Dennis Hocker, president of the Historical Society of Perry County, thinks about local history a lot. Therefore, he was the perfect guide for a daylong tour of this fascinating place that, nearly two centuries ago, was sliced out of neighboring Cumberland County.
“There are so many historical sites in Perry County that I’ve picked just a few to allow you to enjoy the drive, with a few refreshments along the way,” Hocker explained at the start of our trip.
We began our tour ensuring that we’d be properly nourished for the journey ahead, heading to one of the county’s best-known (and oldest) eateries.
Opened on Mother’s Day 1964, the Red Rabbit Drive-In outside of Duncannon is a throwback to the time of the British invasion and the original Ford Mustang. There’s nothing faux about the Red Rabbit—it just hasn’t changed in 50-plus years.
“With no inside seating, carhops take your order, just like back in the day,” said Hocker.
Similarly, the architecture and décor recall a time gone by, as does the menu (if it’s your first time, go with the locally famous Bunny Burger, along with the requisite fries and shake). There also are a few picnic tables around the lot for those afraid of spilling bunny dust (a special French fry seasoning) in their cars.
Following lunch, we stopped nearby at the Juniata Junction lock at the Amity Hall exit of Route 322.
The canal era in Pennsylvania, begun in 1827, was a complex, engineering marvel. When the Juniata River portion of the system opened in 1832, the canal extended to Hollidaysburg at the eastern end of the Allegheny Portage Railroad, 127 miles west of the Susquehanna River. A total of 86 locks was required to overcome a change in elevation of 584 feet over the full length of the canal, which cut the travel time from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh from weeks to a few days.
“The Juniata Junction was the traffic director on the canal system from Harrisburg,” Hocker said. “It allowed canal boats to either continue further north or turn westward toward Pittsburgh.”
To gain a sense of what riding on the canal was like, continue a bit farther west to the borough of Newport and stop at the town square. To your left, you’ll be treated to a mural on the wall of the Perry County Council of the Arts showing a canal boat on the move. Newport was an important stop on the early system, a launch point for crops and lumber headed to cities in the east. While there, stop at local favorite Espresso Yourself for a quick jolt or snack in the charming, historic storefront on the square.
On the other side of Newport, a short distance away, is Little Buffalo State Park. When you reach the park entrance, turn left onto State Park Road.
The Blue Ball Tavern was built in 1762 and purchased by Peter Koch in 1793. His son opened a tavern there in the late 1700s, and its proximity to the Juniata Furnace, an iron works, made it a gathering spot for locals. The tavern offered food, drink and a sleeping loft.
“The Blue Ball Tavern took on a critical role during the war of 1812,” said Ben Ranney, naturalist at Little Buffalo State Park. “The tavern was strategically located on what was at the time called the ‘Great Road,’ linking the military post in Carlisle with the town of Sunbury.”
When the dispatch rider from Carlisle arrived, the owner of the Blue Ball Tavern would provide him something to drink, then signal the owner of the White Ball Tavern on the ridge overlooking the road to saddle another horse for the rider.
“Refreshed, the rider would pass through Newport, then cross the Juniata River at Reider’s Ferry and be on his way,” said Ranney. “This system helped maintain communications between Washington, D.C., and Fort Niagara during a critical time in our history. “
The tavern closed in 1841 and is currently managed by the Historical Society of Perry County.
Leaving Blue Ball Tavern, follow the signs to Shoaff’s Mill. As you walk up to the mill from the parking lot, enjoy a stroll through Clay’s Bridge, a burr arch-style covered bridge. Built in 1890, the bridge was moved to its current site in 1971.
When the Juniata Furnace Iron Works closed in 1848, William Shoaff bought 63 acres, which included a mid-1830s gristmill and a log cabin. The commonwealth purchased the mill in 1966 and renovated it in 1976 for grinding cracked corn and apples.
Once you leave the mill, follow Route 34 into the borough of New Bloomfield. At the square, take a moment to observe the historic Perry County Court House. Built in 1826, it’s the oldest continually used courthouse in Pennsylvania. In the middle of the square, the Soldiers and Sailors Statue dates back to 1898 and honors Perry County citizens who lost their lives in war.
It’s only a mile from New Bloomfield along Route 274 East to Huckleberry Road and the Hoverter and Sholl Box Huckleberry Natural Area. Gene Odato, the district forester at the Tuscarora State Forest, has responsibility for the site.
“This 10 acres is Pennsylvania’s smallest state-designated natural area,” Odato said. “The specimens of box huckleberry here have been estimated, based on their observed rate of growth and clonal reproduction, to be between 1,200 to 1,300 years old.”
A nature trail winds throughout the box huckleberry plants. Because the plant is an evergreen, keeping its leaves in the winter, this natural area attracts visitors year round.
After your visit, continue on Route 274 East into the borough of Duncannon and follow Market Street into town. On the town square, you’ll pass the Doyle Hotel, famous among hikers on the Appalachian Trail as a great place to stop for a meal to celebrate reaching the mid-point of the trail.
Ice Cream & Archeology
If the mood strikes you, consider stopping for a treat at the 3B Ice Cream shop. Then you can walk across the street to the Clark’s Ferry Tavern and check out the archeology dig, which is open to the public most Sunday afternoons.
“The Clark’s Ferry Tavern, the oldest building in Duncannon, was originally built in 1788,” Hocker explained. “It served as a docking point for the ferry crossing the Susquehanna River and a stage stop on the first road westward. During the Civil War, it was known as the Topley Hotel and served as a mustering point for men of Company B of the famed Pennsylvania Bucktails.”
Round out your trip with a stop at the Old Sled Works. In 1904, the production of Lightning Guider sleds opened in this two-block-long factory building. For nearly 85 years, millions of sleds and other wood products were built here and shipped throughout the United States. At one point, the factory had become the largest sled production facility in the country.
“My dad bought what was then called the Standard Novelty Works in 1968, and it continued to operate as such until the fall of 1990,” said owner Jimmy Rosen. “I was only 26 when my dad turned the sled works over to me. I could hardly wait to begin refurbishing the building to make it sparkle like so many of the others I’d seen.”
Today, more than 120 vendors pack the Old Sled Works to sell a wide range of antiques and crafts. To add to the old-timey atmosphere, Rosen has styled the building so families can amuse themselves at the penny arcade and buy a milkshake at a real soda fountain. There’s even a sled museum inside.
I hope you enjoy your tour. For those of you looking for more information on the history of Perry County, check out www.perryheritage.com. Dennis Hocker has written 12 books on the history of Perry County. I think you’ll find them informative and fun to read.
The Red Rabbit Drive-In is located on Route 322 one-half mile west of the Clark’s Ferry Bridge and one-quarter mile east of Route 11/15. The hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. For more information, visit www.redrabbitdrivein.com.
Juniata Junction and the Canal Lock. Take the Amity Hall exit off Route 322 then turn left at the bottom of the hill and park at the River Road sign. Walk about 300 yards up the southbound exit ramp (to the right of, and along, the PennDOT yard) until the ramp bends to the left. The trail will be to the right, across from the smallest PennDOT building.
When you reach the bottom of a short hill, you will be in the canal itself. If you look to your right, you’ll see what is left of the canal, which headed north along what is now Route 11/15. There was a bridge across the northbound canal for the mules to turn the boats destined to enter the Juniata River branch of the canal and go west.
As you walk straight ahead, you’ll see the towpath at the top of the berm to your right for the mules that pulled the canal boat toward the lock. In about 800 yards, you’ll reach the Juniata Junction Lock. Notice the cut stone sides of the lock, which have weathered almost 200 years.
Blue Ball Tavern Museum is located at 59 State Park Rd. directly across from the Little Buffalo State Park offices. The site is open Sundays during the summer, 1 to 4 p.m.
Shoaff’s Mill is located at 1579 State Park Rd., one-half mile up the road from the Blue Ball Tavern. This 19th-century mill still runs on the 103-year-old, 32-foot waterwheel. It’s open Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m. from May to the third weekend in October. For information about tours, call 717-567-9255.
Hoverter and Sholl Box Huckleberry Natural Area is one-half mile along Huckleberry Road from Route 274. When you see the sign for Arbutus Lane, pull over and stop along the side of the road. The site is on the left, up the hill. For more information, call the Tuscarora Forest District Headquarters at 717-536-3191 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Old Sled Works is located at 722 N. Market St. in Duncannon hours and is open Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, go to www.sledworks.com or call 717-834-9333.
Don Helin published his first thriller, “Thy Kingdom Come,” in 2009. His recently published novel, “Devil’s Den,” has been selected as a finalist in the Indie Book Awards. His latest thriller, “Secret Assault,” was published in November. Contact Don on his website, www.donhelin.com.