Cameron County: Cultivating connection and culture
By Kalie Schmader
It’s been called the “Hidden Gem” of the PA Wilds.
Cameron County is situated in North-Central Pennsylvania. An area of 397 square miles and 4,596 residents, it is the smallest and least populated county of Pennsylvania. The 2020 census shows the population has continued to decrease by 23% over the last 20 years.
Although population decline is being felt almost everywhere, it is a bit more palpable to those who live, work, and play, in the Heart of the PA Wilds. For those who do call the area home, they are once again faced with a critical turning point in their history – emerging as an entrepreneurial playground.
The Cameron County website reminds us of all the greatness that has been generated within the county lines. From being the birthplace of early 1900s Westerns TV star Tom Mix and federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, Rick Peltz, to contributing to sourcing flagstone for the Tomb of Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. There has been a long history of talent, perseverance, and innovation in this quiet corner of the world.
Image: Portrait of American actor Tom Mix (1880–1940) by American photographer Albert Witzel. (Public domain)
The original land deed can be traced back to October 23, 1784, when the area was included in the New Purchase, signed by The Six Chiefs. Passing the ownership from the Wyandot and Delaware Native People to settlers James Hamilton, Ephraim Blaine, and John Wilson. Hamilton’s holdings included part of the present-day Emporium. Cameron County was officially born from parts of Elk, McKean, Potter, and Clinton counties on March 29, 1860. It was only one year later in April of 1861 that the famous Bucktails were organized and more than 300 men boarded three large rafts on the Sinnamahoning River to travel downriver to the West Branch of the Susquehanna and onto Harrisburg to defend the Union in the Civil War.
It wasn’t until 1804 that the first European settler would inhabit the county’s most southern portion; the inhabitant was John Jordan who settled in Driftwood, an area referred to as Second Fork. Emporium was founded six years later (in 1810) by John Earl, the new town now serving as the county seat. Soon to be followed by Rich Valley in 1811 and Sizerville in 1820, land wasn’t cleared for the first sizable farms in the most southeastern corner until 1844. That farming took place in what is now called the Quehanna Wild Area, which is a testament to both the native tribes and new settlers who took on such an arduous task. (O’Malley, 2021)
In this time of new development natural resources and legendary hunting tales were earning the county an image of perilous ventures and grit-tough homesteaders. White pine, hemlock, oak, elm, maple, butternut, and cherry trees, as well as soft coal (bituminous), were bountiful and lucrative. Farming, forestry, and trapping served as the first economic successes for those brave enough to take on the wilderness. Stories arose of harrowing travels made by the first settlers. One such settler, Seneca Freeman, was said to have “hand-carried as much as 60lbs of grain from his farm to” the closest mill, 22 miles away, regularly. (O’Malley, 2021)
Image: Cameron County sits at the intersection of the PA Wilds Dark Skies landscape and the Elk Country landscape. It is both a place for amazing stargazing and wildlife watching.
Deer, elk, fish, and predators were abundant. There are many tales of herds of elk and deer so plentiful that they’d jump into hunting boats, tales of 11-foot-long panthers, and tales of dens of rattlesnakes circling the trading posts and campfires, both near and far.
The area was not without strife. Floods and fires plagued the early settlers, but these settlers would persevere over many challenges. And the people that followed throughout the history of Cameron County had a talent for persevering over the challenges that faced them.
With the majority of history throughout the time of Cameron County’s earliest settlers going unrecorded, the heritage that remains comes from stories told time and time again. Although the proportions to which the events actually occurred could be doubted, it is fun to believe them. Telling these campfire stories as a tribute breathes life into those long-passed. (O’Malley, 2021)
One story that has been recorded is one within the Civil War. (The full story can be found at ExplorePAHistory.com.) The Bucktail Brigade formed through sheer determination and will, earning themselves a legendary status and admiration. Composed of common people, farmers and hunters pinned the white bucktails to their caps, signifying their commitment and accuracy. Although most were not familiar with the equipment they were being asked to use, they were determined. 300 men disembarked onto three rafts they built in the Sinnemahoning River, taking the 70-mile float to Lock Haven. The brigade set a standard in marksmanship so high that more North Central Pennsylvania men were called upon to aid The Union. The heroism and bravery of these men was monumented following the war with statues standing in Gettysburg to commemorate them.
Image: Private Franklin W. Lehman of Co. C, 149th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment (“Bucktails”). From the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (Public domain)
Economically speaking, Cameron County’s manufacturing played supportive roles in both World Wars. The Incandescent Lamp Company, or Sylvania Electronics, called Emporium home. It was founded in 1907, with a workforce made up mostly of women, and operated until 1990. In the beginning days of business, the factory was called Novelty Incandescent Lamp Co., which focused on producing specialty lamps. Because of the sheer amount of employment opportunities, many young women from the surrounding areas made the journey into town for work, especially once war time efforts began. It quickly earned Emporium the nickname “girls’ town.” A write-up in Collier’s Magazine announced this phenomena to the world, forever emboldening the sleepy, woodsman town of Emporium into the national media. Deeming the young women as talented workers and dedicated to the cause, the piece made its way around the world, and the girls of Girls’ Town became admired and acknowledged for the important, concise, tedious work they were doing. They even began to receive letters and telegrams! (MacDonald, 2021)
You can read more of the quite interesting article here: Girls’ Town
Incandescent Lamp Company went on to change hands multiple times; General Motors claimed ownership of it from 1910 to 1921. Then after the post-World War II economic depression set in, the decision was made to close the doors. It would not be for long. As local entrepreneurs Bernard Erskine, Joseph Wortman, and Guy Felt took quite a calculated risk, during a recession mind you, and decided to purchase the assets, renaming the company Novelty Incandescent Lamp Co., or Nilco Lamp Works. The new owners made the decision to move all production to St. Mary’s facilities. (MacDonald, 2021) This was the first major historically recorded blow to the large-scale employment opportunities in Cameron County.
Other large-scale misses have included the collapse of the forest industry and powdered metal manufacturing. Starting officially in 1990 and peaking during the 2008 recession, people started to value hardwood products, like hand-built furniture, less. Mills all throughout the United States closed their doors, leaving subsequent logging businesses, graders, truck drivers, and laborers on their own. Powdered metal manufacturing followed the same curve, with the most recent facility closure last year.
With these moments many have come to view Emporium and Cameron County as a whole, it has been summarized as “a missed opportunity.”
I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to sit down with Josh Zucal, the Cameron County Events Coordinator. Josh is a local and an entrepreneur. He is the proud owner of The Aroma Cafe and runs his own coffee bean roasting company – Bearded Brewing, which supplies The Aroma Cafe of Emporium, The Keystoned Cafe & Natural Shoppe of Kane, Mudbeards Bikes and Boards of Ridgway, and the Cameron County Chamber of Commerce with his packaged products.
Where to Find Bearded Brewing Packaged Products
Josh finds resonance in being the connection, in seeing and capitalizing on the opportunity to cultivate culture within Cameron County.
With many things, a rest button has been pushed on the passion and economics of this unique, once economically rich region of the state. But be it an influx of attention, professionals, entrepreneurs, funding, or simply passion, both locals and those unfamiliar to the area are starting to see the potential of the hidden gem that is Cameron County.
With the potential for progress in Cameron County, though, comes the need for caution. As Josh put it, “There are two stop lights and to the naked eye, nothing – not a thing else. There is beauty in that.”
Cameron County not only holds the potential for growth, which is undoubtedly important in an age that shrinkage is almost guaranteed, but it holds something in the nothing-ness; having not a thing is indeed special.
Image: Street in downtown Emporium, Kyle Yates
How many towns can you seek out to visit that once you enter there are no billboards? This was an especially enticing question to pounder as Josh spoke from a chain coffee shop along the four-lane highway of the neighboring City of St. Marys, which is 20 miles distance and 20 miles travel time from Emporium.
Serving as the county seat, Emporium sits in the north central portion of the county. Driftwood, however, is 37 miles and a 50-minute drive away from St. Marys, which speaks to the vast, mountainous region Cameron County encompasses. Driftwood is in the furthest south eastern portion of the county. Surrounded by state parks and forests, game lands and wild areas, it is possible many people have passed through without ever knowing where they were. This was considered the last frontier of the region, separated from the surrounding more densely populated areas by breathtaking views and hundreds of miles of trails.
Cameron County won’t be and hasn’t been sparked to life by one person or agency, not by one industry, company, or plan. It is being reignited from the inside – from people who want to create goodness for this community that they know, love, and fell in love with, just as it is.
To quote Josh, “There is no need to reinvent the wheel – it is truly a blank slate.”
Cameron County is an open drawing board to build a new economy and to create a new infrastructure literally inside the walls of businesses since passed. It is here that it is essentially an entrepreneur’s playground. Small businesses in Emporium and Driftwood are hosted by owners who were drawn to the area out of a need for the stillness, the serene, the nothingness.
Unlike that drawing board, those who are raising Cameron County up are not blank or lost for ideas.
Culture is being cultivated from what already exists in Cameron County. Similar to how the county began, the current population is again using what surrounds them, creating new businesses within the walls built decades ago. Building a rapport with the local community, they held their first farmers’ market last year! As recreationalists come to visit the area, the local government has directed investing towards hiking and biking trails and clean-up efforts to ensure that every person who chooses to spend their time in the county leaves with some good campfire stories to tell on the next visit. Emporium Hardwoods produces some of the highest quality hardwoods in the United States and has since 2010. The historic Hygrade Inn is newly renovated, along with churches, art galleries, and The Aroma Cafe. Sizerville State Park is ten minutes away, and the Rails-to-Trails program connected the neighboring City of St. Marys with an 18.7 mile trail, named the West Creek Trail.
Image: A room at the Hygrade Inn in Emporium
The once empty storefronts that line the main travel path through the county seat, Emporium, are now bustling with new businesses.
If you continue past these storefronts along route 120 you will travel through the heart of the county. Following the edge of Elk State Forest, arriving in Driftwood. Serving as the connection east towards Sinnemahoning or West towards Benezette, Driftwood hosts a single eatery, The Driftwood Saloon, a few bed and breakfasts, and miles upon miles of natural areas to explore. Surrounded by Johnson Run Natural Area and the Quehanna Wilds, the southernmost portion of Cameron County features attractions like The Bucktail Overlook, Fred Woods Trail, and Elk Country Campground. There is certainly much to see and experience.
As Cameron County continues to regenerate themselves, the residents are reminded of the strength and determination that came before them. They are granted with the gifts of knowledge, experience, and lessons learned from observing growth in other areas. It is with these values and gifts that they have the opportunity to invoke change. More so, the opportunity to control how their community grows. The small businesses here are striving to provide for their communities, to enhance the environment that surrounds them, to build harmony between those born into and those searching for the quiet, the serene, The Nothingness that envelops the heart of the PA Wilds.
MacDonald, Andrea L. “Preservation Backstory: Emporium’s Sylvania Corporation Marker.” Pennsylvania Historic Preservation, 14 July 2021, https://pahistoricpreservation.com/preservation-backstory-emporiums-sylvania-corporation-marker/.
O’Malley, Michael. “Cameron County: Where Legends Are Legion.” Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine, 24 June 2021, http://paheritage.wpengine.com/article/cameron-county-where-legends-legion/.
Things to Do in Driftwood/Sinnemahoning
Info on Fred Woods Trail provided by PA Hikes
Info on Bucktail Overlook provided by Pennsylvania Great Outdoor Visitors Bureau
Elk Country Campground Website
Locations and Hours of Local Businesses visit https://www.gracebykalieanne.com
About Kalie Schmader:
Kalie fell in love with the PA Wilds after moving to The Wilds with her parents and younger sister in 2006. When they found their soon to be home in Weedville, it was love at first hike. The girls would spend all their time wandering and exploring the vastness that was perpetually available; it was here that Kalie thought “everyone should get to experience this: wild, raw nature.” Graduating from Slippery Rock University with a Major in Environmental Studies and a Minor in Nonprofit Management, she set out on her mission. After graduating she decided to remain in Elk County. Now residing in St. Marys, she continues to spend her time soaking up the PA Wilds through kayaking, fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, and motorcycling through the mountains every chance she gets. Kalie now serves as the Secretary for Elk County Council on the Arts and launched her own business, GrACE by Kalie Anne, LLC. Focused on bringing Green Alternatives & Community Education to the forefront of the local economy Kalie aims to create a more sustainable future, ensuring everyone has a chance to experience the very same vastness she fell in love with. Her website, GrACEbyKalieAnne.com features directories that spotlight the businesses, products, and services offered in and around Elk County.
More From Our Blog