Pine Grove Mystery Provides Lesson In History

Pine Grove Mystery Provides Lesson In History

Jenna Brobst, Reporter

Due to the time needed to prepare students for standardized testing and tight Pennsylvania Department of Education standards, the study of local history has sometimes been left out of high school social studies classrooms.  Despite the best efforts of teachers, there is often just not enough room for local legend.  Teacher Lauren Hetrick attests, “If we have a local connection to the core curriculum we can most certainly add it in.” In fact, there was once a class specifically on Pennsylvania studies, but due to low interest the class was discontinued. However, if students took a simple hike through the woods of Pine Grove they would find themselves on the trail of a murder mystery that took place mere miles from Big Spring High School.

According to, on  November, 24, 1934, two hunters were walking through the woods near Pine Grove Furnace looking for their next hunt, but what they found instead shocked a community. On that cold, Saturday morning, hunters Clark Jardine and John Clark discovered the bodies of 3 young girls wrapped in a tarp. This horrific discovery would lead to a community searching for answers and understanding behind a tragedy that still haunts the wooded valley on South Mountian.

The girls had no identification and police could find no one who recognized or knew the girls. Police in Carlisle at the time held a massive viewing ceremony in hopes of identifying the girls and their pictures were printed in newspapers all around the country, still there were no new leads in the murders of these girls. Autopsies performed on the girls said that they were suffocated. The girls were buried in Westminster Cemetery and a memorial statue marks their graves.

Answers soon came with the discovery of two more bodies, this time a man and young woman in Altoona. A suitcase found near them contained a book with child’s handwriting in it with the name “Norma” on the cover. The final clue to the identities of all 5 bodies was the discovery of a blue car a small distance from the bodies of the man and young woman. The car identified the man as Elmo Noakes and once he was identified the others were too soon identified. The young woman found with Elmo was identified as his niece, Winifred Pierce and the young girls were identified as his daughters, Dewilla Noakes (10), Cordelia Noakes (8) and his step-daughter Norma Sedgwick (12).

Aida Hovetter of Walnut Bottom was 16 when the bodies of the girls were discovered. She remembers that “everyone was talking about it but no one really knew what happened.” Hovetter said that she doesn’t remember much about that time since it was so long ago, but that she does remember not knowing why it happened, After she was told what happened to the girls and the ending of the tragic story, Hovetter said that it was “tragic” what happened to the girls and that it was “deeply saddening.”

With all of the bodies finally identified, police began searching for answers as to what happened to this family. They soon discovered that the family originated from Utah. The story is that after the natural death of his wife, the girl’s mother, Noakes’s niece, Pierce, moved in with the family to help care for the girls and take care of the house. There is much speculation as to why the family then decided to leave Utah, including that Noakes and Pierce had started a relationship that the family disapproved of or that they left because of money trouble and wanted a fresh start. No matter the reason, the family left Utah.

Police at the time speculated that Noakes killed his daughters because they had become a burden to him and that he could no longer support them. He and Pierce then drove to an area near Altoona where he bought a rifle, abandoned the car, and then shot Pierce twice then himself once in a murder-suicide. Noakes and Pierce were buried in the same cemetery as the girls, with Noakes being awarded military burial honors for his service.  

These events happened 81 years ago and yet they still hold a significance in the community as death is always saddening, and it’s even worse when children are the victims. Michelle Paris said that “because I am not from this area, I don’t know much about what happened, but I’ve always wanted to know more.” After Paris was told what happened to this tragic family she stated that “it’s horrible! I wonder why they ran from their home and why they felt the need to kill the girls.”

People may never know why Elmo Noakes felt the need to murder his children, his niece, and then himself. However, this doesn’t change the fact that the events transpired. No matter how much time passes, the murders of Norma Sedgwick, Dewilla Noakes, and Cordelia Noakes still invoke sadness in the hearts and confusion in the minds of residents of the areas surrounding the area of their death, Pine Grove Forest.