Agency Spotlight: Little Buffalo State Park
Certain places just attract people. The cool, clear water of Little Buffalo Creek has been attracting people for centuries. American Indians frequented Little Buffalo Creek on hunting trips. Farmers and merchants used to gossip and pass news while the grain was ground at Shoaff’s Mill. Nearby, merchants, local people and travelers met at Blue Ball Tavern. Today, thousands of people meet at Little Buffalo State Park to picnic, swim, fish, hike and experience nature and history.
A state-of-the art swimming pool which is nearly half an acre in size sits along Holman Lake. The pool varies in depth from one to five feet and has 17- and 11-foot waterslides and a sprayground. The pool has a capacity of 1,285 swimmers and has a ramp for people with disabilities.
There are two public boat launches on the north side of Holman Lake. Mooring sites for private boats are available for a fee from April 1 to November 1.
Next to the swimming pool, a boat rental operates the weekend of Memorial Day through Labor Day from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, unless otherwise posted. Canoes, rowboats and pedal boats are available.
The 88-acre lake also offers year-round fishing opportunities. This warm-water fishery enjoys natural reproduction of largemouth bass, catfish and panfish.
Many picnic tables offer nice views of the lake and most are shaded by beautiful oak, maple and ash trees. Charcoal grills are scattered throughout the picnic areas. All picnic areas are open from 8 a.m. to sunset. Picnic pavilions can be reserved up to 11 months in advance for a fee. Unreserved picnic pavilions are free on a first-come, first-served basis.
There are roughly eight miles of hiking trails in the park. Sturdy footwear is recommended because of rocky footing on some trails.
Governed by the American Volksport Association and the International Federation of Popular Sports, Volksmarchers earn awards for hiking. Little Buffalo State Park has a Volksmarcht Year Round Walk. White arrows point out the 10K (6.2 miles) walk on Mill Race, Fisherman’s, Buffalo Ridge, Little Buffalo Creek, Middle Ridge and Exercise trails and Little Buffalo State Park Road. For official information contact the park office.
There are several opportunities to stay the night at Little Buffalo State Park. The modern campground is open from the day before trout season to the third Sunday in October. There are forty sites. Some have electric and water hook-ups. All campsites have a picnic table and fire ring. Pets are permitted on all campsites.
The ADA accessible cabin sleeps 12 people in three bedrooms and is open year-round. Amenities include heat and air conditioning, stove, refrigerator, microwave oven, dishwasher, clothes washer and dryer (HE detergent required). Renters should bring their own bed linens, bathroom articles, kitchenware and eating utensils.
Five, rustic camping cottages sleep five people in single bunks and double/single bunks, and have a dining table and chairs, wooden floors, windows, electric heat, picnic table, fire ring, electric lights and outlets. The nearby campground shower house provides toilets, showers and drinking water.
The park doesn't hibernate in the winter. All hiking trails in Little Buffalo State Park are open for cross-country skiing, but skiing is recommended on Little Buffalo Creek Trail. A 2.5-mile loop can be skied by taking Little Buffalo Creek Trail to Main Picnic Area, then ski the Newport and Sherman’s Valley Railroad trace. Return to Little Buffalo Creek Trail along the edge of woods. A popular loop in East Picnic Area starts in the parking lot and follows the path to Clay’s Covered Bridge. The trail passes Shoaff’s Mill then returns to the starting point on either Mill Race Trail or the shorter service road. Skiing is also permitted on service roads and unplowed roads in the day use area.
Ice fishing is permitted on Holman Lake except in the ice skating area. The lake is noted for a high panfish harvest, along with trout and warm water game fish. Ice thickness is not monitored.
Conditions permitting, a two-acre skating area is maintained on the east end of the lake by the Main Boat Launch. Heated restrooms are provided. The skating area is open from 8:00 AM to 9:00 PM. Ice thickness is monitored in the skating area only.
The park also hosts the Christmas Walk every year. This family-oriented activity has become a popular holiday event in the county. Thousands of lights and holiday cutouts dot East Picnic Area and provide the perfect holiday atmosphere. Santa always makes an appearance. Local 4-H Clubs sell cookies and hot chocolate. Area choirs sing carols many of the nights. The program runs December 17 through December 23 from 6 to 9 p.m.
There is a lot of history at the park for visitors to explore. The park area was gradually settled after the American Revolution. These settlers farmed the fertile land, a lifestyle that continues even today. John Koch opened the Blue Ball Tavern in 1811 along the Carlisle Pike, the main road between Carlisle and Sunbury, currently called the New Bloomfield Road.
In 1808, David Watts of Carlisle built a charcoal burning iron furnace along Furnace Run just south of the present day park. The need for charcoal brought colliers to the area of Little Buffalo Creek.
Making charcoal was very time consuming. In winter, colliers cut wood and allowed it to dry. In summer, several days were spent stacking the wood into piles. Leaves and then soil or clay was packed on the pile, then the wood was set to burn. To get charcoal, the wood burned slowly for eight to ten days while the colliers watched the piles and extinguished flames which kept the wood smoldering. It then took several days for the charcoal to cool.
Each mound was 20 to 25 feet in diameter and made 300 to 500 bushels of charcoal. The wood from one acre of land would make enough charcoal to run the furnace for 24 hours.
The Juniata Iron Works smelted iron until the prized hardwoods used in charcoaling were depleted around 1848. Visitors can see remains from these “burns” along Buffalo Ridge Trail. Look for the 20 to 25-footdiameter circles of darkened earth along the trail.
About 1840, as part of the iron works community, the company built a water-powered gristmill which served the neighboring farms long after the furnace fell silent. Shoaff’s Mill operated until 1940. Farming continued to be the main use for the land until the 1960s.
During the late 1960s, the state legislature and Secretary Maurice K. Goddard of the Department of Forests and Waters (now the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) instituted the goal of providing a state park within 25 miles of every citizen in Pennsylvania. To raise money to reach this goal, there were two voter-approved state bond issues. At Little Buffalo State Park, money from Project 70 purchased the land, and the park facilities were constructed with Project 500 funds. Little Buffalo State Park officially opened its gates to the public on June 11, 1972.
Shoaffs Mill: When the Juniata Iron Works closed in 1848, its lands, buildings and equipment were divided up for sale. In 1849, William Shoaff purchased 63 acres of land including the gristmill and a log cabin. William continued to mill wheat flour, buckwheat flour, cornmeal and livestock feed, and made extensive improvements to the mill. A successful miller, he built a fine brick home for his family in 1861. This brick home is currently a private residence.
William died in 1888 and his wife, Catherine, took over operation of the mill until their son Ellis Shoaff bought and took possession of the mill in 1900. To increase the speed and power of the mill, Ellis made improvements and bought one of the largest waterwheels east of the Mississippi. The wheel is still in use. Shoaff’s Mill continued to operate until 1940. The mill has been renovated and is back in operation milling cornmeal, cracked corn and grinding apples for cider during educational programs and demonstrations.
The Blue Ball Tavern: Travelers knew that the tavern was full when a large blue ball, the tavern’s namesake, was placed outside of the tavern.
John Koch began farming the site in the late 1790s and in 1811 opened Blue Ball Tavern. The tavern offered food and drink, and a sleeping loft for travelers. Local people met at the tavern to gossip and exchange news. During the War of 1812, the tavern served as a stopover point for messenger riders coming from Carlisle to Sunbury. It is rumored that the Blue Ball Tavern was the meeting place in 1821 where plans were laid to create the new county of Perry.
For unknown reasons, the tavern closed in 1841. The current farmhouse was built around 1865 on the foundation of the tavern. Recycled boards and hardware found throughout the farmhouse may have originated in the tavern.
Today the Perry County Historical Society operates and maintains a museum and library in the farmhouse. Members volunteer to open the museum every Sunday during the summer months.
Clays Covered Bridge: Originally built in 1890 by bridge contractor George Harling, the 82-foot bridge spanned the Little Buffalo Creek and was located one mile west of its present location. The bridge was moved when Holman Lake was created.
The bridge architecture is a Burr Truss, patented by Theodore Burr of Connecticut. One large arch extends from one side of the bridge to the other. The roof and floor are attached to this arch, as are many king posts. The Burr Truss allowed longer distances to be bridged. There were many Burr Truss bridges built in the Susquehanna watershed, including the longest, single-arch wooden span bridge in the world built at McCalls Ferry. Clay’s Covered Bridge is one of 14 covered bridges that can still be found in Perry County.
Newport and Sherman's Valley Railroad: In 1890, railroad Owner David Gring moved his narrow gauge railroad from Huntingdon County to the western half of Perry County to harvest the valuable timber. For several years the railroad hauled A red railroad car is surrouneded by forest at Little Buffalo State Park, Pennsylvania.logs and freight, then eventually passengers. Gring faced fierce competition from the Perry County Railroad, a standard gauge railroad from Duncannon through New Bloomfield to Loysville. (Standard gauge track is 56 ½ inches wide and narrow gauge track is 36 inches wide.) After 44 years, the narrow gauge railroad lost out to its larger competitor and went bankrupt in 1937. The small engines and trains could not haul enough cargo to compete against the larger, stronger standard gauge railroad.
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