Milton History

a pictorial history of Milton, PA

West Milton - County’s only Railroad Town

Printed in 1931: It might be possible to write a history of France covering the period of 1780 to 1818 without mentioning the name of Napoleon; but the history would be rather inaccurate. And it might be possible to write a sketch about West Milton without mentioning the name of Datesman: but the sketch would be lacking in some very vital points. For it was a Datesman who built the first house in West Milton (see the note at the bottom about this statement). lt was a Datesman for whom the town was originally named. It was a father and son by the name of Datesman who conducted a grain business there for 62 years. The name of Datesman is quite as important to West Milton as the name of Ludwig Derr and John Brown are vital to the history of Lewisburg.

It was in 1834 that John Datesman decided to leave Northampton County. He took up his abode opposite Milton, where he built a store which he opened the following year. This building is still standing (1931) opposite the entrance to the river bridge. Here, in the first building in West Milton, he set up a flourishing business which he continued to operate until 1870, when his son, Ephraim, took charge, continuing it to 1906. In this building, which was a house and store combined, were born and lived three generations of Datesmans. But no Datesman ever died there, although two relatives of that family did pass away within the brick walls.

Ephraim Datesman, the son, who was born February 2nd, 1846, now resides in Milton, where he is still involved in the grain business. Although a man of 85, he is still as active and alert as most men are in the prime oflife.

In the days before the building of the Lewisburg and Tyrone Railroad, the farmers brought their grain and lumber to Datesman’s store on sleds during the winter months. They came regularly each year from Sugar and Brush valleys. As many as 50 or 60 teams would tie up at the store in a single day. They would leave for home loaded up with dry goods and plaster, stopping for the night at White Deer. At Datesman’s store they were assured of a royal welcome, for on the counter was whiskey, beer, cheese and crackers, as was the custom in those days.

Ephraim Datesman recalls that he paid out as much as $175,000 a year for wheat and corn. The lowest prices he ever paid were during the panic of 1893, when he bought wheat for 30 cents, corn for 20 cents, and oats for 14 cents. The highest he ever paid for wheat in West Milton was $3.15 following the Civil War. Grain cost him more in Milton, however, for during the World War before the government took charge, wheat cost him $3.40, oats $1.25. And corn $2.25, and Ephraim Datesman ought to know whereof he speaks, for he has been in the grain business longer than any other man in the West Branch Valley. For 65 years he has bought and sold wheat, often losing money, but oftener making it, for he knows the grain business from beginning to end.

In this connection, we might note, although it has nothing in particular to do with West Milton, that Mr. Datesman believes that wheat has hit its bottom price. He sees every indication of stabilization. Fifty years ago, he said, the grain dealers of the United States knew nothing of Canadian wheat, but today it has assumed enormous proportions. Like everyone else who has studied the wheat question, he believes that over-production is the source of all the trouble. Although there is an import duty of 43 cents on wheat, Russia, with her convict or forced labor, can produce it more cheaply than we can in this country. The result is that Russian Capitalists at the Chicago grain market have been forcing the price down.

Due to the very poor corn crop, many of the farmers of this section are selling no wheat this year, but instead are going to use it for feed. Poor as a food itself because it is too pasty, it is fine when mixed with bran or oats.

But to get back to West Milton - as we have said, John Datesman built the first house. This first structure was followed by two others, belonging to the Keisers and Hoffmans. These three houses are still standing, and were the only ones there when Ephraim Datesman was a boy.

In 1906, Ephraim Datesman sold the old store to Levi Reedy, who rented it to Lincoln Mertz. Mertz ran it for several years, and then closed out. Later, Reedy sold the property to Miss Annie Lohr, of Lewisburg. It is interesting to note that the year before Datesman sold his business, he took in receipts totaling $15,000.

At least four wagon bridges, besides four railroad bridges have been built between Milton and West Milton. The first, a wooden wagon bridge, went out in the flood of 1865. The second, an iron structure, was washed away in 1889. The bridge had not been rebuilt by 1894, and consequently was not taken away. Shortly after 1894, a new bridge was built, which stood until it was rebuilt several years ago.

The original railroad bridge was built in 1871. This was washed away in 1889. Trestles were thrown up, which were used until the new bridge was built a year later. This bridge went out in 1894. Another was built, which stood until several years ago, when a stronger structure was erected.

The wooden bridge of course was a toll bridge. It cost 50 cents to drive over it with a two horse wagon.

During the interval following the 1889 flood that there was no bridge, a ferry was used. During the 60s, of course, there was no Reading Railroad, and the Datesmans shipped their grain from Milton. When the flood of 1865 took out the bridge, they had to stop buying grain immediately, for there was no way of getting rid of it except by taking it across the river in boats, which they did for a time.

All of the towns along the Susquehanna River suffered to a greater or lesser extent by the three great floods which swept the West Branch Valley. The first, which occurred in 1865, and which took out the West Milton bridge, was the least damaging of all. In Datesman’s store, it reached a depth of 18 inches in the storeroom.

At this time, Ephraim Datesman was away to war, and his father was running the business. After the flood had abated, a group of farmers visited the store and asked if they might help clean up the cellar, knowing that there was a half barrel of whisky down there. The elder Datesman told them to go ahead, giving each a tin cup. They went down with a grim determination, but returned staggering. In the cellar, besides the whisky, there were cans of coal oil and barrels of molasses. None of these containers, including the whiskey barrel, were tightly closed. The result was that the farmers, although they went down in the cellar to drink whisky, drank a high-ball of whisky, molasses, and coal oil, mixed with muddy water. The store sold whisky wholesale, as did many other stores at that time.

During the flood of 1889, which was the highest on record in the West Branch Valley, the water reached a depth of six and a half feet in Datesman’s Store. Four years later it was almost as high, reaching six feet. Up to 1889, there were five steps in front of the store. The water did so much damage that it was necessary to dump 300 loads of ground about the property. This left only two steps. Today, with the construction of the new road, the property is below the level of the surrounding land. During the flood of 1889, the wire fence at Datesman’s Store held back tons and tons of logs. And this is saying a lot for the wire fence, when it is considered that the water moved the building six inches. lt took twenty men a whole morning to move the grain from the first floor to the second when the danger of the flood became apparent.

West Milton was originally called “Datesmans Station” or just “Datesmans.” The Catawissa Branch of the Reading Railroad came to town in 1871-73, and was immediately built through to Williamsport. There was no station or ticket office, but tickets were sold at Datesman’s Store. Consequently, West Milton was known as Datesman’s Station. Ephraim Datesman sold tickets at the store, disposing of 100 in a single day during the Centennial in 1876. One day the railroad officials called on him, asking him to send out an itemized statement each day. This he refused to do, saying that his monthly salary of $3.50 would hardly pay tor the postage. Some years later, the company built a station, offering him the agency, but he refused it. After the construction of the station, the name of Datesmans Station was changed to West Milton.

John Datesman was appointed Postmaster by President Jackson in 1828, and served until Cleveland’s second term. He therefore served over 60 years and holds the record to this day as the longest reigning Postmaster in the United States. Four years later, his son, Ephraim was appointed Postmaster and served for 13 years.

THE ARRIVAL of the Reading Railroad in 1871 picked up the pace. Two coal and lumber yards and a chop mill soon faced the tracks, and by the 1890s there was a baker, a confectioner, an ice cream parlor and a bicycle shop, and at the turn of the century the population was about 350.

Notable among the business community were the Fisher and Ranck families. William Fisher learned the hardware trade as a clerk for William H. Dennis, and eventually purchased the business. He carried a full line of shelf and heavy hardware, stoves, heaters, and ranges, cutlery, paints and oils, flour and feed, as well as a variety of farm machinery, and he huckstered stoves and hardware in his earlier years. He was also postmaster, and it was from his store that rural mail was first delivered in 1917. In 1900 he added Atlantic Gasoline to his stock, and seventy years later his son and daughter were the second oldest dealers of Atlantic-Arco products in the company’s distribution system.

Mr. and Mrs. John Ranck, the founders of the family in the area, had come to the future site of New Columbia in 1797, a part of this homestead remaining in the family for four generations. Their son Jonathan and his wife, Mary Dieffenderfer, were parents of ten children, most of whom found homes nearby; and their son Edward, who married Sarah Goodlander of White Deer, had eleven children. Two of the latter, John Jefferson Ranck and Samuel C. Ranck, were long-time New Columbia businessmen. The former learned the coach trade from William H. Blind, and after working as a journeyman at various places, returned home and built a shop and residence. He prospered and subsequently added an undertaking business. Samuel clerked in the general store of his brother-in-law, H. H. Trumfeller, and later bought the business. His daughter, Martha Ranck Farley, recalled that a Williamsport druggist spent several weeks with him to qualify him to handle drugs. She also remembered the demand for laudanum and patented remedies, and the need for restraint in dispensing them. Other specialties of the store were furniture and wallpaper. Samuel added a small overall factory to his businesses, employing several women, and with his brother laid out the New Columbia Cemetery, which was later moved to make room for highway construction.

Martha Ranck Farley also remembered that her grandfather had led a movement to grade the New Columbia school, and that she and three schoolmates had entered Milton High School, and, with the assistance of her Ranck kinsmen, had broken down the resistance of the school directors to the payment of tuition there. Other members of the Ranck family were teachers, physicians and farmers, and Dayton Ranck was the Treasurer of Bucknell University for many years.

In the twentieth century New Columbia shared West Milton’s boom times. In the war years many of its wage earners found employment in Milton and Watsontown, and in the post-World War II era, in the new industries which lined the river bank north of the village.

The rise of West Milton is associated with the growth of Milton across the river. But this was not evident at the outset, when the only commercial crossings were made by ferries. The building of the Milton-West Milton bridge in 1823, however, put the ferries out of business and placed West Milton upon a main highway. Even this was not a sufficient incentive to spawn a settlement, and for a time only the Hoffman and Bennage farms lay athwart the road. Jost Hoffman, of Lebanon County, had settled here in 1793, and the old Hoffman homestead, built in 1844 by his grandson George, still stands on High Street just east of the railroad.

About 1834 the Datesman and Jacob Keiser families removed here from Northampton County. John Datesman built a store at the entrance to the bridge, and Keiser bought the George Bennage farm and erected a fine brick house on it. And like the Hoffman residence it has survived the vicissitudes of West Milton’s history. For a number of years thereafter, the two farm houses and Datesman’s storehouse remained the only buildings on the site.

Datesrnan’s arrival was timely, the West Branch Canal having opened markets in Baltimore and Philadelphia. He was soon exchanging the wares of his well-stocked store for grain; and his reputation for fair dealing attracted the grain and lumber of Penns and Brush valleys in Centre County to his door, much of it carried on sleds during the winter months. His son, Ephraim, later recalled that as many as fifty teams would tie up to the hitching posts in a single day. From the morning through the afternoon and evening the conversation was a mixture of business and pleasure, with the conviviality enhanced by the warmth of the store and the whiskey, cheese and crackers on the counter. The following morning the drivers would start back with dry goods and metal wares, and possibly a few gallons of whiskey. Ephraim also remembered that he paid as much as $3.15 a bushel of wheat at the close of the Civil War, and as little as fifty cents for wheat, twenty cents for corn and fourteen cents for oats during the panic of 1893.

Through the seventy-three years that Datesman and his son operated the store, they were exposed many times to high water. The flood of 1865 swept away the bridge and reached a depth of eighteen inches in the storeroom. When neighbors offered to clean up the cellar, where the whiskey was stored, he accepted the offer and handed each volunteer a tin cup. Their initial determination did not sustain them long enough to complete the job. Instead, they came out staggering! The Johnstown flood of 1889 swept six and one-half feet of water through the store, but a work gang moved most of the goods to the second floor before the onslaught. Three hundred loads of ground were required to fill the crater in front of the store. Five years later another disastrous wall of water engulfed the store.

Ephraim sold out in 1906, but continued to operate a grain exchange in Milton, where he died in 1934 - two years before the record-breaking flood of 1936. The old Datesman property was at last razed in 1972 after a final battering from “Agnes,” the greatest flood of them all.

In 1871 the Catawissa branch of the Reading Railroad came to West Milton, the track crossing the river a few hundred yards south of the highway bridge. Turning here it continued northward to Williamsport. Change was now in the air. Ephraim Datesman became the passenger agent, selling the tickets across the counter of his store, and the whistle stop was called Datesman’s Station for a time. But when the Shamokin branch made a juncture with the Catawissa line in the village in 1882, the name was changed to West Milton.

Meanwhile in 1872, the Keisers began to parcel their farm into lots, and in 1883 they laid out a more extensive area. Sales do not appear to have been active at the beginning, but in 1901 the railroad built shops and yards to service the northern section of the two divisions, and West Milton at last blossomed. A survey of its architecture bears testimony to its rapid growth - most of the buildings suggesting the popular styles of the first quarter of the twentieth century.

In a few years the village had a population of 750, a hotel, stores, shops and schools and churches. John Datesman had been named its first postmaster in 1862, and he and Ephraim held the post for forty years. But the heart of the village was the railroad. About seventy-five of its residents were employed in the roundhouse and shops. There were section and work train gangs and yard men; also ash and coal dock men, air men and oilers, train men and telegraphers. Four of the latter were employed at the West Milton tower, one each, at New Columbia and White Deer, three at Allenwood, and forty between West Milton and Newberry. In the course of a day as many as seventeen to nineteen passenger trains required servicing in addition to the freight trains. There was also an annex, a short line connecting the station with the Pennsylvania railroad terminal in Milton - the last of its four daily runs returning at midnight. West Miltonians remember the scramble to catch it after an evening in Milton, and the long hike when they missed it.

A sizeable number of workmen moved to West Milton from Catawissa, where the Reading had closed a sub-station; others came from Shamokin. Among these railroad families were the Krells, Highs and Kochs; also Ed Begley, who worked on the track gang and married Amanda Huff. Ed was regarded as good company - “Happy-go-lucky,” and a bit “off-beat.” He drifted away after a few years to get into radio, and eventually to star on the stage and screen. His portrayal of William Jennings Bryan in the rendition of the Scopes trial remains an American classic.

The railroad helped to make West Milton a well-traveled community - the railroad passes permitting trips to Philadelphia and New York, or more locally, to Shamokin and Williamsport, and of course, to Milton on the annex.

With its converging lines and its many trains stopping at the station or yards, West Milton was a logical stopping place for “tramps,” who were “riding the rails.” Residents could almost forecast the state of the economy by the number of them gathered at their favorite camp fires at the water tank where the lines joined. Ordinarily, they did not disrupt the even tenor of the village, but some of the exceptions are still remembered. “Whiskied up” with “50 cent booze” a fracas here in 1914 resulted in the shooting of one participant, and the holding of two for assault and six others as witnesses. The victim was taken to the Williamsport Hospital and the others to the county jail in Lewisburg. The incident was back in the news a few weeks later when the sheriff’s five-year old son foiled an attempted jail break. Fortunately, the wound was not fatal, and the men were given a safe passage out of the county.

In perspective, West Milton’s railroad era lasted little longer than a generation. Its rail traffic slowed during the Great Depression, and the diesel engines, introduced in the 1940s, did not require the laborious servicing which had been lavished upon the steam locomotives. Interstate trucking also took its toll in the post-World War II years. In the 1970’s massive tractor-trailers roar across the center of the village on an elevated expressway, and the Susquehanna Trucking Company’s terminal looks down upon the ruins of the old railroad shops and yards.

By happenstance, West Milton spread out into two townships with Broad Street the dividing line between Kelly and White Deer - with two-thirds in the former and the remainder in the latter. It did not seem to matter at the time, but it has occasionally created problems. Children on the south side of Broad Street, for example, attended a school on Third Street in Kelly, and the children on the north side went to Washington School on the hill in White Deer. School consolidation was another divisive process, resulting in the White Deer students eventually joining the Milton District and the Kelly pupils, the Lewisburg.

Courtesy of Barbara Robertson; sources unknown

NOTE and map from Jack Fisher: Datesman's store was definitely not the first building in West Milton. This land was first settled in 1769 by my ancestor, Johannes Fisher, and his 5 sons and 5 daughters. Johannes and sons, Henry, Michael & Paul all had log cabins on this land. John died in 1794 and divided his land between his 5 sons. All later sold their land and moved on around 1800.

Map West Milton 1769

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