Arriving in Centre Hall, I turned onto West Church Street and soon saw the cemetery on the left side of the road. Making a left turn onto North Willow Avenue, I made an immediate right onto the sacred grounds of the Centre Hall Reformed and Lutheran Cemetery, which is known by most as the Centre Hall Cemetery. This was not the first time I visited these sacred grounds – I had stopped here a couple years earlier to remember Josiah Dale, a local man whose murder remains unsolved. Note: More about the unsolved murder can be found here: Josiah Dale.
Immediately upon entering the cemetery, I could see the stone marking the place of the man I had come to remember on this trip. His grave stands at the corner of North Willow Street and the roadway through the cemetery. Parking on the roadway, I made my way to the stone and read the names engraved into the stone. To most, the name Leonard Rhone means nothing, however every year Centre Hall is invaded by those who arrive to attend Leonard Rhone’s Picnic, which is known in the modern day as the Centre County Grange Fair.
Leonard Rhone was born in July 21, 1838, in a log cabin west of Centre Hall, one of eight children of Jacob and Sarah Rhone. Rhone graduated from the public school before attending the Kishacoquillas Seminary in Mifflin County. After studying there for a year, he taught for a year, before returning to the family homestead Rhoneymeade, meaning “Rhone’s Meadow,” to pursue agricultural interests – he took over the responsibilities of the farm in 1865.
A newly formed organization would soon catch Rhone’s attention. Founded in 1867, the National Grange was founded to help farmers and rural families and in February 1874, Rhone helped organize Progress Grange #96 in Centre Hall, followed by Centre County Pomona Grange #13 that September. Rhone would not stop with these two Granges and would be instrumental in organizing many of Centre County’s Granges.
In 1880, Rhone was appointed as a Trustee of the Pennsylvania State College, which is presently known as Penn State University. That same year, Rhone was also elected the State Master of the Pennsylvania Grange, which was a position he held for eighteen years.
1880 would see Rhone would enter the political field. Rhone was nominated to run for the Pennsylvania State Representative as a member of the Greenback Party. Formed after the U. S. Civil War, the Greenback Labor Party, an independent party, was backed mainly by people with an agricultural interest. During the U. S. Civil War, the federal government issued “greenbacks,” which was currency not backed by either gold or silver. In the 1870s, the federal government began to support the “greenbacks” with gold to stabilize their value, which was viewed as unfavorable by the middle and working class of people who were in debt. With the value of the “greenback” increasing, it was harder for people to get out of debt. The Greenback Labor Party wanted more “greenbacks” printed, as a means of keeping excess money in circulation and making it easier to pay off debts and purchase needed goods at a lower price.
Note: Sources differ if Rhone actually ran for State Representative under the Greenback Party. According to Linn’s History of Centre and Clinton Counties. Pennsylvania (Linn) states that Rhone declined the offer to be a representative for the Greenback Party. However, many biographies hint that he had an unsuccessful bid with the Greenback Party.
Rhone would again run in 1884 for Pennsylvania State Representative and would serve two consecutive terms in the Pennsylvania State House. From 1885-88, Rhone served as a member of the Democratic Party.
But most residents of Central Pennsylvania recognize Leonard Rhone for a little picnic he first held at Leech’s Woods, located near Linden Hall – roughly 3.5 miles west of Centre Hall – on September 24, 1874. The October 1, 1874 edition of The Centre Report (Centre Hall, Pa) describes the one-day event: “The pic-nic of Centre Co. Grangers, in Leech’s Woods, near this place, on last Thursday, was a great success. An immense crowd, was present” with the “number of persons present was not far from 3000.” The size of the initial Granger’s Picnic covered eight to ten acres and included many speeches promoting the Grange fraternity and included a parade led by the band from Boalsburg.
The picnic originally moved from place to place around the county. According to Centre County Grange Encampment and Fair (Lathbury), the second picnic was held at the Centre County Fairgrounds (between Milesburg and Bellefonte) and the 1876 and 1877 picnics were at the top of Nittany Mountain, between Centre Hall and Pleasant Gap. The following year it was held at State College before returning to the top of Mount Nittany through the 1887 picnic. The 1888 and 1889 picnics were held at Old Fort and in 1890, Progress Grange would purchase 26 acres, which would become the start of a permanent picnic ground. With a permanent home, the picnic began growing is size and length – according to the Commemorative Biographical Record of Central Pennsylvania (Beers), by 1897 the one-day picnic had already grown into a week-long event.
Note: In numerous modern retellings of the origins of the Centre County Grange Fair, it is stated there was a Granger Picnic in 1873, which is incorrect. There were a number of “Farmer’s Picnics” and “Community Picnics” in the region in the early 1870s, and I believe the one held near Centre Hall that year has been mistaken as a Granger’s Picnic. It should also be noted that in the early years of the Grange movement, it was common for most Granges to hold a “Granger’s Picnic.” Reading through the newspapers of the 1870s, 80s, and 90s, there are many mentions of a “Granger Picnic” being held by one Grange or another, but the popularity of the Centre Hall Granger’s Picnic continued when others disappeared into history.
Leonard Rhone would pass on September 25, 1917 at his home at Rhoneymeade. He was survived by two daughters and three of his sisters. His obituary noted his work with the Grange and how instrumental he was in organizing the Centre County Encampment and Fair.
Rhone was still at the head of the Grange Encampment and Fair at the time of his death. Unlike many organizations that fail after their founder passes, the fair continued to grow in size. In 2022, Leonard Rhone’s simple Granger’s Picnic celebrates its 148th anniversary as the Centre County Grange Fair – the 26 acres now spans over 260 acres, bringing families together from all around world. The mini-city is filled with those staying in campers and families in green military-style tents, which have been handed down through the generations.
I finished paying my respects to Leonard Rhone and his idea for a regional Granger’s Picnic. I turned my attention southward, where people are beginning to move their campers into the fairgrounds. I left him resting beneath the trees of Centre Hall’s Reformed and Lutheran Cemetery.