The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

October 24, 2013

Did bison live in the Central Susquehanna Valley?

By Evamarie Socha
The Daily Item

— LEWISBURG — Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam — just don’t call it Union County, because they didn’t live here, ever, sang Kim Mattern, half of a father-son “anti-bisonist” team, with his own twist on “Home on the Range.”  

Not so fast, said the “bisonists,” who cited historic documentation of sightings, even one from Col. John Kelly himself — yes, that Col. Kelly with the road named after him — that buffalo once called the Valley home.

It could have gotten ugly, it could have gotten mean, but both sides of the “Great Bison-tennial Debate” Wednesday night at Campus Theatre respectively kept their cool and their senses of humor in this showcase event to settle before roughly 250 people, once and for all, whether bison lived in the Central Susquehanna Valley.

Bill Mattern was the father half of the anti-bisonist team, who reminded Union County sheriff’s deputies they could escort out any rowdies.

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that, even though the Matterns presented statements from scientific experts from universities of New York and Virginia stating that no way, no how did bison roam Union County. Among their arguments: no remains ever have been found to support this, they said, and if there were remains, they likely came from cows.

Au contraire, said the bisonists. First, Kathy Swope, president of the Lewisburg school board, gave her step-by-step history of buffalo citations: everything from a 1698 reference from Gabriel Thomas, a 17th century colonist, who noted “a vast number of other wild creatures” in his writings on the region; to Dr. Samuel Beck, who took an account from Kelly three months before his death of an abundance of buffalo and that he had shot one.

Author and historian Ron Wenning, the other bisonist, noted numerous oral histories tracing native Americans in the Valley and pottery depicting the region as “a place of buffalo.”

Many, many more citations and facts were presented, but you get this idea.

Hosted by the Union County Bicentennial Committee, this debate was no joke. Attendees munched on buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes and bison meatballs, while members of the League of Women Voters of the Lewisburg Area prepared for their role as timekeepers. Gary Sojka, former president of Bucknell University — home of the Bison — was official moderator.  

Even if bison didn’t live in Union County, they did for a few hours Wednesday night as 15 Fiberglass statues, custom-painted to represent each municipality and the county itself, stood proudly in the M&T Bank parking lot next door to the theatre.

“This is wonderful!” was heard repeatedly among folks who strolled and marveled at the creatively painted statues. Most depicted municipal history or reputations, such as Hartley Township’s bison with the remarkable forest of hidden animals painted on its sides. Mifflinburg borough’s buffalo looked like a postcard highlighting scenic venues.

So is the bison debate over?

Attendees got to cast a commemorative wooden buffalo nickle to vote yes or no at the end of the event. The tally was not immediately available.

Check out online at to see what the final word is in Union County.