Franklin native, writer explores history of town

Knowing the history of where you are born, where you are from, can sometimes help to determine who you are. From May 2014 through Jan. 2015, I compiled a book for Arcadia Publishing, titled “Frankling.” It was published on June 22, 2015.  Here’s a little bit about the history of my hometown, Franklin, Pa.

On Dec. 4, 1753, Gen.George Washington traveled to the junction of the Allegheny River and French Creek during one of his military excursions.  There, the settlement was called Venango, but soon became known as Franklin.  Established in the heart of the original oil country in the 1740s, Franklin is the seat of Venango County. 

Once referred to as “the Nursery of Great Men,” it boasts a rich history of industry and railroads.  Franklin’s historic district, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, includes businesses that have been staples in the city for over 100 years. Franklin’s annual Applefest, the largest craft festival in Western Pennsylvania, honors the travels of Johnny Appleseed, who planted his trees throughout the town during his journeys, and the bridge that spans the confluence of the Allegheny and French Creek is still known as Washington Crossing.

Franklin was settled in the 1740s and was incorporated as a city in 1868, named in honor of Benjamin Franklin.  During the time of the American Revolution, the city supported three forts, all strategically situated along the Allegheny River and its confluence with French Creek.  Franklin is the seat of Venango County, which was formed on March 12, 1800.  The city also greatly benefited from Colonel Edwin Drake’s discovery of oil in nearby Titusville in 1859.  The county was knee-deep in the oil boom, thus bringing much wealth and success.

Few businesses remain in Franklin that have withstood the test of time.  The national economic downturn was slow to come to the community and even slower to leave.  During the late 1970s and early 1980s, many local industries and companies underwent major layoffs, causing Franklin and its surrounding communities to suffer. 

When federal and state grants became available once again, the city began to rebuild and rejuvenate itself.  The empty storefronts were updated, attracting new business owners.  Several business incubators allow crafters and artisans to not only support their families, but to also help rebuild the economy and revitalize the business district, bringing people downtown once again.

The total area of Franklin is 4.7 square miles, with 0.1 square miles being water.  Situated in a valley formed by the Allegheny River and French Creek, Franklin boasts numerous parks and playgrounds, plus several county and state parks within a short distance.  The railroad was a fundamental element for economy and business within Franklin and the rest of the Oil Region.  Prior to the arrival of the railroad, oil shippers depended on waterways to transport oil barrels to major cities for sale and distribution.  The problem with this method was its unreliability.

Droughts in the summer brought the water level too low to float a packet boat, and the cold winters only allowed for transportation during a narrow number of months.  The railroad allowed for year-round distribution, allowing the local economy as well as the consumer to reap the benefits of the oil boom much more efficiently.

Neighborhood schools were an important part of shaping Franklin.  The first school was built in West Park in 1801.  The structure was made of logs and used a fireplace for heat.  The Union School was erected in the 1860’s and accommodated both elementary and secondary classes.  Eventually, both a junior and senior high school were built in a centralized area of town to aid the students of the community.  

Presently, only a handful of elementary schools remain open, including St. Patrick’s Catholic School.  The current middle and high school resides in Sandycreek Township.  The former Seventh Street Elementary building houses the offices for the Franklin Area School District.

Joseph C. Sibley began his life studying medicine and teaching in New York State.  He, along with his brother-in-law Gen. Charles Miller, cofounded the Galena Oil Company in Franklin.  The company was an early acquirement for John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company.  Due to the wealth this transaction allotted him, Sibley was easily able to fuel his political career, as well as entertain other interests and hobbies, including breeding horses.  Sibley’s home, River Ridge, was completed in 1913.  The property included a five-story barn, a gatehouse, a bell tower and a farm.  The mansion is now utilized by the Christian Life Academy.

The original settlers of Franklin were a melting pot of many different religions, beliefs and faiths.  Presbyterians and Methodists made up the first assemblies in the community.  The first established Catholic church came in the 1860s, though records show that Mass had been held prior to that time in a resident’s home whenever a priest came through the area.  Several churches burned over the years in Franklin and were rebuilt.  St. Patrick’s, the city’s only Catholic church, also houses a Catholic school for kindergarten through eighth grade.  First United Methodist Church provides preschool services.  Several community churches offer youth groups and adult groups, as well as multipurpose rooms for social groups to hold meetings.

The establishment of the Kinzua Dam in 1965 brought an end to the major floods and ice jams that wreaked havoc on Franklin and its surrounding riverfront communities.  The worst occurred in 1926.  That season, the ice jams on the Allegheny River and French Creek took out a section of the Big Rock Bridge in the First Ward of town.  Once the weather and water began to warm up, the riverbanks were breached, allowing floodwaters to encroach on the low-lying regions of Franklin and those in the rest of Venango County.  Several less severe floods also occurred during the 1910s.

The citizens of Franklin gained much from the oil boom of the 1860s.  The Pennsylvania oil boom caused Franklin and other towns, such as Oil City and Titusville near Oil Creek, to expand quickly as well and refineries appeared throughout the region.  Oil rapidly became one of the most valuable assets in the entire country and railroads spread into western Pennsylvania to send out petroleum to the rest of the United States. 

The Pennsylvania oil rush was very similar to the California Gold Rush.  Nearby, Pithole grew from four modest homes to a large city with over 50 hotels and boardinghouses, and the third largest post office in the state (behind Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) in just five months in 1865.  The Pennsylvania oil rush not only put places like Franklin on the national map, but on the international map as well.

More wealth came to the city and region, as Pennsylvania was the first commercial-sized extraction of oil in the country.  The Galena Oil Company of Franklin was an early addition to the Standard Oil Company. Businesses flourished during much of the 1800s and 1900s.  Of the businesses from the latter century, gas and service stations were a huge portion of the town’s economy.  During the mid-20th century, there were approximately 20 family-owned stations within the three wards of the city. 

This was a time when few national chains or named businesses had invaded small, rural towns.  Mom-and-pop neighborhood shops still existed, and everyone knew each other.  Presently, only two family-owned businesses still exist that had been in business for over 100 years.  The business district had been rebooting itself for the last five years.

Anyone interested in  learning more about Franklin, check out a copy of “Franklin” from the Carlson Library at Clarion campus and another copy to Suhr Library at Venango College. 

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