franklin was built up with oil, one could say that Edenburg was built upon Mendenhall hospitality. Mendenhall, by all accounts, was very successful in his ventures. Other well known names in the area’s early days are Thomas Thompson (a farmer), PF Kribbs (a merchant) and JI Best. Oil was quickly found shortly thereafter.
Edenburg soon became an oil town as well, with many barrels of oil being produced on the town’s original farms: the Mendenhall farm, the Hulings’ farm and the Whitehill farms. Not long after, those who saw success in the oil business began building up the town even more than it was before. Some even had homes in other areas close to Edenburg like Shady City and Titusville. The following quote gives us just a taste of Edenburg’s success in oil:
On the south of Edenburg lies the Columbia Company’s farm, formerly the Henry Kiser farm, on which was the pioneer well of the Edenburg oil field. In February, of 1873, Hahn & Co., struck oil on the farm. The well was not very large but it demonstrated the fact that there was oil in this locality and that Edenburg was on the belt.source – The Library of Congress
By 1876 there were 36 oil wells on Mendenhall’s farm alone, though not all were producing or operational. And by Autumn of that same year there were enough residents and enough interest to begin looking into chartering and organizing a borough of Edenburg, with the original lands being the Mendenhall and Best farms.
Edenburg’s Early Days
By 1876, the Edenburg Herald was to become the town’s first paper. In 1877, the Emlenton & Clarion Railroad [aka the P&W] decided to expand its tracks to Edenburg, and it was a welcome addition to the town.
Edenburg was not without its fair share of tragedy. Fire was a constant concern in any early town, as was the potential for flooding or other accidents. Edenburg’s fire record is, unfortunately, quite a long one indeed. At various places throughout, they occurred in 1876, 1877 (with multiple property damages), and in 1878 by way of arson. 1887 saw more fire, and by this time Edenburg had earned a reputation for such events.
On the 13th of October 1877, occurred the terrible conflagration of which we now speak, and which will long be remembered as the most destructive that ever occurred in the oil country, a region so famous for its terrible fires. At ten minutes after four o’clock, on the above date, the fire was discovered breaking out in the rear of Wilbur’s livery stable. […]
The combustible material in the livery stable was soon on fire, and the entire building wrapped in a sheet of flame. So speedily was the building enveloped that it was impossible to get out the stock […]
To see the flames leap from building to building and no means to arrest their progress. […] In two hours after the fire broke out, thirty acres of buildings were leveled to the ground. One hundred and seventy-four buildings were destroyed.source – The Library of Congress
Even with all this tragedy, the people of Edenburg wanted to continue on. They wanted to stay and rebuild, as they had already done several times before, though some did choose to relocate. Not only that, but those from Elk City, Shippenville, Foxburg, St. Petersburg, Clarion and Parker helped them rebuild as well. Donations for rebuilding poured in, as well as much needed provisions. These were all meticulously recorded by the citizen’s committee, and they also took down what was lost to flame. And city planners – or what constituted as such – saw the fire as an opportunity for town improvement.
Fire struck again in 1880, and after the rebuilding efforts and events of the previous three years, the townspeople took a different course of action. While they fought the fire, they coordinated efforts to save as many important items as they could, but also tore down several buildings in the fire’s path to prevent its spread. Even with these efforts, 60 buildings were once again lost to fire.
Town life was very important to the people of Edenburg. It was only a natural thing after so much fire and devastation. I suppose one could say that Edenburg “lived hard but played harder,” however that saying actually goes. Life still carried on – land was farmed, oil was barrelled, marriages took places, business went on as usual. Let us jump ahead to the 1900s and explore Knox’s more modern history.
Edenburg’s “oil boom” was done by the end of the 1800s and, as it so often happened, many residents decided to search for greener pastures elsewhere. Even after all that had been rebuilt.
The Renaming of Edenburg and the Horsethief Capital of the World
In 1833, the borough of Edenburg asked for a change in the name of our town from Edenburg to Knox. This request was granted.source – livingplaces.com
Knox also has a weird history with horses. The following is from the Knox Borough website:
Knox Borough is located in Clarion County and known as the “Horsethief Capital of the World”. Horsethief Days is a festival that happens in the Borough of Knox, in Western Pennsylvania. It happens the week before school goes back into session. (last week in August)
Horsethief Days started back when Sebastian (Boss) Buck started stealing horses and changing them, so when he sold them that the real owners wouldn’t discover that the horses that Boss was selling were theirs. He would sell them down South and then there were other people who were selling them in the North. Boss made a lot of money doing this, plus he really rejoyed it. He didn’t have hardly any education but he was the planner of all the schemes and had the intelligence, power, and daring, to be the leader of the horse thieves.
Stealing horses and making fake money was a vacation for him. He loved doing what he did. He didn’t care about what other people said because he would mostly do all his work at night, so no one would know about what he did. He even had other members of his clan down south steal horses and bring them here. The reason it was here was because Clarion County was the head quarters or the “Horsethief Capital”. Boss never worked alone. He never stole a horse by himself; he had other people with him.
When the police found out about this, they went and got a warrant for his arrest. He went into hiding for a while and after they gave up on him, he just came out and started stealing horses and making fake money. He was the top criminal of United States of America. Finally he got caught and was arrested. He straightened up in jail and when he got out, he never stole horses again. That is how Horsethief Days started, because it is in remembrance of Sebastian (Boss) Buck and all the other horse thieves.source – Knox Borough
A Brief History of Knox Coal
By the 1950s, even that industry was beginning to falter. This very well written, researched and produced video gives us just a glimpse of what life was like in Knox nearing the 1960s:
Time has not been kind to small town America, especially not to these historical towns with long, storied histories. However, Edenburg – Knox – has survived the rise and fall of several industries. It has nearly been claimed by fire countless times, and seen many famous names come through its main streets. While the future is uncertain for anyone in this day and age, one cannot argue with the continued resilience shown by those who choose to call Knox home.