The Puzzling Origins of Puzzletown

The old Puzzletown United Brethren church, now a private residence

Situated halfway between the city of Altoona and Blue Knob, the second highest mountain in the state, in Blair County's Freedom Township, is a tiny rural village with the curious name of Puzzletown.

Since its founding sometime around 1840, people have wondered about the name and several theories have been proposed as to its origin, the most logical being a matter of topography; when viewed on a map, the multitude of public roads and private driveways all seem to converge at a single point at various, odd angles. Puzzletown Road, without warning, suddenly becomes Blue Knob Run Road, though one could easily become confused and find themselves on Noel Lane or Hite Lane instead, while those traveling north on Blue Knob Run Road might accidentally find themselves on Poplar Run Road instead of Puzzletown Road. And then there will those those who will pull off onto the shoulder and weep once they realize that Blue Knob Road, Blue Knob Run Road and Knob Road are not the same thing.

Drivers from out of the area could easily go insane without GPS, as the seemingly random junctions and unexpected forks can take you to all sorts of places with names as strange as Puzzletown. For instance, if you're heading north on Poplar Run Road you will discover, rather abruptly, that the highway splits just north of Puzzletown, and those who veer right will find themselves on Valley Forge Road heading toward the Duncansville "suburb" of Foot-of-Ten. And, since you're probably wondering, the reason the village is called Foot-of-Ten is because it lies at the foot of the tenth incline plane of the old Allegheny Portage Railroad.

As for Puzzletown, the name has nothing at all to do with confusing roads. It also has nothing to do with crosswords, jigsaws or riddles. The village is allegedly named in honor of a local resident-- "Puzzle" Stiffler-- of whom very little, if anything, is known.

Puzzletown was originally settled in 1840 by a man named Baird (or Beard, depending on the source), who sold village lots and established the Poplar Run post office. Baird, presumably, never became wealthy as a result of land speculation, because the 1883 History of Huntingdon and Blair Counties describes Puzzletown, unflatteringly, as, "not a prominent or active place, yet it boasts of one or two small stores, a practitioner of medicine, and a house of worship owned by the United Brethren."

The date when Poplar Run officially became Puzzletown is unclear, though the earliest mention of Puzzletown in print comes from March of 1877, when the Cambria Freeman newspaper mentioned a fire at James McConnel's store: "It puzzles the people of Puzzletown to determine the origin of the fire, whether it was caused by spontaneous combustion or was the work of an incendiary."

The Legend of Old Pussy

Some light was shed on the matter of the origin of the name a few years later in a letter to the editor of the Harrisburg Telegraph. The following explanation, as provided by a Duncansville resident referred to only as J.M.G., appeared in the Telegraph on August 4, 1879:

"The proper name of the village you refer to is Marion. The post office is called Poplar Run. A post office in Franklin county, Pa., being named Marion, this office could not take the name of the village, and hence named after the stream passing through it-- the village, not the office.

"You must permit me to give you a short history of why it is called Puzzletown. The proprietor laid out his town and called it Marion, applied for license and opened a hotel. He was a man in body about five feet five or six inches in height, and in weight about 180 pounds, and from forty-five to fifty years, and predisposed to corpulency, so that in a few years of playing landlord of the Marion Hotel, and whether from eating or drinking, or both, true it was that his heft had increased to three hundred pounds and upwards, his stately step was changed into a rolling wattle-- in short, he became a remarkable man (of the sort) and consequently someone (to the historian unknown) named him 'Old Pussy'.

"The plebeans of the neighborhood, being of different nationalities, could or didnot stick to the original, which degenerated into Old Pusly, Old Pussely and finally Old Puzly. The old proprietor now died and was gathered to his fathers in the valley of Poplar Run, and his kind neighbors and citizens of the valley, in memory of kindness received, could not suffer his last name to sink into oblivion, but applied it to the town.

"But Puzlytown did not sound well, nor look well on paper. Finally, application having been made to the schoolmaster, it was put into good Saxon, to wit-- Puzzletown."

The amount of truth or accuracy contained in this strange explanation is unclear, but if "J.M.G." knew what he was talking about, it would imply that Puzzletown wasn't named after a vague, shadowy character named Stiffler, but thefounder of the village, known only to history as Baird. There might be a grain of truth in this theory, however; a 1928 article from the Duncannon Record about the village's history asserts that, in earlier times, the place in question was known as Pudzletown or "Pussly's Town", in memory of 'Puzzle' Stiffler, who, according to the Duncannon Record, was an innkeeper. So perhaps "J.M.G."had confused Baird with Stiffler.

The Great Name Debate of 1928

At any rate, the reputation of Puzzletown received a boost in the early 1920s due to several construction projects that brought new highways, bridges and other much-needed infrastructure to the area. It was around this time that some of the local residents began expressing a desire to see the village return to its intended name of Marion, in honor of the famous Revolutionary War hero, Gen. Francis "Swamp Fox" Marion.

In 1927 county government took control over the newly-paved highway running through the heart of Puzzleville, a move that promised to bring more traffic through the sleepy village. One lifelong resident named Frank Treml, whose father had been the village blacksmith back when the place was known as Poplar Run, convinced members of the Blair County Motor Club that the name ought to be changed to Marionsville. The motor club agreed, and took it upon themselves to erect "Welcome to Marionsville" signs along the highway. Those who preferred Puzzletown, however, were enraged by this act, and the matter ultimately had to be resolved by the state government.

Of course, opinion in the village was sharply divided; half of the citizens wanted to keep the Puzzletown name, while the other half believed that it was only proper to honor the wishes of the village's founder (even though nobody was one hundred percent sure what that was). Things got so heated that some folks wrote scathing letters to local newspapers, demanding that they stop referring to their hometown as Puzzletown, or Marionsville, depending on what side of the argument they were on.

One such angry letter, written by Mrs. Archie McIntosh, was published by the Altoona Tribune on March 26, 1928:

"In writing of the road from Newry to Marionsville you have used Puzzletown. Is The Tribune not a wide awake newspaper? Does it not know that Puzzletown was but a nickname andhas recently been wiped off the map and Marionsville reinstated? Marionsville is the original and correct name for this little village. It was named in honor of the redoubtable General Francis Marion, who helped fight the British in the Revolutionary War. That beautiful poem by Bryant called 'The Song of Marion's Men' was written for this same general who won such great renown in the history of the nation. Can you understand or find fault with us for being both proud and happy on having the name reinstated?  We hope The Altoona Tribune in the future will give its hearty cooperation by using Marionsville entirely. It is still used in court, in real estate transfers and it is on the deeds on record of property situated here in the village."

A blistering letter written by a man with an opposing point of view, H. Beam Piper, was later published in the Altoona Tribune:

"As you quite likely know, the little community of Puzzletown, not far from Blue Knob, has been plunged into turmoil and strife lately because a certain element of the inhabitants are anxious to have the name changed from its present one, so called after 'Puzzle' Stiffler, noted local character, to Marionsville, in honor of the Revolutionary general who, I do not believe, ever set foot in Pennsylvania, but who already has half a dozen townships, towns and villages named after him in this state. 

"This would, of course, be nothing short of a crime, and because of the commotion raised over it I decided to go down and take a look at it. I thought I had come to one of the battlefields of the World War. On the road leading into town, in the front yard of a farmhouse, I saw a big white sign some eight feet in length, reading: "We Welcome You to Puzzletown"... In the village proper the other group have their sign, about three by three feet, "Welcome to Marionsville". The Puzzletown machine gunners seem to have taken a most violent exception to this sign, for it looks as if it had been wrenched down, apparently with a crowbar, and is now held up by about half a hundred nails. There are also a great number of holes in it that could only have been made by rifle balls."

Piper's letter must have settled the matter for the Tribune; the editor responded by declaring:

"'Puzzle' Stiffler's name must be retained at all costs. The 'puzzle' is that people residing in a town which has a unique and colorful name should want to give it a name already in use in various parts of Pennsylvania, thereby causing confusion to residents, post office officials and travelers. There is only one Puzzletown and there was only one 'Puzzle' Stiffler,and Blair County is proud that both were products of the county; long may the name prevail, for we shall never see their like again."

This was a remarkable victory for the pro-Puzzletown faction, since the paper's editor happened to be the highly-esteemed author, folklorist and historian Henry W. Shoemaker, who had publicly argued in the beginning that the name of the village should be Marionsville.

On March 28, 1928, the State Geographic Board ruled in favor of Puzzletown, denying an appeal to the board to have the village officially recognized as Marionsville. Ironically, on the very same day, Mrs. Archie McIntosh vehemently denied having written the pro-Marionsville letter that had been published just two days earlier. My opinion is that she really did write that letter, but feared retribution and possible excommunication by the same pro-Puzzletown neighbors who had shot holes in the "Welcome to Marionsville" sign. Or perhaps Mrs. McIntosh just wanted to be on the right side of history.

But, in spite of the State Geographic Board's ruling, it took some time for life to get back to normal in the tiny rural village. Shortly after the ruling, the man who had erected the enormous "We Welcome You to Puzzletown" sign, David Yingling, reported that someone had stolen it, posts and all. Several months would pass before the villagers finally came to terms with the board's decision.

Today the controversy is long forgotten, and the name Puzzletown still appears in newspapers and on maps, although the truth behind the origin of the name will long remain a Blair County puzzle.


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