On 15 July 1781, Washington County became a political unit in the state of Pennsylvania. It was divided by its creators into thirteen townships, the seventh of which was given the euphonious name of Hopewell. Later, at various points in time, much of this original Hopewell Territory was sliced off into yet other township entities. These newly erected parcels were named Cross Creek, Independence, and Jefferson, with a "left-over" amount added to Mt. Pleasant. A part of the original township of Hopewell, however, still beats that name at this writing in 2005.
Two boundaries of Hopewell are marked by the streams of Brush Run of Buffalo Creek on the south, and the south branch of Cross Creek on the north. The dividing ridge between these two streams runs easterly and westerly just slightly north of Hopewell's center. It is surrounding this dividing ridge that much of the beauty which is Hopewell exists.
The highway, familiarly known as "The Pike", follows the ancient pathway along this divider made by the first settlers into the area, and possibly by the Red Man who preceded them.
The largest concentration of population in the township is the quaint little Borough of West Middletown that also rests on this ridge. About 1880, it was written by a reputable historian that the following things could be found there: four churches, a school house, a post office, five stores, one drug store, two wagon shops, a machine shop, a cabinet maker's shop, a hotel, a livery stable, two blacksmith shops, and 75 dwellings, a third of which were brick. And included in the population of 312 were two resident physicians. It is also written that at some point in time, three taverns graced the streets of this fascinating little village. Apparently the residents felt compelled to assure that no one went away thirsty.
One of the first settlers in what was to become the village of West Middletown was a man named Galbraith Stewart, a blacksmith by trade. When Galbraith first arrived in 1795, he built one of the first dwellings and a smith shop for his business. He was followed by David Craig who settled in and opened a store. The Post Office arrived in 1805. Another storekeeper was Robert Garrett who was subsequently followed by William McKeever, a hatter. Some idea of the rapidity with which pioneers settled here can be illustrated by the fact that enough permanent families had moved in to require a town meeting for the public on 19 August 1823, for the purpose of considering a tax to pave the road through the village.
As the years went by, other men added their names to the long list of storekeepers and tradesmen, among them being John Allison, James McFadden, Thomas McCall, and James and Butler McVay. A man named Bell had a popular general store at the top of Fox Road, but today even the building is gone. The last storekeeper to close up shop was Homer Farrar who operated in the center of town until the 1950s or 60s. Today in 2005, it would take a miracle to find a door open for business where one could purchase a loaf of bread, a spool of thread, or a good cigar. It appears that the only certainty in life is change.
In addition to West Middletown, the other village that lays claim to existence in Hopewell Township is that of Buffalo. This tiny hamlet grew as a result of the establishment of Upper Buffalo Presbyterian Church, formed in 1779. Most settlers went there to be near the church. Tradition has it that at the erection of the first log church, the road from Washington to the chosen site was cut by ax-men to enable the new minister, the Reverend Joseph Smith, and his congregation to have access to this howling wilderness.
This minister, known to the common laymen as "Hellfire Smith", because of his fiery sermons and vivid descriptions of the "lower regions", was instrumental in establishing an academy of higher learning. This institution proved to be a forerunner of W&J College.
Prior to its beginnings, it was reported that Rev. Smith had an addition built to his tiny log home for the use of his wife as a new kitchen. But before the poor soul could move her meager cooking utensils into the new structure, her husband changed his mind and decided it would be used as a school for training ministers. To less reverent members of the area, this educational facility was often referred to as "The Kitchen Academy".
Besides West Middletown and Buffalo Village, another hamlet apparently had a start back in 1797. James Gillespie, who settled in Hopewell before 1788, laid out a town on his farm which he named Hopewelltown. In his advertisement for the sale of lots, he stated that the property was 20 rods from Henderson's Mill and one and half miles from the two meeting houses. It proved to be located near Buffalo on the east end of the township. By 1882, when Crumrine's History of Washington County was published, no one living remembered anything at all about the town.
Once settlers arrived in a new area, whether in some isolated rural nook or in one of the early hamlets which sprang up as the pioneers came, one of the major concerns of these people was the establishment of a way to educate their children.
Primitive schools were, of course, subscription schools, in which parents paid per pupil for their instruction. One such entity in Hopewell stood on the main street in West Middletown where a McFadden served as its first instructor. But under the School Law of 1834, six schools, basically one-room affairs, were constructed. These served the area well until school consolidation became a fad and institutions of higher learning dotted the landscape.
The one room schools of Hopewell were: Pleasant Grove or "Tarrtown" on the hill above the Hopewell Township Memorial Park, Templeton School on the farm of Aaron Templeton, Farrar School near the site of the first Brush Run Christian Church, Maple Grove on the Maxwell Farm one mile east of Buffalo Village, Oak Ridge School in the rural area in the north-eastern part of the township, and White School one mile southwest of Middletown.
In addition to the "Kitchen Academy" previously mentioned, several other institutions of higher learning came and went in Hopewell Township. Among these was one established in 1844, by Abram Wotring, a thrifty, industrious individual who was determined to educate his eleven children. To accomplish this, he eventually turned his mill, which was operated by horse-power, into one of the most successful educational institutions of its day. Because of its common beginnings, many of the pupils facetiously referred to it as "The Horse Mill Academy".
In Buffalo Village, after the above mentioned school founded by Rev. Smith was underway, the Upper Buffalo Academy was established by Dr. John Eagleson, pastor of the church there from 1834 until his death in 1873. This school graduated 20 men fitted for the ministry. It was known for its excellent instructors including Dr. Eagleson himself who had been graduated from W&J in the class of 1829 and served on its board for seven years prior to his death.
Probably the best known of Hopewell's institutions of higher learning was the Pleasant Hill Seminary which catered to both sexes and attracted students from great distances who boarded in West Middletown or nearby during school sessions. Founded by Jane Campbell McKeever, sister of the famous Alexander Campbell, it graduated 152 pupils over its 21 years of existence, the first class making its exit in 1847. After its closing, it was operated under the name of Zion Hill Collegiate institute by blacks, many of whom were descendants of former slaves who had found their way to West Middletown when it had operated the Underground Railroad in those horrible days before and during the Civil War. These persons remained there as permanent residents when the war was over. Many of their descendants are some of the area's most respected citizens of today. Unfortunately, some of the buildings burned and it was unable to continue for any extended period of time.
An interesting outgrowth of the movement for higher education is revealed in the story of the academy previously mentioned on the property of Abram Wotring. Of Judge Wotring's eleven children, one daughter made the largest mark on history.
Married to a caring, energetic Presbyterian minister, Louise Wotring Lyle found herself a willing partner with her mate as they worked as a relief team in Wheeling after the Flood of 1884. The long hard hours of ministering to the needs of the stricken families, trapped in the horrendous aftermath of that great tragedy, proved too much for Louise's husband. He contracted a fever and died. Although stricken with grief, she stayed at the scene and continued ministering to the needy until conditions there returned to normal. Assessing her status in life, she determined to follow a dream of her youth. Even as a small child, she knew that above all else, she wished to become a medical doctor. In 1892 at the age of 50, she was graduated with her MD degree from the Women's Medical College of Cincinnati. Returning to Pittsburgh with but $5 in her pocket, she brought about a chain of events that led to the organization of the Presbyterian University Hospital of Pittsburgh.
Part of the stone house on the old Wotring farm in Hopewell Township where this remarkable woman first learned her A,B,Cs, can still be seen.
The religious history of Hopewell is long and varied. The Upper Buffalo Presbyterian Church previously discussed shared ministers much of the time with the Presbyterian Church at Cross Creek. The most fascinating event of this particular history is the story of one of Hopewell's first pioneers, William Smiley.
The minister, Rev. Joseph Smith, had not received his salary for over three years due to the economic conditions of those times. His farm was about to be sold out from under him when the congregation determined to take enough flour from their own coffers and ship it to New Orleans for sale. It was Father Smiley, an aged man at the time, who, along with two young men, determined to make the trip. The long and treacherous journey involved the return home on foot. Having been given up for dead after nine months absence, one Sabbath morning, there in his regular pew at church sat the old man, waiting for the service to begin. Despite untold hardships, the mission had succeeded.
Other churches serving the area at various times were the Christian Church, Grove Presbyterian, Methodist, and African Methodist at West Middletown. The first doings of the Christian church under the influence of Alexander Campbell took place at Brush Run.
Among the ordinary men of the day who once lived in this area of Hopewell and contributed to the quality of life were John Vasbinder, wagon maker; James McElroy who organized one of the finest brass bands in history; William Allison, cooper; Joseph Lane, chairmaker and creator of spinning wheels. Others who made a name for themselves included James L. Bell, a tinner, who invented the first oil-burning lantern; Robert McClure, who manufactured threshers high on the hill in West Middletown; and Andrew Ralston who invented that thresher. Other men of note are said to have either lived in the area for a time or passed through on their way to fame elsewhere. Among these were James Clemens, great, great grandfather of Mark Twain; John James Audubon; and John Brown who brought the message to Hopewell that slavery was wrong and must be annihilated. Brown was later hanged for his beliefs.
One lesser known citizen who deserves mentioning was George T. Work who served gallantly in the Union Army in many battles from the beginning of the Civil War until late 1862, when he nearly died of malaria and was discharged for disability. The governor of the state, hearing that this young man was disappointed at being discharged, informed him that he could do a great favor to the nation by recruiting two cavalry companies. It was said that the governor had laughed as he made this request because enlistments were at an all-time low due to the casualties and unpopularity of the war, and it was probable that young Work would not find a single man to fall into line. In less than 60 days, George had recruited two full companies and then joined with his friend, Captain John Keyes, to include six others from West Virginia. This soon became the famous Ringgold Battalion of the Civil War. Captain Work was chosen Major and served until the end of the war, having been twice wounded during that time.
Life in Hopewell had its good times and its bad. Natural events such as the day in 1839, when James McElroy's flour mill burned to the ground were devastating; and the time in 1837, when three of the McKeever children died of scarlet fever; or the cold wet night in December of 1866, when Robert Dinsmore was murdered in his home by would-be robbers, as his wife and two small daughters watched in horror. After confessing to the crime, Robert Fogler was convicted and hanged, his body being interred outside the fence of the graveyard at Georgetown. Much later, on September 24 of 1903, Samuel T. Ferguson and his team of horses were blown to bits with hidden charges of dynamite as he carried money for the payroll to workers on the construction of the Wabash Railroad. The site was a culvert far down Seminary Hill. Two culprits were apprehended due to the skilled detective work of men in charge and one was later hanged for the deed. Unfortunately, the families of the workers whose pay was needed to survive, went hungry, since most of the money was never found.
On the brighter side, the lay of the land in Hopewell is inviting, and time was when the mill of Harvey Lawton, and the Wilson grist mill added much to the area's beauty. The location and mill race of the old Stewart mill, the first in the area, can still be traced on the waters of Cross Creek. But the age that brought about these giant of industry at that time is gone forever. Yet Hopewell Township continues today as the peaceful corner of the universe which many happy people still call home.