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

Mention the word “apprentice” and many Americans will undoubtedly think of the wildly popular reality television series, The Apprentice, starring none other than The Donald — billionaire real estate developer, business executive, entrepreneur, and author Donald Trump. In Pennsylvania, an innovative partnership between the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) and the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, Lancaster, is redefining the word by offering exciting hands-on experiences for fledgling artisans.

Growing up in Lancaster, Justin Bellone always had an interest in woodworking and was intrigued by traditional style carpentry. His father is a carpenter, and the younger Bellone was exposed to woodworking at an early age, often helping in his father’s wood shop. When Bellone, a cabinet-making student at the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, had the opportunity to participate in a preservation trades apprenticeship with the PHMC, he was eager to apply.

Bellone and classmate Jarred Geist spent the summer of 2006 making timber frame repairs, wood epoxy repairs, and wood Dutchman repairs, as well as installing roof tile and wooden shingles. They also crafted historically accurate reproduction furniture for several of the Keystone State’s most unusual and important historic buildings. They learned how to make side-lapped wood roofing shingles from oak logs by hand. Master craftsmen taught them how to apply barn-dash stucco and whitewash over stone masonry. The apprentices spent a great deal of time learning various techniques using traditional hand-tools.

“The best part was building a table for Landis Valley Museum,” Bellone says. “We had to hand-plane all of the boards.”

Bellone also possesses a keen interest in historic buildings, which made the apprenticeship program an even more exciting and rewarding experience. “Historic sites are valued and well-kept and I wanted to play a big part in that and would like to continue [in that line of work],” he says.

Like Bellone, Jarred Geist is extremely interested in historic structures, and the apprenticeship made it possible for him to learn new skills using hand tools. “I learned patience, hand tool skills, and team work,” says Geist, whose work in school involved individual projects. Geist is interested in continuing to work on historic buildings as he moves into a career beyond college. He grew up in Hegins, Schuylkill County, and worked on his family’s farm and as a flooring installer before enrolling at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology.

The college was established by Act 429, signed into law by Governor Samuel W. Pennypacker on May 11, 1905, “making an appropriation for the erection of a home or school for indigent orphans to be called the Thaddeus Stevens Industrial and Reform School of Pennsylvania.” Upon his death in 1868, Stevens — a politician, staunch advocate of educational reform, and a philanthropist — left a bequest that evolved to what is today Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. For a number of years, stu- dents and alumni knew the institution as Thaddeus Stevens Trade School. Today, the college offers two-year technical programs leading to associate degrees in architectural technology, cabinetmaking and wood technology, carpentry, masonry construction technology, and metals fabrication, among others.

“This was the first year that the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission offered apprenticeships for students in the building trades,” notes Barry A. Loveland, chief of its Division of Architecture and Preservation. “We are now mapping out next year’s program and are hoping to make it larger and better. We plan to include special educational and training components to enable the apprentices to gain even more knowledge and background in what historic preservation means, how we work to preserve historic building materials, and the traditional techniques that were used to create historic buildings.” The innovative program is supported by a grant from the PHMC’s Bureau for Historic Preservation.

“The goal is to find motivated young people, get them excited about reviving and practicing the traditional trade skills and preservation of these wonderful historic structures, and nurturing their careers so that we can raise the overall level of skill in this growing sector of the building construction industry,” says Loveland.

James Houston, a preservation construction specialist based at the PHMC’s Daniel Boone Homestead, Birdsboro, Berks County, supervised and taught the apprentices. “Too much of construction today is installing parts — you install manufactured windows, siding, and shingles. No one knows how to make anything anymore,” he explains. Houston adds that an important component of his approach to preservation is sustaining knowledge of traditional trade skills.

Houston, who specializes in preservation carpentry but also works in preservation masonry, painting and other skills, enjoyed working with the apprentices because they were willing to learn and worked hard. He took the apprentices to many of the historic sites and museums along the PHMC’s Pennsylvania Trail of History. In addition to the Daniel Boone Homestead, Bellone and Geist traveled to Landis Valley Museum and Ephrata Cloister, Lancaster County, Graeme Park, Montgomery County, and Washington Crossing Historic Park, Bucks County, to work on various projects, as well as to observe preservation projects in progress.


The editor thanks Barry A. Loveland for his contributions to this installment of Hands-On History.