Following is the text of a speech presented by Larry D. Smith before the Blair County Hisorical Society on 10 November 2002. Larry D. Smith was one of three recipients for the Excellence In Preservation Of County History And Heritage award. It was presented to Mr. Smith in recognition of his book, 150th Anniversary History Of Blair County, Pennsylvania.
It is common for people to divide their lives into segments separated by certain milestones – their childhood and adult life separated by a sixteenth birthday; their married life separated by a twenty-fifth or fiftieth anniversary; their educational and professional life separated by the acquisition of a job. It is human nature to establish milestones, because they provide a point in time when the past can be reviewed and past events can by brought to a state of closure, and the future can be focused upon and mapped out. Perhaps that is why it is important for a county, state or nation to celebrate milestones such as the fiftieth, hundredth or one hundred and fiftieth anniversaries.
Blair County came into existence in the year 1846, by combining portions of Huntingdon and Bedford Counties. Its history was as illustrious and eventful as any other’s; perhaps moreso in light of the fact that the Pennsylvania Railroad chose it in which to locate its repair shops.
Books detailing the history of Blair County were published from its very beginning, starting with a last-minute mention in the 1847 edition of Rupp’s History of Northumberland, Huntingdon, Mifflin, Centre, Union, Columbia, Juniata And Clinton Counties, PA. On the occasion of the county’s Semi-Centennial, its Fiftieth Anniversary, a small book was published to relate the history from 1846 to 1896. Another was published on the occasion of the county’s Centennial, its Hundredth Anniversary. It was with anticipation of the Sesqui-Centennial, the milestone that would take place in 1996, that I became interested in helping with a book on Blair County’s 150th Anniversary.
I made contact with the Blair County Historical Society in 1992 to offer my participation in whatever book was being planned, but was informed that none was being planned. So I decided to organize a group to produce one.
The history books previously published about Blair County have tended to be copies of earlier ones. Factual statements were repeated from one book to another, but likewise, statements in error were repeated from one book to another.
For this history of the county, I established a few ground rules for the project:
I insisted that sentences from earlier history books not be copied exactly, unless they were to be presented as quotations. I did not suggest that the historical information be changed; I simply requested that that information be presented in the form of original sentences. In regard to the information itself, I insisted that original, primary sources be utilized if possible, instead of relying solely on previously published works.
I insisted that original, primary sources be transcribed exactly. When I accessed the actual court records by which the various townships were formed, I found that the transcriptions supplied by J. Simpson Africa in the book, History of Huntingdon and Blair Counties, published in 1883, were not verbatim transcriptions. He apparently felt it was necessary to add words to make the records more easily understood by his readers. I am a purist when it comes to original records; I feel an original record should be transcribed exactly. It should be up to the readers to discern the meaning and intent of the information.
I insisted that personal opinions be clearly noted as such. Too many historians make statements which are based on incorrect information, but which are intended to be taken as factual simply because the historian claims them to be so.
I insisted that everything be footnoted in order that the reader be able to locate the source of any information, either to confirm that the information was not simply an opinion, or to obtain additional information on the particular topic.
And finally, I insisted that the participants take a serious look at the county at this time and determine, what, if anything, had changed since 1946. The earliest history, of course, is fascinating and easy to determine, but the county had certainly not stagnated during the past fifty years. I wanted the participants to identify those things which defined the county’s more recent history, such as the exodus of merchants from the downtown section of Altoona to the shopping centers and malls in Logan Township during the 1960s and 70s.
Initially, twenty-two individuals agreed to participate in the project. Not all of the individuals who originally wanted to participate wanted to after I made my requirements known. A number of them had intended simply to take earlier published books and copy the information. A couple expressed the fact that the only reason they were going to participate in this project was because their relatives had participated in an earlier Blair County history book. One individual stated clearly that she did not intend to do research or write any chapter; she was there simply to provide ‘spiritual guidance.’ An individual initially offered to produce the index for the book, but even before she could get started in that, she moved out of the area.
Despite the fact that so many of the initial participants dropped out of the project, I chose to continue. Instead of producing a chapter on just Freedom Township in which I resided, I ended up having to produce chapters on all the townships except one. I spent two years working steadily on the book, at least an hour or two, but sometimes five or six, each day. I worked on the book even on holidays. I would take diskettes containing sections of the book along with me to work, and would spend my break and lunch times working on it. Because of the fact that I wanted the book to function partly as a travelogue, so that the locations of ‘public’ places would be preserved, I traveled over every road in the county looking for businesses, churches, schools and evidence of ones which were no longer used as such. Producing this book was truly a ‘labor of love’ for me.
I am very pleased that this book contains certain things which are not found in any other history book produced for the county. For example, it contains a complete transcript of Act #55 of the General Assembly of the State of Pennsylvania. When I was researching the formation of the county, I was surprised to find that I could not locate a verbatim transcript of this Act anywhere in the county. I contacted each of the historical societies and the Blair County Court House, but no one was able to provide a copy of this most important document of the county. I was able to obtain a copy from the Archives at Harrisburg, and so now anyone can have access to it. I am also pleased that the book contains photographs of sights throughout the county, not only the ‘standard’ historic buildings.
I want to note that I did not produce this book entirely by myself. And so this award that I have been given today is not only mine, but should be shared by Suzanne and Paul Ohl, who provided the chapter on the Borough of Tyrone; Cloyd Neely, who provided a part of the history of the Borough of Duncansville; Carole Kutz, who provided the chapter on the Blair-Bedford Central Labor Council AFL-CIO; Robert Resig, who provided a much needed history of the paticipation of blacks from this region in the Union Army during the Civil War; and Timothy Van Scoyoc, who provided a very detailed history of Blair County’s Iron Industry of the 19th Century. The award also should be shared by my father, Bernard Smith, who traveled over every road in the county with me to obtain information and to take the photographs for the book.