“A meeting place for all people of good intent” – Albert Einstein
Few places rival Haines Township in combining natural beauty with a rich history and a vibrant community life. This township, located in the southeastern corner of Centre County, possesses some of the finest farmland, state parks and recreational facilities in Pennsylvania. Two villages, Woodward, near the eastern end, and Aaronsburg, bordering Millheim Borough to the west, are the township’s population centers.
Five hundred million years ago, sections of this area were part of a vast, shallow sea. As the early aquatic life forms died, their shells settled in layer after layer of the ancient sea mud. This mud accumulated to create Penns Valley’s heart and soul: a slab of Ordovician limestone five miles thick. Fossil hunters can still find deposits of brachiopods and trilobites from this period in the Fiedler area.
The Pangaean super continent eventually broke up 250 million years ago, with the western coast of Africa successively “bumping” against present-day North America to create the Appalachian mountain chain. These mountains – twisted folds of sandstone, shale, and limestone – were once as high as the Rockies, Alps and Himalayas. The valleys, then, were slightly higher than today’s mountaintops. Wind and water have been eroding it all – at a rate of three inches every thousand years – to create both our township’s stunning landscapes and its labyrinth of underground caves.
There is little evidence that indigenous groups lived permanently in Central Pennsylvania’s mountains before 1700. These people preferred, instead, to live in the river valleys that bear their names today: Delaware, Susquehanna, and Monongahela. These dark, forbidding mountains and interior valleys, thickly covered with hemlock and chestnut trees, served either as traditional hunting grounds or as a north-south passageway for Iroquois warriors making annual raids on the Cherokee.
William Penn’s promotion of his Commonwealth as a haven for political and religious dissidents, coupled with his heirs’ greed, created unimaginable havoc throughout the early eighteenth century. Waves of immigrants flooded the eastern seaboard and displaced the Lenni Lenape (Europeans called the “Delawares”) and Shawnee. Scattered remnants of these native people, decimated by disease, crossed the Susquehanna River, only to regroup and attack Europeans heading west. The opening salvos of this conflict we call the French and Indian War began in the lower Penns Creek watershed in the autumn of 1755.
Four years later, a British army officer, Captain James Potter, became the first recorded European to travel south of the Susquehanna’s West Branch and enter this region. After a protracted land dispute with Reuben Haines, a wealthily Philadelphia brewer, Potter agreed to claim the valley west of John Penns Creek and began selling tracts to Scots-Irish settlers coming with their slaves from the south through the Seven Mountains.
Haines had a route cut, by expanding the old buffalo and Indian path, into the eastern half of the valley. A few families – including Stobers, Harpers, and Hublers – trickled into this area shortly before the American Revolution. A band of Senecas, one of the Six Nations allied with the British, came out of the north and raided the region in the spring and summer of 1778. The Continental Congress, as a defensive measure, authorized erecting two official blockhouses in the valley: Potter’s, or Old Fort (near the present-day Centre Hall) and Watson’s, or Middle Fort (next to the present-day Penns Valley Area High School). Local farmers built a third, unofficial blockhouse – Stover’s, or Lower Fort – a half-mile west of the Woodward Cave. This location was reputedly under siege more than any other outpost in the area, as evidenced by the number of Indians buried in unmarked graves outside both the fort and the nearby Stover cemetery.
Within three years after the war’s end, over seventy-five German families had established households. A prominent Northumberland merchant and land speculator named Aaron Levy laid out Aaronsburg in October of 1786. It was the first town this far north and west between Sunbury and Pittsburgh. He intentionally reserved a wide main thoroughfare, “to facilitate public discourse on governmental matters.” in what he hoped would become a future county seat.
That same year, John Motz settled in the eastern end of the township along Pine Creek and constructed both a grain and a lumber mill. Early maps called the general vicinity “Hublers”‘ only to be re-named “Liberty Mills”, “Motz’s Bank”, “Taylorsville”, and eventually “Woodward” (after Senator George Woodward, who was instrumental in re-establishing a post office) in 1848.
When incorporated in 1790, “Henses Taunschipp”, then part of Northumberland County, included all of present-day Miles and Penn Townships, the eastern half of Gregg Township, and Millheim Borough. The two villages gradually evolved into thriving economic centers. Centre County’s first schoolhouse, at Wolf’s Chapel, midway between the villages, had already been founded a year earlier. Aaronsburg had the county’s first post office; one of the county’s first newspapers, Das Berichter und Anzeiger; and the third oldest water company in Pennsylvania. By the time of Centre County’s incorporation in 1800, Aaronsburg had over thirty cottage industries – from weavers to saddlers to tanners, three taverns and the oldest continuously – operating store in the United States west of the Susquehanna – to satisfy the needs of residents. Store, mill and tavern owners – because they were some of the few to have actual cash on hand – advanced credit to local farmers.
Early in the nineteenth century, investors in the Bellefonte, Aaronsburg and Youngmanstown turnpike were planning a new, straighter version of Haines’ Path, but they were periodically delayed by war and economic depression. Samuel Thomas, anticipating the influx of travelers on the new stagecoach run, as well as a steady procession of teamsters carrying goods into and out of the valley, enlarged the stone inn at Woodward in 1827. Soon after the pike’s completion, however, farmers were objecting to paying local traffic tolls on the privately- owned road. Several years later, the county court permitted the township to convert the old Indian path, running between the turnpike and Pine Creek, into a public highway.
The railroad’s entry into Penns Valley, shortly after the Civil War, had many long-term effects, one of which was to reduce the turnpike’s toll revenue. The road eventually deteriorated from lack of funds until citizens, in 1905, asked the state to assume control and maintenance of what would become State Route 45.
The Lewisburg, Centre and Spruce Creek Railroad also transported much of the area’s vast woodland resources to the anthracite region, where they became prop timbers for the underground coal mines. Several small settlements grew and declined along with the railroad’s fortunes. Poe Mills once served as home to many of the early lumbermen and their families. Dr. Frank Barker erected a large house near the tracks, two miles east of Coburn. He was soon selling lots for hunting and fishing cottages, and the spot quickly became a popular resort known as Ingleby. Today the tracks are long-gone, and the only way to remote Ingleby is by an unpaved mountain road.
Many people passing through the region are curious about the origin of Hairy John’s State Park in the Woodward Narrows. John Voneda was born in 1802. Pointed remarks about his first wife’s suspicious, premature death led Voneda to become a recluse. Travelers on the turnpike reported seeing the long-haired hermit roaming the region gathering nuts and berries. He conducted a free, unofficial post office, with passers-by tacking messages to his cabin door. From there he carried the notes throughout the mountains. Stranded hunters frequently commented on Voneda’s hospitality. Neighbors, in return, often dropped off any supplies he needed. Hairy John Voneda died in 1878 at his daughter’s home and is buried in Madisonburg’s Lutheran cemetery.
Tourism, as we know it today, began in the 1920s. Americans in their new automobiles were paying good money to satisfy a growing appetite for the unusual. One local entrepreneur, Ollie Hosterman, saw such a business opportunity when, in 1924, he opened one of Pennsylvania’s oldest commercial caves. Woodward Cave, with its flat limestone beds and narrow, well-rounded passages, still offers ideal walking tours and camping facilities.
Local residents, reacting to the possible loss of the region’s agricultural heritage, began collecting objects and establishing a museum in 1968. That facility, the Penns Valley Area Historical Museum, located at 244 West Aaron Square in Aaronsburg, now has over six thousand artifacts in its collection and offers year-round tours and exhibits.
Several bed-and-breakfast establishments, including the Lodge at Woodward Camp, the Woodward Inn, Schafer’s Cottages and The Aaronsburg Inn still carry on the lodging tradition begun long ago.
In 1969, local investors transformed a dairy farm west of Woodward into a summer sports camp. With gold medal Olympians coaching budding gymnasts, Woodward soon developed a world-class reputation. The Camp eventually branched out into other sports, including freestyle BMX trick riding, skateboarding, and inline skating. In 1998, the camp hosted the nationally-televised ESPN K-2 and B-3 competitions.
Since 1975, Haines Township has been the site of an annual Fall Festival, attended by thousands of people, where over one hundred and fifty craftspeople sell their wares. The festival also acts as a major fundraiser for numerous civic and social service groups in the area.
In the spring of 1949, Arthur Lewis, Governor Duff’s press secretary, was traveling through Penns Valley. He was struck by the seeming incongruity of a town, founded by a Jew, situated in the middle of Pennsylvania German farmland. Local citizens told Lewis how Aaron Levy, as a token of appreciation, presented the German Protestant pioneers with a pewter communion set. This simple ecumenical gesture reached across not only two religions; it also bridged two centuries of misunderstanding. Recent scholarly studies in Germany indicated that a long-lost tradition of religious tolerance and mutual gift-giving once existed between rural German Jews and Protestants. It was out of this ancient tradition of neighborliness, of a sense of community, that Levy was acting. Haines Township residents today, continuing that same tradition, still value their “neighboring” with each other.
Throughout the summer of 1949, Lewis, Reverend James Shannon and others orchestrated what became known as The Aaronsburg Story. It was the first mass demonstration by the American middle class against racial and religious intolerance. Over 30,000 Centre County residents joined Ralph Bunche from the United Nations, Felix Frankfurter from the Supreme Court, actor Cornel Wilde and a host of other representatives to celebrate Levy’s vision. Four years later, Ronald Reagan came to narrate a similar event, The Aaronsburg Assembly. In 1997, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Penns Valley Area Historical Museum dedicated a roadside marker commemorating the The Aaronsburg Story and its ideals.
Small rural towns are not mere collections of people and houses; they are also states-of-mind. The lure of Haines Township is in its resistance to reckless change. This is a place that teaches us about returns; a return to the values of land, work and community; a return to living relatives and long-departed ancestors; a return to the traditions of neighborliness and self-reliance; a return to a pace of life as it should be. It is all that the word “home” connotes.