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History of Chest Springs

Taken from the Chest Springs Area Bicentennial Book

by the Chest Springs Area Bicentennial Association

 Dated July 4, 1980


Chest Springs is distinguished by being one of the oldest boroughs in Cambria County, also by being the smallest in population, and the only borough that the famous Kittanning Path crosses; made famous by the Indians and Indian fighters.  Land titles in Cambria County show that in 1754 the Iroquois sold Cambria County to the Penns.  October 13, 1760, William Penn issued a warrant for a survey of Chest Manor.  February 17, 1769, 888 acres were sold to Benjamin Steward.  March 20 and 21, 1769, the land was surveyed and called "Chest."  Historians believe that Chest Springs got it's name from Chest Manor.  The word Chest was derived from the huge stands of Chestnut trees in the Manor area.  The second part of the borough's name came from springs along this section of the Kittanning Path.

The Manor track, reserved by the Penns, was erected in a borough by Act of Assembly and was formed from about equal proportions of Allegheny and Clearfield Townships.  It is situated on the dividing ridge between the waters of Clearfield and Chest Creek.  [Note:  This area of land was first recorded in 1842 as Stewartville--see "Chest Springs Maps" for this early document contributed by Jim Swanhart.] The Borough was incorporated May 19, 1858.  A copy of the draft is on file in the rooms of Cambria County Historical Society at Ebensburg, PA. [Note:  this document is also located on the "Chest Springs Maps" page, contributed by Jim Swanhart.]

Main state Yankees drifted into the district and other sections of the county during the 1850s.  The Perrys and Nutters settled in the springs section and opened a lumbering trade.  This trade is one that the Springs had in common with most early Cambria towns.  The land had to be cleared and the timber was necessary for growth and expansion of the section.  Houses were built close to the springs on the Chest Tract.  These springs never went dry, even during the severest drought, and in the early days were always a dependable source of water supply.

Eben Nutter was a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee and he brought many of the old traditions and customs with him.  Mr. Nutter built a boarding house to feed and shelter the men who worked for him.  This was a one story fram building, and it stood for many years as a landmark.  Then Yankee families came from Maine to Chest Springs to work, cutting logs and sawing timber for Mr. Nutter.  These families were:  Jmes Perry, Dan Downey, James Littlefield, Perry McDonald, Solomon Charles, the Seathmans and Hollis families.  They built Cape Cod style houses.  These houses had sloping roofs on each side down to the ceiling of the first floor, two windows on each side, and two windows in the gable ends to provide light and ventilation for the bedrooms.  The ceilings on the second floor sloped down to the floor on each side.

Fifty teams of horses and 12 yokes of oxen were used to haul the lumber to and from the sawmills.  There were no roads, but only log trails at that time.  The trails were only wide enough for a wagon.  These roads were used in dragging logs from the woods to lumber mills, hence the name log trails came.  The trails were cut right through the forest.  Chest Creek was the largest stream of water around and it was much larger than it is today.  It overflowed its banks regularly every spring and fall.

In those early days of 1850, illiteracy was common, and many families, including the parents, could neither read nor write.  Of course, this was due to the fact that there were no schools and the meager fundamentals of reading and writing were taught at home.  The first school building was made of logs, one small room, and the teacher was not paid a salary.  The families who sent their children to school gave free room and board to the teacher.  Each family kept the teacher for a month.  The school term started November 1 and ended February 28, only four months out of a year.  Some of the families would collect a few dollars among themselves at the end of the term and give it to the teacher, probably about $20.

Maine state Yankees brought with them their own religion, the Presbyterian faith.  A church was built in June 1861, which was later abandoned, and the Methodists used it for a place of worship.  A minister from Ebensburg came for services on Sundays, and later a minister from Patton came once a month.  The church was then abandoned since most of the original families had moved back to Maine about the year 1905.  Their cemetery, called the Union Cemetery has few marked graves.  The church was torn down in the year 1908.

The first Catholic church was built in the fall of 1859 and dedicated on March 20, 1860.  It was only a small wooden structure known as the Chapel and fir first pastor was Father John Burns, pastor of the St. Augustine Church.  Chest Springs was only a mission parish at that time.  Father Burns was pastor from March, 1853, until April, 1866 at St. Augustine (and the Chapel.) He was succeeded by Monsignor Martin Ryan.  Father Ryan laid the cornerstone of the church which was built in 18889 and dedicated in 1890.  The church hall was dedicated in 1892 and the rectory the following year.

The first resident pastor was Reverend James McCarn in 1889 and since there was not parochial residence, the pastor boarded with a private family until the residence was built, which was a year later.  Father McCarn died a couple of years later and was succeeded by Father Francis McKenna, who was then succeeded by Father John Duggan.  Father Duggan built the parochial school here in 1921.  Since all of the Protestant families had moved away, there was not need for a public school, so it was sold for the lumber and taken away.  Father James Padden was appointed pastor late in October of 1928, after the death of Father Duggan.  Father Padden's tenure was the longest in the history of the parish.  Others were Father (presently Monsignor) Paul A. Lenz, December 4, 1951; Father Carl J. Wileshal in July of 1953; Father Joseph C. Cummings, March 8, 1955; Father Innocent A. Strittmatter, June 8, 1956; and Father Gerald J. Oeler, present.

Word was received from the Postmaster General at Washington, DC that the date for the first Post Office established in Chest Springs was May 4, 1839, and the name of the postmaster was Andrew McGuire.  Therefore, it would appear that there was a post office here 19 years before Chest Springs was established on May 10, 1858.  Mrs. Jane Cramer was postmistress for a number of years and also Charles Perry served as postmaster.

The mail was brought with a horse and buggy from Ashville by rural carrier to Perry's store, where the post office was located.  Charles Perry was postmaster at that time.

Another distinction for the community was noted when flour from the Chest Springs famous rolling mills was reported to be the first foodstuff to reach Johnstown after the tragic flood of May 18889.  The town in those early days also had a shook shop to make barrels, a wooden mill, foundaries, and black smith shops.  A number of hotels served the workers and travelers in those pioneer days, but fire destroyed them before the advent of the 20th century.  In the year 1900 there were the following business in the borough:  grist mill, blacksmith shop, hotel, harness shop, shoemaker, livery stable, foundry, two churches, dressmaker, tinner, public school, post office, several expert carpenters, two general stores, and a resident doctor.  The resident doctors here from about the year 1885 were:  Miller, Sloan, Noonan, Weatherly, and Sommerville.

Dr. Harry Sommerville had his office on the second flor of Charles Perry's store until he purchased the farm of Samuel Wills just outside the borough line, and moved there.  In addition to his medical practice he also pinch-hit as a dentist and he extracted teeth frequently.  Dr. Sommerville was the first man to operate a dairy farm, and he had a fine herd of registered Jersey cattle.

He also had the first hand operated cream separator, and he built the first silo in this community.  He obtained water for his cattle and farm needs from a drilled well from which the water was pumped by a wind wheel into a large storage tank.  He was the first farmer to experiment with growing of alfalfa, cow peas and strawberries, and also raised chickens on a large scale for marketing.  He owned the first automobile, a Franklin; Charles Perry bought the second one from his brother, Frank, a Chalmers Detroit; and Thaddeus Conrad had the third, which was a Buick.  These were the only cars in this community for quite a few years.

A butcher shop was operated by Fred McDonald, who bought meat live from the farmers which he slaughtered.  Best cuts of round steak sold for 15 cents a pound in the year 1900, eggs at 15 cents a dozen, coffee at 15 cents a pound, sugar at 5 cents a pound, flour at $1.25 for 49 pound sack at the local feed mill, country butter at 20 cents to 25 cents per pound, fresh milk at 5 cents a quart, and kerosene oil at 10 cents a gallon.  Barrel molasses, which was used in baking instead of sugar, and was spread on bread sold at 10 cents a quart.  There were no bakers in town, and every family baked its own bread.

The farmers produced most of their own food, except for a few things such as coffee, tea, sugar and cheese.  In the early days of the 1840s and 1850s, there were plenty of wild bees here and you could walk a short distance out of the village into the woods and cut down a bee tree to get a years supply of honey for the taking.

Also about the year 1840, there was a large maple sugar camp here.  It was located just on the outside of the village.  Then the land was covered with dense woods.  Most of the trees were maple sugar.  The maple sugar was boiled at the camp in large cast iron kettles with blazing logs.  It was marketed in nearby towns:  Carrolltown, Loretto, Altoona, and Johnstown.  Maple sugar sold at that time for 20 cents a quart.

Arthur Green operated a general store, but did not handle hardware or farm implements.  He had a complete line of china and Bric-a-brac.  There was a well dug close to the sidewalk in front of his store with a large wooden pump with a long iron handle.  This was borough property and anyone could get water from it.  The sidewalks were made of wooden plank about two inches thick and 10 inches wide.  Large flat stones were laid at the street crossings, but in the spring and fall, they usually became covered with mud.  The state road through the town was constructed in 1925.  This was indeed a blessing for there was foot-deep mud right through town during spring and fall.

Perry McDonald was the last to have a team of oxen in the community.  There was a hitching rail consisting of a four inch pip supported by wooden posts in front of Perry's store where farmers could tie their horses when in town.  There also was a weighing scale and platform in front of the store for the farmers to weight their hay on the way to market.

As to entertainment, there were only a couple of families who had pianos at that time, since they were considered a great luxury, but several families had foot tread organs.  The music for dances and other festive occasions consisted of organ and violin music.  There were no movies and the young people provided their own entertainment in their homes.  They had dances, hay rides, ice skating, and sled riding in the winter.  The ice from the pond in the winter was used to preserve food in the summer months.  The ice was cut from the pond in squares and placed in a wooden frame and covered with sawdust.  The ice would keep from melting this way.

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