Centre County is named for its location at the state's geographic center. The county's southern section is part of the ridge and valley terrain, and on its northern side is the Allegheny Plateau, running southwest to northeast. Shawnee and Delaware peoples inhabited the area in the colonial period, but few archaeological sites remain. By the late eighteenth century, Europeans began to settle the area, a process stimulated by the discovery of iron ore and coal deposits in the 1780s. Settlers came into the county (established in 1800) via Bald Eagle Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna, and settled in Penns, Brush, Half Moon, Bald Eagle, and Nittany valleys. Germanic settlement was mostly in agricultural Penns and Brush valleys, while Irish, Scots-Irish, and Anglo-Americans settled throughout the region.
Iron making, in addition to agriculture, was a mainstay of the economy, and by the 1830s, the industry included furnaces, forges, rolling mills, and slitting mills producing pig iron, bar iron, and nails. The discovery of coal in Centre County's northern region added another dimension to the local industry. Canal service was established in 1848, linking Bellefonte and Lock Haven in Clinton County, and rail service opened in 1857 from Bellefonte to Tyrone, Blair County. Aside from Bellefonte, the county seat and business center, iron plantations such as Centre Furnace ( CE21) were the most densely populated settlements. The plantations were practically self-sufficient, consisting of imposing stone ironmasters' houses and stone furnace stacks surrounded by a scattering of farm buildings, workers' houses, stores, churches, and the occasional school. By the late nineteenth century, however, technological innovations in iron and steel production were pushing small-scale iron operations to the margins, except for such endeavors as the Scotia iron ore mines southwest of State College, which shipped ore to Andrew Carnegie's mills in Pittsburgh.
In Bellefonte, the courthouse and a few stone Federal-style residences stood alongside mostly wooden row houses. In the countryside, log construction was the norm, and construction techniques often followed ethnic patterns; buildings typically were small and spare. Later in the nineteenth century, balloon framing and milled decorative elements were added to the local architectural vocabulary, notably in Bellefonte. Much of the wood for building was supplied locally, and lumbering became a thriving industry, especially in the northern part of the county. Agricultural production for local markets was also a significant part of the economy. While many farm families struggled, others were wealthy enough to erect the large Pennsylvania barns that now appear in the county, especially along PA 45 ( CE12). Agriculture-dependent villages, such as Aaronsburg and Boalsburg, updated existing buildings with Victorian trim or porches rather than build anew.
In the late nineteenth century, the expansion of Pennsylvania State College ( CE16) shifted growth to the State College area. The college (which became a university in 1949) increasingly was a driving force in the county, especially in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, engendering an everexpanding campus, as well as suburban sprawl and commercial buildings to serve the university population. The loss of prime farmland to commercial and residential development is a growing public concern.
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