Historical Society of York County

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

On a crisp winter’s eve in March 1895, a group of fifty-two men gathered for a meeting in the parlor of the Colonial Hotel in downtown York. Concerned over the need to preserve the heritage of their county, these men resolved to form the Histor­ical Society of York County. Their purpose was “to collect and preserve documents, books, records, portraits, views, and relics pertaining to the history of York County and ocher sections of southern Pennsylvania.”

In January 1900, the society estab­lished its first museum on the third floor of the York County Courthouse in York. In 1937, the society with its museum moved into a beautiful three­-story Italianate-style mansion at 225 East Market Street. Known locally as the “Charles Billmeyer House,” this exquisite Victorian mansion remained home for the society and its collection until 1959 when once again, responding to the need for more room, it crossed the street to its present location at 250 East Market Street. It is now housed in a remodeled auto showroom, an early example of adaptive reuse.

The society’s library consists of over 17,000 volumes and includes manuscripts, photographic archives, business records, tax lists, newspaper files and histories of more than 1,000 families. This library has been hailed as one of the finest county-level geneal­ogical collections outside of the New England area.

In 1966, the society merged with Historic York County, Inc., a local preservation organization, which brought to the society three historic sites listed in the National Register – the Golden Plough Tavern (1741); the General Horatio Gates House (1751); and the Barnett Bobb Log House (1812). All three properties are furnished with period artifacts to reflect the life style and culture of early York. In 1967, the society acquired the Horace Bonham House ( 1840s) which is furnished with a cross-section of period artifacts to reflect an affluent life style of the 1880s to 1900s in York.

Since its inception, the society has maintained an active policy of collec­tion, preservation and interpretation of artifacts and documents. Among the more outstanding examples from the society’s collections are: The Lewis Miller Collection of folk drawings and sketches depicting life in nineteenth-century rural America, one of the choicest folk art treasures in the country; the magnificent Titus Geesey Collection of eighteenth-century furniture and nineteenth-century toys; plus a fine collection of Pennsylvania rural­-painted furniture. The museum’s transportation exhibit includes a Conestoga Wagon in addition to its rare examples of locally-made automobiles. A part of its permanent exhibit consists of a full­-size reproduction of an 1830 street of shops in York.

The society’s changing exhibitions program has received wide critical acclaim. Among some of the more recent exhibits have been: “The World of Lewis Miller,” “The Regional Aspects of American Folk Pottery,” “The Pennsylvania German Influence,” “The Philadelphia Chair: 1685-1785,” “Quilts – Piecing America’s Past” and “Flights of Fancy – Birds and the Decorative Arts.” In addition, the society has participated in numerous loan exhibitions with museums and historical societies throughout the eastern United States. During the Bicentennial, it participated in the prestigious “1776” exhibit in Eng­land and the United States Informa­tion Agency’s Bicentennial exhibit in Moscow.

An offshoot of the museum’s ex­hibitions has been an equally active publications program. These publica­tions have presented serious scholarly research on historical and cultural topics. The most recent publication, The Philadelphia Chair: 1685-1785, represents a major contribution to re­search in a significant area of Ameri­can decorative arts.

One of the society’s most active and exciting programs is conducted by its Education Department. Staffed by a full-time Curator of Education and supported by a corp of dedicated volunteer docents, this key depart­ment provides a wide range of educa­tional programs. The society’s activities fall into two categories: (1) Planning­ – this ranges from individual staff-teacher consultation on curriculum develop­ment through district-wide teacher in­service training programs on museum use; and (2) Programs – this includes docent-conducted tours for school children and the casual visitor, as well as specialized tours for the handicap­ped, “Touch-tours” for the blind, sign language tours for the deaf and foreign language tours.

The Education Department’s Out­reach Programs consist of a variety of materials aimed at schools and com­munity organizations. These range from pre- and post-visit activities pack­ets for use in conjunction with mu­seum tours, to a selection of slide-tape lectures, plus traveling suitcase exhibits and classroom visitations by staff and docents. In addition, the society spon­sors a lecture and film series, and an active travel program, plus eighteenth­- and nineteenth-century craft classes for members and the general public.

Another major educational program of the society is a six-week Museum Intern Program for college students. Jointly sponsored with York College of Pennsylvania, this special program is designed to provide both practical and theoretical experience for students contemplating museum-related careers. Students attend lectures by staff and visiting museum professionals, visit a cross-section of museums and historic sites, and complete both an individual and group project. In its seventh year, this program has provided a valuable first step for many students on the road to careers in the museum profes­sion.

Throughout its history, the Histori­cal Society of York County has ex­hibited a pattern of continued growth and development marked by a constant striving to adhere to the highest stan­dards of quality and professionalism in all facets of its operations. The society is proud that its programs and activities have received recognition on both the national and the state level. In the past, the society has been the recipient of Awards of Merit from both the American Association for State and Local History and the Pennsylvania Federation of Historical Societies. In 1972, the society’s museum and four historic houses underwent a review by the American Association of Museums which resulted in the award of Certifi­cates of Accreditation to all four properties.

All involved with the society feel that an exciting future lies ahead: a future that will be marked by the con­tinuation of a successful formula – the close partnership of a trained professional staff with an involved group of dedicated volunteers coupled with a determination to make the Historical Society of York County one of Penn­sylvania’s finest county-level historical agencies.


The Historical Society of York County’s museum and historic proper­ties are located on Market Street in downtown York. They are open to visitors Monday through Saturday, 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. and Sunday, 1:00 to 5:00 P.M. For more informa­tion call the society at (717) 848-1587 or write the Historical Society of York County, 250 East Market Street, York 17403.


Douglas C. Dolan is the Executive Director of the Historical Society of York County.