Stories from the Old 8th Ward
Despite its reputation as a lower-income and vice-ridden region, the Old Eighth Ward was a thriving place for businesses, both large and small. In fact, much of the neighborhood’s reputation for unhealthiness was a result of the prominent industries that called the ward home.
One such factory was W. O. Hickok Manufacturing Company, also referred to as the “Eagle Works,” the oldest and most prominent industrial plant in the Old Eighth Ward and one of the first manufacturing plants to use electricity for light and power. Additionally, Eagle Works’ founder, Orvil Hickok, served as a councilman for the borough of Harrisburg.
Gordon Manufacturing Company, located at 424 and 426 State Street, was another hub of manufacturing within the Old Eighth Ward. After starting in the attic of a dwelling on South Fourteenth Street in 1898, it moved to a large brick building on Montgomery Street, and then to State Street due to the company’s continuing growth.
“Among the local industries that distinguish Harrisburg as a manufacturing city is one that has carried its good name far and wide…. This industry has grown wonderfully during the past few years and on the factories known most widely throughout this and other countries is the Gordon Manufacturing Company.”Harrisburg Daily Independent, October 2, 1905
Right next door to the Gordon Manufacturing Company was the Paxton Flour and Feed Company, organized in 1872 by John Hoffer, Levi Brandt, and the James McCormick estate. The feed company was one of the leading grain shipping centers of Central Pennsylvania with multiple locations throughout Cumberland County.
Kurtzenknabe Printing was owned and operated by the family notable musician, hymn-writer, and teacher, J. H. Kurtzenknabe. Kurtzenknabe used the print shop to publish a number of successful hymnals, many designed specifically for children.
Not all business in the Old Eighth Ward was industrial. Printing offices, pool houses, drug stores, bakeries, confectioneries, restaurants, and laundry services also thrived. The ownership of these small businesses reflected the diversity of the Old Eighth Ward community. German bakers, for example, became prominent, serving the entire neighborhood. One such baker was Frederick Wagner, who emigrated from Prussia in 1855. He operated a bakery at the corner of State and Cowden Streets for forty-four years, employing a number of apprentices, thus growing the profession as he succeeded. Lewis Silbert, a member of the Jewish community operated a confectionery just down the street from Wagner as well as a cigar store. Besides his family, fourteen others lived and worked with him, which included four African-Americans who had emigrated from the South as well as four mixed-race individuals.
Business and politics often mixed in the Old Eighth. In fact, one block of businesses became the heart of African-American Republican politics at the time. The corner of Short and South Streets came to be known as “Frisby Battis Corner.” Frisby C. Battis lived there and operated a saloon, a cigar store, and a pawn shop from the building. Next door he opened a pool room which became a headquarters for Republican politics in the Old Eighth Ward, especially as Battis sought to challenge the powerful Democratic Alderman Charles P. Walter. In fact, Battis once found himself in front of a judge as a result of this potent mixture of business and politics. Accused of selling liquor on a Sunday as well as operating a gambling house, the charges were contested with arguments that Battis was being persecuted for his political work by over-zealous Democrats. Although the judge threw out the case, Battis took this as a sign and relocated to Washington D.C. While Republican allies swore that Battis was being unfairly harassed, it is worth noting that despite his partisan allegiances, his place of business and home was used as a poling place for one precinct of the Old Eighth Ward, leading to many accusations of election interference. Regardless, up until the demolition of the Old Eighth Ward, “Frisby Battis Corner” was regularly listed in papers advertising polling places for residents of the ward.
Many other businesses and social institutions called “Frisby Battis Corner” home. Colonel W. Strothers operated a pool hall which shared the property with the Brotherly Love Lodge, the Harrisburg headquarters for the oldest and most active African-American Fraternal organization of the time, the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. Strothers was similarly involved in local politics and social welfare organizations. So too was William Parson’s, who owned a drug store across the street from Battis’s businesses.
Colonel W. Strothers was a larger-than-life personality in the Old Eighth Ward. He owned a number of different business, including a pool hall, restaurant, cigar store, and barbershop, most of which were located next to his home in the Old Eighth Ward. Despite being over 300 pounds, he also earned a reputation for being an excellent dancer, even providing dance lessons throughout Harrisburg. However, he is perhaps best remembered as the manager of the Harrisburg Giants, which at the time played in the Eastern Colored League, earning a reputation for a high-powered offense.
While the Harrisburg Giants’ success came after the demolition of the Old Eighth, Strothers’s ability to raise and run the team was deeply tied to his life there. Originally a police officer, he quickly transitioned to business and politics. Like many of the Old Eighth’s African-American leaders, he was prominent within fraternal organizations, active in the church community, and like his close colleague Frisby Battis, used his businesses to host and promote Republican politics in the ward.