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Dam’s Legacy: Laughter, Echoes of Anger

by and on May 28, 2018 5:00 AM

HOWARD — It’s not without a touch of irony that there’s an undercurrent of bitterness beneath the surface of the Foster J. Sayers Dam at the Bald Eagle State Park.

It’s a place where the laughter of bathers on the beach and the roar of the boats pulling water-skiers drown out the echoes of anger that still lingers 50 years after the dam — or “the damn dam,” as some of the old-timers in and around Howard are still wont to call it — was opened after years of nasty battles with the Army Corps of Engineers who built it.

The dam, which was presumably built to prevent flooding downstream in Lock Haven, is named in honor of Foster J. Sayers, Centre County’s only Medal of Honor winner in World War II. He grew up in the Howard area.

[From a Difficult Youth to a Courageous Sacrifice, How Foster Sayers Became a War Hero]

In the foreword of his book “A Dam Shame, the True Story of the Foster Sayers Dam,” Howard resident James R. Holter described the feelings of the residents of the area in the northern tip of Centre County.

“This is the sad but true story of how the federal government came into our peaceful valley located in the heart of Pennsylvania and took good land from poor farmers and other property owners to build a dam,” Holter wrote. “The Army Corps of Engineers and some congressmen lied to the people, betraying the trust they placed in them. They falsely explained to the Howard area residents that they were building the dam for flood control when in fact they knew all along the Sayers Dam was mainly for recreation purposes ...”

At least two generations have mostly passed and a good portion of a third, as well, since the first drops of water flowed over the spillway, heading downstream to join the Susquehanna River. But the children and grandchildren of the property owners most affected by the dam still vividly recall the impact of the project on the town and the surrounding farms.

“It affected a lot of people,” said Sandra Rhoades, whose childhood home now lies directly beneath the dike, “both financially and psychologically. It caused a lot of bitterness, mostly toward the government. It caused hard feelings among neighbors. Some people made money off it and those people were resented. You would think that everyone that went through it would come together, but they didn’t.

“I don’t know, I’ve pondered it a lot over the years. I can’t explain it. I still see it today. We lost our home and had to relocate. My parents were paid $35,000 and it cost a lot more than that to buy land and build a house. My stepdad died two years ago and right up to the end of his life he would say, ‘My life would have been better if that (expletive) dam hadn’t gone in.’”

Like Rhoades, Tom Bowes’ family also lost its home in Howard. Both were classmates in the 1961 graduating class at Bald Eagle Area. Rhoades is a retired teacher; Bowes is a sanitary engineer.

“The dam had a tremendous impact on the area,” he said. “We lost our homestead and our home. There was a lot of animosity, but most of that has passed now due to attrition.

“But the dam cut off a pretty good slice of the town and caused a lot of bitterness. There was a lot of negativity toward the Army Corps of Engineers. For a long time, we had brown snow here. A lot of people thought that was a result of the chemical spill at Nease Chemical in State College that settled in the silt. We also had a lot of cancer in the town. The Army Corps never released its findings, so we don’t have answers.”

Because of the dam, a number of businesses in Howard were lost, including the Woolrich Woolen Mill, which employed 625 women, several gas stations, the Pierce Woolen factory and two taverns, to name a few. Roughly 1,200 graves were disinterred and relocated from Schenck’s Cemetery to New Schenck’s Cemetery, which lies along Route 150.

And, the notion that the dam would prevent flooding was washed away in 1972 when Hurricane Agnes hit and isolated the town itself for two weeks because water was overflowing the causeway.

Like so many small towns, the demographics of Howard have changed over the years. A once vibrant community, it’s a quieter place now.

“The community has changed,” Bowes said. “It was always sort of a bedroom community, but it’s a much younger population now.”

A younger population that knows only the benefits of the dam and not the battles fought over it.

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

Ron Bracken
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