By Lou Bernard in Arts and Entertainment
May 3, 2012
The year was 1833.
Lock Haven didn’t exist yet. All that existed was a small community with a few shacks, a couple of cabins, and the hotel that would later become the Heisey Museum. Over the summer, the canal-building Irish and Germans had flared up at one another in a two-day riot. A man named John Yarger had grown a record-setting radish. Not much else was going on.
And then Jerry Church arrived.
I’ve written before about Jerry Church, our town founder. Born in New York state, he learned to play the violin before he was thrown out of school for trying to kiss the teacher. He traveled around the country, doing a variety of jobs before he made his way up the Susquehanna to a small collection of cabins and hotels, coming to visit his brother Willard.
Renting a room in a hotel right along the Susquehanna, Jerry loved the area, and decided to create a town.
We’re unclear which room he rented, though we can confirm it was definitely in the museum building. I’d like to think it was my office, though I can’t prove that. It’s just ego. But while he was living in the building, he laid out a map of his new community. He decided to name it “Lockhaven” after the canal locks he could see from his window.
Most of the street names, he got from local people. Church Street was named after Jerry himself. Willard’s Alley and Mary’s Alley were named after his brother and his brother’s wife. Jordan’s Alley was most likely named after Judge Alexander Jordan, the likeliest candidate to have been the anonymous donor of Jerry’s money. And Henderson Street was named after John Henderson, who owned the property.
Jerry made a deal with Henderson, buying two hundred acres. He then sold them off in a public auction on November 4, 1833. On what is now the front lawn of the museum, he auctioned off lots of one acre each.
The first one was sold to Frank Smith. Smith bought the property at the southeast corner of Water and Jay Streets, and built a hotel there. He began the Thespian Society, a group of hotel owners who had an interest in theater. In the early days of Lock Haven, they would take turns acting out plays in a different hotel each month. This worked out well; the hotel owners made a profit selling dinners to the patrons, and the locals got some entertainment—Comcast hadn’t yet arrived.
The most expensive lot was purchased by James Jefferis, the retired pirate from Chester County. With his wife and children, he built a house and began farming his 120 acres. One day, his wife was taking her horse across the river to pick up the mail at Dunnstown, and was swept off the horse’s back. She grabbed onto its tail, and rode it to the shore.
Jerry himself saved a plot of land on Church Street, about where Robb Elementary now stands. Here he built his home, which included a tree house. Thirty feet high, with a couch running the interior and a spiral staircase leading to it, Jerry sat and played his violin for his neighbors. In his journal, he wrote that they all laughed at him, but they all joined him up there at one time or another.
Nine days after the public auction, there was the Rain of Fire. This was the Leonid Meteor Shower, which caused a moment of excitement in early Lock Haven. People ran from their new homes as shooting stars flew over, hundreds of them. Everyone assumed they were going to die, but when it proved to be harmless, they settled down and watched the show. Lock Haven was, essentially, baptized by the brightest meteor shower ever recorded.
In the early days, there were complaints from the young, single men in town. There was only one woman who was single, and old enough to marry. This was Sarah Spear, whom Sarah’s alley was named after. That, apparently, was the dating scene in early Lock Haven: You took Sarah Spear out to the latest show of the Thespian Society.
Jerry himself fell in love with a young girl from slightly outside of town. Maria Mahan, the daughter of a local hotel owner, caught his eye. She passed away before they could be married, but left him with a daughter, little Margaret Church. Margaret went with Jerry when he left town in 1845, setting out for new adventures in the west.
Jerry is a hero of mine. He created my community. But that’s the one thing he did that I will never emulate.
I’ll never leave. Lock Haven is my home, and I love it here.
So, on that note….I’ll see you next semester.