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Drilling issues bring book on Middlesex's past into spotlight

| Saturday, May 9, 2015, 5:30 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Caroljo Henderson, seen here in her Middlesex home last week, authored the book 'Merrie Olde Middlesex' in 1976. The 376-page book remains the definitive history of the township.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Ben Byrer, seen here in his Middlesex home last week, illustrated the book 'Merrie Olde Middlesex.' The 376-page book remains the definitive history of the township.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Ben Byrer, seen here in his Middlesex home last week, illustrated the book 'Merrie Olde Middlesex' in 1976. The 376-page book remains the definitive history of the township.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
The outdoor bake oven on the Fritz farm, an illustration from Ben Byrer in the 1976 book 'Merrie Olde Middlesex.'
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Ben Byrer points to one of his illustrations in the 1976 book 'Merrie Olde Middlesex.' It accompanies a story about a woman's journey to safety 'amidst savage Indians, rattlesnakes and thorny ground.'
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
A Ben Byrer illustration from the 1976 book 'Merrie Olde Middlesex,' accompanying a story about the dispute between two families over custody of a baby named Charles.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
The graves of Mary and Richard Gibson, who died in 1880, from a Ben Byrer illustration in the 1976 book 'Merrie Olde Middlesex.'

Some stories were just too good for a newspaper.

“They needed to last. They would just get thrown away or turn yellow if they were only in the paper,” said Caroljo Henderson, 80, of Middlesex, author of “Merrie Olde Middlesex.”

Published in 1976, the 344-page book is the definitive history of the township in southern Butler County. A recent legal challenge to the township's fracking regulations cited its stories of the 19th century oil boom.

“So many people still look for it. It is a great resource, especially for the early days of the township,” said Pat Collins, director of the Butler County Historical Society.

When first published, the book cost $11. Its list price is now $45. On Amazon.com, a used copy of the book is on sale for $100.

The book details the township's first settlers. Many of their descendents still live in the area. Their names are on roads such as Harbison and Cruikshank.

Middlesex was one of the four original townships when Butler County was founded in 1800. Its boundaries were established in 1853.

Henderson, a longtime director of public relations for the Buhl Planetarium whose family moved to a Middlesex farm in 1955, published a monthly newspaper called the “Middlesex Monitor” from 1962 to 1976.

Her book about township history profiles the 1825 adultery trial in which Sally Maxwell accused William Little of destroying her reputation. That trial played out before the Middlesex Presbyterian Church congregation. The elders hearing the case expelled Maxwell and Little from the church.

“Merrie Olde Middlesex” also chronicles the history of oil drilling, a boom that peaked decades after the 1859 discovery of oil at the Drake well in Venango County.

“Gradually, the oil strikes moved southward,” Henderson said.

The book includes the story of the Biddle brothers, prisoners who in 1902 escaped from the Allegheny County Jail with tools and weapons given to them by the warden's wife, Kate Soffel.

John Biddle and Edward C. Biddle spent a night in Middlesex as fugitives before they were caught and shot to death in Butler.

The story is the basis of “Mrs. Soffel,” a 1984 film starring Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson.

To write the book, Henderson spent years combing through library books and records, and persuading people to open their scrapbooks and attics.

Illustrating “Merrie Olde Middlesex” was almost as painstaking as writing it, she said.

The book includes photographs and ink drawings, the work of Ben Byrer. Henderson met Byrer, 96, of Middlesex, in the 1950s.

“They are mostly just sketches,” Byrer said. “I did a few color paintings and maps for the book. I worked on it, on and off, for about two-and-a-half years.”

It wasn't always easy to find the subjects for drawings, Byrer said.

Henderson wanted a drawing of Cooper family graves for the book.

The Coopers were original settlers of Middlesex.

“Those graves were in the woods, very well covered. I spent a few hours looking for them,” Byrer said.

Henderson says the township has not changed much in recent years.

“It has remained a lot like it was in the ‘70s. The same roads are there. The same families are there. I think that we move slower than surrounding communities,” she said.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or rwills@tribweb.com.

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