Hands-On History features stories that focus on history in practice at museums and historic sites throughout Pennsylvania.

When did you first know what you wanted to do when you grew up? My plans varied in childhood, but by my early teens I knew that I loved past cultures and old items. By high school, I was considering Egyptology or Romanology and longed to visit ancient cities with thousands of years of history that I was reading about in Archaeology magazine, books and my Latin class.

A visit to one of the fall festivals at Joanna Furnace completely changed those plans and made a life-long impact. Then a sophomore in high school, I was walking with my mom and sister through the Joanna Furnace grounds, a place I had visited several times previously. Near the furnace stack I saw a fenced area where many people were digging in the ground in square-shaped spaces. They were using small equipment and shovels, dumping soil into a tripod with a hanging screen, and finding a variety of items. I remember walking up to the fence and watching them, completely intrigued by what was happening. Despite the need to follow my family to a new area, I just could not walk away. This moment became not only the catalyst of my passion for public archaeology and outreach but also the start of my career.

If you have ever been to Morgantown or travelled through Robeson Township in Pennsylvania’s Berks County, you were close to Joanna Furnace. If you have not already visited, I strongly encourage you to make the trip. The grounds are open daily from dawn to dusk.

The history of Joanna Furnace is long and complex. It went into blast in the late 18th century and closed in the late 19th century. Bethlehem Steel owned the property in the 1960s and 1970s, and since 1979 it has become a public historic site donated to and maintained by the Hay Creek Valley Historical Association (HCVHA). In 1980 it was listed as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places. Although ownership, daily labor and production details of Joanna Furnace are well documented, less is known about the decades of determination and effort by so many individuals and groups to research, preserve and maintain this unusually intact industrial complex through archaeological investigations.

At the time when the property was donated by Bethlehem Steel, the mule stable, the charcoal barn, the office store, a stone wall and the furnace stack all remained. Unfortunately, the blacksmith shop, wheelwright shop and mansion house had been demolished, because their disrepair created a liability issue for Bethlehem Steel.

When documentation and excavation of the Joanna Furnace complex began, the work was completed by the “Over the Hill Gang,” mostly a group of retirees who helped to clear vegetation from the existing ruins and do maintenance and other tasks at the site. The group of volunteers continues with many projects throughout the year and accepts new volunteers. The two primary leaders of the clearing and documentation efforts and the archaeological investigation of this property were the late Charles Jacob and archaeologist Catherine Spohn. In time, other volunteers included more members of HCVHA, members of Chapter 21 of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology (SPA), and others who gave their time during festivals to promote the furnace’s preservation and numerous archaeological projects.

Charles Jacob was a strong advocate for both HCVHA and Joanna Furnace. He brought great experience and education to his work at the site, and he produced incredibly detailed and accurate site drawings. Charles loved engaging the public and running the interpretive video about the furnace for festival attendees; he left a lasting legacy.

Cathy Spohn has her doctorate in archaeology from the National Autonomous University of Mexico and has dedicated innumerable hours not only to the excavations at Joanna Furnace but also to SPA Chapter 21 and their many investigations over the years. Although her initial research focus was Mexican archaeology, Cathy spent her career as the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s Philadelphia-area archaeologist. She was also the one who encouraged me to pursue North American archaeology and taught me the foundational field skills necessary to volunteer with Chapter 21.

Historic preservation projects go hand in hand with archaeology. For example, the blacksmith shop was one of the earliest excavations that Chapter 21 completed, and the data recovered informed the building’s reconstruction. It still stands today and is a great interactive area during HCVHA’s regular outdoor festivals that typically bring hundreds of visitors to the site every year.

Excavations have also been completed immediately adjacent to the furnace stack, around the charcoal barn, along the office store and its former porch area (to locate the exact original porch support locations), and across the wheelwright shop foundation. Many of these locations were known from historic mapping or standard iron furnace complex layouts; however, other media can also be useful for understanding the past.

Sometimes historic photographs can show us where buildings once stood. In the case of the furnace’s wheelwright shop, one historic photograph showed one back corner of the building before its demolition. Questions about which direction the walls ran, its overall size, and what might be intact beneath the current ground surface were all unanswerable. The photograph suggested that the shop was in line with one of the main stone wall entrance pillars. It was on this small piece of evidence that excavation locations were established.

Excavation began around 2004. Many exciting artifacts and data were found over the next 10 years at the wheelwright shop site, including decorated ceramic teacup sherds, stone weights, nails and glass from the former structure, an apparent wall foundation extension, pieces of slate roof tiles, parts of an iron stove, an approximately 1½-foot-thick layer of slag that filled the building following its disuse as a wheelwright shop, and sheet metal, automotive parts and tools deposited during later site use as a garage. These artifacts were deposited during many different periods of the building’s use. For example, the teacup was probably discarded in the corner of the shop after its use as a wheelwright’s shop.

The years of excavation and interpretation of recovered artifacts resulted in a greater understanding of one of the most important buildings of the Joanna Furnace complex. The furnace’s wheelwright was employed to build, fix and replace wooden wheels on wagons and carts used daily on the furnace grounds. He was an essential furnace worker.

Generous donations enabled the reconstruction of the wheelwright shop on its original footprint between late 2019 and early 2020. The foundation was reconstructed on a slightly raised elevation to avoid impact on the building during occasional site flooding. It features the common tools and workspace of a wheelwright, reflecting how the building would have looked during the early 19th century. Interpretive signage is present around the site and additional improvements to the reconstruction’s interior may eventually allow for a historic trades interpreter who can showcase a wheelwright’s work during Joanna Furnace’s heyday. The reconstruction is a valuable example of how proper excavation, interpretation and preservation of a site can fuel continued education and stewardship at one of Pennsylvania’s best preserved historic industrial archaeological sites.

Juliana Flora, president of HCVHA, is a descendant of the last ironmaster of Joanna Furnace. Juliana has a passion for her family’s history and her connection to the site; she actively seeks to share this information, primarily during the Hay Creek Festival and the Hay Creek Apple Festival at Joanna Furnace. Oral history frequently lends important insight that is often lacking in documentary research and other investigations. The value of oral history goes beyond pride in our heritage. Sharing stories and history can also bring us closer to long-departed people and their lives.

Although Joanna Furnace has not been operational since the late 19th century, its workers, occupants and day-to-day scenes come to life during every visit. This journey to the past is made possible by the decades of work that numerous volunteers have completed through both preservation and archaeology. Excavations at the complex have uncovered countless artifacts and data reflecting life on the property. I, however, uncovered a passion and a purpose. The members of SPA Chapter 21, especially Cathy Spohn, became my earliest teachers and mentors. My subsequent volunteerism with Chapter 21 instilled a love of history, the ability to connect to the past through archaeology, and the incredible value of public outreach so that others might have the same opportunity to connect with the past and, potentially, their future.


Joanna Furnace is located at 1250 Furnace Road near Morgantown. Operated by the Hay Creek Valley Historical Association, the complex is open Monday through Friday and select days on the weekend. For information on hours, tours, programs and special events, visit haycreek.org or phone 610-286-0388.


Katherine Peresolak, RPA, began her archaeological career at age 16 as a volunteer with Chapter 21 of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology. In 2017 she earned an M.A. in applied archaeology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.