Last updated: May 04. 2014 12:42AM - 2566 Views
By - tvenesky@civitasmedia.com

Bill Williams kneels next to one of the foundation stones for a water tower in what used to be the town of Ricketts.
Bill Williams kneels next to one of the foundation stones for a water tower in what used to be the town of Ricketts.
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While the Ricketts sign is the first endeavor into interpretive signage for the Endless Mountains Heritage Region, executive director Phil Swank said it won’t be the last. The group, along with the Sullivan County Historical Society, is looking into a project that will highlight a series of ghost towns in the region. Places such as Celestia — a religious community that used to be located near Laporte — and the old coal town of Laquin, outside of Towanda.

“We’ll put the call out to the community to identify where these ghost towns existed and the stories behind each,” Swank said.

The trees that were cut by the inhabitants of Ricketts at the turn of the century were considered virgin logs, meaning the forest had never been cut before. The ancient trees were old and enormous, and a ring count of a hemlock tree from that era showed it was 535 years old.

Nestled in the wilderness of State Game Lands 13 in Wyoming County are the remnants of a once-thriving town.

Today, enormous stone foundations and the remnants of stout timbers are all that remain of the town of Ricketts but, more than 100 years ago, the place was a bustling lumber town that was home to more than 800 people who made their living in the 65,000 acres of virgin forest that once dominated the area.

The town existed from 1890-1913 and was named for Col. Robert Bruce Ricketts, a Civil War hero who owned the land. When the trees were all cut, the town began to disappear. For the last century, it was reclaimed by nature. It was a past that was slowly becoming forgotten, until a few interested individuals got involved.

As a wildlife conservation officer with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Bill Williams spent years patrolling the area that included the old town of Ricketts. During his work, Williams frequently came across the old foundations and wondered about the story behind each. Through his own research and after reading the book “Ghost Towns of North Mountain,” Williams’ personal interest in Ricketts grew.

He wanted to see the story of the town preserved, and so did others.

“We wanted to do something to make people aware of what was there,” Williams said. “We want to reveal that there was a town there with a church, general store and community hall and families born and raised there.”

With a grant from the Endless Mountain Heritage Region, along with the Endless Mountains Visitors Bureau, a sign documenting the history of Ricketts will be erected at the site later this month. The sign will include historical photographs, text explaining the lumber operations and life in the town, and a map depicting the locations of buildings. Brochures containing the same information will also be available.

The project was a collaborative effort involving individuals from the Sullivan County Historical Society, the Game Commission and EMHR. Historical information was provided by Petrillo.

“The sign gives visitors to the site an idea of what’s surrounding them,” Williams said.

There were two sections to the town of Ricketts.

Downtown Ricketts, which is on the Wyoming County side of Route 487, included mills that manufactured excelsior (shredded wood used for packaging) and a facility that made barrel staves. There was also a company store, railroad station, hotel, Lutheran church and a community hall.

Uptown Ricketts, which is on the Sullivan County side of Route 487, included a massive hardwood mill that produced 75,000 board feet of lumber daily. There was also a two-room schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, water tower and rows of company homes.

While the buildings are all gone, many can be identified today by their stone foundations, including the hardwood mill, schoolhouse, hotel, store and water tower.

Phil Swank, executive director of EMHR, said the sign project is unique in that it brings together a wide variety of agencies all with an interest in preserving the history of a town.

“From a historical perspective, Ricketts is a great story,” Swank said. “It’s an end of an era as far as the lumber industry in our area.”

Melanie Norton of the Sullivan County Historical Society said one of the aspects she finds fascinating about Ricketts is how quickly the town vanished.

“To have such a boom of industry that crops up in the middle of nowhere, runs its course and just as quickly dissipates into thin air is amazing,” Norton said. “Ricketts is juts one example of that.

“History has to be accessible and that’s what this sign does.”

While historical preservation isn’t necessarily the mission of the Game Commission, Williams said the agency has utilized some of the remnants of the town when it comes to creating wildlife habitat. The apple trees that were planted by the residents more than a century ago are pruned by PGC staff and still produce fruit for wildlife, he said. And the mill pond that used to hold logs until they were sawed is home to a variety of waterfowl and wood duck nesting boxes.

And when the PGC conducts timbering operations in the area, steps are taken to avoid disturbing the old foundations.

“We’re enhancing what’s there,” Williams said. “The time when Ricketts thrived has been described as the ‘Period of Exploitation’ because everything was clearcut. In those days, it was almost unheard of for anyone to see a deer, and today there’s a variety of wildlife right in that area that the folks in Ricketts likely never saw.”

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