Tyrone's oldest building
Built in 1855 by the United Brethren congregation, the building on the corner of Washington Avenue and 12th Street is the oldest known building in Tyrone. It was used as a church and then as a "hospital" during the Civil War. Later, it became a theatrical-artist studio, storage facility, woodworking shop, and flea market. It is presently empty. The old, two-story frame structure holds a distinction not evident from its plain, unassuming appearance. The structure is purported to be one of a very few Civil War hospital buildings still in existence. It was not a house or a barn that happened to be in close proximity to the site of a battle and was temporarily pressed into service as a facility to treat the wounded soldiers. Instead, it reportedly was a full-time hospital dedicated to the sole purpose of treating wounded Union soldiers coming from the front.
The structure was built in 1855 by the United Brethren Church. It was dedicated in 1856, and worship services were held on the second floor in the congregation room. The first level was unfinished, having only a dirt floor.
A substantial crawl space was dug out under the building for no apparent purpose. The Brethren Church was active in the Abolition Movement, and many Brethren churches and homes served as stops on the Underground Railroad, assisting runaway slaves heading to freedom in the North or Canada. The unexplained space under the church certainly fires the imagination and suggests usage as a stop on the Underground Railroad, but the theory is substantiated by nothing more than local lore. No written documentation has ever been found.
Financial difficulties within the congregation made it impossible to complete both floors and even made it necessary for the church to sell half its interest in the building to the local Baptist congregation for $600. This served only as a temporary solution since the Brethren congregation could not keep up the payments on their half of the debt, and their share was sold to creditors in 1858. Over the next five years, Pastor J. Walker organized a fund drive within the congregation, and they repurchased their share in the building in 1863.
But the Brethrens seemed fated not to worship in the building. Early in 1864, the U.S. government took possession of the structure and converted it into a barracks for cavalry troops. Because it was situated directly beside a section of the Pennsylvania Railroad, it could provide a welcome stop for troops traveling along that line. The unfinished first floor was used to stable the horses, while the soldiers occupied the finished meeting room upstairs.
The spring of 1864 marked the beginning of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign in Virginia. From May of that year until April of 1865, the Union and the Confederate armies were locked in almost constant contact as Grant sought to wear down Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.
Casualties were staggering — especially for the Union. In the battles of the Wilderness, Spottsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor, Grant's army sustained casualties of over 60,000 men — more men, in fact, than Lee had in his entire army when the campaign began.
The high casualty rates in the Union army directly affected the old Brethren church in Tyrone. Grant needed every available man at the front to replace his losses, so there was no further need for a barracks there. But the building was not yet through providing a home for soldiers. When the healthy troops departed for action at the front, their places immediately were taken by those wounded in battle.
The extreme casualties of the summer offensive had taxed the resources of the Medical Corps to the breaking point. Hospitals were so overcrowded that wounded soldiers were forced to lie outside on the grounds of hospitals because there was no room inside.
The old church became one of many solutions to help with the overflow of the main hospitals. Many wounded troops in field hospitals healed sufficiently to be moved from those sites, but had not yet recovered to the point that they could return home. Those requiring additional medical attention could receive it at a site such as Tyrone while, at the same time, vacating bed space at the field hospitals for the incoming wounded who were arriving daily.
For nearly a year, the old church stopped being a place of comfort for the soul and became a place of comfort for the torn and mangled bodies of wounded Union soldiers. Records from this period are almost non-existent, but it appears that the soldiers who were sent to Tyrone for their convalescence were men originally from the surrounding area. This would make it easier for family and friends to visit and help care for them.
When building owner, Joe Anderson, was renovating the property and removing wall boards installed in the meeting room, he came across inscriptions written on the walls. Several of the patients had scrawled their names and units as a sort of testimonial to the time they spent there.
The surrender of Robert E. Lee's army on April 9, 1965 signaled an end to the fighting in the East. No further casualties would come in from the front, and the Tyrone Soldiers' Hospital no longer would be needed. Without ceremony or fanfare, the military vacated the premises and returned ownership to the Brethren Church.
Military usage was hard on the building, however, with approximately $600 in damage done by the troops. (The estimate takes on a new perspective, considering the entire property was appraised at $1200 in 1863.) The congregation unsuccessfully appealed to the federal government for financial compensation to repair the damage. Eventually, they raised the money through private solicitations, completed the renovations, and re-occupied the building in 1866. The congregation worshipped there for the next twenty-one years — until they moved to a new building in 1887 — while still retaining ownership of the old church.
In 1891, the structure was sold to the F. W. Wise Co., Scenic Artists, Decorators and Theatrical Architects. The Wise Co. specialized in interior artwork and frescoes for both public and private buildings. Theaters and churches served as the company's largest supporters, and examples of its work still can be seen in several Blair County churches. The company selected the site due to the high ceilings in the meeting room, which were perfectly suited to suspend large panels for painting.
For the next two decades, the building was occupied by a troop of artists, and the structure that had — at various times — brought comfort to the soul and body now housed the creation of art that brought similar comfort to the spirit. An example of the kind of work done during that period is still visible on a mural on the first floor.
When the Wise Co. fell on hard times in the early 1900s, so did the old church. It was eventually sold but never again attained any measure of importance in Tyrone. It was used primarily as a warehouse.
Today [in 2002], the building is for sale. Because it is situated on commercially zoned property adjacent to the downtown area, its future is less than promising. The value of the property, for most potential purchasers, is in the land itself. The drafty, old frame building likely will be torn down by a developer.
Efforts are underway to preserve the structure. It is hoped that some group or some individual steps in before a rare link to our own American history is lost forever.
— Condensed from an article by Robert P. Broadwater in the August 2002 issue of State College Magazine. Reproduced here with the author's permission.
Wilson Chemical Company
February 16, 1985 marked the end of an era in Tyrone, when after more than ninety years of operations, the Wilson Chemical Company closed its doors. Best known as the producer of “White Cloverine brand salve,” the Wilson Chemical Company was a prime example of how a specialties maker could defy most of the accepted canons of business and still succeed. While its methods of doing business, its managerial setup, its belief in the integrity of the individual salesman, and its employment practices seem foreign in today’s business environment, the company’s founder and his successors built an empire on such philosophies.
The beginning of the company dates back to the late nineteenth century, when Dr. James Thompson Wilson, a prominent Tyrone physician, developed the formula for White Cloverine brand salve. Originally, Dr. Wilson made the product using his kitchen stove to heat and mix the necessary ingredients. In 1895, his son, George C. Wilson Sr., founded the Wilson Chemical Company and began manufacturing the salve.
Having limited funds to market the salve on a large-scale basis, George developed a unique method of merchandising the product and became a true innovator in his field. He decided to place small advertisements in various small-town newspapers and magazines to distribute his product. The idea caught on almost immediately. In fact, the company became the first premium house to use comic books to market its products.
An “agent” would receive twelve boxes of salve with twelve pictures. The agent would sell the salve for twenty-five cents to the customer, who also would receive a picture (usually a 9×11 four-color lithograph) with the product. Many such pictures could not be obtained elsewhere because they were privately owned by the company, or it had exclusive publication rights to them. The practice of providing pictures with the salve was continued until the late 1960s when the cost of providing the pictures free to customers became too high. (Visit our gallery of Wilson prints.)
In exchange for selling the products, agents were given the option of receiving a cash commission or returning all monies collected In exchange for premiums offered by the company. An overwhelming majority of the agents chose the commissions. The more salve sold, the higher the commission or premium earned. Additional premiums were granted for remitting prompt payment for the salve. A key factor in the firm’s ability to market its product through the use of premiums was the quality of premiums offered by the company. While competitors using such a strategy would typically send inferior premiums to their agents, the Wilson Chemical Company sent top-quality premiums such as watches, air rifles, cameras, or bicycles. George C. Wilson III, company president from 1952 to 1985 often told the story of the enterprising junior merchandiser who earned not one, but six Shetland ponies! The more valuable premiums were kept in a locked shed within the plant. This commitment to its representatives enabled the company to develop a network of more than 300,000 agents, sixty percent of whom were children, mostly between the ages of eight and fourteen. The practice of providing premiums to its agents would remain with the company throughout its history.
Using such strategies, the company grew quickly and attracted competition. When a competitor copied the formula for the salve, George Wilson sued on grounds of patent infringement. Wilson won the suit but sold a variation of the formula to the competitor for $4,500 and used the funds to build the company’s first plant — a two-story, wooden structure on the side of Brush Mountain on a site that was to become known as Cloverine Terrace.
A fire on March 4, 1916 completely destroyed the main building. Undaunted, the company continued on. By 1919, the company erected its new facility, a mammoth structure that one writer described in this manner: “This beautiful castle-like, native red-stone building, with walls twenty inches thick, stands out like a fortress as strong as the Rock of Gibraltar at the foot of a 400-acre mountain tract.” The plant stood adjacent to the Tyrone railroad station, where thousands of train passengers saw the company’s trademark — a giant Cloverine salve can proclaiming the home of the product. Wilson Chemical used this plant until 1970, when it was purchased by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and demolished to make way for the Tyrone bypass of U.S. Route 220.
The salve earned the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, a highly regarded seal earned after stringent testing at the magazine’s laboratory. Due to the high success of Cloverine brand salve, the company gradually expanded its product lines, diversified operations, and began to manufacture a number of additional products.
Eventually, the Wilson Chemical Company was manufacturing a wide array of products. Some of the more notable products included Cloverine dental cream, Cloverine soap, Cloverine mentho-balm, Cloverine talcum powder, Alo-Pine liniment, and Cloverine cold cream. While the company would eventually expand its line to include more than twenty products, Cloverine brand salve always would remain the staple of the firm, accounting for approximately sixty-five percent of total sales.
In 1926, the company started the Junior Food Products Company, manufacturers of Jack and Jill flavored-gelatin dessert. In 1928, the Wilson Products Company began producing Wilson’s cough drops. The family also owned a line of movie theaters throughout the Blair-Cambria region.
The growth of the industry was to aid in the development of Tyrone itself. The mail-order business had increased so dramatically that by 1916, the Wilson Chemical Company was responsible for more than $100,000 of the $118,000 total business done by the post office in Tyrone — an amount larger than the total receipts at the Altoona post office during the same period. During the rush season, the operation would have four or five postal clerks working in the plant. Mail was stamped or weighed and sent directly from the factory to the train. The typical day’s output of mail from the plant at that time ranged between seventy-five and a hundred sacks of mail. Such continuous large volumes of mail enabled Tyrone to receive designation as a first-class post office, have a new post office built, and obtain home mail-delivery for its citizens free of charge.
During the peak selling season (September through April), the plant employed approximately 125 people. About one-fourth of the employees had worked for the company at least twenty-five years. Several spin-off jobs also were created to fill the plant’s material-handling and distribution needs. Typically, the company used more than twenty boxcar loads of tin boxes for Cloverine salve and another thirty boxcar loads of materials, supplies, and premiums in a single year.
Upon the untimely death of George Wilson Jr. in 1951, George C. Wilson III became president of the company at age twenty. George proved up to the task of successfulIy running a large organization at such a young age. At age twenty-six, he was elected the youngest president of the Young Presidents’ Organization, an association consisting of companies with more than 100 employees and revenues of more than $1 million annually, and under his leadership, the firm was active in various community activities. He operated as president of operations until the company was sold in 1985.
The salve, still made using its original formula, is produced in Dobbs Ferry, New York. It is distributed by Medtech Laboratories Inc. in Cody, Wyoming, and is sold primarily through mail-order catalogs and drug outlets.
Photos & images
Galleries of historical photos, postcards, Wilson Chemical Co. premium prints.