By Danielle Taylor | Header image courtesy of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club
Did you know that the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region has a rich history of presidential visits, connections, and artifacts? With Presidents’ Day coming up on Monday, we decided to dig into a few of these stories. On your next visit to the region, stop in to visit some of the destinations mentioned here and make your own connection to our presidential heritage.
Jefferson County’s very name derives from President Thomas Jefferson, who was in office when the county was established in 1804. The county commemorates this namesake with a bust of President Jefferson in the county courthouse, which celebrates its 150th anniversary next September. President William Howard Taft visited the county in December 1918, and Vice President Calvin Coolidge (who later became president) followed in December 1922, both to speak at the Jefferson County Teachers Institute. In 1986, representatives of Punxsutawney Phil traveled to Washington. D.C., to meet President Ronald Reagan in advance of the 100th celebration of Groundhog Day, and in 2008, President Bill Clinton visited Brookville and spoke from a private citizen’s porch as part of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
President James Buchanan, who was born in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, had connections to Clarion County in his adult life. As a businessman, he and a partner purchased the hot blast charcoal Lucinda Furnace along Paint Creek as well as 4,351 acres in Knox Township in 1843, and he established a camp in Lucinda as well. Although Lucinda Furnace is in ruins now, the nearby Buchanan Furnace still stands and bears his name.
Cameron County was named for Simon Cameron, a three-time U.S. senator representing Pennsylvania who also served as secretary of war under President Abraham Lincoln during the start of the Civil War. Senator Cameron counted President Ulysses Grant as a close friend, and President Grant traveled to the county several times for fishing trips. Cameron County was touched by some somber presidential history as well: After President William McKinley’s assassination in 1901, his funeral train traveled through the area as it carried his remains to their final resting place in Ohio.
President Grant also visited Elk County on at least three separate occasions for fishing trips and official business, and an account of his August 15, 1869, trip notes his success on the river, his comments on the wild beauty of the area, and some of the hospitality he received during his stay. En route to their fishing destination on Straight Creek near Wilcox, the party made a short stop at the Wilthoff farm and made quite an impression on the awestruck Mrs. Theresa Wilthoff. As they continued toward the creek, “The President made a number of comments regarding the luxuriant vegetation growing along the road.”
Once they arrived, President Grant’s son Jesse caught the first fish and soon had landed 13 trout. “The President had some difficulty in landing members of the finny tribe due to the stream hazards caused by the debris of floating logs and limbs of overturned trees. However, the well-known persistency of the President prevailed and he finally ended his favorite sport with a total catch in excess of two dozen specimens of beautiful red speckled trout.”
After leaving the creek, the party retraced their steps and stopped in again to the Wilthoff farm. The account reads, “Upon arriving at the home of Mrs. Wilthoff, it was found that she had bestirred herself. She had been taken by surprise, but she had outdone herself. Over the gateway, she had erected an arch, decorated with hemlock boughs and hung in the center a beautiful wreath of flowers. From this arch to the outer gate she had arranged boughs of tree limbs forming a pathway of green leading to the road. To say the least, as a mere matter of manual labor, this was no small four hours’ work. Out of the fullness of her heart, Mrs. Wilthoff, in her devoted spirit, had paid homage to the head of our nation in a tribute, such as she was able to provide on short notice. President Grant was deeply impressed. He dismounted at once, and to the intense delight of Mrs. Wilthoff, he entered her house, conversed with her a few moments, and accepted a drink of water from a tin cup.”
Nearby in DuBois, the Depot at Doolittle’s includes a fun piece of presidential train history. Among the many historic and restored train cars at the Depot is a luxurious 1901 Pullman Palace car constructed as a private car for the president of the Elgin, Joliet, and Eastern Railway. Robert Todd Lincoln, son of President Abraham Lincoln, served as director of Pullman at the time and supervised the car’s construction. In June 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt traveled in the car while traveling between speaking engagements. Today, it serves as the Depot’s B&B and has a brass plaque noting President Roosevelt’s room, and visitors can rent the entire car and stay overnight.
After one of President Grant’s trips to the region, an account of his stay noted, “There is no doubt but that the President enjoyed his short vacation in Bennett’s Valley and that upon his return to Washington he felt better able to cope with the tremendous responsibilities of the Presidency.” Many people who come to visit the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors feel the same sense of rejuvenation after a relaxing vacation here, and we hope you’ll find the same on a future trip.
For more details on interesting history throughout the region, contact or visit the Jefferson County History Center, Clarion County Historical Society, Elk County Historical Society, Forest County History Center, and Cameron County Historical Society. Each offers exhibits, artifacts, and information that highlight the unique history of this region and the people who helped shape it.
Find other interesting history and places to visit in the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region by going to VisitPAGO.com or calling (814) 849-5197.