Wilcox

Sometime abound 1831 William P. Wilcox,, who worked as the land agent for the Richard & Jones Land Company, settled near the the Elk / McKean County line along the turnpike to Smethport in an area known as Williamsville. 

Other settlers also began to build homes in the Township along the Milesburg / Smethport Turnpike (current day Mefferts Run Road and the Rasselas Road).   Others deciding to build near the flat soil rich bottom land along the West Branch of the Clarion River.  These hard-working men & women  also began cutting the large stands of eastern hemlock.   The small developing village was referred to as Buena Vista by the inhabitants, which means beautiful view. Surely these early settlers must have taken great pride and affection to their new home town to give it such a befitting name. One of these settlers was Alonzo I. Wilcox, son of William P. Wilcox.

In 1849 Alonzo Wilcox purchased about 800-acres from Andrew Jones in what today is the Village of Wilcox.  Mr. Wilcox soon built a rather crude water powered sawmill near what was then called the Big Toby Creek (today known as the West Branch of the Clarion)

By 1850, the young settled area harbored forty-five dwelling amounting to 337 inhabitants.  The surrounding Jones Township supported twenty-three farms and one small industry (a lumber mill). The population in 1880 grew to 1,427. In 1888 there were 218 Republican, 125 Democratic and 3 Prohibitionist votes cast, representing about 1,740 inhabitants. A large number of unnaturalized Swedes, and other foreign residents, swelled the total considerably.  

Early Views of Wilcox, the two photos on the left are from the summer of 1868.

 

 

It was in 1858 that the settlement was formally recognized as a town and given the name of "Wilcox" in honor of Alonzo Wilcox and the Wilcox family. Just prior to this time, the young Alonzo Wilcox went into the lumber industry and owned and operated a sawmill along the river. (click here to see a picture from 1868) near the railroad station. He also built a rather impressive home for his family. This building still stands today and is now the home for the American Legion. (click here to see a picture)

Above the Wilcox steam powered sawmill can be seen in the center. The railroad depot is in the foreground. This photo must have been taken from Dagoha Road looking across the river into town. A home now owned by the Walter Bryington's is to the right.

It was 1864 when Theodore Palen and other investors from New York State purchased 10 acres of land from Alonzo Wilcox along the West Branch of the Clarion River. Intending to expand the family's tanning and leather business, Palen also secured the rights to hemlock bark on another 1500 acres in Jones Township. About 1866 Mr. Jackson Schultz had convinced his brother Maurice M. Schultz to partner and later purchased the Palen family interests in Jones Township. The Schultz family already had other tannery interests throughout the area and wanted to expand their operations. The site in Wilcox, with the new railroad having just been constructed, offered them the opportunity to expand their business endeavors.

Although the lumbering business prospered for many years in Jones Township, it was in 1866, two years after the Philadelphia & Erie Railroad was completed, that would bring long term prosperity to the village of Wilcox.   It was then that Maurice M. Schultz managed the Wilcox Tanning Company  along the West Branch of the Clarion river and railroad.  Many tannery's were constructed throughout the region in locations such as Instanter, Johnsonburg,  Emporium, Ridgway and St. Marys just to name a few. However the Wilcox Tannery was by far considered the largest, perhaps in the world. It was at one time reported that investors in the Wilcox tannery offered over one million dollars in capital to finance the project. 

View of Wilcox Tannery (pre 1895)

 Buffalo hides initially served a very large proportion of the early tanning activity by the Wilcox Tanning Company. Buffalo hides from the plain states and later cow hides from the large cattle yards of Chicago were shipped to Wilcox by railroad.    It is an unfortunate footnote to this story that Wilcox  prospered quite well from the extermination of the American buffalo.

Initially the Tannery cut hemlock and employed bark peelers to strip the bark from the tree - leaving the remaining tree to waste. The bark was transported by wagon, skids and eventually by railroad back to the tannery. Later, sawmills began to appear in the area utilizing the hemlock as building material. 

At its peak, the tannery is said to have employed up to 300 men an additional  400 men  to peel bark from the hemlock.  As part of the tanning process hemlock bark was required in great quantities.  The bark contains valuable chemicals, such as tannin, used to tan the hides.  Near the turn of the century, the Wilcox Lumber Company and the Wilcox Tannery worked together to supply bark. 

When the Wilcox lumber mill could not keep up with the tannery's demand for hemlock bark, other operations were contracted to supply the needed bark, one near Burning Well. When the hemlock back was no longer available, nuts from South & Central America were shipped in to tan the hides.

The lumber companies in the region would provide the 25,000 cords of hemlock bark that the tannery required to process the nearly 333,000 buffalo hides processed at the facility annually.  The plant had 13 boilers powered by gas wells located at the site. 732 vats, seven (7) feet wide, nine (9) feet long and five and a half (5 1/2) feet deep were encompassed  within the facility, making it the largest leather tanning facility in the world.

The company constructed a 36-inch broad gauge railroads throughout the Township in order to provide the valuable hemlock bark. Entire mountain sides were totally denuded of trees to fuel this demand for hemlock. At one time the Tannery owned 44,000-acres of forest land in Elk & McKean County.

This picture shows the sheds and privies (outhouse) behind a row of company owned homes along Marvin Street (looking north).  Note the row of hemlock bark piled on the center left of the picture.  Oak Street would be located behind the bark row.

 

By the start of World War 2, The Wilcox Tannery had liquidated the greater part of it's property holdings in Jones Township.  When the Elk Tanning Company was organized, the Wilcox Tannery was merged into the new company, which operated most all of the still existing tanneries in Elk County.  One goal of the new company was to liquidate it's vast holdings of land that was now stripped of it's valuable timber and now useless to the company. It also sold off several blocks of buildings and a number of it's company owned houses in Wilcox.

The hamlet of Wilcox had a population of about 1200 in 1890. The town even had it's own medical doctor, Dr. J.H. Wells from New York to care for the young community.  Many workers lived in cozy two-story company owned homes along what was nicknamed "tannery row". These company homes were provided with a tool shed and an outhouse. A handsome residence was provided to the superintendents, A. A. Clearwater and Robert Manett who lived on elevated ground overlooking the 100- plus acres occupied by the company. The operations at the tannery provided the village with both gas and electric power. The Tannery also constructed the required infrastructure required to support it's operations.

Aerial View of the Wilcox Tannery just after World War 2 (1947)

By the 1950's, new methods of producing leather, lower demand for leather and the decline of the hemlock bark resulted in many of the local tanneries closing. The Wilcox Tannery however survived a while longer and suffered a slow death.  The Wilcox Tannery, later owned by Albert Goldman Company, had been struggling  for several years, and  eventually ceased operations in 1962. At that time the plant was stripped of all valuable equipment. The entire facility was later destroyed by fire in 1966.(Click here for the story) The site was later turned over the Wilcox Area Development Authority which has led to light industrial development of the former tannery site.  It is ironic that the only remains existing today of this once famous industrial giant are a few foundation piers and the concrete foundation for the tannery's sludge (sewage) filtering plant.

There were many other industrial and commercial  operations in Wilcox at the turn of the century.  The cheap and abundant supply of recently discovered natural gas reserves and sand that was low in iron content, necessary for glass making, lured many business entrepreneurs.

In 1910,  the Wilcox Glass Bottle Company began operations and was situated where the current electric power sub-station is located near the Township Park & Ballfield. The plant employed 48 skilled hand-blowers and over 100 laborers until the factory destroyed by fire in 1927- never to be rebuilt . Another glass manufacture was the George Window Glass Company (located where the Jones Township Road Dept. is located on the Old Kane Road today) that was built in 1899 and covered over 2-acres of land.  The factory ceased operations in 1916  and the building was also eventually destroyed by fire.  A third window glass plant (Van Cleve) was located just north of the George Window Company and operated only a few years.

Above, a 1905 view showing the the glass plants

A view of the intersection of the Kane Road and Marvin Street.  Horner Road is shown behind the Wilcox Glass Plant (left) and the Van Cleve plant to the right). Note the horse & buggy pulling out of what is now the Old Kane Road onto Marvin Street

The Pioneer Store (later the Smith Bros and then the Town & Country store)  was build and operated by Mr. Wilcox and his cousin Lucius Wilcox until 1861 when it was sold to A.T. Aldrich.  As was common, it too was destroyed by fire, then rebuilt and named the Tanning & Lumber Company Store, until purchased by the Smith Brothers from Ridgway.  This new store was a full service department store employing as many as 20 people. Smith Bros operated several of these small, local department stores through the region.  This building still stands and in now owned & occupied by Peterson Studios.

 

The Smith Bros / Town & Country Store  and presently Peterson Studio on Marvin Street 

 

The Wilcox Bank (left)  and now the Wilcox Public Library (right)

A son of Rasselas W. Brown, Jefferson L, established the first Wilcox Bank in 1885.  His son, Frank, after graduating from  the Military Academy returned to Wilcox and went into the banking business with his father.  In 1926, the bank reorganized and became known as the Wilcox National Bank.  On Friday, October 16, 1931, the bank suspended operations and the Wilcox National Bank never reopened. The building  later  housed the Wilcox Post Office and later became the home of the Wilcox Library.

Many fine hotels and inns still survive in the Wilcox area including the Grant House originally constructed by R. Brennen, and the McFarland House.  However the grandest of all was by far the Wilcox House and Hotel which too was later destroyed by fire in 1982 and sat in what is now a car lot owned by the Wilcox Garage. To find out more about the historic Wilcox House, CLICK HERE.

The Wilcox House shown on the top twp photos, the McFarland House in the center, and the Grant House, on the left.       The lower right photo shows the Grant House Annex which was the owners home and sometimes utilized as an extra room.  This residential dwelling  just recently underwent major renovations.  CLICK HERE to find out more!

 

As the community of Wilcox grew, so did it's need to educate it's children. The first known Jones Township school was established in 1842 when Peter Hardy taught in a little frame building erected about that time at the crossing of the turnpike (Rasselas Road) and the St. Mary's Road, in Jones Township. 

Ebenezer Lee, J. Montgomery, John W. Blake, Jacob Meffert, Ira Westcott and Rasselas. W. Brown, were the first elected school directors in 1844.  At the time  there were a number of school houses erected in the Township.  

On October 12, 1872,  The Directors purchased a one-acre parcel of land from the Wilcox Land and Mining Company on Faries Street along the road to Rasselas to construct a large school building .  This school building served the community until 1916, when the school caught on fire and was totally destroyed.

Original Wilcox High School

The original Wilcox High School was destroyed by fire. 

(Click here to see the pictures!)

 

A new school, a handsome two story brick structure was constructed at the same site as the destroyed school.  The new school was ready for opening day of school in September 1917.  At this time, children from the eastern parts of Jones Township were transported to attend class in this new building.

In 1935 The Jones Twp. School District purchased another acre of land directly behind the existing school from Henry & Nancy Wining. Then, in 1936 the School Directors constructed an additional building behind the two-story school. This new brick building would be utilized as the High School, while the younger kids would attend class in the older structure. This new building provided a gymnasium, and enough room to accommodate the additional students.

The older two-story school building (shown above) was eventually torn down because of safety issues in the early 1970's.  It was around this time that the state consolidated the local school districts  in to larger regional school districts.  All of the schools in Wilcox now would be under the authority of the Johnsonburg Area School District.

Classes continued in Wilcox until 1971. From then on, all children attended classes in Johnsonburg once the new Elementary School was build along Route 219 in Ridgway Township.  The school buildings and grounds were turned over the Jones Township Board of Supervisors in October 1974 with the expressed purpose of a community center..

The 1936 Wilcox High School, the former school building sat in the parking area located in the front of the building.

The high school built in 1936 still stands and is being used as a community center and house the Jones Twp Senior Center and the Jones Township Government Offices. (see what it looks like today!)

By the time of the end Great Depression of the 1930's  the growing town now had 20  street lights and crudely paved streets.  However often times the Township Road District would not have enough money to pay it's employees, lending itself to borrow money from local residents to meet it's obligations. In December of 1935, the Township took out a note for $500.00 from Gretchen Hetznecker to meet the payroll and to purchase it's first snow plow for the Township's 1930 Model  Chevrolet  truck in order to keep the streets and Township roads open during the winter. This truck was soon traded in for a newer 3- ton 1936 Model Chevrolet with dual wheels which was needed to plow the snow.

It was in August of 1936 that the Wilcox Fire Department was formally  recognized at the official company affording the village with fire protection.

Shortly after the Second World War, many improvements were made in Wilcox.  Much of the original infrastructure installed by the Wilcox Tannery to serve it's interests in the village were beginning severely age and in dire need of repairs.  By this time work at the Tannery began it's decline and suffering it's slow death. As such, it wasn't too concerned about repairing these facilities.  The Township Supervisors were receiving complaints on a monthly basis of raw sewage on the streets and ponding in yards from broken water and sewer lines. 

In August of 1950, the citizens of Wilcox petitioned the Township to take over and repair the the aging collection of sewers. Immediately the old collection of tile and clay sewer pipes was taken over and was now under the control of the Township Supervisors which then required a connection to each dwelling in the service district and began to collect fees to repair the aging system..  Then, in May of 1952 work began of installing a new sewer and drainage system. By March of 1954, the new sewers and drainage system were completed and all homes were ordered to connect to the system which discharged the untreated sewage directly into the West Branch of the Clarion River.

This sewer and drainage system served the community up until about 1980 when the Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Resources ordered action to be taken to stop the discharge of the untreated sewage into the river.  This then resulted in the construction of a modern sewer collection system in 1999.  With this new collection system, sewage was transported by a pressurized pipeline to the sewage treatment plant 6 miles south to the Johnsonburg Wastewater Treatment Plant.   

In 1956 the aged and privately held Wilcox Water Company, which also needed repairs, was purchased by the Johnson family.  The Johnson's  made the necessary improvements to provide a good, potable water supply to the community by running new water lines and dug a new water well to supplement the reservoir. Several citizens of the time had also wanted the Township to also take over the water company.  However, since no petition was presented by the community, the Township refused to purchase the water company.

The early 1950's also saw much needed transportation improvements in the area. The new State Route 219 (which was at one time called Route 97) was being constructed through town.  Up until now, Route 219 traversed from Johnsonburg through Wilcox to Kane on was what is now known as the Old Kane Road and State Route 321.  These improvements led the new and modern highway (Route 219) along Marvin Street  and directly up the valley to Lantz Corners.

  Road Construction near the Smith Gas Station on Marvin Street (Route 219)  The image on the left shows the intersection of Oak & Marvin Streets.

Note: The original State Highway Dept blueprint below shows the location of pictures above.

The construction of the modern highway through Wilcox then led to a number of other problems presented to the town. Route 219 was then the major north / south route through central Pennsylvania.   A major problem facing the community became motorists speeding on the new highway.  The Jones Township Road District then requested that the State Highway Department install a traffic light at the Route 219 (Marvin Street) and Clarion Street intersection. Also considered in 1954 was allowing the Fire Department install a speed trap to catch the speeding motorists.  It was later learned that this would not be feasible so it was once considered that Johnsonburg Special Police could use their speed trap. This was also ruled as not to be lawful.

Then, at the October 29, 1954 meeting of the Township Supervisors, a petition was presented from 35 residents to request the Township install it's own police department.  At this meeting the Township established the Jones Township Police Department. Charles Hart was named as Chief, with the power to hire and fire police for the Township.  Charles Dietrick, Philip Hoh, Arthur R. Airgood, and Kenneth Launer were administered an Oath and sworn as officers. The policemen were paid $1.00 per hour and $1.00 per month for use of their vehicles.  The first item ordered for the dept. was a stopwatch, a flashlight, and a speed trap device.  Approval was also given to spend up to $100.00 for office equipment.

Two months later, Jerome Jones, Ronald Launer, John Wantuck, Carl Whippo, Jones Shuey, Paul D. Anderson, Wallace Thayer, Lawrence Parks, Edward Hanson. were also sworn is as officers.

In 1955 is was reported that the Police Dept. collected $5655.00 in fines from the speed trap with an average violator caught in the trap of 31 per month.  The following year a petition of well over a hundred persons was offered to the township Supervisors to reduce the size of the police force.

Both the above photo and the lower photo show the Village of Wilcox in  1958.

 

Jones Township Chief of Police Jerome B. Jones with the Departments 1978 Chevrolet Nova police cruiser

Photo Credit: 1989  Tina Ritter

In June of 1955 the first traffic light was installed and was operational at the Clarion and Marvin (Route 219) Intersection.  And, in June of 1956, a second traffic light was installed at the Old Kane Road / Route 219 intersection

To Be Continued.......

Please be sure to check back later for more!