On my daily commute within Schuylkill County I often time-travel, leaving the present for the past or sometimes the future. Traveling northwardly into Pottsville from Mount Carbon I pass a district commercial parking lot at 430 South Centre Street. Most people don’t even notice that lot as they are either too busy texting or else they are gazing upon the adjoining psychedelic wall with its circular streaks of paint, pie plates and dishes. That wall reminds me of artist Jackson Pollock and Dr. Timothy Leary at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. With that distraction, few are cognizant of the apocalyptic landscape at the corner of Centre and Morris Street. With my time-travel back to the early days of the 20th century, I don’t see it either. What I see is a Queen Anne-style town house; the residence of one of the wealthiest men in the county.
The owner, William Lesley Sheafer, is just leaving his home now. After locking the door, he gives me a courteous tip of his hat as I motor on by. Yes, his house is still standing, untouched by the spectacular and enigmatic fire of March 2001 which destroyed it. The $433,000 insurance proceeds paid to the owners would be used for demolition of the ruins but not for restoration. That certainly was their prerogative under the insurance policy. No, after the fire, the Sheafer mansion would metamorphose into a dirt and stone parking lot for commercial vehicles. 21st century city planning at its best, one wonders.
Who was William Lesley Sheafer? Why he was one of Peter Sheafer’s children. Father Peter, who died in 1891, had been one of the great 19th century surveyors and engineers who had amassed an incredible fortune, mainly in anthracite coal fields. Son William became an executor of the estate and worked out of his office building which is now the old abandoned YWCA building. William was a Lafayette College graduate and was certainly up to the task of running the family enterprise. Fortunately, the large fortune he inherited did not turn him into a pampered playboy. No, he became quite involved in the future of Schuylkill County. For instance, he took a prominent role in setting up an emergency hospital in Mount Carbon during the 1894 typhoid epidemic and later was one of the founders of the Pottsville Hospital. During my time travels I got to know Mr. Sheafer and became familiar with his reputation as being a zealous crusader for good government during the birth of the Progressive Era. When I told him that “drain the swamp” was a popular political slogan in 2016 he would laugh.
He told me that he drained the swamp from his position as the Executive Director of the “Taxpayers Association of Schuylkill County” which he financially supported. His organization fought corruption throughout the county. By the testimony of witnesses in the court Mr. Sheafer uncovered wholesale practice of graft, extortion and corruption in the Shenandoah school board, its police force and a justice of the peace office. It was disclosed that $20 was the average sum extorted from each woman appointed a teacher and that the appointments were a matter of barter and sale to the highest bidder. It was not only the Shenandoah area that received scrutiny from Mr. Sheafer. No sir, as in 1905 his group had the entire Washington Township School Board arrested. The scope of inquiry was far reaching. His Association boasted of bringing charges against over sixty school directors.
An Allentown newspaper stated that Sheafer was instrumental in ousting a number of county officials, referring to his investigation into the County Commissioners’ Office. The group was responsible for the removal of Commissioners John P. Martin, Frank Rentz and Charles Meyers and also the County Controller, Benjamin R. Severn. Their resignations occurred on April 1, 1898 and that was no April fool’s joke. The Taxpayers Association was trying to recover $20,290 believed to have been illegally expended in the erection of the county almshouse. In today’s dollars, that is about $570,000 and the mass resignations were a result.
The Harrisburg Daily Independent newspaper stated in an editorial that “The Taxpayers Association of Schuylkill County is making so excellent a record that the people of other counties are beginning to want such an organization but it may be that no other county needs one quite as bad as Schuylkill…” In 1907 he brought charges against a Commissioner’s clerk, a courthouse janitor and a constable for jury tampering. His group pursued the County Clerk of Courts for pocketing $5 from every liquor license issued. Lastly his group took a case to the Supreme Court to disallow the Prothonotary from personally retaining a fee on every naturalization application. The Reading Eagle referred to his Taxpayers Association as both fearless and determined. The Association faded away after Mr. Sheafer’s death at the early age of 54. Mr. Sheafer would be forgotten over time.
If you are traveling into Pottsville and pass by the rubble lot, please put down your smart phone and give a shout out to Mr. Sheafer. Remember what you see was not always a pile of rubble, but was once the magnificent home of a man who devoted much of his energy to making government more honest and accountable within the county.
The views expressed in this article at those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SCHS Board or the Society as a whole. As free speech is valued, differing viewpoints are welcome.