It is unknown why the stream is called Little Buffalo Creek or the adjacent ridge is called Buffalo Ridge, but local tradition holds that the buffalo, also called bison, inhabited the area.
Little is known of the original inhabitants of the land that became Little Buffalo State Park. It was occupied by many American Indian tribes and nations for short periods of time as they migrated away from the increasing European population. The Albany Purchase of 1754 acquired the land from the Iroquois League of Six Nations.
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.
Little Buffalo Historic District, National Register of Historic Places
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 brochure "Shoaff's Mill" is available at the park office.
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 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 56½ 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.