Frances Strong Helman
Frances Strong Helman’s interest in genealogy began early through a combination of her mother’s influence and tracing her ancestry to Indiana County pioneer settler, John Lydick. In 1938, in her living room, she and five others founded the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County. Her love was finding and telling stories, whether genealogical, historical, or folklore, and from its founding to the end of her life, she gave generously of her time and talents for anything the Society needed. For a long time, it was hard to tell where her personal collection of genealogical information ended, and the Society’s began.
Mrs. Helman used her storytelling ability to add to the library. From 1939-41, she wrote several articles for The Indiana Countian and served as its genealogical editor. Those editorial skills were put to good use again in 1948-66. She published Your Family Tree, a quarterly genealogical magazine.
Frances Helman, Hale McQuilkin, and Anna McQuilkin at Ewing's Mill.
She travelled all over the country doing research and as a professional genealogist, was a member of the National Genealogical Society and served as the president of the Pennsylvania Historical and Genealogical Association.
Helman wrote numerous articles about Indiana County and its history. Many were published, but many more were typed and deposited in the library collection. One of her more noteworthy articles, “History of Indiana County,” was written in 1953 for the Indiana County Sesquicentennial.
In 1978, the Silas M. Clark House was designated a National Historic Site. Frances Strong Helman took part in the dedication ceremony, presenting county officials with a plaque identifying the structure as a national landmark.
While the Historical Society was her chief activity, including serving five terms as its president and becoming an honorary lifetime member in 1955, Helman was active in other historical pursuits as well. She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She helped organize and held offices in both the James LeTort Chapter, Daughters of the American Colonists and the Anne LeTort Chapter, Children of the American Colonists, where she also served as National President General in 1969-70. As general chairman of a five-county committee, she helped plan the 1956 bicentennial of the Armstrong Expedition and the Armstrong Kittanning Trail Society. Along with five others, Mrs. Helman helped organize the Indiana County Tourist Bureau, which regularly schedules numerous tours of the Museum and Clark House throughout the year for local and regional tour groups.
Frances Helman was named County Historian on January 1, 1976 by the Indiana County Commissioners. That same year, the Society undertook its first reprint, the 1880 History of Indiana County by Caldwell, an edition also known as Arms & White. More reprints followed, including the 1871 Beers Atlas of Indiana County, and then the publication of Clarence Stephenson’s Indiana County – 175th Anniversary History.
In addition to genealogy and history, Mrs. Helman loved folklore, sometimes to the point of embellishment. Like many stories passed from one generation to another, sometimes those embellishments make it come to life, and sometimes they make the truth more difficult to sort out. As Frank Hood said, “…to enhance the interest of young listeners, she wasn’t about to allow a few facts to stand in her way.”
She promoted the legend that composer Stephen Foster had written a song about Kentucky freedom seeker, Samuel Williams, who came to Indiana after his escape. Despite the legend appearing in The Indiana Gazette in 1944, research two decades later failed to uncover any shred of evidence to substantiate the claim. In a pamphlet on Indiana County folklore, Helman again stretched the truth, adding details of ghostly occurrences and mere rumors to the story of John “Yank” Brown, a member of a notorious horse theft ring along the Huntingdon, Cambria and Indiana Turnpike not far from Armagh. Clarence Stephenson, who became County Historian upon her death, wrote “…John Brown and his confederates in an extensive horse thief ring were real persons and the story of their grand larcenies is an interesting story quite aside from folklore.”
Even at her death in 1980, Helman kept the library in mind, generously donating her entire collection of historical and genealogical material. This donation formed the foundation of the current library.
Her love of genealogy, her hard work, and her legend lives on. Today, the Helman Library houses over 26,000 surname files, over one thousand family histories, thousands of subject files, numerous county histories, and hundreds of other books. The Historical Society continues to reprint important reference books, as well as new works exploring Indiana County’s past. The library is moving into the technological age as well, as collections are scanned and catalogued for easier searching. Classes and workshops on genealogy are still offered, and we have several volunteer genealogists carrying on Francis’s work. The Historical Society’s most prestigious award is named for Helman; The Helman Award is given to those individuals whose contributions add greatly to the society’s ability to serve our members, researchers, and community.
Thanks to Frances Helman’s lifelong passion, there is a trove of information waiting for you. Come in and find the clues to your own past, family history, or folklore.