Lancaster County Historical Society

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

The Lancaster County Historical Society was established in l 886 as a salvageable remnant of The Historical, Agricultural and Mechanics Society be­gun in 1857. From its beginning, the society met monthly to hear and dis­cuss research papers by the community’s literati. Every paper was in turn published, owing to the fact that the editors of the two major daily news­papers were officers of the society. To date, eighty-five volumes constituting an eight-foot shelf of books have been printed. With Lancaster hosting Frank­lin and Marshall College, Millersville State College and the Theological Sem­inary of the German Reformed Church, the community can boast some of the finest scholarship on the German En­lightenment. Scholars from these insti­tutions, in fact, laid the foundations of the historical society and set in motion the primary purpose from which the society has not deviated in 96 years.

In addition to fostering educational publications, the society does have a small museum of local relics and arti­facts, including several remarkable col­lections. Among these are portraits by Jacob Eichholtz and other fine and decorative arts and frakturs. Many of its finest pieces are on exhibit in the Heritage Center Museum in Lancaster.

The primary function of the society has always been educational. Accord­ingly, its library and archives are the focal point of its activities. Research, resources for research and publica­tions are its major contributions to historiography, genealogy and commu­nity education. Its library, with a fully-professional staff of three, as­sisted by many dedicated volunteers, serves everyone from school students to doctoral candidates. In addition to its vast genealogical holdings, the library and archives house more than 20,000, volumes, 380 cubic feet of rec­ords and manuscript materials, early county court and government records, tax assessment records from 1729 to 1940 and bound volumes of Lancaster newspapers from 1787 to 1936 with more recent issues on microfilm. The Jasper Yeates Law Library, containing 1,043 volumes of seventeenth and eighteenth century law books and re­ports, is also located in the library.

In 1901 the society was incorpor­ated, and a few years later its officers led the way in the formation of the Pennsylvania Federation of Historical Societies, Inc. (Today, the society’s president is the first vice president of that federation.) A home of its own was acquired in 1924, but the hand­some albeit brick and timber construc­tion of the early nineteenth century building limited its capabilities. Pre­cious documents and manuscripts had to be sent out of the area to modern fire-resistant libraries, a loss to local researchers. In order to meet expand­ing needs and to overcome these limi­tations, the society, under the vigorous leadership of Dr. George L. Heiges, erected a fine brick, concrete and steel building in 1956 on a large tract adja­cent to Wheatland, the preserved home of President James Buchanan. The handsome Georgian-style building, fi­nanced wholly by bequests of George B. Willson and his cousin Mary Rettew, is surrounded by the Louise Arnold Tanger Arboretum.

Monthly meetings of the society regularly attract 100 to 130 persons, including many teenagers and young adults. In all, the society has approxi­mately 1,500 members, of which near­ly 100 are junior members. Recog­nizing that the future of the society lies with the involvement of its younger members, the organization has actively encouraged the participation of its youth in all aspects of societal activi­ties with some filling seats on the Board of Trustees. Further, the Stu­dent Historians of Pennsylvania has its headquarters at the society, which is also proud to sponsor a chapter of the statewide historian group under the advisorship of Vice President Donald Crownover, Director of Youth Activi­ties.

Long ago, without losing its com­mitment to quality leadership, the society changed its image from a group of elderly conservators of the “Good Old Days” to an association in which membership and activity is extended to every age, educational level and position in life.


John W. W. Loose is president of the Lancaster County Historical Society.