Hugh McConnell and Leonard Leidy, Nineteenth-Century Local Artisans
By Joan C. McCulloh
Hugh McConnell, potter, who lived in Mercersburg between 1822 and his death in 1870, and Leonard Leidy, inventor and manufacturer of a plow, who moved to Mercersburg from Pittsburgh sometime before 1849 and lived here until he moved to St. Louis, Missouri, in the early 1870s, had much in common. Both were artisans, entrepreneurs, independent operators, and ardent Methodists whose families intersected through marriage. Both were interested in the life of this community but lived this interest in varying ways.
Information about the early life of Hugh McConnell is scarce, vague, and contradictory. What is known is that he was born on February 5, 1799. One source states that he was born in Uniontown in Fayette County, that his parents were Rebecca and James McConnell, and that after the death of his father his mother married Samuel Backus, a widower who lived near Greencastle. Backus, who at one time lived in Gettysburg, placed the following advertisement in a Gettysburg newspaper on February 13, 1821:
“A property on E. York Street on which a good dwelling house and Potter Shop and Kiln a good well of water at the door sufficient for two….” Whether or not a connection with Backus stimulated McConnell’s interest in pottery is unknown. According to family tradition, however, McConnell had relatives in Gettysburg. A Hugh McConnell, Potter, was listed in the Adams County, Gettysburg, tax records for the year 1821. Whether or not this was the Hugh McConnell of Mercersburg is also unknown, but it is likely that it was he.
What is known is that he married Elizabeth Hetzer, born on March 28, 1802, daughter of John and Elizabeth Geyer Hetzer, and that they were married on February 20, 1821, in Gettysburg. The Adams Centennial reported on February 28, 1821, the following: “Married on Tuesday, February 20, Mr. Hugh McConnell and Miss Eliza Hetzer both of this place.” McConnell and Elizabeth, who died on March 11, 1842, at the age of thirty-nine, were the parents of nine children.
The first extant reference to McConnell in Mercersburg is the advertisement that appeared in the November 8, 1822, Franklin Repository under the heading “New Pottery: H. McConnell informs the citizens of Mercersburg and its vicinity that he has commenced the Potting in the Main Street, two doors north of Mr. Spangler’s tavern where he intends to keep on a hand a general assortment of Earthenware, superior to any kind ever made in that place which he will sell low for cash or country produce of all kinds. N.B. Country merchants will be supplied on the reasonable terms and on the shortest notice.” In this advertisement he stated that his establishment was “two doors north of Mr. Spangler’s Tavern,” which according to Old Mercersburg is now the site of the home of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Steiger. In 1822 McConnell was listed as paying $1.83 on $1,124 worth of property.
In July 1826 he purchased from Robert Espy and his wife, Sarah, for $450 the property at the corner of East Seminary and South Fayette Streets. Espy had bought the lot for $175 from John and Sarah Smith Brownson. In consideration of the high price of the property, it is reasonable to believe that a house had been built there previous to that time. When the trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church across the street bought an unimproved lot in 1834, the purchase price of $200. This lot also had belonged to John and Sarah Smith Brownson.
Eighteen twenty-six, it seems, is the year he began to call his business Mercersburg Stone and Earthen Ware Pottery as he made both gray stone ware and red earthenware. To create the pottery McConnell and his workers, who varied in number from time to time, followed a time-consuming and labor-intensive set of procedures. First they obtained blue clay from the area of Heister’s and red clay from the farm to the right on route 416 north of Mercersburg now known as the Myers Metcalfe farm. They brought this clay, for which there was no charge, to town in a horse-drawn spring wagon. The blue and the red clay had to be mixed thoroughly. The mixture was about two parts red and one part blue, the blue being absolutely necessary. This mixing was done in a clay mill, which one source described as looking like a huge coffee grinder with knives doing the actual mixing. The power for this mill was provided by a horse walking round and round in a circle. This important step took three days. The mixed clay not to be used immediately was taken by wheelbarrow into a pit or cellar under the pottery. A lady who lived during McConnell’s time said that merchants had stored dry goods there during the Civil War.
Then came the molding process in which workers principally created utilitarian pieces such as pie plates, pitchers, jugs, and jars of all kinds and sizes but sometimes children’s money banks and at least one time a pair of dogs now owned by the Fendrick Library, which also has other McConnell pieces in its collection.
After McConnell and his workers had molded the clay into objects, in order for them to dry they placed them on twelve-foot boards outside on East Seminary Street and brought them in each evening, a process continued each day until the pottery was dry.
After the pieces had dried, the potter and his workers applied a glazing consisting of Venetian Red and water. In order to make the piece impervious to water as most of these utilitarian objects had to be, they poured a small quantity of this mixture into the piece and swirled it around until the inside area was covered. For some objects such as the dogs the workers glazed the outside also.
Then McConnell himself, it is said, supervised the firing of the kiln, in which the molded and glazed pieces were baked for four days. The kiln was fired by four-foot long logs, which, of course, had to be hauled into town from nearby woods and forests.
Not much is known about his workers. On December 10, 1833, he placed the following advertisement in the local newspaper : “Wanted A Journeyman potter, also 3-5 apprentices will be taken.” It is believed that the fact that the pottery produced pieces in varying shapes with equally varying glazes is attributable to the many different workers he employed. George Herman and Jonas Hyssong, the latter “noted as a worker in clay,” were employees. Alec Peeden, it is said, made gray stoneware and put blue flowers upon it. In an undated advertisement McConnell stated: “THE subscriber respectfully informs the citizens of Franklin and the adjoining counties, that he still continues to manufacture STONE and EARTHEN WARE, upon the Baltimore principle. He promises to make STONE WARE equal to any in the Union, which he will deliver at the following prices:” A price list follows. He noted that he would sell 6-gallon jugs, pitchers, jars, per dozen at $12.00. The sizes that he advertised for these goods range from 5 to 4 to 3 to 2 to 1and 1/2 to 1, to 1/2 to 1/4 to 1/8 gallon. Just as small sizes were available, the prices per dozen descended also. For instance, a dozen 1/8 gallon jugs cost .50. He advertised another category, Jars and Covers, and charged $1.00 extra for covers. Again there were several sizes available with corresponding prices per dozen. He sold, for instance, two gallon milk pans for four dollars a dozen. He also advertised spittoons at the same price as milk pans. Another category he listed as Water Jars, same price as Churns, Butter Pans, with covers. In this advertisement he priced all of the pieces by the dozen.
In an August 23, 1848, bill of a sale to a customer identified only as D. Snively or Shively McConnell listed four hundred and twenty-five items including four large pots at .25 each and other pots ranging from two cents to twelve cents each for a bill of $31.55 minus $6.31 discount for a total bill of $25.24.
About every two weeks the men loaded wagons with the pottery and took it to country stores and to Berkeley Springs, Clear Spring, and Hancock. At Hancock they put much of it upon boats that plied the C and O Canal to Cumberland. From there the pottery was dispersed in all directions. One lady, who remembered McConnell and the pottery,
recollected that on their return the wagons were often loaded with produce taken in exchange for the pottery. This same lady recalled that if a man wanted cement and McConnell did not have it, he brought it back from Hancock. She said that as a little girl she did not know there was anywhere other than Hancock. The 1850 occupation Census shows Hugh McConnell with capital of $1,000 and employing six men. It noted that he had used thirty loads of clay worth $150, red lead worth $200, and two hundred cords of wood worth $400 and that his annual production of earthenware and stoneware was worth $3000.
Although McConnell served on the town council in both 1833 and 1847 and was a member of the Lyceum, he focused upon two areas: his business and his church. He acquired the lot on East Seminary Street adjacent to the Methodist Episcopal Church on the east and a double brick house on Fayette Street, now 21 South Fayette Street, the south side of which served as the Methodist parsonage for years, and an adjoining lot on the south. He was a devoted member and worker in the Methodist Episcopal Church for forty-six years, having joined the church when it was located facing the Great Road, now North Park Street, and according to extant church records was a steward for almost all of those forty-six years and a trustee for many years. It is believed that he was one of the men principally responsible for the building of the new church on East Seminary Street after fire had destroyed the church on North Park Street.
Hugh McConnell and his wife Elizabeth had nine children. Being good Methodists, they named their first-born son John Wesley (January 25, 1823 - September 3, 1850). John Wesley McConnell died at age twenty-eight in Greensburg, Indiana. He and his wife had a small child, a three-year old daughter named Aldora, who died on April 24, 1852, on a visit to Mercersburg and is buried in the Methodist Cemetery on West Seminary Street. Next was born David (December 29, 1824 - February 13, 1899) who after his father‘s death bought the pottery. Next came Sarah (or Mary) Jane (June 28, 1827 - November 27, 1904). The fourth child was George (November 7, 1830 - January 20, 1896), who married on May 18, 1853, Margaret Jane Leidy (March 23, 1835 - April 3, 1917), daughter of Leonard Leidy, and who after the birth of their first child moved to St. Louis, Missouri, in which they lived until his death in 1896. The fifth child was Eliza Ann (January 28, 1832 - June 21, 1904), who remained unmarried.
Born next was Hugh Jr. (February 28, 1834 - October 3, 1846) who died at age twelve. Next came Rebecca Matilda known as Matilda or Tillie (April 11, 1836). Mary Ellen (May 12, 1838 - June 14, 1893), who married Daniel Tolhelm, was the next child. Last of all James (December 14, 1841 - June 26, 1887), who served during the Civil War in Company C of the 126th and who was wounded at Chancellorsville, was born. At the war’s end he moved to Abilene, Texas, in which he died.
Ten years after the death of his first wife McConnell married on December 23, 1852, Miss Jane McCracken (1811 - 1870) who after what the Mercersburg Journal called “a protracted illness” died at age sixty, according to church records, three days before her husband.
Hugh McConnell died on September 27, 1870, and was buried in the Methodist cemetery on West Seminary Street beside his first wife, son, and granddaughter. The September 30 issue of the Mercersburg Journal stated: “He has been prostated by a bilious attack for some time and his demise was not unlooked. Mr. McConnell has long been a resident of this place; being engaged in the manufacture of earthenware; his business relations brought him many acquaintances throughout this and adjoining counties, who will learn with pain of his death. As a citizen and neighbor he will be sadly missed. In the M. E. Church, of which for many years he has been one of the pillars, his loss will be keenly felt and his place will be hard to fill.” In November of that year the secretary of the Quarterly Conference of the local Methodist Episcopal Church authorized John Hoch, G. W. Izer, and G. L. Coble “to draw up a suitable tribute of respect on the religious standing and character of Bro. Hugh McConnell, deceased.”
Since McConnell seems to have died without a will, there was trouble in the settling of his estate. On November 17, 1873, his son, David, one of the two administrators of the estate, filed a list of his father’s possessions and their values. The list is indicative of McConnell’s having prospered and having been able to live a comfortable life as it includes many household goods in addition to tools, objects, and animals necessary for the business of the pottery. The list includes a sleigh, a buggy, buggy tops, corner cupboard. dough tray, bookcase, settee with cushions, lounges, many other pieces of furniture, looking glasses, lamps, several stoves. books, clocks, and carpets. Among items used in the manufacture of pottery are 5 potters wheels valued at $10, drying boards valued at $8, red lead, key and ink valued at $1, a lot of crocks valued at $18, clay mill and glazing mill valued at $25, and a kiln of earthenware valued at $40. At the time of his death McConnell also owned one cow valued at $30, two hogs valued at $30, one bay mare valued at $70, one brown horse valued at $40, one bay mare valued at $100, one black mule valued at $80, and one bay mule valued at $70. This inventory is proof that McConnell was successful financially.
The other heirs, however, hired two lawyers to protest the settling of the estate. The lawyers criticized the procedures of the administrators, David McConnell and J. B. Hyssong, a local attorney, and noted interestingly the “large amount of gold and silver in the house which is not in the inventory.”
In October 1872 the two-story, double brick house on South Fayette Street was sold to J. B. Cook for $1,275. A year later on October 10, 1873, what was termed “the Pottery” was sold at public auction for $2,925 to David McConnell, who operated it until 1889 ten years before his death. David McConnell, unlike his father, showed minimal interest in the church but was a very active member for many years of local Marshall Lodge of the Independent Order of the Odd Fellows. David was married three times: first to Anna Metcalfe, then to Lavinia Graul, and then to Margaret Bender.
A contemporary of Hugh McConnell, Leonard Leidy lived and worked in Mercersburg for thirty-some years. Leidy, who was born about 1810, came with his wife and family to Mercersburg from Pittsburgh sometime between 1835 and 1848 and lived here until 1872 or 1873 when they moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to which his daughter, Margaret Jane, married to George McConnell, had moved some years earlier. Leidy and his wife, the former Mary Hanna, had three daughters: Margaret Jane, who was born in Pittsburgh and who was married in her parents’ home in Mercersburg, a house she called in a letter written late in her life “Lattice Palace,” Sarah, who was also married in her parents’ home in Mercersburg to James Stockburn from Iowa, and Louisa and one son, James, who with a wife and little boy soon after the Civil War moved first to Galesburg, Illinois, in which the child just a little over a year old died.
Leidy set up a forge on West Seminary Street opposite the Presbyterian Church and manufactured plows, called the Leidy Plow. At one time he was in partnership with J. F. Skinner and J. W. Crooks, but that partnership was dissolved in 1851. Leidy, unlike McConnell, owned no real estate in Mercersburg. Later Frederick and Benjamin Seylar at Cove Gap made the Leidy plow that was used by farmers until the eighteen-eighties.
A devoted Methodist, like McConnell, he was a steward whose name appears on invitations to church picnics and social events. Upon least one occasion in December 1863 he spoke to the Friends of Temperance. He also was an accomplished horseman who lectured on “horse training and kindred subjects.”
Leidy seems to have been interested in current events as in 1861 when the Confederates approached the Potomac, and the local citizens were alarmed, Leidy and Dr. D. O. Blair mounted their horses and rode to Clear Spring to see for themselves what was going on. When on July 5, 1863, wounded Confederate soldiers were brought to Mercersburg, and some were placed in the basement of the Methodist Episcopal Church, two of the people caring for them there were Margaret Jane Leidy McConnell, who was visiting her parents at that time, and her sister, probably Sarah. When the Confederates were moved on July 9, Margaret Jane suggested that her family take into their home Joseph William Quaintance and care for him. Quaintance died in their home, located at the corner of South Fayette and South Main Streets, on August 28, 1863. Three days earlier he had joined the local Methodist Episcopal Church. The preacher wrote in the membership record “Joseph William Quaintance -August 25, 1863 Rappahannock, Virginia Belonged to the Rebel Army Died at Bro. Leidy’s from wounds received at Gettys.”
Leidy must have been a man of some learning as after the death of the twenty-four year old soldier he wrote a long, well-composed and compassionate letter to the young man’s father, Henry Quaintance, Tanner, of Slate Mills, Virginia, explaining the circumstances of the death of his son and the service held for him after his death. The Leidy family must have respected learning. In a letter written late in her life Margaret Jane Leidy McConnell noted that her younger sister Sarah and she had attended a girls’ seminary in Mercersburg. Sarah, who taught school, in 1864 presented part of a program on essays at the Teachers’ Association of Franklin County, and Louisa was a member of the first class of Mercersburg College when it opened in 1865.
Unfortunately, Leidy seems to have been less focused and less successful financially than McConnell. In 1867 he ran for the post of county treasurer but was defeated in the county nominating convention of the Democratic Party and the next year was equally unsuccessful in his attempt to secure that post. In 1871 he ran for sheriff but was unsuccessful. In the 1870 Census he was listed as a retired plowmaker. In 1872 or 1873 he and his wife, Mary, moved to St. Louis, Missouri, in which in the 1880 Census there he is listed as a mechanic living in a boardinghouse, and his death in 1889 noted as a result of “the softening of the brain” is recorded there.
The son of George McConnell, who lived until 1896, and his wife, Margaret Jane Leidy McConnell, who lived until 1917, Harry Curran McConnell, who was born in Mercersburg in April 1854, late in his life wrote in an undated letter to his son his memories of the past in which he recalled the times of his youth and of his grandfathers, Hugh McConnell and Leonard Leidy. He wrote to his son: “Your welcome and interesting letter of the 12th reached me safely and I must say that I was glad to know you had visited the beautiful little town of Mercersburg, Pa., my birthplace and where I spent part of my happy youth. Yes, I was born there the 17th of April 1854 and when I was about one year old Father went to St. Louis for the purpose of opening up a studio. He prospered from the start and it was not long until he took the leadership in the St. Louis Studios. He then sent for Mother and I to come ‘way out west.’ I cannot remember the trip very well as I was about eight-months old. I know Mother went west to Pittsburg [sic] and took a steamboat from there down the Ohio River to St. Louis. She often spoke to me in later years as it being a very tiresome journey as steamboats were not as palatial in those days, but they were the main source of travel.
“During my boyhood Mother and I made a number of trips back to Mercersburg to see the old folks at home where we would spend the summers. Father came in the fall spending a couple of weeks with us. The first one of these trips was made when I was seven years old. The Civil War was in full blaze at that time and the country was all in an uproar, many exciting events happening in the immediate neighborhood of Mercersburg as you know it is only seven miles from the Mason & Dixon line.
“About this time Lee’s Army invaded Pennsylvania and some of the depredations in and around Mercersburg were alarming. The Rebels would help themselves to anything, go into your stable, take your horses, go into your house ransacking and helping themselves to things of value, emptying stores of their groceries and goods and the people afraid to protest as they were a desperate lot to me. Grandpa McConnell and Grandpa Leidy decided to send their horses to the mountains to hide them until the Rebels had passed through en route north.
“Uncle James Leidy and Uncle Dave McConnell with several others in the party decided to accept the task & and I persuaded Mother to let me accompany them. We finally arrived in the Blue Ridge Mountains that night and went into camp. During the night a pack of hounds passed howling and tearing through like a mad stampeding the horses and scaring us all so we had little more sleep that night. We all thought the Rebels had put the hounds on our tracks which made us somewhat nervous. At daybreak we persuaded a colored boy (Grandpa McConnell’s body servant) to climb a tree and give the road and town a look over. He reported none on the road to the mountains but the rebels were still in town.
“We then cooked a good breakfast and shifted our camp where we remained a week, returning to town in fine shape not having lost a horse. We could hear distinctly the booming of the guns at the battle of Gettysburg sixteen miles away. Quite a crowd of us went to a hill on the edge of Mercersburg where we could smell the powder and see the smoke of that terrible battle. That night and the next day the roads were crowded with wagons bringing back the wounded rebel soldiers, all cursing or praying. It was a horrible sight to see and hear. The seminaries and colleges were converted into temporary hospitals. Many families were asked to receive the wounded & and assist some few taking one but the majority refusing. Grandpa Leidy took one poor fellow who later died, although everything was done for him possible. Chambersburg was burnt and I remember distinctly the exciting event. The people were all afraid they would also burn Mercersburg, but she was saved.
“I usually on these visits made my home at Grandpa McConnell’s. Mother staying at her father’s. Aunt Lyde [Eliza Ann McConnell] had me installed in a little room which was a wonder and told me the fairies fitted it up for me. Well it looked as though they might have done so as it was beautifully adorned with all kinds of fancy and beautiful decorations. Aunt Lyde was a maiden sister of father’s. He also had another sister, Aunt Tillie who married Captain Eyster who lived in Chambersburg. They had two daughters, Cousins Fannie and Minnie. They were beautiful girls. Aunt Lyde on these visits took charge of me and she was one of the daintiest little ladies that ever walked, pretty, very intelligent and lovable. I thought a great deal of her. Her intended husband was killed in a duel.
“Your great grandfather Hugh McConnell was a man through and through, managing every detail of the business himself. A large fine looking fellow full of good humor and quite a good sport, however never going too far as he was a great Methodist, as was your great grandfather Leonard Leidy. He always installed me boss of the pottery on my arrival and would tell all hands ‘Buckle down to your work now the boss has arrived.’ He had Monk, the colored boy, to always see that I got into no trouble and to wait on me.
“He, Grandpa, fell in the kiln pit at one time injuring himself so he was compelled to walk with a cane, and if anyone did contrary to his commands this cane flew and landed usually about where he wanted it to. Monk could vouch for that.
“His was the only pottery for miles around and his kiln ran night and day. There were no railroads and he hauled the goods over the mountains and through the gaps…in tremendous big wagons holding nearly as much as a freight car drawn by twelve to twenty mules. One of those large loads of jugs, jars, crocks and fancy vases and almost every conceivable kind of crockery and stone ware was quite valuable. Uncle Dave superintended that part of the business. I would boylike always assist in packing the wagons. I could also turn a crock or jug and almost any plain article as well as mold a shaker pipe of which thousands were made.
“Grandpa McConnell was very liberal. I remember one example of this quite well. During harvest time one summer there was a scarcity of farm laborers and Grandpa Leonard Leidy, who was by the way the inventor of a process for bending handles as well as the plow shear and operated a large factory and foundry in Mercersburg at that time, took me out for a week harvesting and at noon Saturday the old farmer gave me three crisp one dollar bills. I was very proud of myself as it was the first money I had ever earned. I immediately walked to town through the fields and woods to look up Grandpa McConnell in order to show him what I had made but the money could not be found. I had lost it from the old clothes I wore. He then told me to dress up and look the old clothes over again but the three dollar bills were gone. He then asked me if I had found the money. I told him I had not, he then reached down in his pocket and pulled out a buckskin pouch and gave me three shining dollars and told me not to mention my loss to anyone. He also gave me all the rejects of the kiln, some of the crocks, jugs etc. would warp or burn crooked and were usually scrapped . I started a salesroom of my own and many a dime and quarter I made. I remember the old Dutch oven with great pleasure as I have waited by its side many a time until the delicious pies and cakes brown crusted and other delicacies would come out….” With this affectionate memory a grandson of these two remarkable men completed what he called “the synopsis of my early youth.”
This is only a brief glimpse into the lives of two of the citizens of Mercersburg in the nineteenth century. If our streets could talk, what wonderful narratives we would hear and how much more we would understand.
I am indebted to the following people, places, and books that provided me with either information or sources: paper by the late Bryan Barker, Betty Jane Lee, John Mentzer, Tim Rockwell, Fendrick Library, Franklin County Historical Society - Kittochtinny, Lenfest Library of the Mercersburg Academy, Renfrew Museum, Ramsay, John American Potters and Pottery Clinton: Hale Cushman and Flint, 1939, Bowers, William Crafts of Franklin County, Penn. 1784 - 1984 Mercersburg: Mercersburg Printing, 1984, Donehoo, George P. The Cumberland Valley Volume I Harrisburg: Susquehanna History Association, 1930, Mercersburg Journals, and Old Mercersburg, 1912 and 1949.
Harry Curran McConnell’s reminiscences note that Matilda McConnell was married to Captain Eyster whereas genealogical charts note that Sarah Jane McConnell was married to Eyster. The Prospectus of the Mercersburg Female Institute lists Matilda and Mary Ellen McConnell as students in 1848.
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