Commission Assumes Active Role

The Bicentennial Edition is a special issue of 14 features commemorating the American Revolution Bicentennial in Pennsylvania, published June 1976.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission exists to promote the Commonwealth’s historical and cultural heritage and to see that the public recognizes its own achievements. It was for these reasons that the Commonwealth created the agency.

The PHMC was born November 26, 1913, when Gov. John K. Tener appointed five members authorized by a law which he had signed in July.

As Nicholas noted, interest in Pennsylvania’s history began early, but the idea that government had any responsi­bility for preserving it was a matter of later and slower growth.

As a result of growing interest, a move developed to create a new statewide historical organization. On January 5, 1905, twenty-eight delegates from twelve societies met and formed the Pennsylvania Federation of Historical Societies. Members of this federation furnished the impetus necessary to achieve the Act of 1913, creating the Pennsylvania Historical Commission.

The legislature charged the first Commission to:

mark by proper monuments, tablets or markers, places or buildings, within this commonwealth where historical events have transpired, and …. arrange for the care and maintenance of such markers or monuments.

The Commission was also given discretionary authority to:

undertake within the means at its command, the preservation or restoration of ancient or historic public buildings, military works, or monuments con­nected with the history of Pennsylvania.

Later, the original act was amended to permit the Commission to:

publish and republish … matter of historical and archaeological interest … arrange for the compiling, editing, printing and distribution of historical reports and the fruits of research.

The Commission could also acquire and maintain historic properties as well as accept gifts to be deposited in the State Museum.

An administrative code of 1923 made the Commission one of the departmental administrative commissions under the Department of Public Instruction. This brought the Commission into closer association with the State Archives and the State Museum. Amendments to the code in 1927 and 1929 had the Superintendent of Public Instruction consult and cooperate with the Commission in developing the two historical agencies. Eventually, in 1945, the structure would bring the agencies together.

In April, 1932, the Pennsylvania Historical Association was born with the blessing and material aid of the Com­mission. The development was, in part, a result of the thrust toward promotion of the teaching of Pennsylvania history in the schools.

The General State Authority in Harrisburg and various agencies such as the WPA and NYA supplied money, man­agement and manpower for work on various historical pro­jects. WPA historical projects were sponsored by the Commission in almost every county with a million and a quarter dollars expended between 1935 and 1939.

Other changes included the organization of a series of Chapters of Junior Historians to interest thousands of school children in state and local history. The Commission’s quarters were enlarged by transferring its offices to the State Museum Building.

In 1945, legislation was enacted creating the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission as an independent agency reporting directly to the Governor. This merged the Historical Commission, the Archives and the State Museum. The Commission assumed new functions with emphasis in areas of the development and improvement of the State Archives, the State Museum, the new marker program and a new historical activities committee. The Commission also began to play a more significant role in the writing of history.

Today, the Commission has assumed additional responsi­bilities, with headquarters in its William Penn Memorial Museum Building in Harrisburg. It works hand-in-hand with local groups in the preservation and restoration of historic sites and other cultural property. Its various responsibilities include the administration of eight museums across the Commonwealth and forty-five historic sites and pro­perties. As a result of voter approval of legislation in 1963, the Department of Forest and Waters secured appropria­tions and money became available for purchase of historic sites for the Commission. In addition, under terms of the Act, funds were set aside to be paid out as “matching funds” to aid political subdivisions in acquiring lands for recreation, conservation and historical purposes. This new state-municipal partnership led to the preservation, at local and state levels, of additional historic property. The mo­mentum of historic preservation was further accelerated when the Commission was designated to cooperate with the federal government in the protection of historic places and to provide financial aid for historic preservation projects at local levels.

In the case of lands to be acquired by other State agencies, the PHMC is required to comment upon such proposed acquisitions before they are submitted to the State Planning Board, and any historical or archeological importance which may be attached to the sites must be noted and considered.

Other recent legislation enables the Commission to cer­tify as to the authenticity of districts proposed for “historical zoning” by county, city or local governments. In addition, all plans for Federal highways to be built wholly or in part with Federal funds must be submitted to the Commission for comment in order that wanton destruction of historical sites and buildings may be avoided.

The Bureau of Archives and History provides an on-going publications program, and the State Records Center fur­nishes an invaluable service in the storing of state records. The State Archives and Records Center is adjacent to the State Museum in the Capitol Complex.

In addition, the Commission continues to work with other historical agencies in the Commonwealth: staffing the Pennsylvania Federation of Historical Societies, cooperating with the Pennsylvania Historical Association and main­taining contact with schools in encouraging the chapters of Junior Historians throughout the state. Newer activities in­clude the development of an ethnic studies program, an oral history program and the publication of a quarterly magazine of popular interest.

Fourteen members serve on the Commission, including two Senators, two members of the House of Representa­tives and the Secretary of Education as an ex-officio mem­ber. The Commission members serve to guide the profes­sional staff in its task of making the citizens of the State aware of the variety and richness of their historical heritage.


Morton Homestead

Located at Intersection of Pa. 420 & I-95 in Prospect Park, Delaware County.

As an example of preservation and restoration, we note the historic site, administered by the PHMC, the Morton Home­stead.

The Morton Homestead, one of the PHMC properties is doubly significant, first for its architecture, and also for its association with the Morton family, prominent in colonial times.

Architecturally, the Homestead represents the type of dwelling the very earliest settlers in Pennsylvania built. Its oldest part is a Swedish-Finnish log cabin built in 1654. An adjacent building of similar design was constructed in 1698.

In the late 1790’s, the two buildings were connected by stone walls and the whole roofed over with clapboard, forming a second story. The last changes were made in 1835 as alterations to the upstairs room.

Morton Homestead was started by Morton Mortonson, a Swedish settler of 1654. The property remained for a long time in the hands of his descendants, the most note­worthy of whom was John Morton (1725-77), chairman of Pennsylvania’s delegation to the convention which adopted the Declaration of Independence and a signer of that document.


Editor’s Note: The historical information contained in this article is based on Roy F. Nichol’s publication, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission: A His­tory, published in 1967.