Man's worth is most often determined by what he accomplished during his lifetime. He may have risen in the Haratio Alger fashion from rags to riches or what he did may have been a positive affect upon those who lived in the home area then and now. Few individuals are blessed with the qualities 5that raise him above the ordinary man.
Arthur George Olmsted, as his obituary written in the September 23, 1914 issue of "The Potter County Journal" stated, rose above the ordinary. Quote "He was no ordinary man and the qualities that distinguished him above the common men were so varied and so blended that the writer finds words inadequate to express the true estimate of his worth and influence. He received profound respect from all by a life of consistent consideration for human rights in all relations." Who was A. G. Olmsted and what did he do to demand the respect of his contemporaries?
His earliest American predecessor was Richard Olmsted who arrived in America in 1632, and was among the first settlers to move to Connecticut in 1636. Here he took part in the development of Hartford and the organization of the colony, until he moved sixty-eight miles farther west and aided the settlement of Norwalk. At age of sixty-three he became a captain of militia in King Philip's War. His descendents served in several offices and continued to open new lands in Connecticut.
When the American Revolution began in New England, Daniel Olmsted was one of the six hundred Continentals who resisted the British invasion of the western Connecticut in 1777. He was the Paul Revere for the villages of Fairfield, Bedford and Norwalk. It was during the Revolution that Daniel moved his family across the Hudson River to Masonville, Delaware County, New York. Daniel's great grandson and namesake was born there on August 2, 1799. This Daniel married Lucy Scofield, who bore two children before the family decided to make the one hundred-ten mile migration to Ulysses, Pennsylvania. One of those making the journey was Daniel's son Arthur George Olmsted who was nine years of age.
A. G. Olmsted was born at Masonville, New York on September 30, 1827 and moved to Ulysses when the area was virtually unsettled. No School was taught in the vicinity until one year after his arrival, and this was for only a few months each year. For the next twelve years he worked on his father's farm while attending school during the winter. There were few opportunities for education but young Arthur tried to take advantage of every opportunity to learn. For several terms he would walk sixteen miles to Coudersport to take classes at the academy. During the week he would stay near the school and work for his board, but he made the trip to his home and back every weekend. He persevered, read and studied whenever possible, and soon gained a reputation for being one of the best-informed individuals in the county.
In 1848, Mr. Olmsted entered the office of John S. Mann, Esq. As a law student and was admitted to the Potter County Bar on January 12, 1850. Later that same year he became District Attorney, a position that he held for three years. As a lawyer he was described as being keen, analytical, tactful and resourceful. His ready wit and keen insight into human character made him a formidable opponent and a successful trial lawyer. He was strong with the court and before the jury. According to a biographer, " He never mad a statement to either judge or jury that he hadn't convinced himself was strictly true. He appealed to reason rather than to passion."
Mr. Olmsted was a natural orator and enjoyed debate and lecture. As a young lawyer and student he participated in a library course and chose "Science, Its Origin and Progress" as the subject for his lecture. The carefully prepared lecture was delivered to a large crowd at the old courthouse and brought to the public's attention an orator of great intellectual quality. His power of expression and gravity of thought astounded his peers from the back wood of Potter County. He continued to take part in the lyceum lectures during his studies in the office of John Mann.
The temperance movement had been inaugurated in the county and A.G. became on outspoken critic of strong drink. He worked with the Sons of the Temperance and his powerful eloquence became a potent factor for the cause.
At about the same time, Mr. Olmsted became active in another cause, that of anti-slavery. With the Free Soil Party, he worked for the abolishment of the Fugitive Slave Law, and he supported the Wilmot Proviso. Mr. Wilmot's brother-in-law was a member of the local bar and his father operated a store in Coudersport, so his work was not foreign to the local Free Soilers. David Wilmot himself delivered a speech at the courthouse on July 10, 1854, and Olmsted responded with a stirring speech that ended with the sentence, "If slavery has any rights under the Constitution, let them from this day forward be ignored."
The Free Soil party was soon to be absorbed by the new Republican Party, and Potter County immediately took up the new banner for the old cause. The problems in Kansas remained a concern and they continued to carry letters and articles about the struggle there. In 1856, James Buchanan, a native son of Pennsylvania won the presidential election but Potter's sentiment and vote went to John C. Fremont the Republican standard bearer. A pro-slavery President and Congress had prevailed but the sentiment would change during the next four years. When Lincoln was elected in 1860, Mr. Olmsted was ready to carry the banner.
His law practice along with national and community affairs had occupied Mr. Olmsted's time for ten years, but he did take time to court a local girl. On May 8, 1860 he married Ellen Ross, the daughter of David and Mary Ann Ross. They moved into the home, which A.G. had purchased from Dr. Heath that was located on North Main Street next door to John Mann's residence. It was on the site of the present Bell Telephone building. Here their daughter Nellie was born on July 19, 1861. A son Robert joined them on June 2, 1877. The day after Christmas, 1893, Nellie married William F. DuBoise, a teacher who later became a lawyer. Robert also became a lawyer and practiced with Mr. DuBoise.
His avid support for the Union cause brought Mr. Olmsted to the forefront as a potential leader of the new administration in Pennsylvania. His eloquent appeals to the area's young men sent many to the front with a feeling that they were fulfilling their patriotic duty. Being elected to the General assembly in the fall of 1862 brought him to a new level of political activity and he excelled. During his third and last term in 1865 he was chosen Speaker of the House which put him in an influential position where he could work for a pension bill for disabled veterans, but his real interest was with the law practice back home. He retired and was replaced by his neighbor and former mentor, John Mann who would serve four terms.
The retirement was short lived and in the fall of 1868,
Mr. Olmsted was elected to the State Senate representing, Potter, Tioga,
McKean and Clinton counties. He was well known and was named to the Federal
Relations, Judiciary and Educational Committees and was made chairman of
the Committee Library. Throughout Senator Olmsted's tenure in the senate
he worked for a railroad across his home area to connect Pennsylvania coalfields
to Buffalo. He also supported legislation that would aid in labor and several
bills that aided in the upbuilding of his district. He was one of the Senators
who worked for the legislation, which was necessary to set up the Constitutional
Convention of 1873.
The close of the session in 1871 left the Senator in the leadership of the Republican side but he did not wish to continue in politics. Once again he hoped to retire to his law practice, but again it would not happen. He was persuaded to fill an unexpired term of a judge in Bucks and Montgomery counties. This term lasted until December 1872 when he was asked to seek election for the succeeding term, but he declined, to return to Coudersport.
The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1873 created the office of Lieutenant Governor and Mr. Olmsted was the first Republican nominee for the position. The Panic of 1873 and the poor showing of the Grant Administration nationally gave the Democrats an advantage which they used nation wide. States that had been staunch Republican strongholds went to the Democrats. These included Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The voters of the Commonwealth elected a Democratic Senator and both house of the United States Congress passed into Democratic control. Again he thought he would spend his time tending to his professional and business interests.
Early in his law career, he entered into oil operation suits in McKean and Warren counties. This gave him an opportunity to display his legal learning and ability. He became involved in much important litigation during the development of the oil fields. It was a prosperous time for good lawyers.
Olmsted also entered into the real estate business, buying and selling land. Since the area was still being settled this enterprise also proved to be profitable.
He had an interest in bringing the railroads to Potter County. While a Senator, he had pushed the Jersey Shore, Pine Creek and Buffalo line, which was actually surveyed in 1874 but was never built. It remained the primary project in his mind when he returned home and some grading on the line between Coudersport and Port Allegany was completed but work had ceased. The only railroad in the county was the few miles at Keating Summit. Since the future of the J.S.P.C and B.R.R. looked pretty bleak, local businessmen including Mr. Olmsted attempted to secure the right-of-way from Coudersport westward without success until 1881.
That year George Magee came into control of the right-of-way and a local group known as the Coudersport and Olean Railroad Company was formed to make the purchase. This was consummated and Mr. Olmsted was chosen one of eight directors who soon changed the name to Coudersport and Port Allegany Railroad Company.
Within a year the road was completed and on September 26, 1882 the first passenger train steamed into town from Port Allegany. The county seat was now out of the woods. It had a railroad to the outside world and progress could not be far behind. During the next thirty years the population of Coudersport would increase almost five times.
Three years before the railroad reached town, the telegraph line came in conjunction with the Tidewater pipeline, which was another business interest. Tidewater was the first pipeline to carry oil overland from the Bradford field. Its ultimate goal was to take oil to the Atlantic to be shipped overseas. A pumping station was constructed a few miles west of Coudersport and the railroad station that served was named Olmsted.
In 1883 he worked for the Citizens Water Company, and a
few years later saw opportunity in the development of the newly discovered
natural gas that would bring comfort to the people. As a shrewd businessman
Mr. Olmsted prospered, but so did the citizens of Potter County.
In 1882, Mr. Olmsted became an extra law judge in the fourth judicial district, which was composed of Potter, Tioga, McKean and Cameron counties. As the result of reappointment the following year he was appointed president judge of the forty-eighth district composed of Mckean and Potter counties. This term expired in 1902 and Judge Olmsted retired after twenty continuous years on the bench. Furthermore, he had served his community for over fifty years, holding local, county and state positions. In every position he had an enviable record. Judge Olmsted's private affairs now demanded his undivided attention. His investments had become large, varied and wide spread, and he had also made many loans to farmers and businessmen here at home. There was enough to keep him busy but he continued to broaden his horizons.
On August 17, 1905, he presented the Coudersport Fire Department with a new fire station, which he had constructed and equipped. He aided with the organization of the Citizens Trust Company, which is still an important financial firm in the community. A condensed milk factory was organized in 1900 with Judge Olmsted as president. The railroad continued to be one of his chief interests, as well as the public library, which had been moved many times since its early establishment. He saw fit to give the books a permanent home almost directly across the street from his residence. Today this building is the headquarters of the Potter County Historical Society.
Arthur George Olmsted was a unique individual, who coming to Potter in 1836 at the age of nine years had the opportunity to grow up with the county. He took advantage of every opportunity to learn and to improve his own station. With only a common school education and a few terms at the Coudersport Academy, he advanced rapidly. As the boy orator from Ulysses and a student lecturer for the library, he quickly gained a reputation as a master of the English language. His oratory made him a leader for or against causes of the era. Perhaps his earliest speeches were for the cause of the prohibition. He denounced the liquor license as he did the institution of slavery. His support of the Free Soil movement brought him to the front as a leader of the newly formed Republican Party. His genius in politics and business mad him a leader in the development of his community.
Biographers did not dwell upon or even mention any shortcomings in the character or actions of Mr. Olmsted. His family came to recognize early that he was above temptation and his eagerness to learn would give him an outlet to occupy his time. His only flaw mentioned was not of character but was physical. He was not able to serve during the Civil War because of a disability. No matter his knowledge and ability to speak on most subjects overshadowed any blemishes, which if they existed were few. He chose by his own convictions to champion most of the popular causes of his time. His first public oration of a note at a library course was based upon knowledge of science, a subject he used on several occasions. Christianity and Temperance were also favorite subjects during the early part of his career as were the slavery and the rights of man. These were important subjects for debate for any person who was interested in the politics of the Free Soil Abolition and Civil War eras. No matter what the occasion most of the orations brought out his interest in ancient and classical history. Facts about great events of ancient and medieval history were used for the American Republic. His response to the speech delivered by David Wilmot at the Courthouse in 1854 shows a man who is willing to take an extreme stand on the Kansas question. He may have stood in awe of one of the great leaders of the Free Soil movement but his reply left no question as to where he stood on the problems. I quote part of the reply, "We had a mission to accomplish once, and every American was inspired by its grandeur, and every free heart throbbed quick and strong with emotion at the name of the young nation in the west, upon which broad banner was inscribed in letters of living light, 'The right of the people, ' and eternal opposition to the blood-red wrongs of aristocrats and kings...let every man swear that the mountain gorges and vast plains of Kansas shall be free, not by the force of compact broken and trampled in the dust, but free by the force of strong arms and brave hearts...Now let the dumb speak, let the indignant North proclaim that slavery propagandism is forever at an end. Aye, let slavery herself be dethroned, I speak for no man but for myself. If slavery has any rights under the constitution let them from this day forward be ignored."
I used the last sentence for the second time purposely. Imagine if these words had been spoken in the Halls of Congress instead of in the courthouse of Coudersport, Mr. Olmsted would have been labeled as one of the fire-brand leaders of the Abolitionists. I am sure that this would have pleased him as much as the results of the election of 1856 displeased him.
His speeches for the next ten years ring with the words freedom, liberty and patronism as he becomes a leader within the government of the Commonwealth, but after 1865 the tone changes. He now argues for the railroads, trade and commerce. His appeal for the building of the Jersey Shore, Pine Creek and Buffalo Railroad shows his interest in the development of the rural areas of Northcentral Pennsylvania. In part i quote, " Build this road through that region now totally undeveloped and you bring forth this hidden treasure and haste it onward to the markets of the West, add untold millions to local values, create new objects of state revenues, and furnish employment for thousands of the hardy sons of the toil."...For dairying purposes the counties crossed are not equaled by any counties in the Commonwealth...Its citizens have hitherto been treated as aliens and strangers for Pennsylvania. They have born the burdens without the benefits of citizenship...Pass this bill and it will bring our people into connection and sympathy with the balance of this great Commonwealth."
In addition he attempted to influence legislation that will aid the people at home but he advocated probation for the south. Here he returns to the use of more patriotism in his themes and tries to rally support for a strong Republican Party when he states, "The country, therefore, must be governed either by the party that fought for the Union, or by the party the majority of whom fought against the Union. Choose ye between the two. Are you willing as Republicans, are you willing as citizens, that this great and mighty change should occur in the administration of state or nation affairs?"
He also showed concern for the condition of the Negro and in the same speech made a plea for their security and equality. He thought that here was a movement to crush the black man and that his condition would become worse than it was under slavery. He stated that, "The Negro stood faithful to his country's blue and when he went down into the thick of the battle with you and your sins on behalf of a government that had previously done him wrong, the people of the country swore, as by inspiration from the great source of all justice, that the tongue should cleave to the roof of the mouth, and the right hand forget its cunning, yet the Negro should have his right forever; and will keep the oath."
Judge Olmsted presided over the court with dignity but
at times his courtroom was enlivened by his quaint sense of humor. As one
term of court when a grand juror begged to be excused because of deafness
in one ear, the Judge replied: "You will do. You are only to hear one side
of the case." A. G. Olmsted was a contemporary of Galusha Grow from
Tioga County who is credited with the Homestead Law of 1862. As a leader
of the Potter County Free Soil Convention, Olmsted made a similar plea
After his retirement the number of orations by the Judge diminished, but many were made in his honor by those who knew him, but one of the greatest tribute was made by his Biographer Rufus Barrett Stone in one of the last paragraphs in his book. Quote- "If in the years to come another generation shall turn these pages and gather from their imperfect record some inspiration toward an upright and effective life, a citizen of a high order, a superb patriotism, an undeviating devotion and conscientious discharge of public duty, then to the children of Arthur George Olmsted and his children's children, it will as the years go by, be the most gratifying memorial." Information for this story came from his biography: "Arthur George Olmsted" by Rufus Barrett Stone, John C. Winston Co. Philadelphia, 1919, excerpts from original manuscripts of speeches.
Thanks to Robert W. Olmsted of Butler, Pennsylvania, The Historical Society has diaries, records and original documents of Judge Olmsted's work.
Thanks also go to the members of the Olmsted Family who
have given the Historical Society a clear deed to the property which now
is part of our society.
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