Lycoming County hardships were an inspiration for famous author

A famous author spent his formative years in Lycoming County and the White Deer Valley.

Conrad Richter experienced struggles growing up in these farmlands and used it later as fodder for novels and writings that would win him a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1951, according to Larry Stout, a local author who recently shared Richter’s experiences and a display of his writings at the James V. Brown Library. Many photographs, rare books and articles appearing in Saturday Evening Post, all related to or by Richter, are in the collection of the Montgomery Historical Society, Stout said.

Richter seemed destined for greatness the moment he was born in 1890 in Pine Grove, as the doctor delivering Connie, as his mother would call him, quipped: “Never was a baby more welcomed than this one,” wrote David R. Johnson in “A Writer’s Life,” a biography about Richter.

Richter learned about the struggle of growing up here in the late 1800s and early 1900s, drawing on his experiences in his writing, Stout said. Richter evoked the essence of what it must have been like, how the people talked, lived, survived, suffered, and triumphed, Stout said.

Richter’s mother, Lottie, a “sensitive” who was able to detect presences seen and unseen, had a vision of his fame. The vision was of a procession of dignitaries, richly robed, coming one by one to pause before the crib and then slip away, Stout said.

His father, John, was a pastor and store keeper. The store sold salt, flour, corn and bins for china, coal oil and nails, molasses, vinegar, cinder, shellac and paint. The father’s bristly wet mustache kiss against his cheek was recalled later by the author.

Father and son would go out in the store wagon for trips to the patches, small villages built by coal companies for their miners.

It was not an always pleasant life with the shadow of death all around as fevers, diptheria, polio and tuberculosis were prevalent and claimed many lives, Johnson wrote.

As he matured, Richter openly disagreed with his parents about religion, and his formative years behind brick walls were spent in libraries absorbing the likes of “Robinson Crusoe,” “The Swiss Family Robinson” and “Sherlock Holmes.” By age 16, he had read all of Shakespeare’s plays.

In 1900, he was accepted into the Preparatory School called Susquehanna Academy, and graduated from Tremont High School in 1906 as its valedictorian.

So shy was this intelligent young man that he could not give the valedictorian address, Stout said.

Richter had a short stint at a job in a Westington House factory in East Pittsburgh, which he “hated,” but while there, he would travel from his boarding house in the darkness and go to the Braddock Library and the main Pittsburgh Library.

However, after a winter there, Richter became too sick to work and boarded a train for home. Life would never be the same.

As his father accepted the job of pastor at in the White Deer Valley, not far from where Route 15 is today, Richter walked the valley roads and hiked. There he gain knowledge of the hunters and woodsmen. He also gained an appreciation for the American Indian.

He soaked up nature in Alvira, which consisted of villages of Somerset, Deckertown and Stone Church. He also worked as an assistant cashier at the bank in Montgomery.

But he prowess was writing and he submitted several local articles to newspapers in the Philadelphia market, offering his secretary skills to author Upton Sinclair and making his own mark as one of the best new writers in the nation.

Many of his articles appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. But his novel, The Sea of Grass, was turned into a movie starring actors Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

Another of his books, The Light in the Forest, was made into a Disney movie.

Television took notice of his combined novels, The Awakening Land: The Trees, the Fields and The Town, The movie starred Elizabeth Montgomery, and it won an Emmy Award.

The Town won the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

His novel The Waters of Kronos won the 1961 National Book Award for Fiction.

Richter’s work has been highly recognized by author David McCullough, and Stout said that alone is worth reading his collection.


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