York Town Square

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Historians, journalists draw on work of forebears

Carl E. Hatch, the York County history professor, profiled in the last post (“York County historical community will miss Carl Hatch”), provided wonderful primary source material that researchers and writers will use for generations.
It has been said that students of history ride on the shoulders of researchers who have gone before them.
In my historical and journalistic work, I refer regularly to the York County presidential voting assessment put forth by Hatch and co-author G.A. Mellander. Their work posited that York County voters have eschewed extremes, voting for presidential candidates who are closer to the middle… .

This runs contra to the notion of some that York countians, in the main, carry John Birch Society cards.
Hatch and Mellander’s assessment came in 1972, but one wonders if much has changed. This is a big topic, but consider how quickly Dover school district voters threw out their pro-intelligent design school board after they appeared to be operating from the right fringe.
For an example of how I have used the Hatch-Mellander findings, consider this essay, the foreword to my 1999 book “Never to be Forgotten” :

The shallow valley is hardly a valley and doesn’t even have a name.
Coventry Road runs through it. Let’s call it Coventry Valley, just up Oak Road from Raab Fruit Farms in York Township.
It’s a sleepy valley. Farm acreage still outpaces building lots. One might think nothing ever happened here. But stand on a ridge at a triangle of land where Coventry and Oak roads collide.
Gaze at a graded area running through the heart of the valley. It’s a trackless, 1890s-vintage trolley grade running from Bittersville, near Windsor, to York. Telephone poles follow the right-of-way, carrying lines that have passed through this valley for decades.
One starts thinking that this sleepy valley wasn’t so isolated, considering residents here have enjoyed trolley and phone service for about a century.
Coventry Road winds southward from this vantage point. The uneven lane tests the suspension of any car traveling its path. This suggests that it is a Pinchot Road, or one of its kin, first paved in the 1930s. Workers laid macadam on top of ungraded terrain as part of this state-funded program to get the farmer out of the mud. (It’s not equal to even one lane of Interstate 83, also visible from this valley. )
Power lines pass through the eastern part of this valley. The Rural Electrification Program came through the county in the 1940s. Perhaps these lines are descendants of that program that empowered farmers to run milking machines and illuminate their chicken houses (which made for happy hens and more eggs). The road and power lines suggest that outsiders partnered with residents as progress played out in this valley.
The trolley line attracted houses that provided new neighbors to the farms. The rolling valley attracted different layers of suburban growth, starting after World War II.
Now, apartment houses are abutting the older subdivisions, not far from upscale, executive homes. Today, sprawl is starting to dominate this area, once the domain of the farmer.
Much is going on in this wide-awake valley and has been for at least the past 100 years.
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Those studying York County history could take cues from this layered York Township scene.
The apparently simple quickly becomes complicated. What at first appears to be a short story of a county settled primarily by simple German immigrants turns out to be a novel with a plot bearing layer upon layer of meaning. The county’s story is akin to a parable from the Bible: so simple on the surface — but a bottomless pit of teachings begging further study.
And time keeps moving, and events keep happening. The study of county history has no end point. The county’s 250th Anniversary Commission has it right with the slogan: “York County — Still Making History.”
“The past isn’t dead,” someone once said. “It isn’t even past.”
• • •
If it’s difficult enough to understand life in one simple valley, how does one ever hope to push away our large county’s topsoil to see what is underneath? Fortunately, York County has been blessed with historical archaeologists who have made progress in striking at least a corner of the county’s foundation.
Carl E. Hatch and G. A. Mellander, York College professors, studied county presidential voting patterns from 1800-1968. They found that county residents voted for candidates who appear practical and moderate.
“All of which explodes the myth that York County is a region of rock-ribbed conservatism and reactionaryism,” they wrote. The Goldwater-Johnson presidential vote in 1964 is Exhibit A for the professors. County voters backed Republican Richard Nixon in 1960 and 1968 but opted for Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Voters did not like Goldwater’s rigid dogma.
To start the endless journey of trying to understand the multi-layered texture of York County, one should look in the middle of the road and work toward its edges. A researcher will not get as far by starting with the stereotype that the county has been peopled with right-wing knuckleheads since the first European settlers splashed across the Susquehanna River.
• • •
Hatch and Mellander’s contention that York County should be viewed through the lens of moderation begs the question: Why are attitudes of prejudice and acts of hate so visible here?
Some trowel work uncovers live roots from deep in our history still feeding prejudice today: County residents took a moderate position toward the slavery question during the Civil War. In rejecting Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and 1864, county residents adopted what was then the middle-ground view that the abolition of slavery was not worth splitting the nation.
This tolerance of the destructive institution of slavery does not quickly pass through the system and drain into the Susquehanna. The sins — and successes — of our people are passed down to the third and fourth generations.
In other words, the decisions made in 1860 and 1864 affect us today. Our decisions today — both good and bad — will influence those living generations after us.
Let’s return to the farmers in Coventry Valley. When they sold their rights-of-way to builders laying the trolley rails, they started a pattern of development that slowly has transformed their bucolic valley into a suburb of York.
Our hope in presenting this look backward is that we can better understand the decisions that make York County what it is today and the people, both prominent and obscure, who made them.
Here’s hoping that this work will provide clues about the county’s history — a past that a diarist advised during the Confederate Army’s occupation of York in 1863 is “never to be forgotten.”