By Jessica Federkeil, Point Park News Service:
Organizations across Butler County are working together to preserve the area’s rich history, striving to preserve pieces of yesterday for the people of today and beyond.
“If someone doesn’t keep track of our history, and our lives, by writing it down, or recording video, years from now they won’t know what happened,” Loretta Rice, president of the Lancaster Historical Center said.
Dating back to the 18th Century, Butler County saw the advent of the French and Indian War and was initially settled by Revolutionary War veterans claiming their Depreciation and Donation land grants.
Butler County was officially founded in 1800 from part of Allegheny County. It has played an important role in industries such as oil and steel. Perhaps it is most famously known for the invention of the Jeep by the American Bantam Company during World War II.
The Butler County Historical Society
The Pennsylvania’s Civil War exhibit currently on display at the Butler County Historical Society takes a look at the important role Pennsylvania played in the Civil War as a state.
“The exhibit helps us get our history out to the public,” Pat Collins, director of the Butler Historical Society, said. “It makes it available to them so they can learn.”
According to the Heinz History Center’s website the “Pennsylvania’s Civil War helps bring to life the personal stories of those impacted during the four-year war, including soldiers, women, African Americans, and children.”
The traveling exhibit is sponsored by People’s Gas, the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It is presented by the Heinz History Center and will be on display in Butler until Jan. 12.
“The Heinz History center designed, and built this exhibit and they made it portable. So it could get out to the smaller museums in the area,” Collins said.
The smaller organizations don’t always have the means to produce such an exhibit for their community.
“We all don’t have the money to produce something like this,” Collins said. “Nor would it be worth while for all of us do this.”
The exhibit includes life-size figures that typically aren’t a feature an organization, like the Butler Historical Society, can have in their exhibits.
“There are four life-size figures. They are great. We don’t normally have things like that here,” Collins said.
Collins has nothing but praise for the exhibit.
“They did a marvelous job with it, and then they shared a lot of the history with us that otherwise we would otherwise not be able to have,” Collins said.
This special exhibit creates a gateway to the public.
“Our mission is to educate the public. It brings the people in, and we get a chance to interact, and talk with them. Hopefully we can get them more involved in our local activity and our history,” Collins said.
Being one of the larger historical society’s in the area, the group has two paid positions: the director, and secretary. They can only do so much, and the rest of the work relies on volunteers to be completed.
“Our volunteers keep us going,” Collins said. “They work on just about everything. They help with building repairs, car maintenance, cleaning our buildings, the mailing list, cataloging our collections. There is a wide range of things for them to do.”
Right now there are about five weekly volunteers.
“I found out about the historical society in my senior year of high school,” Abbi Smithmyer, a history major at Slippery Rock University, 19, of Butler said. “I volunteer any way I can, basically doing any job Pat tells me to.”
Being a history major, Smithmyer finds it important lend a helping hand.
“I view volunteering there more of a reward. It’s not just something I take time out of my day to do,” Smithmyer said. “I learn something new every time I go to the Historical Society.”
Others notice the impact of the historical society on the community.
“I think they provide an excellent service to the community. Their events are fun and interesting, while actually being informative,” Nick Norante, 24, a student at Butler County Community College said.
Norante, a member of the Butler Historical Society, participates in events through out the year. Including the annual Civil War bus trip.
“The trip is so much fun,” Norante said. “It’s a great blend of history, shopping, and even some night life. Their guide for the tour is really out of this world.”
Mars Area History & Landmarks Society
Every Friday, the Mars History and Landmark Society meets at their buildings to work on a variety of projects.
“We are working on the movie theater. The original theater was destroyed, but we were able to create a great exhibit,” Bill Swaney, archivist for the society said.
Their work not only preserves the history, but it gives purpose to its members, Swaney said.
The society does a good job at staying busy.
“We are a very active group,” John Watson, president, said. “No one is ever just sitting around here.”
They have completed multiple projects over the years.
“We are very lucky with all the projects we are able to accomplish,” Charles Norton, secretary, said.
One of those projects was the removal and restoration for the train station.
“The owners of the property gave us the train station, but they wouldn’t sell us the property,” Swaney said. “So we had to move the train station to where it is now.”
When they moved the train station they found a surprise under the building.
“Back in the day the station had a cat that roamed around,” George Lazzo, a founding member of the society said. “Eventually it went missing never to be seen again. Until we lifted up the train station in 2000, and found the mummified Chessie Cat in the foundation.”
It can be a struggle getting people involved.
“People don’t always care about the past,” Watson said. “But we do what we do for the few people who do care.”
The Society benefits from members of the community uninterested in history, by taking their unwanted historical objects and adding to their collection.
“Not everyone is interested in history,” Swaney said. “Never beg for things. You just have to ask for them.”
That’s how the museum was started.
“A lot of people in Mars had things that pertained to Mars, but they didn’t know what to do with them,” Swaney, one of the founding members of the society, said. “That’s how we got most of our stuff.”
They are finding it a challenge to incorporate more young people.
“It’s hard to get them involved these days,” Watson said. “They just don’t have the time unfortunately.”
They created the Mars Shortline Railroad, a smaller scale train ride, surrounding the museum in order to attract more kids to history.
“We open the Shortline every Friday, June through September,” Watson said. “The kids love it. Mostly it brings in mothers and younger children. They ride the Shortline, then they explore our museum.”
Lancaster Township History Center
Their collection is comprised of all donations from the community.
“If something were to happen to us, and we lose our building, all of our items have the families address on it, and they would get it back,” Dina Barkley, 59, a volunteer, said. “We will never sell it or do anything with it.”
As a smaller scale operation things run differently here.
“We are all volunteers here,” President Loretta Rice, 74, said. “Nobody gets paid.”
The volunteers work together to run the center.
“They all divide their time between here and the other things they are involved in,” said Rice.
So far during it’s time of operation, Lancaster has completed three books on the community. They have books on the school houses, barns and churches.
“We are trying to preserve it (history) through our books and posters, so people can see this information years from now,” Rice said. “It’s just nice to keep it around.”
Lancaster is facing a problem that many historical groups face.
“Most of our members are older,” Rice said.
The group has a wall in its building dedicated to all the members they’ve lost to death over the years.
“We need some younger people to get involved,” Rice said. “We want to have someone around to keep this going.”
Younger people could also breath some new life into the organization.
“The younger blood could give us some new ideas and help us keep going,” Rice said.
The organization would love to have the new ideas of the younger generations.
“Young people have such good ideas. They just have that drive that we need,” said Barkley.
Without new members the future of Lancaster doesn’t look very bright.
“I hate to say. If we don’t get members I really don’t know,” Barkley said. “I would hope that it could get bigger, and bigger, and bigger because there is a lot of history here.”
Members of the society don’t want all their hard work from over the years go to waste.
“We have all this information gathered up here. We don’t want to have it all lost,” Rice said.
Overall these societies are keeping the history of their communities alive. Their work relies on volunteers, and the future generations to keep it going.
“I really got interested in volunteering there (at the Butler County Historical Society) because I really saw an importance to preserve the history of Butler County,” Smithmyer said. “I don’t think enough people know just how much history the area we live in has to offer.”