In Search of Old Shamokin, February 2021 edition. Runs last Saturday of every month in the Weekender.
Eyeing that unexplained sinkhole or dip in your backyard? According to bottle-digger Garry Reigle of Shamokin, it could be the site of a long-gone outhouse–and a forgotten trove of local history.
Over the past twelve years, Reigle estimates he has excavated over 1000 sites in Shamokin and surrounding areas, often accompanied by fellow hobbyist Chuck Harris, in search of rare bottles discarded as trash by prior generations. For many of us, history is found in the comfort of libraries and museums, but Reigle isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, following his passion for the past underground, into backyards, town dumps, and yes–even into former privies.
Before the modern convenience of indoor plumbing began to be taken for granted, the outhouse was a common sight. Like anything else, however, its usefulness had a lifespan–about ten years, according to Reigle, after which the hole would be filled in with large amounts of trash gathered from the household and neighbors. The result? Dozens, even hundreds, of glass bottles of every shape, size, and use: milk, beer, liquor, furniture polish, cure-alls. But the finds aren’t just limited to bottles.
Shortly after the turn of the 20th Century, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was rocked by an unprecedented political controversy surrounding the gubernatorial race of 1902. What would result was a statewide internecine contest between members of two opposing factions that extended to Northumberland County, and would determine the political futures of the most influential local leaders of the era.
In 1902, the political climate of Republican-controlled Pennsylvania was characterized by the reign of local “bosses,” popular leaders—elected or otherwise—who used their influence on a county or city level to promote their party’s interests and sway elections. Dominating this hierarchy of bosses within the Republican Party was Senator Matthew S. Quay, known by his admirers and detractors alike simply as “the old man,” a skilled political tactician who had discreetly directed the Pennsylvania “machine” for decades. The ever-increasing numbers of state Republicans who opposed Quay and his methods became known as the anti-Quay or anti-organization forces, or simply “insurgents.”
The conflict became an intimately familiar one even in Northumberland County, now back under Democrat control after having previously handed the district to Republicans with the election of Shamokin lumber magnate Monroe H. “Farmer” Kulp to the Seventeenth Congressional District from 1895-1899. Though no longer in office, Kulp was by no means retired from politics. Having declined to seek a third term ostensibly to focus on his business interests, Kulp sought to retain his influence in the region despite having had many of his political projects in Congress frustrated at the hands of machine leaders like Quay. By 1900, Kulp was already becoming known as Northumberland County’s “boss.” Local offices were constant sources of heated debate and rife with favoritism, including the particularly notorious postmaster offices. Kulp worked actively to install his own candidates in that office, ruffling feathers county-wide whenever another post office hopeful was passed over in favor of a “Kulpite” appointee.
In a city founded on industry, best known in its heyday as the commercial metropolis of the coal region, it is easy to overlook the role of the arts in Shamokin’s history. Nevertheless, music, dance, and theater were enthusiastically promoted in the community from its beginnings.
In the early years of the borough, musical selections were presented in concert and meeting halls in the upper floors of local businesses, or at the Academy of Music located at the current site of the American Legion Memorial. For the classically inclined, the G.A.R. hall at Independence and Cleaver Streets offered operas and ballet. Popular music also thrived with the formation of a number of brass and marching bands. But it was in the 1920s that Shamokin experienced what later authors would term a “Golden Age” of music in the history of the city.
Prior to the rise of Edgewood Park as Shamokin’s beloved recreational destination, area residents looked forward to the yearly opening of another attraction: the Shamokin Driving Park, located at Weigh Scales in Ralpho Township.
Built under the auspices of the Shamokin Agricultural & Driving Park Association, incorporated April 1, 1889, the destination combined a racetrack and fairgrounds, its busy season spanning late summer and fall after the model of similar harvest fairs and their venues in the region, such as the Milton Driving Park and the Bloomsburg Fair. Like its successors, the trolley parks of the early 20th Century, the Shamokin Driving Park’s sustaining force was transportation—in this case, being located near the confluence of the Pennsylvania, Reading, and Lehigh Valley Railroads.
“In addition to the railroads,” the Shamokin Herald wrote, “there is a wagon road leading to the park, capable of being transformed into one of the most beautiful drives to be found in the country, winding as it does, along the banks of Shamokin Creek, fringed on either side with tall and stately monarchs of the forest.”