Tioga County’s “Grand Old Man”
One of the most remarkable figures in Mansfield history is the Hon. Simon B. Elliott.
Today Simon B. Elliott Hall houses Mansfield University’s departments of business and economics, math and computer information science, and nursing.
Surprisingly, those are some of the very few fields that Elliott did not enter.
Simon B. Elliott was born in 1830 in Sheshequin, Bradford County. While he was still a boy, he moved to Middlebury, Tioga County, with his father Larman H. Elliott, a mason, and his brother, Dr. Charles Elliott. He was 18 years old when the family moved to Mansfield in 1848. Education was always important to young Simon, who also completed three years of schooling at the Wellsboro Academy.
In the mid 1850s, Mansfield was poised to become incorporated as a borough. Around the same time, a group of enterprising citizens proposed constructing a school of higher learning. Simon B. Elliott found himself involved in both efforts. According to historical information from early newspapers, as well as Tri-Counties Genealogy & History by Joyce M. Tice, Simon B. Elliott was elected recording secretary for the first borough council and his first meeting was April 3, 1857. His father Larman was one of the original council members.
Simon himself was elected burgess (mayor), a position he held in 1859. Due to the efforts of Joseph Seth Hoard, Dr. J.P. Morris, Simon Elliott and many others, Mansfield Classical Seminary opened Jan. 7, 1857 with 105 students. The school was under the auspices of the East Genesee Methodist Episcopal Conference.
Mansfield Classical Seminary’s enrollment had grown to about 150 students when the institution’s second term started April 16, 1857. Six days later at 10 a.m. on April 22, the seminary building caught fire and burned to the ground. The origin of the fire was believed to be due to a defect in the chimney system. Some furniture, doors and windows were saved, but many items were ruined. On that day, there was a foot of snow on the ground and many of the furnishings were damaged when they were brought out of the burning building and placed in the snow.
The building was insured for $12,000, but the Panic of 1857 a national financial crisis caused one of the insurance companies to close and another refused to pay. While the building was still smoldering the founders, including Elliott, met and resolved to rebuild. It was Elliott, a brick layer by trade who designed the second Seminary Building.
At this time the group raised about $4,000 for the effort. Construction started immediately with the first floor completed by autumn. The walls were braced for the winter with construction to resume in the spring.
In August, 1858, the citizens of Mansfield invited the members of the East Genesee Methodist Episcopal Conference members to a free picnic on the “Island” (now Smythe Park) in hopes that the conference would offer financial support for the rebuilding effort. They couldn't help Mansfield financially, but the local crowd that had assembled raised about $4,000 in subscriptions and pledges of goods and labor.
Work resumed immediately. Elliott recorded that only 50 cents was paid in labor in 1858. That sum was paid to a “chap who came along and represented himself as a bricklayer, but he was not.” That person was discharged that day and paid 50 cents. Work continued for the next year and Mansfield Classical Seminary reopened on Nov. 23, 1859 in the still uncompleted building with some 30 students.
The low enrollment, coupled with an $8,000 debt, caused financial problems for the next several years. Elliott also noted that by 1860, only four of the original officers were serving on the board. He described a scheme hatched by the new treasurer, a Rev. R.A. Drake, who nearly succeeded in selling the seminary building. His plan was stopped by some of the original founders, but the debts remained.
Elliott recorded that “hardly a term of court passed without the Seminary being advertised for sale by the sheriff.” However, he added that it was remarkable how often errors were made in the advertisements for the sale and on these grounds the sheriff’s sale could be delayed.
Elliott was soon after elected to the Pennsylvania State Legislature, where he served from 1861-1862. During that time, the seminary set a goal to become a State Normal School. Normal schools were begun in1857 in Pennsylvania to educate new teachers in a two-year program to teach in the common schools of the state. Elliott worked to secure that designation for the institution in Mansfield. Mansfield was to become the commonwealth’s third normal school. (Millersville and Edinboro received their designations earlier).
At the time, the state was divided into 12 (later 13) districts with one normal school serving each district. Mansfield was the school for the fifth district. The normal school designation helped to partially erase the last of the debts incurred by the fire, but it would take a private loan of $6500 from the Honorable John Magee, owner of the Fallbrook Mines to completely wipe out the schools liabilities. After the school repaid around $3300 of the debt to Magee, he gave the school a gift of the balance on New Years Eve of 1867, not long before his death.
Four years earlier, Elliott designed and built the sheriff’s home and county jail in Wellsboro. According to his obituary, he charged the county $10,000 for the service, a small amount for the time. That structure, houses the Wellsboro Chamber of Commerce and the Tioga County Development Corp.
Elliott is also credited with building three railroads in Tioga County, as well as designing the Mansfield Methodist Church on the corner of Academy and Sullivan streets in 1872, just across the street from Elliott Hall. He would later go on to work as a manager of the coal mines near Arnot, eventually moving to Reynoldsville, Jefferson County Pa. to do similar work there.
However, he always considered Tioga County his home and would often return to the area.
Elliott developed a fascination for astronomy and the newspapers raved about the quality of his lectures. The Wellsboro Agitator even ran a notice in 1900 that Elliott, then age 70, traveled to North Carolina to witness an eclipse.
However, Elliott’s later years were mainly marked by his dedication to the environment. He was a noted expert on geology, including erosion problems, and forestry. In 1907, he wrote to The Agitator and explained some of the problems with the new macadam roads.
Elliott was named to the state forestry commission in 1904 at a time when the forests of North Central Pennsylvania were nearly ruined by clear-cutting. He was a leader in the effort to create nurseries for growing trees that could later be replanted, thus restoring some of Pennsylvania’s forests. His efforts were particularly centered in Clearfield County and the area that later became Moshannon State Forest. In 1933, 318 acres of that forest was designated as S. B. Elliott State Park in his honor.
Elliott wrote a ground-breaking book in 1912, The Important Timber Trees of the United States. According to an Agitator article reviewing the book Elliott argues that any trees planted in the vast deforested areas should be economically viable instead of the slow-growing hemlock. He suggested the faster growing white pine.
Demonstrating a concern for future generations, Elliott, who was 82 at the time, pointed out that forestry will continue to be important to the county for the next 60-70 years. In fact, lumbering is still vital in Tioga County.
During the same year, Elliott returned to Mansfield to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Mansfield’s Normal School. During that time, Elliott again contributed to the legacy of the school.
Part of Mansfield University’s diversity policy comes from a statement Elliott made in 1912. “Strive to make education universal; that the rich and the poor, the child of those who have power and place, and of those who tread the lowly paths of life, shall receive alike the blessings of education ... and invite equally and alike, without distinction of sex, or color, or race, or creed, or party, the children of all who may desire to participate in the opportunities here offered. That is the highest purpose for which Mansfield may be praised,” Elliott advised.
Even though he had moved away, Tioga County thought of Elliott as one of their own. In 1911, the Agitator called him “Tioga County’s Grand Old Man” and lamented that he could not live to be 400 years old.
“Mr. Elliott is now in his 82nd year. He is the most remarkable, versatile and useful citizen of his years that we ever knew,” a reporter. Simon B. Elliott passed away on June 17, 1917 in Reynoldsville. A quarter century after his passing, Elliott was again “called into service.” During the Second World War, the Navy built inexpensive Liberty Ships to deliver supplies and war material to Europe. The Navy asked for the names of important deceased Americans to be used as names of the Liberty Ships. The S.B. Elliott, hull #1802, served its country well.
In 1997, Mansfield University honored this remarkable man by renaming the old Home Economics Center Simon B. Elliott Hall in his honor.