Millheim Historic District
The Millheim Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
The Millheim Historic District contains approximately 191 major buildings. These buildings represent an excellent cross-section of the types of vernacular architecture found in the towns of central Pennsylvania. Of the total number of buildings, only 15 are intrusive to the character of the district, a particularly noteworthy item for a district of this size. Some buildings have been modified by the placement of additions or aluminum siding, but in most cases, original detailing and floor plans remain intact. There are 27 open lots in the district.
The borough of Millheim is located in the Penns Valley region of eastern Centre County, long a productive agricultural area due to its deposits of fertile, limestone based soil. Perms Valley is characterized by rolling topography dotted with small woodlots, farms, and villages. It is bordered on the north by the heavily forested sandstone ridges of Nittany and Brush Mountains, and on the south by the forested ridges of the Tussey Mountain system.
Much of the borough of Millheim is included within the district, with only most recently developed areas excluded. The district is centered around the banks of Elk Creek, which flows down from a gap in Brush Mountain on the north, and which provided the original impetus for settlement.
The district is primarily residential in nature, with a small business district on either side of PA Route 45 (referred to also as Main Street). Route 45, a major Centre County east/west transportation corridor, originates near Lewisburg, in Union County, and extends across the entire width of Centre County to intersect with U.S. Route 22 at the county's western edge.
A commercial downtown intersection is formed at the crossroads of Route 45 and PA Route 445, a north/south route which connects the Millheim area with Brush Valley on the north, and which serves mostly local traffic.
The district has a rural, small town atmosphere. Streets are lined with trees and the houses are uniformly set back from the roads. Buildings are well cared for, and many have landscaped yards with beautiful gardens.
Services and businesses within the district include a Post Office, tavern/hotel, bank, service station, hardware store, furniture store, taproom, grocery store, funeral home, restaurant, a weekly newspaper, and a few small shops which cater mainly to local residents. Three churches represent the religious affiliations within the district. School age children attend the Penns Valley Area schools, a consolidated school system located outside the district.
Architectural styles found within the district range from the simple, one-room-deep I house to the larger, more detailed Victorian type of structure, and later cubical buildings. Several buildings, particularly those found at the north and south ends of the district, once served as the residences of mill workers, and as such, are indicative of Millheim's former role as an industrial town. These buildings are more varied than the company houses in other mill towns, but have a general similarity and are so grouped to indicate their origin as workers' houses.
For purposes of classification and analysis, eight major building types have been identified within the district boundaries: a simple I type, a Georgian inspired I type, a Victorianized I type, a gable-end oriented I type, a Bungalow type, an Eclectic Cube type, and a commercial group with overtones of Art Deco, Italianate or Classical Revival styles.
The following descriptions serve to classify building types according to structural elements and exterior detailing:
Simple I Type (circa 1800-1840) This is a two story building with a three to six bay facade and a single gable roof which is parallel to the street. Generally one or two rooms deep, these buildings often include rear additions of a later period. They usually are wood frame although log types are also found in the district. Facades have a simple, neat, regular appearance: clapboard is the usual wall surface material. Stylistic detailing, when present at all, is limited to lintels, transoms, or sidelights. There are 36 buildings of this type within the district.
Georgian I Type (circa 1820-1840) This is a two story building with a three bay facade, single gable parallel roof, and a side hall plan. It is two rooms deep and generally has at least one rear addition. A derivative of the basic I house, it features stylistic detailing in the Georgian tradition: six-over-six sash windows, shutters, eave brackets, entrance sidelights, transoms, and pilasters, and solid simple porches. There are 10 buildings of this type in the district.
Victorianized I Type (circa 1800-1835 with stylizations circa 1840-1870) This is a two story house with a three to seven bay facade and gable roof. It is most often two rooms deep and has usually received an addition at the rear. The facade is symmetrical, with a central entrance often surmounted by a transom and flanked by sidelights. Generally, this house type is a stylistically updated simple I. Its most outstanding characteristic is a centrally located cross gable, front and rear, often embellished with lacy wood trim and set with a small window. Stylistic detailing ranges from moderate to extensive, and includes features such as decorative vergeboards and bargeboards, pointed arch lintels, bracketing, and richly executed porch details. There are 30 buildings of this type within the district.
Connected or Double Type (circa 1830-1860) This is a two story, multi-family house with a four to eight bay facade and from two to three separate entrances. This type appears to be a lengthened version of the simple I house, and as a result, entrance bays are often placed irregularly along the facade, although the general appearance of the house is symmetrical. It is generally two rooms deep with rear or side additions. Stylistic detailing is minimal but can occur as brackets, decorative lintels, or transoms and sidelights. There are 10 buildings representing this house type within the district.
Gable-End Oriented Type (circa 1890-1920) This two story house type is so named because its main axis and corresponding gabled roof are in perpendicular alignment to the street, a total opposite of the basic I house. Intersecting gables off the main gable are common, and the house often exhibits an L-plan. Stylistic detailing ranges from extremely simple to richly detailed. There are 30 buildings of this type within the district. Simple, compact versions of this type, without the L-plan, can be seen in areas formerly occupied by laborers, particularly in the southern end of the district.
Bungalow Type (circa 1910-1930) This house type is generally one story in height, with a second story incorporated as part of the attic level. It is usually executed in masonry. Common characteristics include compactness of size and a cottage-like appearance, liberal use of fenestration, and roof and wall dormers. There are 9 buildings in the district.
Eclectic Cube Type (circa 1915-1930) The name of this house is derived from its heavily massed, cubical configuration. This type is two stories in height and commonly exhibits a hipped or gambrel roof with dormers, and pairs of rectangular sash windows. These buildings almost always have wall surfaces of brick laid in stretcher bond. Stylistic detailing is minimal, as this is more or less a functional building design, but can occur as window mullions, French doors, and entrances with transom and sidelights. Windows are sometimes set with leaded or stained glass. There are 9 buildings of this type within the district.
Commercial Group (circa 1870-1930) Commercial buildings within the district reflect the styles popularly used for commercial architecture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Representatives of the Italianate, Classical Revival, and Art Deco styles can be seen, with detailing corresponding to the particular building style. Most are executed in brick laid stretcher bond, and vary from 1 to 3 stories in height. The upper two stories are generally apartments. Facades are broad and flat surfaced, sometimes accentuated by stepped rooflines, with symmetrical fenestration. Most have glazed, first story storefronts with recessed central entrances. Stylistic detailing occurs as brackets, fancy lintels, and decorative projecting cornices. There are 21 buildings of this type within the district.
Most buildings with the district, with exception to more recently built structures, can be classified into one of these eight categories. A few, however, due to their impressive configurations and eclectic blend of detailing, merit singular attention as examples of eclectic inspiration. One example is rich with gingerbread and scalloped shingles and a particularly pure example of Victorian eclecticism; another, a vernacularized Second Empire with a Georgian Revival porch; another, with multiple cross gables, steep mansard roof, and widows walk; and one, with its multiple gable Queen Anne roofline and beautiful two story corner bay window. Other buildings which deserve individual classification include such edifices as the district's three church buildings, in the Victorian Gothic tradition, and the old Millheim School building, in the Queen Anne tradition.
Of the numerous mill structures once located in the district, only two remain:
The silk mill is an excellent example of twentieth century factory architecture. The hosiery mill, circa 1900, is a massive three story wood frame structure with an intersecting gable roofline and rows of eight-over-eight sash windows. A three story brick addition, added to the north elevation in the 1920's, is executed in the Classical Revival style. It features extensive "window wall" areas, a factory design feature first popularized in Europe by architects such as Peter Behrens of Germany. The silk mill, circa 1918, is a long, rectangular, one story brick building with a low gable roofline and 27 bay facade composed of nine-over-six sash windows. This building presently houses a clothing manufacturer and employs local residents.
The 2nd mill is the oldest surviving mill structure in the district, and was erected by William C. Duncan in 1817. Much of the original building was updated with brick when it was purchased by D. H. Musser in 1870. This three story building exhibits brickwork of several different time periods and iron star supports, and now serves as the residence of the owner.
The architectural flavor of the residential areas of the district is predominantly Victorian, mostly due to the stylistic updating of many of the simple I houses and the many buildings which were constructed during the prosperous Victorian era. The commercial area of the district has more of a turn-of-the-century appearance due to two major fires in the early 1900's which destroyed many of the earlier commercial structures.
The unusually small number of intrusions in the district make it a particularly pure example of a rural Victorian town which has maintained its importance through time. Today Millheim still serves as the commercial center for the residents of Penns Valley.
The Millheim Historic District possesses historic significance in the areas of early settlement, industry, transportation and architecture. The settlement of Millheim was part of the western land speculation movement of the late 1700's which resulted in the acquisition and development of much of the Pennsylvania land west of the Susquehanna River. The site of Millheim was chosen for its excellent location along a rapidly flowing water source, Elk Creek, which provided the water power necessary for the establishment of industry. The industries which operated here throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provided the economic base from which Millheim established itself as a milling center for the entire Penns Valley region. Because of its location along an important transportation corridor, the Buffalo and Penns Valley Turnpike (PA Route 45), Millheim also served as a major post town for people headed west. These economic influences spurred continuous growth throughout its history, reflected in the various styles of architecture found within the district. Buildings range from simple I type folk houses to larger, more elaborate Victorian structures, with an additional concentration of early twentieth century commercial structures found along Main Street.
The borough of Millheim, on the banks of Elk Creek in eastern Centre County, Pennsylvania, is located in a picturesque area of rolling topography bordered by mountain ridges on the north and south, known as Penns Valley.
Penns Valley lies in territory known as the "New Purchase," acquired by the Proprietaries of Pennsylvania from the Six Nation Iroquois in 1768. The first land warrants were granted to Pennsylvania Officers who fought in the French and Indian War and who later sold off parcels to private individuals interested in purchasing land in these new territories. Since early European settlement in this country had been mainly restricted to eastern coastal areas, land became a highly sought-after commodity whenever it was available for purchase. The thousands of individuals who subsequently filed for land in these new territories began one of the largest westward movements in American history.
The Millheim site is part of an extensive tract of Penns Valley land stretching from the village of Woodward to the village of Spring Mills, purchased by Reuben Haines from Colonel Samuel Hunter in 1766. Colonel Hunter had taken possession of these lands on the basis of surveys made by Samuel Maclay in 1764. A member of a prominent Philadelphia family, Reuben Haines already owned a large brewery and a profitable New Jersey iron works, and was eager to participate in the western-land speculation movement.
In order to profit from this business venture, Haines had to render the area accessible to would-be settlers, and in 1771 he cut a narrow road from Fort Augusta in Union County through Penns Valley to Spring Mills and on to Potter's Mills. With the exception of scattered Indian trails, it was the first road to be cut west of the Susquehanna River through central Pennsylvania. This early road would be followed in 1787 by an improved road following a parallel route, and by a turnpike in 1810.
Millheim's history as a planned village began in 1797 with the laying out of a formal town plan, but its history as a settlement has its beginnings early in the 1700's.
Jacob Hubler, a native of Lebanon County, emigrated to the Penns Valley area as early as 1774, making his home in the northern part of the valley. Subsequent eastward journeys led him to recognize the industrial potential afforded by the swift running stream which flowed down through the Brush Mountain gap (now commonly known as the Millheim Narrows), from Brush Valley on the north. He later purchased a large tract of land from David Duncan, from whose warrant the eastern portion of Millheim was formed, and established a gristmill and a sawmill on the east banks of Elk Creek. The exact date of construction is unknown, but a township assessment list, dated 1786, indicates that both mills were in operation at this time. Michael and Philip Gunkle, who are credited with the establishment of the town, later erected a gristmill and a sawmill downstream on the site which later accommodated the Elk Mills complex built by James Duncan in 1817. These were the first of many mills to flourish along the banks of Elk Creek, providing the economic base from which the town would develop, and it was from these first mills that the village received its name, Millheim, or "Home of the Mills."
The incorporation of the Buffalo and Penns Valley Turnpike (Pa. Route 45) in 1810 established the route as a major highway leading west from the more populated areas of the Susquehanna River basin. In addition to the industrial potential afforded by its situation along Elk Creek, the small village of Millheim was now guaranteed a high degree of commercial prosperity as well. Numerous businesses were established to cater to the many westward travelers passing through, including two large hotels. The site of one of these presently houses the locally popular Millheim Hotel.
Expanding westward settlement further prompted the establishment in 1842 of the Bald Eagle, Nittany, and Brush Valley Turnpike through the Millheim Narrows north of Millheim. The intersection of this route (presently Pa. Route 445) and the Buffalo and Penns Valley Turnpike (Pa. Route 45) created a busy commercial center, forming the heart of Millheim's business district.
Judging from the number of buildings within the district which date from the mid-to-late 1800's, growth in commercial, industrial, and residential directions appears to have increased steadily throughout this period, no doubt aided by the advent of the Industrial Revolution. This is best evidenced by a structure map of the town taken from Pomeroy's Atlas of 1874. The characterization of Millheim as a thriving industrial and commercial community is confirmed in this record, which reveals fourteen major industries and thirteen large mercantile establishments in operation at this time. Included are a planing mill, a sawmill, a woolen mill, a dye house, two foundry and machine shops, two flour mills, two tanneries, a complex of cement and lime kilns, a stone quarry, a marble works, and a chair factory.
Due to the numerous industries centered within the town, a large percentage of Millheim's population consisted of members of the laboring class. The Merchants Building and Loan Association, incorporated in 1874, was established to better assist these residents in obtaining their own homes. Although geared to the private individual, this institution yielded the collective benefit of insuring Millheim's growth into the twentieth century by providing the necessary capital in the form of low-interest loans, needed to construct new buildings.
It is interesting to note the contrast in development patterns between Millheim and its closest neighbor. Aaronsburg, less than five miles to the east, which was laid out in 1779 by Aaron Levy as "this continent's first inland town." Levy expected that his town, located in the geographic center of Pennsylvania, would become an important seat of local and state government. However, the first individuals who settled in the Aaronsburg vicinity, particularly those who expected to profit from the venture, realized that it would certainly take more than political glamour to meet the financial needs of a developing community as well as their own. Perhaps, too, they shared the foresight in knowing that Aaronsburg would never succeed as a center of government, although it did flourish for many years as a post town along the Buffalo and Penns Valley Turnpike. As a result, zany of these earliest Aaronsburg settlers also invested in mills and other businesses in Millheim. Jacob Hubler, who owned considerable holdings in the Haines Township area surrounding Aaronsburg, was responsible for the erection of the first two mills in Millheim. James Duncan settled in Aaronsburg in 1790 and became the town's first storekeeper and postmaster, as well as serving as the first sheriff of Centre County in 1800. He later erected the Elk Mills complex in 1817. Jacob Bollinger, an Aaronsburg resident, owned and operated general merchandise stores in both towns. In addition to examples such as these early county assessment records list many individuals as owning properties in both Aaronsburg and Millheim, the latter being the location of the person's speculation properties or industries.
The development of Millheim as an independent community appears to have taken a secondary position to that of Aaronsburg during the early 1800's. The reversal of roles which was to occur between the two towns had its beginnings around the middle of the nineteenth century, spurred on by the local impact of the Industrial Revolution, increases in regional population, and improvements in the transportation systems through Penns Valley. Probably the one event which most characterizes this turnabout was the relocation of Der Centre Berichter, Aaronsburg's weekly newspaper since 1827, to Millheim in 1871. Originally a German language publication, the newspaper was renamed the Millheim Journal in 1876, and was entirely converted to English by 1880. The Journal is still published today.
The period between 1870 and 1880 appears as a key decade in Millheim's evolution, beginning with the transfer of the newspaper, and extending to such events as the establishment of a private banking company in 1872, the incorporation of the building and loan association in 1874, and finally, attainment of borough status in 1879 with a population of approximately 600 residents.
An important consideration in Millheim's significance as a nineteenth century industrial town, particularly in relation to regional economy, is the fact that many of its industries continued well into the twentieth century. This is unusual, considering the fact that by the 1890's many other Centre County towns were experiencing the first ill effects of the later stages of the Industrial Revolution and the resulting economic trauma caused by the mass metropolitan centralization of industry which followed. Although Millheim was not left untouched by these events, it countered by attracting newer, more modern industries to locate there. The turn of the century brought two more major industries to Millheim, a large hosiery mill (built in 1900, and a silk mill, built in 1918. Both of these enterprises contributed to the support of Penns Valley economy to the present. The hosiery mill closed in the early 1970's, but the silk mill today houses a clothing manufacturer.
The motivating force behind Millheim's increased affluence can probably be directly attributed to the mill owners and businessmen themselves. Many of the industrial entrepreneurs of the mid-to-late 1800's, rather than follow the past practice of locating their businesses in Millheim and their residences elsewhere, chose instead to reside in close proximity to their establishments. They therefore channeled more of their profits directly into Millheim itself. This accounts for the fact that although Millheim was a mill town it maintained a relatively high standard of culture, most directly reflected in its architecture.
Architecturally, the Millheim district reflects a variety of vernacular styles, demonstrating a lengthy history of development and change.
Eclectic, Victorianized I houses predominate. This eclecticism appears as the stylistic updating of the simple I house of the early 1800's, a reflection of the town's increased prosperity. Stylization occurs as scalloped shingles on exterior wall surfaces, bracketing under eaves, decorative bargeboards, fancy window lintels, and the use of transoms and sidelights on entranceways. Many of these houses display rooflining with small central cross gables set with tiny windows. Additions are common to all of these houses, as are front and side porches rich with lacy gingerbread detailing.
Buildings which actually date from the Victorian era appear as large, vertically accented structures with rooflines often composed of intersecting gables. The basic forms of these houses are complemented by beautiful gingerbread detailing on wall surfaces, porches, and gable ends. The most beautiful and outstanding examples of whimsical Victorian eclecticism is seen in the Rearick House. The house is a fascinating display of gables, porches, windows, and lacy wood trim, and is truly a delight to the eye.
The Musser House, invitingly situated amongst trees and gardens on the east bank of Elk Creek, is another fine example of the Victorian era. Reflecting Second Empire inspiration, the house exhibits tall proportions and a massive scale. Tiny round arch windows peer out from the mansard roof to the street below.
The Millheim School building, an imposing structure in the Queen Anne style, has retained its dignity despite the fact that it has been vacant for many years. Solidly built of brick, with a central bell tower which rising above its many gables, this building presents endless possibilities for successful adaptive reuse. In direct contrast to the exuberance of these Victorian buildings, but no less important in their reflection of Millheim's historical heritage, are the simple I houses and the compact gable-end oriented houses which served as workers' residences in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These houses are a tribute to the mill workers who made Millheim's industrial prominence a reality.
Architectural diversity is as equally apparent in the commercial area of the district as it is in the more residential neighborhoods. Two major fires, which occurred in 1909 and 1914, swept through portions of the business district, destroying many early commercial structures. A period of reconstruction followed in the 1920's, and as a result, a pleasing combination of building styles can be seen. For example, an impressive three story brick building in the Italianate style stands almost directly next to the Farmers National Bank, an imposing brick and concrete structure in the Classical revival style.
Today Millheim appears much as it did in the nineteenth century and early 1900's. It still serves as a commercial center for many residents of the surrounding region, although its industrial prominence has since passed. Relatively few modern buildings spoil the architectural integrity of the district, perhaps a reflection of its residents' desires to take care and preserve what already exists.
Kurtz, Fred; Centennial History of Centre County; Newspaper article, Centre Democrat, Bellefonte, Pennsylvania; 1900
Linn, John Blair; History of Centre and Clinton Counties; Louis H. Everts Printing Company, Philadelphia, 1883
Maynard., D. S.; Industries and Institutions of Centre County; Republican Job Printing House, Bellefonte, Pennsylvania; 1877
Nichols Beach; Atlas of Centre County; A. Pomeroy and Co. Publishers, Philadelphia, 1874
Richert, John E.; "House Facades of the Northeastern United States: A Tool of Geographic Analysis"; Annals of the Association of American Geographers, February 1967, Vol. 57: pp. 211-238