Jerry Church and the city of mysteries

Editor’s note: The columnist will give a free talk on the founding of Lock Haven on its 180th anniversary at 7 p.m. Monday in Ross Library’s Rebecca Gross Community Room, 232 W. Main St., Lock Haven. To register, email or call 570-748-3321.

Here’s what we’ve always known.

Lock Haven was founded on Nov. 4, 1833 – 180 years ago this week. The city was founded by Jeremiah Church, who grew up in Bainbridge, N.Y., and was thrown out of school at age 13 for trying to kiss the teacher.

Jerry came to this area with his brother Willard in the autumn of 1833, got an anonymous attorney from Williamsport to loan him $20,000, and bought up 120 acres of land. Nov. 4 was when he held the public auction, selling off lots and creating the community which was originally spelled as one word: “Lockhaven.”

The first lot, at the corner of Water and Jay Streets, was sold to Frank H. Smith, hotel owner and amateur actor. The biggest and most expensive was sold to James Jefferis, retired pirate from Chester County. Jerry talks about this in his journal, which is available at the Ross Library for $3.18, if you’ll forgive the blatant product placement.

Jerry built a tree house and used it as an office, often playing the violin and doing business up there. He had a daughter, Margaret Church, born in 1835. Twelve years after founding the community, he left and went out west, where he founded the town of Carlisle, Iowa.

He died Nov. 1, 1874, at the age of 78.

Here’s what I’ve found out, the past few years.

The anonymous donor for Jerry Church’s land was most likely Judge Alexander Jordan of Williamsport. He had enough money, fit the description in Jerry’s journal, and would explain why we have “Jordan’s Alley” running between Water and Main streets.

The mother of Margaret Church was most likely Maria Mahan, the daughter of Alexander Mahan. Maria worked in her father’s hotel which stood at the corner of Bellefonte Avenue and South Jones Street, where Jerry used to eat. Maria died soon after Margaret was born, which explains why there was never a mother in Margaret’s life.

Now, here’s what I’ve discovered only recently.

Jerry left a lot of mysteries and discoveries behind him, just waiting to be found. In our archives at the library, I discovered a story of how he advertised the new community he was creating. Newspaper ads? Street signs? Nope, nothing quite that common for Jerry Church.

He dropped in at a corner saloon – probably Barker’s Tavern, which was initially used as a courthouse – and announced loudly, “Fraulien, give me a whiskey sour, and leave the spoon in it.” He made a big production of it, and everyone turned to stare at this guy who used a spoon to drink his whiskey. At which point, with all eyes on him, Jerry Church announced that he wanted to sell off lots and create a city.

Jerry left a lot of interesting discoveries behind him. One newspaper article in our archives talks about his bed turning up in Carlisle, Iowa years after his death. It had with it a red blanket that he would wear to impersonate a Native American- Jerry always admired the Natives.

An Express article from 1904 describes old papers, signed by Jerry Church, turning up in the fire hall that once stood on Grove Street. This was where City Council used to meet before City Hall was built, and apparently the papers were stored there, turning up almost exactly 30 years after Jerry’s death.

We’re still finding things that Jerry Church left, 180 years later. Recently in our files, I discovered photos of Jerry while he was young, and his daughter Margaret. I’d seen photos of Margaret before, but always as a cranky-looking old lady. In this photo, she appears to be in her early 20s, and I’d never found a picture of her that young before.

While researching this column, I also turned up an old document. Written on March 15, 1841, it contains the signatures of the earliest town government, swearing to do their duty including Jerry Church. I discovered it, an unknown Jeremiah Church signature, on the upper floors of the library.

And who knows what else might be out there, just waiting around to be found? I love solving these mysteries, and making these discoveries.

And Jerry Church left me a lot to work with.

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 or 570-748-3321.