Aldrich History Project

Chapter XIX

Political History of Clearfield County


The political history of Clearfield county is singular in this respect: While the first third of the century passed without the county assuming a position of any importance in the politics of the State, in the latter part of the century she has exercised a commanding influence in at least one of the great political parties of the State.


The first election that tradition gives us was held in the year 1804, when Thomas Jefferson was elected president of the United States. The officers of that election were John Bloom, Matthew Ogden and one other whose name has been lost. The issue in the election appeared to be confined to the prejudice that then existed between the tory element and the patriots of the Revolution. A riot occurred at the poll, there being but one election district in the county at the time. As the story of the election was told by one of the officers, the participants in the riot on the one side were Bloom and Ogden, assisted by their compatriots. The leaders on the other side were Caleb Bailey, Benjamin Hartshorn and others.

From that time down to 1832, there appeared to be no party division or party organization. Candidates for office were compelled to stand on their own merits, and if elected, it was done without the aid of party organization.

In the year 1832, William L. Moore, having become proprietor of the newspaper, attempted to effect the organization of the Democratic party, which was numerically in the ascendency in the county, but with indifferent success, and without succeeding in obtaining any recognition from the mass of the people. In 1834 an open rupture between the contending factions, one led by Moore and the other by Thomas Hemphill, took place, creating a division among the masses of the party which has never been entirely healed to the present time, but manifests itself whenever local issues of any importance arise. The old custom of springing independent candidates, after attempts at party nominations, was regularly followed.

In the year 1840 the first convention of regularly elected delegates of the Democratic party was held in Clearfield town, at which George R. Barrett was nominated for the Legislature. Immediately succeeding that nomination a mass-meeting was called, at which the late Governor William Bigler presided, and James H. Lafferty was put in nomination by that meeting for the same office. Lafferty was at the time the sitting member from this legislative district. The malcontents succeeded in obtaining recognition from the district convention which was composed of delegates from Clearfield, Clinton and Lycoming counties. After receiving the nomination in the district convention his election was easily accomplished, but before the time of the meeting of the Legislature arrived, there developed the fact that he had engaged in fraudulent and corrupt practices while in the Legislature the year before, one of which was receiving certain town lots in Lock Haven as a compensation for his vote upon certain measures. Political excitement at the time ran high. Lafferty took fright and fled the State, and as a consequence, the district had no representation in the Legislature that year.

The disastrous ending of the Lafferty bolt had such an effect upon the minds of the members of the Democratic party as to make a more perfect party organization not only feasible but desirous upon the part of all factions. The succeeding year Barrett, Lafferty's opponent of the preceding year, was nominated and elected, and the regular party nominations were elected by the people until 1844. Up to this time there existed no other party organization in the county. Alexander Irvin, that year, ran as a Whig, but without party nomination, for the office of prothonotary, and was elected over Constance C. Hemphill. In 1842, Dr. Henry Loraine, a practicing physician of the town of Clearfield, received the instructions of Clearfield county for Congress. The convention of the district was held at Clearfield, where he was nominated by the convention of the district. The Democratic party had a fair working majority in the district at the time, but on account of the personal unpopularity of the candidate he was defeated at the polls.

The political history of the county was uneventful from that time until 1848, when political feeling was again aroused to a high pitch of excitement in the dominant party by the candidature of William Bigler for the office of governor. All factional differences gave way before his personal popularity, and the general desire on the part of the people that Clearfield county should furnish as executive to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He was defeated, however, for the nomination.

In the year 1847 Alexander Irvin succeeded in effecting a partial organization of the Whig party and received the nomination of the party for Congress, he being the first member of the House of Congress ever elected from Clearfield county. Notwithstanding it was the year of the presidential election, his personal popularity was so great that he succeeded in evading the Democratic party sufficiently to overcome the existing majority.

As is usual after such revolutions in party politics, the waters became placid again, and nothing of note or event occurred to disturb the harmony of party relations until 1851, when William Bigler became again a candidate for governor, the effect of which was to break down party lines in the enthusiasm of the people in his support. He was placed in nomination by the State convention and elected.

The next year a contest arose over the nomination for the office of sheriff. Isaac L. Barrett, brother of Judge George R. Barrett, became a candidate for the place. When the convention assembled it was found that delegates enough had been instructed for him to nominate on the first ballot. This apparently aroused again the old factional fight of the Lafferty campaign of twelve years before. The Whigs placed in nomination William Powell, of the borough of Clearfield, who was supported also by the Lafferty Democrats. This, perhaps, was the most bitter, acrimonious contest ever known in the politics of the county, it being the year of a presidential election. The charge of treason to the organization was made freely on the one side. The bolters from the nomination defended themselves on the ground that it was the result of bossism and personal dictation.

Powell at that time was the business partner of Governor Bigler, who had evinced great popularity the year before. He was also supported by William A. Wallace, then a young lawyer just entering politics. The result was in the defeat of Barrett and the election of Powell. From this time nothing occurred to disturb the political harmony of the county until 1854, when the advent of Know-Nothingism caused the complete disintegration of the Whig party, and drew largely from the Democratic organization. Governor Bigler having been nominated again by the State convention, it was thought by party managers that he would have power to preserve the integrity of the party organization and hold the members to their allegiance; but even his popularity failed to a certain extent, and he received less than half the majority of the votes that had been given three years before.

The county convention this year instructed their congressional delegates to support George R. Barrett for Congress. The conference met in Brookville, Jefferson county. There were twenty-four delegates. Barrett received twelve votes for fifty-seven ballots, when finally David Barkely, of Jefferson county, was placed in nomination; he having also received secretly the nomination of the Know Nothings, he was elected without difficulty.

The Know-Nothing party, like all organizations of the kind, exhibited its greatest strength at the first election held after its organization became complete, and, although it had in that campaign a leader of recognized ability and eloquence in the person of H. Bucher Swoope, who had but recently become a resident of the county, yet the Democratic party resumed its old majority in the succeeding year. During the pending the Know-Nothing contest, the opposition party to the Democratic party, for the first time, had the benefit of a newspaper organ, edited by the brilliant but erratic H. Bucher Swoope.

This year George R. Barrett, having been elected judge of a district in the eastern part of the State, withdrew from politics, which left one of the contending factions without a leader in whom they had confidence, and practically solidified the Democratic party under the leadership of Governor Bigler. The succeeding year, 1856, was perhaps the most memorable one in the history of the political parties in Clearfield county up to that time. Mr. Buchanan then being the presidential candidate of the united Democrat party, left nothing to disturb the sincerity of its councils.

Mr. Swoope had disposed of the Raftman's Journal to S. B. Rowe, who, in its columns, advocated the election of John C. Fremont, and commenced the labor of building up the Republican organization in the county. Swoope espoused the cause of Millard Fillmore, and rallied to his support the fragments of the old Know-Nothing party organization that still remained in existence. In the eager and exciting contest that followed in the early part of that campaign, the Democratic party appeared to be lost sight of by them. So fierce did it become that personal encounters between leaders frequently occurred. However, early in the campaign the State organizations of the two contending factions succeeded in concentrating upon one State ticket, the effect of which was to renew the fight between the united factions of the opposition and the Democratic party. In this same year a memorable joint discussion of the political issues was held at Cherry Tree, in Indiana county, the meeting being composed of voters of Clearfield, Indiana and Cambria counties. George R. Barrett and William A. Wallace represented the Democratic party and General Harry White, of Indiana, and the late Cyrus Jeffries, of Clearfield county, representing the other side.

The year 1857 was noted for a bolt on the part of Clearfield county Democrats from the district nomination for the Legislature. The nominee of the convention was Judge Wilcox, the counties of Elk and McKean overruling the county of Clearfield. The Democrats of Clearfield rebelled at this, and put in nomination James T. Leonard. The contest that followed was on account of the fact that the people of Clearfield county had recently had introduced, by lumbermen from Maine, the system of floating loose logs in the river and its tributaries to Lock Haven and Williamsport for manufacture into lumber. Prior to that time the only manner of transporting lumber to markets had been by rafts. Indictments had been preferred against these innovators, charging them with committing a nuisance, on the ground that the river, being a public highway, these logs by lodging on rocks and islands, so obstructed the channel as to make the passage dangerous. Failing under the rulings of the court to maintain their position, they demanded legislation on the subject, and upon this issue supported James T. Leonard as an independent candidate. The result, however, was the election of Wilcox, Leonard carrying Clearfield county by a small majority.

While the succeeding years of 1858-9 were marked in the county by great political excitement, growing out of the Kansas and Nebraska trouble, and the rupture between Stephen A. Douglas and James Buchanan, yet in local affairs there were no events of any practical importance. While it was evident that the supporters of Mr. Douglas were largely in the ascendency, yet neither faction became organized as against the other until the year 1860. In this year the Democratic party assumed the position in this county that the opposition party occupied in 1856. Immediately after the rupture at the Charleston convention, meetings were held throughout the county, and members of the party arranged themselves on their respective sides. The regular organization was controlled by the Breckenridge Democrats. The chairman of their county committee was D. F. Etzweiler. The chairman of the Douglas wing of the party was Walter Barrett. The Breckenridge organization was sustained and supported by Governor William Bigler and William A. Wallace. The Douglas organization was actively sustained by L. Jackson Krans, with the passive but effective support of Judge George R. Barrett.

While it could not but be evident to the party leaders on both sides that defeat was inevitable, yet the whole campaign appeared to be waged with the object of securing control of the regular party organization, which contest culminated at the regular annual meeting held in September following. The Douglas men had imported Richard Baux, of Philadelphia, who was an elector at large, to represent them. Under the existing party rules, the chairman of the annual meeting appointed the chairman of the county committee. The result of the contest was that James T. Leonard, a Douglas Democratic elector, was made president of the meeting, and L. Jackson Krans was appointed chairman of the county committee. Perhaps never in the history of Clearfield county was there exhibited a deeper feeling than in this bitter contest. Mr. Baux was speaking from the steps of Judge Leonard's residence on Second street, and Governor Bigler was at the same time addressing an audience from his own residence on the same street.

The Republican party had, by this time, so far progressed in its organization as to absorb nearly all of the old American or Fillmore party, with the exception of Mr. Swoope, its leader, and a few devoted followers, who still supported the Bell and Everett American ticket.

 The Douglas Democracy obtained the instructions of the regular party organization of the county for James T. Leonard for Congress. The Republicans instructed for General John Patton. The result in the respective district conventions was the defeat of Leonard, and the nomination of James K. Kerr, of Venango county. The Republicans, more fortunate, however, secured the nomination of General Patton. The district, at that time was known as the "Wild Cat" district, extending from the West Branch of the river to Lake Erie. Generally it had been a Democratic district, although during the previous term in Congress it was represented by Chapin Hall, a Republican, through the dissensions in the Democratic party. General Patton was elected through the same cause, carrying Clearfield county by a majority of sixty.

In the year 1861 there appeared to be, on account of the war, a disintegration of parties, followed by an active, complete, and thorough organization in the year 1862. This year was marked by the advent into politics of William A. Wallace, who afterward became a prominent central figure in Pennsylvania politics, and who was elected to the State Senate from the district composed of Clearfield, Cambria and Blair counties, over Lewis W. Hall, then the sitting member. Excepting the rancorous feeling engendered by the war, which was in progress at this time, nothing occurred out of the usual course of partisan politics.

In 1864, the anti-war feeling, fear and distrust that pervaded the people, engendered partly by the bitter antagonisms brought about by the war, and the discussions of its causes, in part induced by a rigid enforcement of the draft, and in a measure, by demagogical appeals to the feelings and passions of the people on both sides, Clearfield county achieved an unenviable position and reputation during the war. This excitement culminated in an immense mass-meeting assembling in the rear of the court-house on the 13th of August to protest against the course of Mr. Lincoln's administration in the conduct of the war.

In the same year, 1864, Governor William Bigler was pressed by Clearfield county for the nomination for Congress, which he obtained from the district convention. Although defeated at the general election, he received the largest majority that had ever been given to a candidate in Clearfield county before, notwithstanding it was the year of a presidential election in which party organizations were strictly maintained and party lines closely drawn. From this time, the war having closed, people appeared to be too much engrossed in adjusting themselves and their business to feel much interest in politics, notwithstanding it was the period in which Andrew Johnson, then president of the United States, was waging his conflict with Congress. While people watched it with great interest and made it the uppermost subject of discussion at their usual evening resorts, yet nothing of interest occurred to affect local politics. The harmony of party relations appeared to be preserved on both sides.

In the year 1868, Judge Linn, then president judge of the judicial district in which Clearfield county was included, having resigned his commission, and Joseph B. McEnally appointed ad interim, it became necessary to elect a judge to fill the vacancy. The people, without distinction of party, were desirous of electing a Clearfield county man. Clinton county presented the name of Charles A. Mayer; Centre county that of John H. Orvis, and Clearfield county the name of George R. Barrett, who was then president judge of the Twenty-second judicial district, but who had always maintained a domicile in Clearfield county. A long and protracted contest followed, the convention sitting in every county of the district, and finally resulted in the withdrawal of the Clearfield county delegates from the convention. A request was presented to Judge Barrett, signed by nearly a thousand Democrats, asking him to be an independent candidate. The Republican party at a mass meeting held at Clearfield, also endorsed him as their candidate. After holding the matter some days under advisement, he declined to allow the use of his name, for the reason that it would lead him into a contest not befitting his present position. The result was the nomination by Centre and Clinton counties of Charles A. Mayer, who was subsequently elected over Joseph B. McEnally, the nominee of the Republican district convention, and the appointee of Governor Geary.

In the year 1869 the new methods throughout the State, and the nation as well, being bred, perhaps, by the disorders arising from the reconstruction of the Southern States, and known throughout the country as practical politics, appeared to be receiving attention, close study, and aptitude in practice by those in official power, which resulted in the formation at this time of what has been known in local politics as the "Court-house Ring." Mythical and intangible in its nature, invisible to the eye, but always felt in practical effect. It soon became apparent to all aspirants for the political and local honors, that the pilgrimage to Clearfield borough, the conciliation of certain influences, and the approval of certain parties were a condition precedent to a realization of their hopes. At this time, the people felt that the public offices were filled by men of fair character and competency, yet from year to year they were becoming less potent in the selection of their public servants. The absence of scandal, charges or suspicion of those in office, turned the attention of the people to the methods by which the officials were selected. Complaints and ominous threats were heard loud and deep, and finally culminated in an explosion in 1873. In that year feeling ran high in the Democratic primaries. James Savage and W. R. McPherson were candidates for sheriff; Dr. T. J. Boyer and Dr. J. W. Potter were candidates for the Legislature; W. W. Worrell and David W. Wise were candidates for treasurer; Frank Fielding and Aaron G. Kramer were candidates for district attorney. McPherson was nominated for sheriff, Boyer for the Legislature, Worrell for treasurer, and Fielding for district attorney. The announcement of this ticket met with open defiance, and charges were made that some of the nominees had been counted in by manipulators at the primaries. John M. Cumming, of New Washington, the friend and neighbor of Savage, whom he believed to have been wrongfully deprived of his nomination, appeared to be the prominent leader of the revolt. Protests and calls for another convention were freely circulated among the people, and the result was another convention within a month and the placing in nomination of the defeated ticket, with minor exceptions. This was followed by a heated and angry contest, the Republicans making no nominations. The result at the polls showed the election of McPherson by a small majority. Potter and Wise defeated Boyer and Worrell, and Fielding was elected district attorney, there being no charges against the fairness of his nomination.

The democrats engaged in this revolt, and all who had supported the independent ticket, were subjected to severe censure and abuse by the friends and supporters of the regular nominees. The newspaper organ of the regular Democratic organization gave them the name of Modocs.

They made a regular organization, appointing Henry Kerns, of Curwensville, chairman of the county committee. At a meeting held subsequently it was resolved to continue the party for the present in full organization. A mass-meeting was held by the people of the south part of the county, at Ansonville, addressed by Colonel Walter Barrett, at which it was resolved to maintain the organization and make it effective whenever improper nominations were made. The regular organization, becoming alarmed, called a meeting of the county committee, upon the assembling of which David L. Krebs, the chairman, resigned, and William M. McCullough was elected to his stead, to conciliate independent Democrats. A convention was called and the rules changed, the Crawford system abolished, and in its place a limited delegate system adopted.

In the year 1874 an exceptionally strong ticket was nominated and elected with the usual majority. Emboldened by this, the old manipulators, by the same methods, as it was charged, effected the nomination of J. Blake Walters for county treasurer.

In the meantime a new factor in county politics had developed itself in the shape of a secret organization, styling themselves "the Junior Sons of '76." This organization joined with the independent Democrats and the stronger and more influential element of the Republican party, and placed in nomination Captain David McGaughey. The result at the polls showed the defeat of Walters and the election of McGaughey.

The effect of this movement was most salutary, not only upon the parties, but upon the people and the confidence that it inspired in the ability of the Democratic party to purify itself when necessary, was shown by the fact that in the succeeding year Samuel J. Tilden received the unprecedented majority of nineteen hundred and one, an achievement never before or since accomplished. Calmness appeared to follow this storm until 1878, when Clearfield county instructed for Israel Test for Congress, but failed to secure his nomination, he being defeated by ex-Governor Andrew G. Curtin, of Centre county.

This year the Greenback party, a new organization, had received large accessions from the Democratic ranks, joined with the Republicans and nominated Seth H. Yocum, or Bellefonte. The result was the defeat in the district of Governor Curtin by less than one hundred majority. This was followed by a contest, and to the great credit of Clearfield county it can be said that while hundreds of witnesses were examined, and months consumed in taking testimony, no act of moral turpitude was proven or discovered. The basis of the contest was the irregularity of votes, such as for non-payment of taxes, voters moving in and out of districts within the time prescribed by the constitution and other like reasons.

Two years following Clearfield county instructed for Governor Curtin for Congress, who was elected by a fair majority in the district, the Greenback party having dissolved.

In 1844 commenced one of the most memorable contests known in the history of congressional nominations in Pennsylvania. Clearfield county again pronounced in favor of ex-Governor Curtin and appointed Walter Barrett, Thomas Brocbank and George W. Dickey, conferees; Centre county, his own home, also instructed for him and appointed William H. Blair, L. Munson, and Dr. J. O. Loraine, conferees. The first session of the conference was held at Lock Haven. Adjourning from there, it sat in every county in the district except Clearfield. While sitting in Bellefonte, Walter Barrett, on behalf of Clearfield county, and General Blair on behalf of Centre county, withdrew from the conference and placed Governor Curtin in nomination for the office. The Republican district conference was sitting in Bellefonte at the time. Four weeks had been exhausted in a fruitless attempt at a nomination. The moving cause of the withdrawal of Clearfield and Centre counties from the conference was the appearance before them of a committee from the Republican conference, led by Colonel D. H. Hastings, pledging to Clearfield and Centre that if they would nominate Governor Curtin, they, the Republicans, would adjourn without making a nomination, and that they would have no candidate, but their party support Governor Curtin. Relying upon this pledge Clearfield took the action indicated, the remaining four counties nominating James K. P. Hall. After the conferees separated and returned to their homes, the Republicans re-assembled their conference, substituting delegates in place of those who maintained their pledge and adhered to their support of Governor Curtin, and nominated General John Patton, of Clearfield county. After this had been done, some Democrats, fearing the result, through the intercession of mutual friends, induced Governor Curtin and Mr. Hall each to submit the question of his candidacy to the Democratic State Central Committee. They decided in favor of Governor Curtin the Saturday night before the election. The election resulted in favor of Governor Curtin and the defeat of General Patton.

In 1885, the only exciting contest that was made was for the office of sheriff. The two principal competitors for the nomination on the Democratic side were Hiram Woodward and George Woodin. The latter received the nomination after a long and heated canvass, but by imprudence and indiscretion made himself unpopular with many voters of his party. The Republicans, not slow to see the opportunity presented them, placed in nomination Jesse E. Dale, the postmaster at Du Bois, a man of sterling character, pleasing manners, of large and strong family connection, all of which combined to make his election easy. The defeat of Mr. Woodin can hardly be called a defeat of the Democratic party, nor could the election of Mr. Dale be claimed as a Republican victory; it was more of a personal contest between the two candidates and their political adherents.

In the year 1886 the political waters of Clearfield county began to boil early. William A. Wallace, having for a long time been spoken of as a candidate for governor at the coming election, became in July an active aggressive candidate, a fact which interested his friends, companions, and neighbors in politics in Clearfield county. He was defeated, however, in the convention by Chauncey F. Black.

Dr. T. W. Potter had been announced as a candidate for Congress, but immediately withdrew, and the friends of Mr. Wallace made him a candidate for the office. He was supported in the convention by Clearfield and Centre counties. He failed to receive the nomination however, and James K. P. Hall was nominated by the convention.

The Republicans, as usual, on the alert for opportunities, nominated General John Patton. Then followed the most irregular political contest that was ever seen in Clearfield county. Democrats who had never before wavered in their fidelity to their party, boldly avowed their intention of opposing Hall. Mr. Hall sent one of his brothers to Clearfield county to manage his canvass. Every effort was made to induce deserting Democrats to return to their allegiance, but it was all in vain. General Patton was elected by a majority of eighty in the county, while Chauncey F. Black, the Democratic candidate for governor, had a majority of fifteen hundred and one.

The result of this contest being yet fresh in the minds of the people is regarded and looked upon by all, as another of those periodical punishments inflected by an independent people for the use of means and methods in American politics, that are subversive of good government and corrupting to good morals. General Patton had achieved a reputation in Clearfield county and the whole district as well, for charity, benevolence, and public spiritedness that made it an easy matter for the Republican party, using him as a weapon to break down the existing Democratic majority; a man of large wealth, intricate business interests ramifying through every section of the county, he was well and personally known to nearly all the voters. His connection with educational and church affairs was such as to bring him an active support from that quarter.


Source: Pages 313-322, History of Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, edited by Lewis Cass Aldrich, Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Co., Publishers, 1887.

Transcribed May 1999 by Connie L. Robinson for the Clearfield County Aldrich Project
Contributed for use by the Clearfield County Genealogy Project (

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