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Penn State Diary: What would Centre County be like without PSU?

by on September 29, 2017 11:04 AM

Back in 1961, I was entering high school and it was the time of the Civil War Centennial. As a history buff, I read whatever I could about the conflict. But one book hit me as none had before. MacKinlay Kantor’s If the South Had Won the Civil War was “alternate” or “counterfactual history.” Such works suggest outcomes from events that didn’t happen, but emphasize historical explanations as opposed to works that simply use alternative paths as a literary device.

The possible futures that Kantor suggested for both the North and the South were thought-provoking to say the least. In the intervening years, my historical interests moved on. Today I focus on Penn State and Centre County history, a narrow field that I continually try to place into larger historical contexts. Even so, my mind occasionally wanders off to those “what if?” questions that are the heart of alternate history. 

At the intersection of Penn State and Centre County history, we wonder … what if the trustees of the Farmers’ High School (FHS) had chosen to locate their school in one of the other seven counties that offered land for it back in 1855? And then — what would Centre County be like today if Penn State had been located elsewhere?

The counties offering land were all located in central and western Pennsylvania. Dauphin, Perry, and Franklin formed one cluster; Centre, Blair, and Huntingdon were another, and then Allegheny and Erie were the remaining two counties.

Locating the school in the counties near Harrisburg would have possibly brought more state government influence to bear on the college. Simon Cameron, wealthy businessman, US senator, and later Lincoln’s secretary of war, led the effort to locate the FHS in Dauphin. His creation of the Republican Party machine that dominated Pennsylvania politics for at least the rest of the century might possibly have tied the college even closer to the state.

Locating the school in either of the western counties would likely have changed it to a much more regional institution. If a successful Penn State had been in Allegheny County, the Western University of Pennsylvania might not have been founded and there would be no Pitt-Penn State rivalry today. Interestingly, there were no offers from eastern Pennsylvania, although some of the school’s earliest supporters (and later critics) were from Chester County.

Choosing one of the nearby central counties would’ve placed the school in a more isolated part of the state. While Blair and Huntingdon in the 1850s and ’60s were on important transportation routes, Centre was like an eddy in a stream. Its geography oriented it against the desire to push west. If isolation, keeping the boys from the evils of the city, was a primary goal of the trustees, then Centre County easily fulfilled that purpose.

From an agricultural standpoint, only Franklin and Dauphin counties would have competed with Centre for rich, limestone soils that would favor a farm school. But the lack of eastern interest in hosting the college kept it out of Pennsylvania’s dominant agricultural area and possibly diminished Philadelphia support for the college, which continued to be weak in the 19th century.

These are just a few potential answers to “what if Penn State had been placed in one of the other counties that offered land as a site for the school?” For Centre Countians, the opposite question — “what would Centre County be like if the FHS had been located elsewhere?” — is perhaps the more immediately interesting.

Living next door to a behemoth of higher education, while sometimes challenging, has its benefits in terms of economic health for the region. But Centre County would be far different today without Penn State. There would probably be little or no high-tech industry here. Agriculture would have likely dominated the southeastern half of the county once the iron industry and small manufacturing of the 19th century phased out. Lumber and coal dominated the Allegheny Plateau of the northwestern half of the county starting after the Civil War, but today their diminished importance would probably still hold.

There would not be a town of State College or a Centre Region drawing workers from all over the county and beyond. Transportation would probably be somewhat different. Major highways would likely still traverse the county, but Centre County would not generally be the destination it is today. Air service here would be as unlikely as for many surrounding counties.

Sixty percent of the county’s 155,000 people reside in the Centre Region. Without that bulge, might it be more like its neighbors in Clinton, Union, Snyder, Mifflin, and Huntingdon counties with populations in the 40,000s? Would there be sufficient economic strength to hold young people here or would out-migration plague us as it has other surrounding counties?

Alternate history can cause us to consider possible futures that are not as attractive as the present we do enjoy, but the exercise is both a healthy and a fascinating one.

Lee Stout is librarian emeritus, special collections for Penn State.


Lee Stout is Librarian Emeritus, Special Collections for Penn State.
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