Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

Joseph R. Winters J ( circa 1816-1916), a free African American born in the slave state of Virginia, moved in 1830, at the age of fourteen, to Chambersburg, Franklin County, where he eventually became well known as an entrepreneur, inventor, writer, songwriter, and outdoorsman. His most notable achievements were inventions, particularly a fire escape ladder and hose conductor (“hook and ladder”) which attached to a wagon, unfolding and folding in accordion-style.

For his inventions, Winters received five patents between 1878 and 1882 – three from England and two from the United States. The fire escape ladder came at a critical time when America’s communities were building up instead of out, and Winters’s ladder was able to reach higher floors. Although he owned the Winters Fire Apparatus Company, which manufactured the hook and ladders, he apparently profited little from his inventions.

There are strong indications that Winters was involved with the Underground Railroad in central Pennsylvania. He is said to have met on several occasions in Chambersburg with fanatical abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859), who often traveled in disguise. Researchers believe that it is possible Winters even set up the historic meeting between Brown and Frederick Douglass in August 1859, just two months before Brown led the infamous assault on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry Virginia. After a full and varied life, Winters was laid to rest at the age of one hundred in Chambersburg’s Mount Lebanon Cemetery.

A state historical marker erected by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission honoring Winters was dedicated in May 2005 at the Chambersburg Fire Department on North Second Street. Photographs of Winters, the ladder apparatus, and original patents were displayed. Uniformed volunteer firefighters and students from the U. L. Gordy and Thaddeus Stevens elementary schools and the Chambersburg Area Middle School participated. These stu­dents were part of the celebra­tion because of their involve­ment in researching Joseph Winters’s life, as part of the 21st Century Community Learning Center’s after-school program. James Wolfson, director of the learning center, stressed the im­portance of children studying local history.

“Education [is] about learning life’s lessons,” Wolfson said, “which can’t be done without exposure to history and other humanities. It’s about building pride in one’s community and in oneself. It’s about future leadership and contributions to society … And for the students here today, it’s an opportunity to take pride in the knowledge that they participated in the making of history.”

The students presented the Cham­bersburg Fire Department with their projects. Elementary school students constructed a paper ladder – each rung held a piece of information about Win­ters’s life. The middle school students created a brochure describing his life and inventions.

Researching their illustrious subject involved the young scholars with their community and their heritage. Through the marker ceremony, the students in­teracted with the fire fighters and community leaders to promote appreciation of local history and to honor a lifetime – and a century – of achievement.