Stephen Foster's mark on Bradford County

By Haley Burton

May 16, 2014 Updated May 16, 2014 at 5:37 PM EDT

Bradford County, Pa. (WBNG Binghamton) A popular songwriter of the 1800s spent a short time in Bradford County and more than 150 years after his death, his presence is still strong.

Stephen Collins Foster is known for his songs "Oh! Susanna", "Camptown Races" and "My Old Kentucky Home".

"He was the most popular song-writer of his time," said Bonnie Bell Hilfiger, a Troy artist.

Known as the father of American music, Foster was born outside Pittsburgh in 1826. In 1840 at the age of 14, he moved to Towanda to live with his older brother, William, who was an engineer working on the North Branch Canal. The two lived in a home that still stands in Towanda, the Canal House, sometimes referred to as Foster Hall.

Foster commuted to Athens to attend school at Athens Academy.

"Stephen was only here for one year and not very happy being here, okay. He even writes in a letter that Athens was a very lonesome place to be," said Maddie Opalenik, Tioga Point Museum.

His time spent in the county is documented well at the Tioga Point Museum with letters from Foster, pictures and music compositions.

For more information about the Tioga Point Museum and hours, click here.

Directly across from the museum on South Main Street is a park that has a marker designating the former Athens Academy and Foster's time studying there. The school burned down in 1841.

Foster is said to have performed his first composition, the Tioga Waltz, at the First Presbyterian Church in Athens.

He also attended Towanda Academy, now a private home.

A mural of Stephen Foster's songs is featured on a wall on South Main Street, near Barclay Street in Towanda.

Hilfiger named it "Songs of Stephen Foster" and it features eight of Foster's famous songs, including "Camptown Races", "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" and "My Old Kentucky Home".

The centerpiece of the mural, and the largest piece, is based on Foster's song, "Beautiful Dreamer".

"I'm very proud of it," said Hilfiger, "I hope people look at it and can figure out that it's Stephen Foster songs,"

At Towanda Junior-Senior High School, there's a class that studies Foster and his impact on American music.

"I always pass the Camptown races, the historical sign. I thought it would be a neat idea to combine American music, Stephen Foster and Bradford County," said Stephanie Blasi, Choral Director at Towanda Junior-Senior High School. "We started doing a research assignment with students."

Many students said they were aware of Foster's songs, but the project made them aware of Foster's influence on the region.

"They still have Camptown races and he made a really popular song about them," said Whitney Madill, 8th grader.

It's believed Foster wrote "Camptown Race's" about Camptown, a borough of Wyalusing.

The Camptown Races are an annual 10K. The 48th year of the event will be held in September. Click here for more about the Camptown Races.

Stephen Foster Lake is at Mt. Pisgah State Park, which attracts thousands of people to fish each year.

"Anyone that is thinking about coming up, it's crappie, perch, bass and bullhead," said Ken Gwinn, Park Manager.

Stephen Foster Lake recently received a $200,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to rehabilitate a smaller portion of the lake, the forebay.

Foster left Bradford County in 1841 and went on to write more than 200 songs. He died in 1864 at the age of 37.

Foster was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.

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