Preserve America Community:
Located near what is now the Alleghany National Forest, Smethport, Pennsylvania, (population 1,650) was surveyed and founded by Dutch land investors in 1807, and named for the de Smeths, the Dutch family which financed their investments. Smethport became the seat of McKean County in 1826, leading to some growth, but remained just a settlement around the county courthouse until 1853, when it was incorporated as a borough.
John Applebee built a dam across Marvin Creek, which ran alongside (and now through) the town, starting a Smethport tradition of entrepreneurship. He also installed a water-powered sawmill, and Smethport became, and remains, a center of the hardwood production business.
Smethport’s other entrepreneurs include Henry Hamlin, who was the wealthiest private banker in the U.S. in the 1890s. His name would eventually be attached to the lake and park created by the aforementioned dam. Smethport was also the birthplace of the magnetic toy industry in 1908, leading to the invention of the “Wooly Willy” toy by Jim Herzog in Smethport in 1955. A famous toy of the 20th century, its invention is celebrated with an annual “National Wooly Willy Magnetic Toy Week,” involving look-alike contests, art contests, and other activities.
Smethport’s other events include the annual “Gold Watch Bike Race,” a 53 mile race with the prize being a gold pocket-watch. Originally run in the 1890s, a decade before the Tour de France, over a seven mile loop, the race was discontinued in 1899. It was revived in recent years, and now draws competitors from around the nation to bike a slightly-revamped loop through the valley in which Smethport sits and its environs. The race still offers a gold pocket-watch to the winner.
Another event of note is the annual “Bucktail Departure Celebration,” and other events related to the local “Bucktails” Regiment which served in the Civil War. The regiment (originally known as the “McKean County Rifles,” 42 nd Pennsylvania Infantry, 13th Pennsylvania Reserves, and the 1st Pennsylvania Rifles) was founded in Smethport 1861, and nicknamed for the deer tail stuck in the cap of each of the members. It would swell in size over the course of the war and serve with distinction at most of the major battles in the east, including Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, until the unit was disbanded on May 31, 1864. Multiple events each year honor the hometown regiment, and unit re-enactors participate in events across the eastern U.S.
Smethport has made a massive effort to collect and share information about the town’s history. This enormous undertaking is a result of work over many years by the students in the local school district as a project of Ross Porter’s local history class. Smethport’s online history site, called “Planet Smethport,” consists of an interactive “virtual walking tour” of the town in the 1890s, including images of specific areas and buildings throughout their history. These are enhanced by firsthand accounts of people who lived there, and images of famous citizens. The site also includes virtual walking tours of some nearby “ghost” towns- towns that were built around the lumber industry and then subsequently abandoned. It has won numerous awards both in-state and nationally and is still being expanded. In addition, a walking tour brochure is available for the Historic Mansion District.
Posted August 11, 2011