A visit from Katharine Hepburn

In the summer of 1940, the joke down at Piper was that every time a girl in shorts walked by, it cost the company $75 in production. With which I can sympathize. On one summer day, a visit from a famous actress pretty much took out any productivity for the day.

The employees knew her from some of her movies; “Stage Door,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “The Philadelphia Story” and “Little Women” were a few of them. And it was a shock when she appeared right here in Lock Haven.

It was June 3, 1940: the day Katharine Hepburn came to town.

I have Grace Sheats of Lock Haven to thank for this one. She came in recently to donate a photograph she’d found. The photo, from an old scrapbook, shows Katharine Hepburn walking down at Piper with a couple of people, including Express Editor Rebecca Gross and local writer Martha Zeigler. And as I did the research, I realized that Mrs. Sheats had donated that photo on June 3 – the anniversary of the day the visit had happened.

So how can I resist writing about it?

Hepburn had been in the area on vacation that summer, and several summers previously. There was a lodge in Salladasburg that boasted her as one of its regular guests, along with Herbert Hoover. Hepburn came into town by air with Philadelphia siblings W.B. and Laura Harding, arriving at about 3:00 the afternoon.

W.B. Harding headed to Salladasburg, while Laura and Hepburn stayed in Lock Haven, driving around town in a station wagon. They drove down Water Street, admiring the historic buildings. I could have given them a great walking tour, except I wouldn’t be born for another 29 years, and they didn’t want to wait.

Hepburn expressed an interest in a tour of the Piper plant – she was an amateur pilot herself, and interested in how the planes were made. If Katharine Hepburn wanted a tour of Piper, she got one.

“Whether the visit of the famous movie star, clad in a bright scarf and a light gray corduroy jacket in addition to her slacks, put a brake on the production speed with which the Cub factory is diving into its big backlog of orders, it gave the Piper men a bright memory and impressed Miss Hepburn,” The Express reported at the time.

She was offered a ride in a Piper Cub – the men would have most likely let her fly the Cub, if she’d asked – but she declined. Looking around the factory, she commented, “It’s marvelous the way they turn them out.”

By this time, several Express reporters and photographers, including Rebecca Gross, were following her around. It hadn’t taken long for word to reach the local press that a celebrity was in town, and like ants to a picnic, they’d converged. (On a related note: If Reba McEntire ever comes to perform on the floating stage, I want to write about it. I don’t care if Jim Runkle and Wendy Stiver have to fake a seizure; I call dibs.)

Though Hepburn was known for shunning publicity, she was gracious to the locals and chatted with the men on the production line. She talked about fishing, which she was attempting to do on vacation, though so far she’d had no luck.

“The fish of Larrys Creek, apparently, are not movie fans,” said The Express.

A day later, the paper ran an editorial that began, “Miss Hepburn strikes us as a very nice, genuine, and likeable person in her own right, entirely aside from her fame as a movie and stage star.”

The column explained that, though not everyone in town had gotten the chance to meet Katharine Hepburn, this was probably for the best. She was uncomfortable with huge crowds, and had mostly wanted to just spend a little vacation time.

“We think she is a modest and freckle-faced lady who can’t quite see why people get such a kick out of seeing her in the flesh and wishes she could be left alone, off-stage and off-screen, to do what she pleases,” according to the column.

There is no record on whether Katharine Hepburn ever caught a fish here. But she did provide the employees of Piper and The Express with a memorable afternoon. And I may never get to give her a historic tour, but I’ll rent one of her movies from the library as a consolation prize. I know we have “Bringing Up Baby.”

Lou Bernard is a Lock Haven resident with a keen interest in the history of this area. He is adult services coordinator at Ross Library and may be reached at ross13@rosslibrary.org or 748-3321.