AN OLD-TIMER’S HISTORY of Sharon, Pennsylvania
by Eric Bombeck
In October of 1938, WPIC, the Shenango Valley’s first radio station, came on the air. In its early days radio was seen as a high-brow medium. Stations played classical music, endeavored to educate the public and were rarely crass.
In an effort to involve the community, WPIC put in phone lines from Sharon and Hickory High Schools directly into the studios. Students could now do broadcasts from the schools. More than one high school kid got a job at WPIC because of this. (Joe Prelee, who went on to a storied career in NYC radio, got his start this way.)
The following is a transcript from a WPIC broadcast from Sharon High School on June 23rd, 1950. Miss Mary Lee, the historian being interviewed, was 89 years old at the time of this broadcast, meaning she would have been born around the beginning of the Civil War. She was old enough to have heard some of the stories she tells from people who were here from the beginning. Enjoy this oral history of Sharon as told by Miss Lee in 1950 to two fifth-grade students.
— Eric Bombeck
THE HISTORY OF SHARON
Date: June 23, 1950
Time: 9:15-9:30 AM
Announcer: Good Morning boys and girls, we are broadcasting from the auditorium of the Sharon High School. It is our pleasure to have with us this morning, Miss Mary Lee, a former teacher and very well-known resident of our city. I don’t believe she would mind my telling you that she is 89 years old. She is going to answer some questions about the history of Sharon, which will help you in your study of Sharon.
Jane White and Bob Smith, two children from the fifth grade, Prospect Heights School, will interview Miss Lee. Miss Lee has lived in Sharon for over fifty years and has done extensive research work on the history of Sharon. The children of Sharon are required to learn something of Sharon’s history and this is the first of a series of programs to be presented in this history of Sharon.
Announcer: Jane, do you have a question you would like to ask Miss Lee?
Jane: Miss Lee, will you tell me who was the very first settler of Sharon?
Miss Lee: William Budd was the first settler. He was known as “the Father of Sharon”
Jane: Where did William Budd come from?
Miss Lee: Budd came to Sharon from Washington County, Pennsylvania. That is on the other side of Pittsburgh.
Bob: About what year did he came and where did he make his first settlement?
Miss Lee: Bob, history books tell us he came in the spring of 1796 when George Washington was serving his second term as President of the United States and the nation’s capital was located in Philadelphia. Young Budd’s plot of land included 400 acres and he built his log cabin on what is now the northeast corner of Washington Street and South Irvine Avenue. Later, he built a cabin nearer the river, at what is now 61 South Main Street and spent some time hunting and trapping before he returned to Washington County to marry sixteen year old Drucilla Hultz.
Bob: To what kind of cabin did young William Budd bring his bride?
Miss Lee: The log cabin was a story and a half high. The loft was reached by a ladder, there was a puncheon floor, a clapboard roof and greased paper windows. Bob, if you would like to know more about these cabins, you might look it up in the World Book. It will go more in detail than I can on this program.
Jane: Miss Lee, what did the Budds do if they wanted some groceries or supplies?
Miss Lee: Jane, we are told that the Budds produced nearly everything they needed except for farming implements, ammunition and salt. If they needed these, they had to go to Pittsburgh. In those days, it took them three weeks to go. A barrel of salt was worth twenty bushels of wheat. The only roads were the streams and narrow wavering paths made by wild beasts and Indians. Deer were common, wolves howled at night and occasionally a black bear was to be seen on the trip.
Bob: Didn’t the Budds have any near neighbors that they could borrow from rather than making this long trip?
Miss Lee: Yes Bob. In 1798 Charles and Frances Reno settled east of the Shenango River and north of William Budd’s, around what is now Reno Street, down near the Junior High School. The Bentley’s the Stokley’s, the Hoaglands, McBrides and Loves all moved into the valley and, in spite of hardships, these pioneers had come to stay. On May 23, 1798, the second generation made its first appearance, in the tiny person of James Bentley, the first white child born in Sharon.
Jane: Miss Lee, what do you know about the early homes of Sharon?
Miss Lee: We know the earliest homes of the pioneers were log cabins. Then, these were replaced by frame homes. In 1851, long rows of company houses were built for the people who were working in the iron mill. In one of them, over thirty years later, there grew up a Welsh immigrant boy, who was to become the first Secretary of Labor and afterward, a Senator of the United States, James J. Davis.
In 1864 Sharon was becoming a good-sized town and brick homes were replacing the frame ones. Some of these are still standing on East State Street. The brick home, opposite the Golden Dawn store on the corner of North Oakland Avenue and East State Street, where the Sample Funeral Home is located, is one of these homes.
The first stone house to be built in Sharon is still standing on Dayton Way, just across from the Wishart planning mill. The second stone house to be built was the Buhl Mansion, now the home of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Forker, East State Street.
The house which was occupied by Gariety Funeral Home, at the corner of Washington and South Water Avenue is considered one of the oldest buildings in Sharon. This house which has been remodeled and enlarged many times was originally a log cabin.
Bob: Miss Lee, surely if the people of Sharon were interested in building nice homes they wanted a name for their village.
Miss Lee: Oh yes, Bob. William Budd took care of that in 1815. Tradition tells us that he was worried about that, so he decided to choose a name from the Bible. He put three names in a muslin covered box. The third name drawn was “Sharon.” We do not know whether he had in mind the plains of Sharon or the Rose of Sharon when he selected the name.
Jane: We know in the very beginning the Budds had to go to Pittsburgh for their supplies but when did they finally get some stores in Sharon?
Miss Lee: Well, Jane, in 1815, Elias Jones bought 100 acres of land north of State Street, west of the Shenango River. He built a distillery and a storeroom and became Sharon’s first distiller, innkeeper and postmaster.
In 1818, the first bridge was built over the Shenango River at the cost of six hundred dollars and then wooden sidewalks were built so the shoppers could visit Jake Cozadd’s shoe shop or Elias Jones’ store. The mail now came twice a week from Mercer by stagecoach instead of horseback. The Sharonites who made the great trip to see General Lafayette at Mercer twelve miles away, in 1824, came home to a village whose streets were unlighted and choked with dust or deep mud. By 1825 new names had appeared in Sharon, and new faces in business houses. “Daddy” Washington Porter kept store at the southeastern corner of State Street and Water Avenue where the news stand is now located. David Budd had a new tavern. Sharon was still a log settlement but it was home to people who had faith in the future and the courage to make the future bright.
Bob: Miss Lee, I thought Willson’s furniture store was one of the oldest stores in Sharon. When did it have its beginning?
Miss Lee: You are right Bob. It was in 1845 that James Willson, a Brookfield boy, stood on the top of the West Hill and looked down into the valley and then toward Brookfield Center, trying to decide whether he would start his business in the flourishing Ohio village or in the smaller Pennsylvania settlement below on the muddy Shenango River. He decided that the new covered bridge, the building though only a single-track affair, twenty feet wide, would enable Sharonites to get across the river, beyond the city limits, where expenses were less. From that boy’s decision sprang Sharon’s oldest family business, now known as the Willson Furniture Store.
Jane: What were some of the other businesses that were established about this same time?
Miss Lee: Jane, I have been told that many people were interested in establishing banks, The Shenango Hotel with eighty-six rooms, a drug store by Reno and Espy, a music store by W.C. DeForest, a cloak and millinery shop by Mrs. Mark Cohen and many other shops.
Bob: We have learned in our study of geography that people cannot live in a community unless they have some way of earning a living. How did these early pioneers make a living?
Miss Lee: Bob, everyone must work if they want to earn a living and these Sharon pioneers were no exception.
In 1802, Benjamin Budd gave Sharon its first industry. Budd built a saw and grist mill on the east side of the river in the southern part of the present Sharon. The mill was operated by power furnished by a dam in the river. In 1822 Clark built a flour mill on North Water Avenue and in a few years he put in fulling and carding machinery. In 1810 coal was discovered near Sharon and at first, it was used in the homes for fuel but later it was used in the iron mills. 1846 was the outstanding year in the development of the blast furnaces. Six blast furnaces were built in the Shenango Valley to make pig iron with charcoal and native ores. In this same year Frank Allen began his experiments at the Clay Furnaces, where he succeeded in substituting coke for charcoal, and finally, in using the raw coal as a fuel, a discovery which greatly influenced Sharon’s future.
Sharon had a tremendous boom in the ‘50s. The rolling mill started in 1851 and soon was turning out forty-five tons of pig iron weekly, at a cost of $18.00 a ton.
These are just a few of the early industries that were carried on, which enabled the early settlers to earn a living.
Jane: As I look at this beautiful auditorium where we are now, it makes me want to know something about the early schools of Sharon. Miss Lee, I imagine you too are interested in the early schools.
Miss Lee: The two-million-dollar school system of today is a far cry from the first log cabin school in 1800. It was then that Thomas Rudge used the birch switch as the first teacher in the new community.
At present, there are ten public school buildings in use. The first of the schools now in use was East Ward, built about 1880, South Water Avenue and the Prospect Heights Schools in 1904, Russell Street was constructed in 1908, Jefferson Avenue in 1909, the Senior High in 1923-1924, Wengler in 1927, Junior High in 1929 and Thornton Avenue in 1929.
Daniel Hates, a Revolutionary War veteran, began teaching in 1803 in a log house erected for the purpose, on what was known as the Hoagland Place. This was one mile north of the present State Street, about the same time a log building was erected for school purposes near where the Baptist Church now stands on West State Street.
Besides these schools, there was a schoolhouse built of round logs that stood on the north side of State Street.
The first brick school in Sharon was built in 1850 near the present site of the Pennsylvania depot. In the early 1920s the building was turned into a railroad roundhouse.
Jane, as you can see, the people of Sharon have always been interested in education and want the very best for their boys and girls.
Bob: Miss Lee, they tell us the church is the greatest factor on earth for the building of character and good citizenship, and it is a storehouse of spiritual values. Without a strong church, neither democracy nor civilization can survive.
Do you think these early settlers believed this?
Miss Lee: Yes, Bob. These early settlers were very much interested in starting a church. Again history tells us that on June 24, 1804, the Baptist Church was organized with nineteen members – the Hoaglands, Morfords, Renos and the four Bentleys, and the rest of the early settlers. Morford and Hoagland were deacons. Services were held in groves, barns and houses for three years. Within a year after the church was organized, Adam Bentley, with an ox-team, went to New Jersey, four hundred miles away, to bring back Reverend Thomas Jones who was willing to come if his expenses were paid. The parsonage was a log cabin on the farm of Wayne B. Wheeler.
In 1807 William Budd donated land for the church and the graveyard. The land extended west from the present site of the First Baptist Church. Later, Mr. Budd gave an adjoining lot to the Methodists and the two lots were thrown together for the general use of the town.
Jane: I know you can’t tell us when all the churches in Sharon were established but I would like to know when the First Presbyterian Church was started. That is the one I go to.
Miss Lee: That is my church too, Jane. It was organized in 1844 with twenty-four persons present.
Bob: I go to the Sacred Heart Church. Do you know when it was organized?
Miss Lee: Why yes Bob. In 1859, a Sharon Mission was started in charge of Father Hartman. Father John O’Keefe was the first pastor named for the Sharon congregation. Services were held in the homes of members pending the erection of a rectory, after which mass was celebrated in a room in the parsonage. In 1854, the cornerstone was laid for Sacred Heart Church on a plot of ground donated by Dr. J.M. Irvine. The building was pushed rapidly because the congregation was growing steadily with the arrival of new people in town, attracted by the rapid development of the iron industry.
Jane and Bob, that is all the time I have to tell you about Sharon’s early growth but if you would like to hear more about the building of the Erie Canal and about the wonderful contributions made to the community by Mr. and Mrs. Frank Buhl, I will be only too glad to tell about them sometime again.
Announcer: Thank you Miss Lee for giving us this interesting information. I am sure we will all look forward to your next visit.
Goodbye everyone, this is station W.P.I.C. signing off for the Sharon Public Schools, which can be heard every Tuesday morning at 9:15.
–– Submitted by Eric Bombeck, (SHS 1979), South Pymatuning, PA. Transcription and photographs from WPIC Archives, courtesy of The Way It Was Newspaper.