BUILDERS OF BELLWOOD
MRS. J. M. BECHTOL
What makes a city (or town) great? Upon what, and by whom, has this little village, in the famous Tuckahoe Valley, attained her present status? Let us go back and we shall see. Many years before the building of the Pennsylvania Railroad this locality was known as Bells Mills. The Edingtons were the first residents of this vicinity, about 1785. About 1800 Edward Bell moved here from Sinking Valley, where his father, John Bell, was one of the earliest settlers.
Mr. Bell erected a gristmill and a saw-millhence the name, Bells Mills. He was the owner of 3674 acres of land; and about 1830, under the name of Edward Bell & Sons, built the Mary Ann Forge, and the Elizabeth Furnace. Edward Bells son, Martin Bell, came into possession of the Furnace, and to his great credit is known the fact that, not wishing to have his furnace blast on Sundays, he rebuilt the stack, etc. This arranged matters so that the fires could be banked on each Saturday night. No other furnace had ever been known to adopt such a plan of Sabbath keeping, hence the little village surrounding and the post office was rightly named, Sabbath Rest.
Besides being a man of integrity with respect for Gods holy day, Martin Bell was of inventive turn of mind, and in 1836, he conceived the idea of utilizing the gas, which heretofore escaped unused from the tunnel-head. Consequently Elizabeth Furnace was the first in this country to use the escaping gas for the production of steam. These improvements were patented in1840, and Mr. Bell became entitled to a royalty from all iron-masters using gas; but being of a generous nature, he never pressed his claim, and probably never realized much from it.
The building of the grist and saw mills, a distillery, the forge and furnace, although considerable distance intervened between them; resulted in the bringing together a number of workmen and their families, yet, not until after the completion of the Pennsylvania Railroad through this beautiful fertile valley did Bells Mills wear the aspect of a village.
Within the mountains of such beauty, that surrounded our fertile valley, have been deposited the wealth that was meant to provide work and sustenance to such hardy settlers who were willing and able to wrest it from its hiding place—the minerals which have made its manufactures and its railroads possible.
Iron ore in abundance; lead, used by the American forces during the Revolutionary War; limestone in every township; and an almost inexhaustible supply of bituminous coal. Nature abundantly and generously supplied the setting for a town such as ours.
Immediately after the close of the Revolutionary War, and the discontinuance of Indian and Tory ravages, several families settled within the present limits of Antis Township, and possessed homesteads by right of occupation and improvement. This section was, until 1810, a part of Allegheny Township, but as it gained in population, requested separation; and by order of court became Antes township, in memory of the late Col. Antes, in honor of his Revolutionary service, and of his personal worth, talents, integrity and piety. (From court decree of Courts of Quarter Sessions of Huntingdon County, April 10, 1810.)
In the very early days, friendly Indians roamed the forests, and built their wigwams beside the Little Juniata; and most noted of all these braves was Chief Captain Logan, the firm friend of the Americans. Chief Logan made his home for a number of years beside the beautiful spring, which thereafter, bore his name.
The founding of Davidsburg, now Hensheytown; was prior to 1848 and the building of the Pennsylvania Railroadsince all traffic for this section then passed over the old wagon road, which led from Bellefonte to the Portage railroad at Duncansville via Charlottesville, Antis Forge, Davidsburg, Mary Ann Forge and Elizabeth Furnace.
After the erection of Antis Township, the first and other elections were held at Logans Spring. It was a favorite place for early militia musters. As Davidsburg grew and prospered because it was along the line of an early wagon road, so Bell's Mills took on new life and prosperity when the Pennsylvania railroad diverted much of this traffic and became the main thoroughfare about 1850.
New industries sprang up and old ones increased in importance, so that a little village assumed the aspect of a prosperous and growing town in about a score of years. And now, the God-given wealth of our native mountains became the means of the industry that brought us to another step in progress. The valuable mineral wealth of our mountains required a means of transportation, and the Bell's Gap Railroad, an engineering feat of great note at that time, was built in 1872. This railroad follows the course of Bells Gap Run (which flows south-easterly) and gains an altitude, at Lloydsville, of eleven hundred feet above its starting point, nine miles away. At the times of its highest peak in prosperity, it is said to have been the carrier of five thousand tons of coal daily.
The region traversed by this railroad was also filled with an abundance of heavy timber, consisting of pine, oak, and hemlock; and nine steam saw mills, with a capacity of twenty thousand feet per day, were put in operation. But this wonderful little railroad gained fame, not only for its utility, but also on account of the grandeur of the region, which it traversed. The average grade is 155 feet to the mile, and the scenic beauty of the ascent presents a picture of unsurpassing magnificence. The view from Point Lookout is beautiful beyond description, and quoting from a historical writer of another part of Pennsylvania, We have seen wilder gorges in the Sierra Nevada mountains, but none to compare with this in the softness of beauty, gracefulness of outline and richness of foliage. The sublime magnificence of the scene holds one spell bound, and resembles an immense panorama suddenly unveiled before the vision by some giant hands.
So, within a distance of a few miles our home town possesses scenery as gorgeous as that which many people travel thousands of miles to view. These same mountains that possess this beauty, and that give us fuel in abundance, are also the source of our pure, refreshing and never-failing water supply, a very great blessing many towns would give much to possess. A well-built reservoir containing many hundreds of gallons, keeps us well supplied daily.
One of the early enterprises of this locality was a carpet and woolen mill, built in 1853. Col. John Halfpenny owned and operated this mill, manufacturing carpet, woolen cloth and yarn. Several of the earliest merchants in or near Bells Mills were: Graham McCamant, John Kratzer and Josiah Clossin. Some later business men include: D. L. Wray, merchant and postmaster; John Gheer, furniture dealer; Thadeus Steward and James Lowther, proprietors of grist mills; Doctors W. Y. Levengood and J. C. Thompson. Rev. W. W. Dunmire was editor and publisher of the town newspaper, The Bellwood Independent, the first number of which was published May 16, 1882.
Mr. James Lowther, Sr., and Flynn Brothers owned and operated an extensive lumber business with a capacity of sawing 25,000 feet of lumber per day. Thus the thickly wooded forest surrounding out little village supplied another source of wealth and business enterprise, and also, the second syllable of our present name, Bell-wood. In the fall of 1877, Mr. Lowther purchased the old Bell mansion and the gristmill and moved from Altoona, to help in the building and progress of our town, and a very important and worthwhile part did he take in that progress and growth for the remaining years of his life. The welfare and advancement of the town were ever his deep interest and concern.
On the thirtieth of June 1877, Bells Mills was laid out, under the direction and supervision of Dr. A. K. Bell, and we, officially, became advanced from a village to a town. The streets were surveyed parallel with the P.R.R., being named Front, First, Second, Third and Fourth, and those intersecting being Cambria, Boyles and Church.
The religious life of the town and vicinity has always been a very vital part of its growth. The very first church edifice in this locality within a radius of many miles, was built on land owned by Alexander Ale, in 1830 on the present site of Antis Cemetery, about two miles west of Bellwood. This congregation was the United Brethren in faith, but generally alternated services with the Lutheran in that locality, permitting them to use the building until later when a Lutheran church was built.
As early as 1822, the first Baptist minister to come to this locality was Rev. James Philips, and Englishman. His visits were few and far between, but it is recorded that he baptized several persons in the Juniata River near Mary Ann Forge in 1821. The earliest services were held in a school house, which through the efforts of A. K. Bell, was erected to serve the double purpose of school house and the meeting house, so called in those days. This building stood about where the Logan Valley cemetery is laid out.
The present Baptist church of our town was built in 1868, but a congregation had been organized long previous, about 1837, under the leadership of Rev. Thomas Williams. The first Methodist Episcopal church in Bellwood was erected in 1868, and the Grace Lutheran in 1876, although both congregations too, were organized earlier and worshiped elsewhere. The Logan Valley Presbyterian church was organized in 1837, and worshiped at Tipton in a church erected, 1845.
St. Josephs parish dates back to the year 1900, when Rev. Fathers Edward Bush and Thomas McEnrue began coming here from Altoona to hold mass in a room on Main Street. Later a church was built on the present location. Rev. Father Joseph A. Howard was the first resident pastor. On Easter Sunday, 1919, this church was burned to the ground. The present edifice was built on the same site in 1920.
And, now, we have but briefly, referred to beginnings, the foundations upon which our little town was laid, beginnings of industry and of religious life. We have came far in this last half century. Others will take up the account to prove that we have arrived, but let us pause for a moment, perhaps, in this busy weeks activities to remember these pioneers of hardy faith, and strong determination who have blazed the way for us for they are the real Builders of Bellwood. It is so much easier for us to carry on, since they have so well begun; and as most of these pioneers sleep quite peacefully in our beautiful little cemetery, our God's Acre, on the very spot where they built their first houses of worship, we know that their dream of a prosperous happy Bells Mills has been realized.
In 1882, a few years before its incorporation into a borough, Bellwood contained about five hundred inhabitants and had four churches. Methodist, Rev. W. W. Dunmire, minister; Presbyterian, Rev. J. H. Mathers; Baptist, Rev. S. F. Forgeus, Lutheran, Rev. Isaac Krider. All of these four men were very outstanding ministers of Bellwoods history and added much to the richness of its spiritual life.
Rev. Dr. Mathers, one of the most noted Presbyterian ministers of his time, served the Bellwood and Tipton churches many years, (his pastorate beginning early in 1868) and when he was no longer able on account of failing health, to have entire charge of the growing congregation, he was elected Pastor Emeritus.
Dr. Forgeus, of the Baptist church, was an army chaplain, and one of the organizers of the Sanford F. Beyer Post, the Grand Army post, a well known organization to which most of our Civil War veterans in this vicinity belonged.
Rev. Isaac Krider had charge of the Grace Lutheran church, which was then a part of the Lutheran charge, the other congregations being: Glasgow church, Cambria Co., and Salem, (at Sabbath Rest) which was one of the earliest religious organizations in Logan Valley.
The first Sunday school in this valley was organized in 1826, the sessions being held in the newly erected school meeting-house near our present burial ground. This Sunday school was established by a man named Samuel Martin, of Mary Ann Forge, an early school teacher in that place.
As the Tipton academy was mentioned in the growth of Antis Township it would be unfair to this locality to omit the reference to the Bells Mills Academy for young men. It occupied the building, which is now the Lauver apartments, (formerly Bell Hotel) and was first conducted by a Rev. Lawsan, but later, by Professor James A. Stewart, from about 1869 to 1874. This Academy gave preparatory work to those desiring to enter college or the professions. Many of our most able older lawyers of Blair County, received training there, and they also had students from Western Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland.
Professor Stewart was a very able educator of his time, a graduate of Washington and Jefferson University, and added much to the educational life of this valley, also to the region about Hollidaysburg, where he later conducted an academy.
One of the oldest and most respected families of pioneer days of Davidsburg, and later Bell's Mills, was the Gheer family. The Gehrs ancestors of this family emigrated from Germany to Philadelphia about thirty years before the Revolutionary War. Mr. John Gheer was a successful and skillful cabinet-maker. He served as Justice of the peace in Bells Mills for more than 25 years.
But, we might go on and on. The more research into the accomplishments of our pioneer residents we make, the prouder we become of those who, through many hardships and difficulties, gave us this, our native town.