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Gov. William Stone compared the man to a giant tree standing above the rest in the forest.

“Pennsylvania today could not be what it is had it not been for Joseph Ritner,” Stone said of his predecessor. “No one ever questioned his honor, his integrity and his devotion to right.”

Three thousand people had gathered in the Evangelical Church cemetery at Mount Rock in western Cumberland County to pay homage to a self-taught champion of free public education for every child.

They listened as a band played the national anthem and watched as William Miller, a retired Union Army captain, carried a little girl over to the base of the 24.5-ton monument. The date was Oct. 15, 1902.

The girl was Kathryn Eppley – a daughter of farmer James M. Eppley of South Middleton Township and the great-great-granddaughter of Ritner, who served as Pennsylvania governor from 1835 to 1839.

The Evening Sentinel reported how the girl reached over to pull a chord to lower the curtain that covered the 13-foot-high tribute to a man whose last name resonates today on the Ritner Highway.

A humble start

A Berks County native, Ritner was born on March 25, 1780 to parents who had little interest in providing their children with a formal education. “He never had the advantage of school training except for a few months when he was a stripling 6 years old,” said Edward Biddle, a Cumberland County judge and another speaker at the monument dedication ceremony.

“As his parents were comparatively unfamiliar with the English tongue, he was first taught to speak and read in German and to the day of his death his pronunciation had a foreign accent,” Biddle said. “After partially learning the trade of weaver, which was the vocation of his father, Joseph came to this county at the age of sixteen and obtained employment as a laborer on the farm of Jacob Myers, near Newville.”

His annual salary as a laborer started at $80, but went up to $120 in subsequent years, according to Biddle. In 1802, Joseph Ritner married Susannah Alter, the daughter of a well-to-do farmer. Ritner continued to work and save until he had enough money for a wagon and a team of horses.

In fall 1805, Ritner loaded his wife, two children and all their belongings in the wagon for the journey over the mountains to Plum Township, Allegheny County, and the farm of David Alter, his brother-in-law. David had a large number of books in the German language, which Ritner read, feeding a need for learning that carried on through his entire adult life.

Four years later, in 1809, Ritner moved his family to Buffalo Township, Washington County, where he built a farm. He would later be elected seven times to the state legislature before becoming governor. After his term ended, Ritner purchased a farm near Mount Rock south of Newville, where he lived until his death at age 90 on Oct. 19, 1869.

Legacy in education

Long before the Ritner Highway, this single-term chief executive left behind an important legacy for future generations. When state lawmakers tried to repeal the Free School Act of 1834, Ritner lobbied to keep the law in effect with help from state Rep. Thaddeus Stevens.

“His wonderful speech ... in April 1835 ... had electrified his audience, rescued the school law from repeal and saved the state from the disgrace of a return to old conditions,” Biddle said of the late governor. “Upon this subject ... the views of the bold and patriotic Ritner and the brilliant commoner were in perfect accord, and together they worked for the establishment of those cardinal doctrines, which would insure universal freedom and general education.”

Before the Free School Act, few but the wealthy and elite could afford a quality education for their children. In his last annual message to Pennsylvania residents, Ritner mentioned how the state had only 762 common schools and seven academies when he took office in December 1835. But by the end of his only term as governor, there were 5,000 common schools, 38 academies and seven female seminaries.

Ritner was a prime example of a state politician of early 19th century Pennsylvania. The climate had changed dramatically in the 60 years between when Ritner left office in December 1839 to when William Stone became governor in January 1899. In 1901, state lawmakers allocated funds to erect a marker at Ritner’s grave in the Evangelical Church cemetery in Mount Rock.

The monument consists of a shaft of Westerly granite from Rhode Island embracing a bronze bust of Ritner. The Daily Journal newspaper of Mechanicsburg had this to say about the craftsmanship: “The design being attractive and the work without a blemish, the most critical examination failing to show a single flaw.”

During his dedication speech, Biddle drew a comparison between the politicians of Ritner’s era and those in office in 1902 when the monument was unveiled to the crowd. Below are excerpts:

“To persons of the present generation who have observed that nine-tenths of the highest civil offices in this country are filled by lawyers, it probably appears exceptional that Mr. Ritner, who had no legal training, should have obtained the governorship of a populous commonwealth. In the early days, however, a different rule existed, for greater consideration was then given to laymen in the distribution of places carrying with them profit and honor.”

Biddle mentioned how only one of the first eight governors of Pennsylvania had passed the bar. Ritner was number eight. The trend was the reverse by 1902 with only one of the last eight governors not having a law degree. That was former Union Army general John W. Geary who served from 1867 to 1873. Biddle elaborated on this in his speech.

“This exact reversal of the ratio of one to seven shows that times have changed and demonstrates in a pointed way that formerly knowledge of the law was not deemed an essential qualification for high public positions. Indeed it is doubtful whether it was considered a qualification at all. Our government was then in its formative stage and apparently sturdy common sense was believed to afford the surest foundation for a safe development.”

Physical statute didn’t hurt.

“In person, he (Ritner) was stout and somewhat above the medium height, with a large head and broad chest, dark eyes and a swarthy complexion,” Biddle said. “Many years of hard manual labor had developed a naturally strong physique and invested him with a stock of surplus health which was never drawn upon to repair the ravages of dissipation.”

Biddle mentioned how Ritner exercised self-control by avoiding alcohol, tobacco “and was diverted at any time into a luxurious style of living.” In the following passage, the judge described Ritner as a kind of Paul Bunyon type of character:

“The scythe and the flail were but as toys in his muscular grasp and many native giants of the forest fell before the powerful strokes of his axe.”

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News Reporter

History and education reporter for The Sentinel.