The Blair County Historical Society

Historical Societies: News and Highlights presents news and information about Pennsylvania's regional and county historical societies.

Chartered by the Honorable Martin Bell, President Judge of Blair County, the Blair County Historical Society was formed July 23. 1906 for the pur­pose of discovering. collecting and preserving the natural, political, social and literary history or Blair County. Ini­tially, the organization developed slowly. It was not until 1920, for ex­ample, that the society made the first of its many acquisitions. In March of that year it obtained the Dick Stone School House in Taylor Township – the oldest known school house in the county.

That achievement, however, was soon followed by others. In December of 1923, the society cm11e to secure the historic Chimney Rocks, a promi­nent limestone formation south of the borough or Hollidaysburg. Standing on the crest of a hill, the rocks over­look the surrounding knolls and fields for many miles. After seeing the for­midable natural rock formation, it is easy to understand why the Delaware Indians are believed to have held their council fires there. In fact, visitors to the rocks often note the chair-like con­figuration which legend says served as the seat for the Delaware chief.

The following year, 1924, the society further secured the protection of that historic area when it came into possession of a tract of over fourteen acres of timber land adjacent to the Chimney Rocks. Once the land was conveyed to the society it was desig­nated as the “D. K. Reamey Memorial Park” in memory of a prominent citizen of the area.

A smaller tract of land consisting of four-tenths of an acre in Juniata Town­ship was purchased in 1928. The skew­-arch bridge had been built on this site in 1832-33 to carry the turnpike over the famous Portage Railroad of the Pennsylvania canal system. In addition to guaranteeing the preservation of the remains of the bridge. purchase of this land also provided a site for an Alle­gheny Portage monument which was erected near the head of Plane No. 6 of the old railroad. The monument, made of sLone blocks taken from the summit level of the Portage Railroad, is now the property of the National Park Service.

On September 10, 1941, the Blair County Historical Society made one of its largest investments when it pur­chased the Elias Baker Mansion to be used as a museum and to serve as the society’s headquarters. The mansion was built from 1844 to 1847 a1 a cost of $75 thousand and stands as a classic example of Greek revival architecture. The structure. with each of its stones set in sheet lead. was originally owned by ironmaster Elias Baker. Today, the thirty-five rooms of the mansion con­tain furniture and other items actually used by the Baker family. The original set of hand-carved oak furniture which rests in the double parlor, for example. was made in Belgium to Elias Baker’s specifications. shipped to chis country, carried to Hollidaysburg via a Penn­sylvania canal boat and then trans­ported to the mansion by ox cart. In addition to these and other of Baker’s outstanding furnishings, a fine collection of antiques from the entire county is also on display.

Unfortunately, as is the case with so many historically oriented organiza­tions today, the Blair County Histori­cal Society is struggling under financial restraints. In order to continue an active policy of preserving historic sites in the county and to continue operation of the museum, the society must secure operational funds. A much needed grant to paint and make repairs to the mansion has been re­ceived from the Pennsylvania Histori­cal and Museum Commission and has been matched by funds from local historical society supporters. This has helped to defray some of the expense of maintenance for the building but greater resources are necessary to con­tinue to provide widespread service to the public.

In order to meet th.is need, the society is developing new approaches. An important ingredient in the plan is w increase attendance at the museum and other places of historic interest in the county. At present, many of the mansion’s guests come from the local area but programs are being instituted and advertised in order to attract visitors from other regions. One such approach attempts to link together the historic sites and properties in U1e area such as the Baker Mansion, Fort Roberdeau (a Revolutionary War lead-­mining fort), the world-famous Horse­shoe Curve and other spots beyond those already mentioned. Short his­tories of these sites have been prepared to explain their historic significance and are given free to visitors. By reading the interpretive literature, browsing through the museum and traveling to these historic locations, visitors learn how the area developed from a dangerous, primitive, backwoods frontier to the center of a large, industrial railroading empire. By illustrating the connections be­tween these sites and the development of Blair County through the years, visitors who might otherwise not be drawn to the area to see any one particular attraction, may come to see what, in a sense, typifies the his­torical trends of the state as a whole.

As the Blair County Historical Society Museum, the mansion is open daily to the public (except Mondays), May 15 through October 15, from 1 to 4:30 P.M. with tours available. Throughout the summer months, week­ly concerts are also provided on Sun­day afternoons as part of the society’s regularly scheduled programs.

 

Sylva Emerson is Secretary of the Blair County Historical Society.