Our Towns

City Named to Honor Andrew Jackson (They Think)

HERMITAGE, Pa. — What’s certain about the name of Hickory Township and, nearly 150 years later the name of Hermitage, is that both stem from Andrew Jackson, nicknamed Old Hickory by his admirers.

In 1832, the year Hickory Township was founded, Jackson, said to be “as tough as old hickory,” was in the third year of his first term as president and 18 years removed from his victory at the Battle of New Orleans.

What no one seems able to piece together is exactly why in 1832 the residents of this township in western Pennsylvania went to such lengths to honor the seventh president.

“We’re definitely tied to him. Why? We don’t know,” says Rod McAdams, treasurer of the Hermitage Historical Society. “He happened to be president at that time and we went with that, I guess.”

In 1974, through adoption of a home rule charter – giving the municipality the power to act in all areas except specified state powers – Hermitage, first as a township and then as a city, was set to be established. The connection to Jackson remained.

“The Hermitage” was the name of Jackson’s estate in his home state of Tennessee. He retired there in 1837 and lived there until he died in 1845. Both Jackson and his wife, Rachel, are buried at The Hermitage.

For the first few decades after its establishment, Hickory Township was mostly farmland. Then in the 1850s, coal mines began popping up across the region, propelling growth and the encouraging the construction of railroads, which in turn drew more people to the township.

“At that time, the community existed because there was coal mining. Railroad lines ran through the community, mostly small-track lines that were built to haul coal back to the Erie Canal extensions that would then haul it to ports,” says Thomas Darby, superintendent of Hermitage’s water pollution and control department. “They also went further south toward Pittsburgh, although I’m not sure where those lines ended.”

Darby’s great-great-grandfather – with whom he shares a name – came to Hickory Township in 1869 from England where he was a coal miner, leaving behind his wife and nine children.

Within eight months, Darby says, his ancestor had earned enough to bring his family to America and, by 1870, the family homestead was marked on local maps.

“He was earning a lot from the Sharpsville & Oakland Railroad along New Virginia Road [now Virginia Road]. As far as I’ve found, his first property abutted the railroad right of way,” Darby continues. “From there, he bought a farm on what’s now Darby Road in 1885 that was several hundred acres.”

Since the early 1900s, Darby says, his family has, at one time or another, worked in the steel mills, mostly in Sharon and Farrell. His grandfather worked at Sharon Steel Hoop Co., his great-uncles, uncles and father at the former Sharon Steel Corp., and his brothers at the former National Steel Co.

Although the mines closed commercially with the rise of steel, those living on the land continued to use the coal they produced.

“There’s an old family picture of my great-granddad in a slope mine with a pickaxe picking coal. A lot of people did it for their own benefit,” Darby says. “They’d go in to the mines that were still accessible and pick out the coal to heat their homes.”

As Sharon and other small towns and boroughs around the township grew and were formally established and continued to grow, they annexed land from Hickory Township.

While Sharon was the most notable, the boroughs of Farrell and Sharpsville also gained territory, leaving unique borders for what one day would become Hermitage.

While the northern, southern and eastern borders of the township-turned-city are fairly straight lines save for a few bends and slight angles, the western borders consist of sharp turns, city limits that jut into and retreat from other municipalities and narrow borders only a few hundred yards wide.

The annexations, however, came to a halt in the 1950s when Hickory was designated a first-class township – meaning it had a population density of more than 300 residents per square mile.

It was about that time, too, the historical society’s McAdams says, that the population of the overall area began to shift into Hickory Township.

“People didn’t want to live in town any more. They wanted to live out in the country and the developments came with it,” McAdams explains. “The decline of the downtown [in Sharon] really caused a boom for Hermitage. People started moving out of Sharon and places like [J.C. Penney] and Montgomery Ward moved to Hickory Township. Back through the ’50s, there was very little development. Since then, it’s swelled and kept moving.”

The arrival of retail stores drew population and in 1972, the township government was given the opportunity to adopt a home rule charter. In November of that year, a commission was created to study the charter and an alternative form of government. Six months later, the commission recommended adopting home rule and on Jan. 1, 1976, the township of Hermitage came into being.

According to McAdams, there was little debate over the name change and, to his knowledge, few if any hurt feelings.

“People wanted [Hickory] to grow and not be overrun. To get their own name and taxing bodies, they had to agree to a change,” he says.

“The schools are known as Hermitage schools, but they’re still named Hickory. People didn’t want to lose that identity as Hickory but it was a transition. They had to move with the times.”

In 1983, the Hermitage Township board of commissioners placed a referendum on the ballot asking, “Shall the Home Rule Township of Hermitage become the Home Rule City of Hermitage?”

While the count was close – 1,971 in favor versus 1,846 against – Hermitage was officially established as a city on Dec. 22, 1983.

Since its incorporation, Hermitage has continued to grow, becoming the economic hub of Mercer County. What once were rolling hills dotted with mines and fields tilled for agriculture today are strip plazas and restaurants.

The area, McAdams and Darby speculate, would be completely unrecognizable to anyone who had lived in Hickory Township at almost any point before the commercial boom.

“There’s no way [my great-great-grandfather] would recognize it,” Darby says. “I’ve often thought that if I were plucked out of the ’50s or ’60s and driven through State Street today, I wouldn’t recognize most of it. It’s changed dramatically.”

But, Darby makes sure to note, remnants and reminders can still be seen of what life in Hermitage was like before retailers moved in, before parcels of land were ceded to neighboring governments, before steel become a major industry and before coal mines were dug into the earth.

“If you get beyond Keel Ridge Road [on the city’s eastern side], then it starts to look like it always has,” Darby says. “It’s more rural and there’s not a lot that’s changed over the years.”

PICTURED: Loggers clear land in what was Hickory Township and is now Hermitage, Pa. The photo is from Thomas Darby’s family collection. His great-great-grandfather came here in 1869.

Editor’s Note: This story is part of The Business Journal’s “Our Towns” series. Watch today’s DailyBUZZ webcast for a video report and stay tuned all week.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.