John Carlysle Stewart, a civil engineer from New Castle, Delaware, travelled to western Pennsylvania in 1798. He was a large raw-bodied man of Scotch-Irish descent, quite well educated, somewhat aristocratic, and not particularly inclined to hard labor, and he had been given the job of resurveying the plots of land that the government had granted to veterans of the revolutionary war.
He discovered that around fifty acres of land had been overlooked by the previous survey at the point where the Shenango river met Neshannock creek. The site was a sort of glade, densely covered with grass and hazel bushes, with a thicket of wild plum and crab-apple trees along the Neshannock, and clusters of black oaks scattered here and there. As the native Lenape and Erie people had long since been forced out of the area and the government surveyors had failed to record its existence, it appeared that nobody at all owned the land, so Stewart quietly claimed it for himself. He laid out a notional town plan with wide, straight streets and a market place, and then set about attracting settlers to the place that he had decided to call New Castle in honour of the town he had left behind.
One hundred and fifty years later, on 6th July 1948, the founding of New Castle was re-enacted by a local businessman dressed up in period costume as John Carlysle Stewart in front of the three thousand townspeople who were attending the opening night gala of the town’s sesquicentennial celebrations—the “Castle-Cade”—which would play to sell-out audiences at the Taggart stadium for a week. Eight-hundred and fifty locals dressed in colourful costumes and lit by huge multicoloured floodlights acted out the story of New Castle in sixteen episodes, taking the audience from the earliest days, when there were only native settlements along the river, through the construction of the first canal and the coming of the railroad, when New Castle became one of the fastest-growing cities in America as immigrants poured in to work in the mills and factories that produced tin, steel, paper and ceramics, and right up to the industrial boom years of the second world war, when New Castle’s population reached almost fifty thousand, the highest it had ever been.
The Castle-Cade ended with a glimpse of the city’s future, a vision of expansion and prosperity that suited the celebratory mood but failed to predict what would happen by the end of the coming decade, when New Castle’s fortunes would collapse as the heavy industries abandoned the north-east, the town’s factories began to close down and the manufacturing territories from Michigan to New York degenerated into the rust belt.
That would have been unimaginable to the people of New Castle on that summer evening in 1948, when the downtown buildings were decked out in fluttering banners (minus a “Welcome” banner that had been torn from the bunting across East Washington street by youths driving around in a truck) and the streets were filled with citizens wearing their special sesqui hats, which they were required to wear or else risk being picked up by one of the Crazy Kangaroo Courts and made to perform a forfeit. The New Castle News told its readers, “It’s all in fun, with the main idea of passing out some laughs. Remember, this is a week of fun!”
Larry Day’s idea of fun went further than wearing a special hat. At some point during the day—perhaps at the Castle-Cade, or later, at one of the carnival midways that opened that evening—he had so much fun that he ended up commemorating the founding of his town by being booked on a drunk and disorderly charge. He received a small fine the next day.
John Carlysle Stewart’s later life is a mystery. According to some, he sold all his land, fell into slovenly habits and wandered around in tattered clothes. Others say he moved to Ohio. He left no descendants in the town.
There is no further record of Larry Day.Sources: New Castle News (25 Sep 1924, “New Castle Settled By Son Of Pennsylvania; More Of Early History”;July 6 1948, “Sesqui Pageant With Huge Cast Well Presented On First Night”; “Farm Floats Big Feature”; 13 Feb 1958, “Who Owns The Public Square?”).