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Snyder County

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The formation of Snyder County in 1855 was celebrated as a triumph for the German population, the working class, and regional politics. The county was named to honor Simon Snyder (1759–1819), the third post-Revolutionary governor of Pennsylvania, the first of German ancestry, and the last to serve three consecutive terms (1808–1817). The citizens of the Susquehanna Valley had fought for a century to wrest political power from the eastern counties; under Governor Snyder they finally succeeded in moving the state capital to their own turf in Harrisburg. The sixty-fifth of Pennsylvania's sixty-seven counties, Snyder was the southern half of Union County until 1855. According to historian George F. Dunkelberger, the division was caused by economic rivalries over construction of the railways. The northern part of the county favored the Sunbury-Williamsport line, which would run through Lewisburg, while the southern part preferred the Sunbury-Lewistown line, which would benefit Selinsgrove and the Middle Creek Valley. The split between the interests of Lewisburg and Middleburg were resolved by the election of 1855 in which voters approved the formation of Snyder County with Middleburg as the county seat. Union County ceded its southern half from Penns Creek to Mahantongo Creek, allotting Snyder eighteen miles of Susquehanna riverfront in the east, and extending about twenty-eight miles west to Shade Mountain.

The first settlers in this region were Scots-Irish fur traders from Lancaster County drawn by the high-priced pelts of the beaver for which Beavertown, Beaver Springs, and several townships were named. George Gabriel's trading post at the mouth of Penns Creek on the north end of the Isle of Que attracted Scots-Irish pioneers from Kittatinny Valley and Germans from Berks County. This unauthorized settlement on Native American territory triggered the Penns Creek Massacre of settlers in 1755, setting in motion a cycle of revenge that continued for decades. In 1768, Frederick Stump and John Ironcutter, squatters near present-day Middleburg, murdered a Native American living by the stream now known as Stump's Run. When resettlement commenced after the Revolutionary War, Germans and Swiss returned to the region. Among the German artisans were gunsmiths in Beavertown, Benfer, and Fair Oak who fashioned Pennsylvania rifles with gun stocks of rock maple, walnut, apple, and cherry wood ornamented with engraved inlays. German design traditions are evident in the many fieldstone houses, taverns, and inns and in the Lutheran and Reformed churches.

Privately owned water-powered sawmills were common until the mid-nineteenth century when corporations from outside of the county began consuming Snyder's trees. Entrepreneurs from Maine established a steampowered sawmill north of Selinsgrove in 1850 and coal companies from Shamokin in Northumberland County bought up large tracts of timber on Shade Mountain in the 1870s after the railroad became available to transport lumber. By 1900, the old-growth forest had been cut down with the exception of a few inaccessible acres preserved at “Tall Timbers” in Snyder-Middleswarth State Park. Through the conservation efforts instituted by Governor Gifford Pinchot, reforestation was achieved in the twentieth century, and wood products now account for half of the manufacturing jobs in the county. From 1845 to 1890, iron ore mined at Shade Mountain was processed with local lime and charcoal at Old Beaver Furnace in Paxtonville, or shipped to furnaces in Winfield in Union County or Logan Iron and Steel in Mifflin County. Clay and red shale were manufactured into bricks at Paxtonville, Beavertown, and Selinsgrove into the twentieth century. As early as 1796 two dozen distilleries operated within the county limits and in the following century, they spread throughout Beaver, Centre, and Washington townships. Shade Mountain Vineyard, a winery established in 1989 on the Zimmerman family farm in Middle Creek Valley, continues this tradition. The industriousness of the Pennsylvania German farmer is not a myth. For more than two centuries, Snyder County sustained a land-based economy on little more than three hundred square miles. The county's large red barns and red brick farmhouses are the most conspicuous structures in this sparsely built environment.

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas

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