About New Bethlehem History
A BRIEF HISTORY OF NEW BETHLEHEM
Early Settlement. In the early to middle years of the 1800’s, pioneer settlers began forming towns and villages in what is now Southern Clarion and Northern Armstrong Counties, land once inhabited by the Seneca Indians. The early settlers were mostly of Scotch, Irish and German nationalities. Among the early 1800’s settlers was Henry (Gum) Nolf, Jr. who became an active citizen, operating a saw mill, a grist mill and the first store. The village on the North side of the Red Bank Creek was first known as Gumtown or Bethlehem, sometimes as the Christmas Village on the Seneca Trail, and then, when a Post Office was established in 1840, as New Bethlehem, to distinguish it from the eastern Pennsylvania town of the same name.
In 1833, the village consisted of four buildings: a log home of Christian Himes built in 1808 which still stands off of Wood Street, and a frame house, a stable and a saw mill (1815) belonging to Henry Nolf. A grist mill was also built by Nolf in 1830. New Bethlehem later became an early population and business center. In March 1853, the town of New Bethlehem was incorporated as a Pennsylvania municipality in the form of a borough with a Burgess serving as mayor and a town council directing the borough government. As late as 1855, it was said of New Bethlehem that it was “a small hamlet but its population was composed of peace-loving Christian people.”
Lumbering was the first industry. Later, vast quantities of coal, iron, limestone, clay, gas and oil were mined from the surrounding hills. Clarion County was once nicknamed “Iron County” because of the furnaces built there. One of the largest lumber mills that was built along the Red Bank Creek was erected by C.E. Andrews about the time of the Civil War. Distilleries existed in New Bethlehem from 1840 to 1848, in 1860 through 1865, and then again not until the New Bethlehem Brewing Company, which was housed in the building where Smuckers of PA, Inc. is now located. Around the time of prohibition, the company was sold and the machinery shipped to Japan. H.B. DeViney Company thereafter purchased the building and later sold it to J. M. Smuckers. Church members Charles P. Leach, Sr. and Robert Mateer, Jr. were among the local businessmen and investors who secured a government contract for the H.B. DeViney company to make peanut butter toward the end of World War II.
The Railroad Arrives. The Allegheny Valley Rail Road was completed in 1873. The freight and passenger stations were built a couple of years later and were located near the present location of the First United Bank on Wood Street and the Keck Building on Arch Street near the Firehall. There was also a rare private rail stop at the Andrews Estate property at 318 Penn Street on the side where the municipal parking lot is now located. The low grade stretched 110 miles from the Allegheny River to Driftwood. It served many natural resource-based industries along the corridor, including lumber, coal, coke, clay, pottery, glass and peanut butter.
Early Businesses. George Arblaster established the first pottery business, Pioneer Pottery, in the vicinity of Liberty and Penn Streets in New Bethlehem in 1875 which continued until it was destroyed by fire in 1902. A cigar factory was opened in 1898 and employed 36 people. New Bethlehem also had a Window Glass Company which was completed in 1900 and was located between East Penn Street and the Penn Central Railroad in what was known as the Allebach Addition across from where the shopping plaza is now located.
Schools. A “pay” school was organized in New Bethlehem in 1828. An early one room frame building was built to educate the town’s residents in about 1848. A more modern building was built in 1893 where the Presbyterian Church parking lot is now, eventually becoming the New Bethlehem High School. It became Redbank Valley High School in 1950 when the Redbank Valley School Jointure was established. The “new” high school located along Redbank Creek was completed in about 1958 and the old building was thereafter demolished.
Churches. In the early 1800’s, there was a pressing need for houses of worship where early residents could practice their religious beliefs. During that period four Christian churches had their local beginnings – three Protestant and one Roman Catholic. The first record of any religious services in New Bethlehem was in 1818 when the “Church of Red Bank” came into existence and appears on the Roll of Erie Presbytery. It may have been only a preaching location for the Rev. Robert McGarrah, Pastor of the Licking and New Rehoboth Churches. A Union Sunday School was organized on July 13, 1845, and met in the log house of Mr. Philip Huffman.
Before any of the church congregations had their own sanctuary buildings, they met in a number of places, including residences. One of these early locations was in an ancient frame structure which housed the D. A. Wiant & Sons Jewelry Store, and a small office fronting also on Broad Street which was the headquarters of the H. M. Skinner & Sons transportation firm. The present occupant of the site is Evermoore’s Restaurant (formerly Shepherd’s Inn, The Dinner Bell and Leon’s Restaurant).
The Methodists led the way with formal organization in 1838, followed by the Presbyterians in 1850. The Baptists were first organized in 1852 and St. Charles Roman Catholic Church in 1872.
In reviewing the development of the Presbyterian Church in New Bethlehem, it is significant to note that the faith was spreading rapidly throughout Western Pennsylvania at that time and especially during the period when Andrew Carnegie became a prosperous Pittsburgh industrialist.
The Baptists erected the first church building, a frame structure, in 1852 at the church’s present location at the corner of Broad and Lafayette Streets, now occupied by a stone structure built in 1910. Other churches followed. The first frame Presbyterian Church with a needle point steeple was completed in 1877 facing Wood Street. It was deconstructed and moved and replaced by the current brick structure facing Penn Street in 1923. Many early churches were rebuilt in later years. Some met in the Andrews Theater while their churches were rebuilt.
Rails to Trail. The last train went through New Bethlehem on November 5, 2007. The low grade rail corridor formerly known as the Mt. Laurel Railroad was converted beginning in June 2010 from rails to trails for non-motorized uses. The 42-mile Redbank Valley trail extends from mile 0 at the Allegheny River at the Armstrong Trail and at the mouth of Red Bank Creek to Brookville, with an additional 9-mile spur to Sligo at Lawsonham at mile 6. New Bethlehem lies at the midpoint of the trail along the Red Bank Creek and has been designated a trail town in the Clarion County Greenways Plan with its close proximity to the water and rail trails. The trail connects to the Great Allegheny Passage via the Armstrong Trail which leads south to D.C. and north to Erie and is a connecting trail to the Erie to Pittsburgh Trail Alliance. Locally, the trail connects New Bethlehem with the beautiful scenic area near Climax and the Allegheny River and to the east with Redbank Valley High School, Redbank Valley Municipal Park at Alcola 3 miles east, the Hawthorn Soccer Fields and on through Summerville to Brookville in Jefferson County. The trail is bringing new opportunities for economic growth through tourism and provides a great recreational asset for the area. Several new B&Bs, guest lodges and restaurants have been established. And so a new era begins in New Bethlehem history.
Redbank Renaissance, Inc. supports the promotion of history, memories of days and people who have lived in the area and the lessons that can be learned. Redbank Valley Historical Society worked as a committee of Redbank Renaissance from 2013 through mid-March, 2020 and has now become a separate unaffiliated and incorporated nonprofit organization. Redbank Renaissance continues to have several ongoing projects to support the promotion of the history of our area.
Historic Markers: Similar to the historic markers along the Redbank Valley Trail and in Brookville, a new marker remembering the Scout Hall was installed in 2020 at Scout Hall Park on Water Street, sponsored by Redbank Renaissance, Debbie Silvis and other area residents. Other ideas for markers, donations and historical information are welcomed.
Genealogy Help: Members of Redbank Renaissance offer genealogy and obituary research through its collection of funeral home records and access to cemetery records.
A new book, self-published by Terry and Sandy Mateer in January 2022, provides historical tidbits of information about the residents of Sligo, Curllsville, Rimersburg and New Bethlehem areas. Rev. Joseph Mateer’s civil war diaries have been transcribed, supplemented and indexed as A Chaplain’s Diaries. Rev. Mateer served at the request of area soldiers as the Chaplain of the 155th PA Volunteers from Nov. 1863-October 1864. The book includes a glossary with 380 names still recognizable in the Clarion County area and details illnesses, injuries, deaths and news from the home front during the year he served. It is available on this website, at The Gallery at New Bethlehem Town Center or by calling 724-664-4754.
Trail History: Renaissance works closely with the Redbank Valley Trails Association to record, document and remember the history of the rail corridor and the industries that the corridor served.
Programs: Please watch for upcoming programs and events on the Redbank Renaissance Facebook Page.
Articles: Spanish Influenza. The brick manse (parsonage) next door to the Presbyterian Church at 407 Penn St. was completed in November 1904. Rev. Proudfit and his family were the first occupants. In 1918, the manse was vacant in between pastors. A Nov. 1, 1918 news article reported that the manse was used as an emergency hospital for the worldwide flu epidemic that had sickened over 1000 people in the area. The churches and Red Cross, with Mrs. F.L. Andrews as Chairwoman of the local branch, joined together to care for the ill. It opened on Oct. 27, 1918, at the height of the epidemic with 7, housed more than 12 at times and served over 20 people. Only one death, that of John Shaffer, occurred before it was closed in about March 1919.
Walking Tour: See the walking tour for more area history.
Historic Walking Tour – New Bethlehem Historic Walking Tour 2020
- Identification of Properties with short description:
Starting in the 200 Block of Broad Street –
217-211 Broad – Village Pizza Building – Built 1893 with unique architecture to be demolished in 2023 or later. Village Pizza has moved to the south side of the street.
Original Andrews Department Store (formerly the Markel Building rental housing)
231 Broad St. Andrews Theater – Arcadia Theater – Laurel Eye– Now Lifeway Services and Canyon Coffee.
243 Broad Street – The Dinger Building was originally the Andrews Building and at one time housed an A&P grocery store.
246 Broad Street. Founded by Charles E. Andrews in 1872 in another building (now the Merwin Realty building) as New Bethlehem Savings Bank, it became First National Bank in 1894. The bank then moved again, diagonally across the street to a new building in 1929 at 301 Broad Street. The first building served as the Masonic Hall, Post Office, Public Library, the Clarion-Jefferson County Head Start and a Day Care program.
The 1929 building at 301 Broad St. was modeled as a traditional American “town meeting hall” of the Georgian Colonial Period, and according to the bank’s literature: “a bit of old Independence Hall in Philadelphia, blended with numerous details inspired by the finest edifices of similar type in the Original Colonies.” It is now the home of the Redbank Valley Historical Society.
107 tons of steel were used in its construction. The exterior is Georgian Colonial red brick, with white Vermont marble trim. Three shades of brick are skillfully blended in the creation of a pleasing mottled effect. “Herringbone” red brick sidewalks were used along the two front streets, with a ribbon of grass separating the walk from the walls of the bank on the longer frontage. At the intersection of Broad and Lafayette, a white post supported an ornamental hanging sign publishing the bank’s name in Colonial style. A clock tower, 107 feet high, rises from the southeast corner of the building. The white marble entrance, surmounted by a classic urn, would have seemed familiar to the signers of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. In all four sides of the building, arched windows rise after the style of the window in Independence Hall’s tower. A two thousand pound bell situated in the great clock tower, originally chimed on the hour and half hour. This “Memorial Bell” dedicated on Armistice day, 1929, bears on the inside rim the inscription: “this bell commemorates the patriotism, resolution and zeal of the men of this community who served our country during the World War, 1917-1919.” At the rear of the building, is shrubbery and formerly a flower garden, formerly surrounded by an old-fashioned garden fence of red brick and wood pickets painted white. From the enclosure is visible the “World Window” in the rear bank wall – a reproduction of a church window, more than a century old in 1929, in New Haven, Connecticut. 10
First Baptist Church – Corner of Lafayette and Broad – Built 1910, replacing an older wood frame structure at the same location.
Turn left on Lafayette St. – Mateer Home, 209 Lafayette Street, left 3-story side built in 1897 as the home of The Vindicator Newspaper, became the Mateer Funeral Home in 1929, Herbert home at right was purchased and a one-story lobby was built to connect the two in 1962. In 2001, a major renovation added a second middle story, the morgue at back was removed, and rooms were added. The total renovation was completed in July 2002.
Municipal Building, 210 Lafayette Street, built in 1903 to house municipal offices, Police department, jail and fire department. Now serves as Street Department office and garage.
Return to Broad Street.
363 Broad St., New Bethlehem Trust Company, built circa 1932, now the Leatherwood Academy, formerly Bish Chiropractic and Laurel Eye Clinic, built by Anderson, replacing the building at 401 Broad Street.
401 Broad Street, NE corner of Broad and Wood Sts. Dougherty Building and now owned by the Little family, built as the New Bethlehem Trust Company in 1872, with an opera house on the second floor. Now serves as a day care and rental apartments.
SW Corner of Wood and Broad, was the former site of the Commercial Hotel, which was torn down in 2009.
Heading North on Wood Street. To the left of the First United Bank was the location of the freight and passenger rail stations and water tower. The last train went through on November 5, 2007 having served the community, the coal and lumber industries since 1873.
Right on Penn Street to 418 Vine Street. Home built by the Andrews family. Served for many years as a chiropractor’s office. Renovated in the 2000’s and restored as a single-family home.
Lower (pr. Lauer) Home made of New Bethlehem hollow brick tile at 427 Penn Street. The tile plant was located near mile 19 on the trail one mile to the west of New Bethlehem.
541 Penn Street – Former Leach home built by the Andrews Lumber Company in 1920.
Proceed to the 700 block, which overlooks the Smuckers Peanut Butter Factory, built in early 1900s as a brewery, then operated as a dairy during Prohibition, then as the HB DeVinny Peanut Butter Factory. 4 local businessmen went to Washington D.C. in about 1942 and secured a contract for making peanut butter for the troops in WWII. It is now our community’s largest employer. The plant was sold to J.M. Smucker in 1964. It manufactures the company’s natural peanut butter and Goobers varieties. An historic marker located below the plant on the trail tells the history of the building with photos.
Return west to 407 Penn Street, Presbyterian Manse (Minister’s Home), built in 1904, served as a hospital in 1918 for the Spanish Influenza. Mrs. Firman L. Andrews led the effort to care for the sick during the epidemic.
New Bethlehem Presbyterian Church, 403 Penn Street. Built in 1923 replacing a wood frame church at the same location that was built in 1870 1. Handicapped accessibility added in 2000-1.
Behind the church and to the right where the houses on Washington Street and the parking lot now stands was the site of the 3 story New Bethlehem high school built in 1893. It was demolished after the “new” jr./sr. high school was built on the 900 block of Broad Street in 1958-1960.
509 Block of Wood Street on West side, Christian Himes’ home, one of the first homesteads in New Bethlehem dating to about 1758, later the home of his daughter, De Rose Campbell, a beloved teacher.
NW Corner of Penn and Wood Streets. Site of the original New Bethlehem cemetery.
321 Penn Street. The Boartz home, now Moore. Built by the Andrews family and still retains much of its original wood.
318 Penn Street. The second Andrews home built by Charles E. Andrews, Sr. in 1885. It has been renovated and expanded several times as shown in the above picture to right. The Estate includes the home and gardens on the lower block. At the far end of the garden was a private rail stop for passenger service to Pittsburgh. Businessmen were brought to the estate to meet with Charles Andrews, Sr. The house is listed on the Clarion County Historic Register.
316 Penn Street. Vacant lot at SE corner of Lafayette Street. Site of the first Andrews family home built in mid-1800s and pictured at left in above picture.
234 Penn Street, corner of Lafayette. First United Methodist Church, second church on the site. A rectory was located in the parking lot behind the church.
Walk north on Lafayette, to left on Washington, 1 block to St. Charles Catholic Church, the original church was organized in 1872.
Walk South on Liberty to Liberty and Hunter Street. The Red Bank Mills has been in operation for many years and continues to operate, providing feed, milling and supplies for area farmers and pet owners.
Between Hunter and Broad on Liberty to the right is the new water plant, replacing a water plant built in the late 1910’s, which was demolished in 2011. The old water plant was one of the oldest in the country.
Proceed South on Liberty across Broad to dam.
The Water Street area was devastated by a flash flood on July 19, 1996 that reached Broad Street. A monument including part of the old bridge is located in the park on the right.
The original dam was built in 1903 and renovated in 2009-10. The Red Bank Creek was used to float logs downstream in the late 1800’s from the Andrews Lumber Mill which was located along Red Bank Creek on Water Street in the area where Gumtown Park is now located. In the 1950’s the community had a “beach” along the Creek above the dam. A scout hall, several homes and buildings were demolished by the 1996 flood and landed against the old bridge. The flood resulted from several inches of rain in a couple of hours upstream that caused a dam to break. A new historic marker remembering in the Scout Hall was installed by Redbank Renaissance in 2020.
Proceed along Water Street to the Gumtown Park pavilion. The park was purchased by Norma Reichard, a beloved local resident for the community’s use. The Andrews’ lumber mill and operation, the largest sawmill on Red Bank Creek, was built in 1855, located along Water Street. The main office was at the lower end at 121 Lafayette Street. The building was renovated as a home. A lumber company building was located at the lot at the NE corner of Water and Lafayette until the late 1950’s.
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