"Oldest Mansion In McKean County"
Historic J.C. Backus Residence

location of present day "Hub"

photo credit: Library of Congress American Memory Collection


Backus House, Oldest Mansion In County
McKean County Democrat
May 21, 1936

The Backus homestead, at the corner of West Main and State streets, the oldest and finest example of pioneer residential architecture in McKean county, has attracted the attention of directors of a Federal Works Progress Administration project, which has for its aim the photography and historical recording of old landmarks before the disappear forever.

Three Erie men were here last Saturday to take pictures, measurements and data concerning the handsome structure, which is now occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Hovis and family.

Prof. Richard Shattuck, local authority of antiques and a personal friend of the late Mrs. Mary Backus, who lived in the house for many years, was able to give the WPA workers a great deal of information.

This is not the first time that the Backus residence has attracted national attention. Three years ago, the National Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, had the building photographed for historical records it was compiling.

Drawing of the classical front portal of the house appears on the official insignia of the American Society of Architects. Pictures and blueprints have been reproduced in architectural sections of Good Housekeeping and other magazines of International circulation as one of the country’s finest extant examples of early American craftsmanship.

The house was erected by Solomon Sartwell in 1825. A sawmill was placed on the site and virgin timber (of which there was an unlimited quantity) was cut and sawed as needed. All lumber, inside trim, beams, lath, rafters, shingles, siding, wooden pegs, and iron nails were hand-made at the scene of building operations.

Mr. Sartwell was a carpenter himself, and also was engaged in the lumber and mercantile business. He was born in Sartwell Creek, Potter county, January 16, 1796, moving to Farmers Valley with his family in 1815. Mr. Sartwell was sheriff of McKean county and associate judge in the early days.

The house was later bought by Major John C. Backus, prominent Civil War soldier and local lawyer, and his surviving children and heirs still own the beautiful pioneer mansion.


Major John C. Backus Dies
McKean County Miner
October 26, 1888

Major John C. Backus died at his residence in this borough on Friday October 26, 1888, aged 71 years. Major Backus was born in Lee, Berkshire County, Mass., in 1817. And when he was three years old his parents removed to Lansing, Tompkins County N.Y. Here he spent his youth and grew to manhood. Before he became of age he spent several terms at a college in Ohio. After attaining his majority he came to Wellsville , N.Y. and with his older brother Seth, went into the lumber business.

In 1845 they removed to Turtle Point in this county and purchased a mill, the remnants of which were still visible a few years ago. In 1848, having become tired of the incessant and unremunerative toil of the lumberman, he removed to Smethport and entered the law office of M.W. Goodrich, and in due time was admitted to the bar. At the time of his death he was , with the exception of Hon. B.D. Hamlin, of Smethport, the oldest member of the McKean County bar. For over a quarter of a century there was scarcely a single important case before the court in which Mr. Backus was not engaged.

In 1874 he was nominated by the Democratic party of McKean and Potter Counties as it's candidate for Assembly and elected by a large majority. He mad an excellent representative and perfected some valuable legislation,but his party was not sufficiently wise and grateful to give him a renomination.

He was one of the first to answer the nation's call to arms in 1861, and on December 7th of that year was commissioned Captain of Company E, 58th Regiment, Penn'a Vols. He was one of the charter members of Post 347, G.A.R. of Smethport, and served one term as Commander of the Post. He was made a Mason in Bradford Lodge No. 344, and was one of the charter members of McKean Lodge 388 of Smethport. He held the office of Burgess of the borough of Smethport for many years, and was one of the most efficient and capable executives the office had known. He had four brothers, two of whom, Frank and George, are now dead, and two, William and Seth A. , yet survive him. William lives in Indiana and is 81 years old. He had two sisters, Mrs. Mary Milliken, Esq.,of Tarport, and Mrs. Cornelia Davis, of Friendship, N.Y. Mrs. Milliken died a few years ago , Mrs. Davis is still living at the advanced age of 87 years. Mr. Backus has been married twice, and leaves a wife and eight children, six boys and two girls to mourn his death. His first wife was Mary Sartwell, one of the first residents of the county, and sister of ex-sheriff R. Sartwell and ex-prothonotary C.K. Sartwell. She had one child, Cora L, who died a few years ago just as she was verging into womanhood was universally loved and mourned. Mr. Backus' second wife was Almira Winsor, a sister of B.F. Winsor, deputy sheriff under Sheriff King.

Mr. Backus was a member of the St. Luke Episcopal church of this place, where the funeral services were held on Sunday at 2 o'clock p.m., conducted by Rev. J.H. McCandless. The burial ceremonies were in charge of the members of McKean Lodge No. 388, they were very impressive. The pallbearers were Messrs. W.B Chapman andJ.W. McClure of Bradford, and members of the McKean county bar, Messrs D.C. Young and Wm. Haskill of McKean Lodge , A.Y.M and Capt. P. Fuller and L. Rodgers of G.A.R. Post 347, and also the 58th regiment. The members of Post 347 , and also of the 58th regiment. The members of Post 347 as well as of McKean Lodge followed the remains to the grave in a body.


(Deceased). Among the leading and representative men of Smethport, no one has held a higher place in the affections and esteem of its people than the late Maj. John C. Backus, who for nearly half a century was closely connected with all their efforts for its welfare and improvement. Maj. Backus was generous almost to a fault, no one needing help ever applying to him in vain; naturally positive and energetic, he pursued with untiring zeal ever cause he championed, and ever work he undertook. He was born in 1817, at Lee, Berkshire Co., Mass., and had seven brothers and two sisters, of whom Cornelia (the eldest, born in 1801), William and Seth survive him. His fourth year his parents, Thomas and Rebecka Backus, removed to Lansing, N.Y., where his childhood and youth were spent. He was a graduate of Oberlin College, Ohio. After attaining his majority, he with his older brother Seth, engaged in the lumbering business at Wellsville, N.Y. and in 1845 they came to Turtle Point, McKean Co., Penn., where they purchased a saw-mill (the remains of which are still to be seen), and continued their lumbering operations at that point, until 1848, when, becoming tired of the business, John C. removed to Smethport, and commenced the study of law with N.W. Good rich, a then prominent lawyer of the country. Mr. Backus was admitted to the bar in 1851, and to practice in the supreme court in 1856. For over twenty-five years he was engaged in nearly every important case tried in the county and at the time of his death, which occurred October 26, 1888, he had practiced law for a longer time than any other attorney in McKean county, except for Hon. B.D. Hamlin. In politics Mr. Backus took an active part, being a life long democrat, and in 1851 was elected register and recorder of McKean county; was burgess of Smethport borough about ten years, and was a member of the legislature in 1875 and 1876. He was one of the first to answer the nation's call to arms in 1861, and in December of that year was commissioned captain of the Company E, Fifty-eighth Regiment, P.V.I., afterward rising to the rank of major; he participated in all the engagements of his regiment until he was compelled to resign on an account of ill health, in 1863. In 1877 Sheridan Gorton, of Friendship, N.Y., became his law partner, continuing with him until the major's decease and succeeded to his extensive law practice. He was a charter member of McKean Post. No. 347, G.A.R. and its second commander. In 1857 he married Mary, the only daughter
of Solomon Sartwell, one of the oldest residents of the county, and to them were born two children: Frank, who died in infancy, and Cora, who died in 1880. This wife died in 1860, and in 1861
Major Backus married Mary A. Windsor, daughter of Ebed and Mary A. Windsor, who, with eight children -- six sons and two daughters -- was left to mourn his loss. His funeral obsequies were conducted by the Masons, of which order he was prominent member. No more fitting tribute can be paid his memory than that said of him by his brethren of the bar. "In him his country has lost one who proved, by his acts, that he fully appreciated the duty of a good citizen and true patriot. In him his wife has lost a kind husband, children and indulgent father, and kin of every degree a generous friend."

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