Passion for county history provides pandemic relief
For more than 35 years, Elaine Conrad of Hollidaysburg has had a passion for local history. Innocently ignited when she discovered a hotel once occupied her residential backyard on Wopsononock Mountain, Conrad, 76, said she has “read, researched, photographed and shared topics A-Z from the Altoona speedway to the Lakemont Park Zoo bears and monkeys. And I always return to my first subject, Wopsononock. That special place is part of my being, as I lived my best life there with my husband and sons.”
Her local historical knowledge, an immense collection of historical photographs and an insatiable curiosity — combined with social distancing during a pandemic — has created the perfect environment for Conrad to share her passion. She created an online trivial pursuit group focused on the history of Blair County and self-published a booklet documenting local women’s suffrage efforts.
Like many hobbies, she started small with research about the long-gone Wopsy hotel and its connection to the now-vanished Wopsy Railroad. One topic led to another, and Conrad is well-known for historical prowess. She shared her knowledge by giving local talks to community groups and nursing homes. She joined the Blair County Genealogical Society 30 years ago. When she started going, it was to research files and microfiche archives. With the digitization of records and newspapers, more and more information is available to researchers like herself.
“Such technology has been really kind to me,” she said, especially when quarantined during the pandemic. “My kids and grandkids live far away. I knew I had to find something to focus my energies on or I’d go nuts.”
The newsletter experience, her college degree in English and insatiable curiosity more than prepared her to do a local historical synopsis of Blair County suffrage in celebration of the 19th Amendment’s 100th anniversary.
A group of local women had a series of activities planned to mark the occasion, said organizer Cindy Baney, but COVID-19 squashed their efforts. Instead, Conrad with the help of Baney, Alice Richardson and Donna Malone created a 36-page booklet titled, “Blair Votes for Women 100: A Brief History of Women’s Suffrage in the U.S. and Blair County.”
Baney credited Conrad as the author, citing her “intense interest in history, her depth of research and her thoroughness in verifying information. She is a good thorough researcher.”
Each Blair County Library received one copy, available to patrons for viewing. Personal copies of the color booklet can be ordered via email at email@example.com for a nominal fee.
The pandemic allowed Conrad to be laser-focused on finding local suffrage newspaper accounts.
“Elaine did a beautiful job. She took all her research and turned it into a booklet. Donna created a logo — Blair Votes for Women 100 — and Elaine used it throughout,” Baney said.
The women said they learned a lot about suffrage through their efforts and are certain other residents will too.
“I realized that although I took a lot of American history courses in college, I don’t remember hearing much about the years leading up to the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment,” Conrad said, adding that organizers hope the local suffrage struggle inspires people to vote — especially this November.
Local suffrage efforts started about 1915, Conrad said, by the wives of community leaders.
Through the help of Michael Farrow at the Blair County Historical Society at Baker Mansion, Conrad knew to focus her research on Frieda Beckman, the wife of F. Woods Beckman, grandson of Elias Baker, and Julia Scheeline, the wife of Isaiah Scheeline, an Altoona attorney. The two women led local suffrage efforts by hosting meetings, membership teas and raising money by offering tours of the mansion, which had been closed to the public.
Ironically, Conrad knew Julia and Isaiah Scheeline’s grandson — Alex Scheeline — when he was a student at Hollidaysburg Junior High School where she taught.
Conrad reconnected with Alex Scheeline through her other pandemic endeavor — a Blair County historic trivia group on Facebook. He provided a photo of his grandmother for the booklet.
The trivia group has been a huge success and has more than 550 members, Conrad said. Sharing from her personal historical archives, she’s posted dozens of photos.
“Membership exploded. Everyone was stuck at home and couldn’t do anything or go anywhere,” Conrad said. “This gave them something positive to do.”
Trivia participant Paul Murphy, 52, of Phoenix, Arizona, is among many members formerly from Altoona. An engineer, Murphy said, historical trivia is “a nice getaway from the pandemic, the civil unrest and the political in-fighting. It’s a nice distraction, but also a learning tool.”
Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.
The Conrad file
Name: Elaine Conrad
Residence: Hollidaysburg, but born in Claysburg.
Family: Three sons, Jerry and family of Amesbury, Mass.; Dan and family of Minneapolis; Sean and family of Maplewood, N.J., and four grandchildren. Married to the late Tom Conrad for 43 years.
Education: Greenfield Kimmel High School in Claysburg, Class of 1962; Penn State Bachelor of Science in Secondary Education, English, Class of 1966
Employment: Retired; previously taught seventh grade reading, Hollidaysburg Area Junior High School; photographer at Altoona Hospital, 1982-2000 and then worked at Penn State Altoona teaching computer skills to senior citizens
Community service: Nine-year volunteer at Blair County Genealogical Society; patron and member for 30 years
Awards and honors: Received award from the Blair County Historical Society for preserving Blair County History and Heritage in 2004