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Franklin County

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Traveling from the east, Franklin County begins the frontier which is evident in the rising landforms that frame it on the north and west, as well as by the buildings of the Scots-Irish settlers, particularly their oldest landmarks, the Presbyterian churches. Arriving from the west, Franklin County just as clearly reflects settlement patterns of eastern Pennsylvania with its fertile limestone valley dotted with German farms and plain buildings of Mennonite and Church of the Brethren congregations in the rural areas and Lutheran and Reformed churches in the towns. Franklin County, separated from Cumberland County in 1784, was named for the still living revolutionary leader, Benjamin Franklin. Appropriately, Franklin's burly figure stands atop the courthouse (FR2) cupola in the town square of Chambersburg.

Because the ridges of the Endless Mountains make a sharp southward turn, the South Mountain, heretofore the principal northern border of many of the counties of the Piedmont, is here the eastern boundary; its west border is the southern end of the Blue Mountain and the Tuscarora Mountain. This is a county of minor waterways whose origins in limestone caves give the creeks a milky quality and are among the nation's best for trout fishing. The county's relative lack of major rivers, important highways, and significant industry has held it more in the nineteenth than the twentieth century with the result that much of its historic building stock has few modern accents.

The broad cultural patterns are obvious. Scots-Irish ventured into the Shippensburg region by the 1730s, even before it was officially opened for settlement by the Penn family. Chambersburg was laid out in 1764 and became the county seat because of its central position in the county. The early towns follow the Lancaster model with a central square framed by a grid of streets extolling the English aristocracy. Because the county was distant from the principal markets, agriculture focused on easily transportable products—grain that could be ground into flour in the many water-powered mills or converted to whiskey in the numerous distilleries. This region fueled the Whiskey Rebellion that forced President George Washington back into uniform to enforce a tax that the Scots-Irish viewed as discriminatory. In the mid-nineteenth century, the county's wheat output was exceeded only by Lancaster County and its oats and grasses were evidence of the rising production of beef, dairy, and pork. Great barns with clusters of silos are evidence of the continuation of this heritage.

Franklin County is connected to the Shenandoah Valley across Maryland and into Virginia. Through this valley many of Pennsylvania's Germans migrated south to North Carolina, and, just as readily, Confederate forces marched north during the Civil War, first in the summer of 1862, again in July 1863 to the killing fields of Gettysburg, and yet again in a raid in the summer of 1864 that resulted in the burning of Chambersburg.

While most of the county is provincial, as evidenced in its architecture and historic lifeways, its principal forward-looking institution, Mercersburg Academy (FR10), aims at a national student body. This goal is reflected in buildings here by architects that span the northeast from Philadelphia to New York and Boston.

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas

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