Trailheads presents information and details about the exhibits, events and programs hosted by the historic sites and museums on PHMC's Pennsylvania Trails of History.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, it’s natural to look back on the work undertaken by PHMC staff through the years. As an agency, PHMC has helped to shape the history profession and Pennsylvania’s landscape through a wide range of preservation projects at Pennsylvania Trails of History sites, as well as through its role as the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). Recent issues of this magazine have highlighted major historic preservation efforts on the Trails of History at Eckley Miners’ Village (Spring 2016), Old Economy Village (Winter 2016) and Pennsbury Manor (Fall 2014).


A New Approach to Preservation

PHMC is directly responsible for several hundred structures around the commonwealth, most of which are at least 100 years old. At the end of the 20th century, staff of the Division of Architecture and Preservation (DAP) began looking for better ways to address the tremendous needs for maintenance and repair on the Trails of History. As division chief Barry Loveland noted in an article for the Association for Preservation Technology in 2002 (APT Bulletin, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1), funding for the agency’s preservation needs had increased in the early 1990s with the establishment of the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund. While a good problem to have, the increased workload of design projects required additional personnel. PHMC added some staff and also contracted with outside firms, using “a very flexible and useful approach to have a one-stop shop for a wide variety of services for every imaginable specialty relating to the preservation of historic resources.”

Staff and contractors now included individuals with academic training in architecture and historic preservation as well as those “who had acquired skills and knowledge by working with materials and techniques on the construction and preservation of buildings.” With this new mix of professionals, Loveland (who recently retired from PHMC) and his staff began to look at a new approach to their work. Their goal was to create an inclusive process for planning and managing historic preservation projects that incorporated both types of expertise at the outset.

Others in the preservation field were also exploring the relationship between design professionals and preservation tradespeople. By 1997 the Preservation Trades Network had been formed. DAP staff were instrumental in this development and have continued to play an active role in the organization and as presenters at the annual International Preservation Trades Workshop.

PHMC staff has pursued additional avenues to ensure that there continues to be a supply of people with preservation construction skills. For example, in 2006 DAP and SHPO staff began working with faculty at the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster to develop a curriculum that mixed a theoretical and historical grounding in preservation with instruction in carpentry or masonry. Each summer, DAP hosts several preservation trades apprentices at PHMC and other sites, providing real-world experience caring for historic buildings under the supervision of skilled mentors.


Preserving Knowledge and Skills As Well As Buildings

PHMC’s impact on the preservation of Pennsylvania’s tangible heritage along the Trails of History (and beyond) can be seen in a wide array of other projects, programs and activities. Extensive archaeological investigations at Pennsbury Manor and Ephrata Cloister, for example, helped to confirm the locations of structures no longer standing. At Pennsbury, William Penn’s manor house was reconstructed. At Ephrata, locations have been marked or interpretive exhibit panels installed to share information about significant buildings from the site’s early history. Excavations at Ephrata also raised questions that continue to intrigue those who work to reconcile the historical record with evidence from the ground. The investigations at Ephrata and a recent project at Eckley Miners’ Village have been conducted as part of an archaeological field school, furthering the training and expertise of the professionals who will help us learn more in the future.

Artifacts, buildings and landscapes from the past are at the core of historic sites and the programs and interpretation presented to the visiting public. They provide links to people who lived and worked at these sites and help visitors find connections through tangible remains, a necessary first step to exploring how life in the past was the same as and different from our own time. Another key to fostering historical understanding is the preservation of knowledge and skills; these are often embodied in artifacts and buildings but require additional study and research to help recreate the day-to-day experiences of our ancestors. The field of living history interpretation has become increasingly focused on researching, practicing and teaching knowledge and skills that people a century ago would have taken for granted.

At PHMC’s Trails of History sites and museums, the preservation of knowledge and skills takes many forms. Staff and volunteers demonstrate open-hearth cooking, blacksmithing and textile arts during special programs or as part of seasonal offerings. Even a short demonstration, however, represents hours of research, practice and experimentation. Open-hearth cooks, for example, work from recipes appropriate to the period of their site interpretation. Depending on the period, these can be notoriously vague, assuming vast amounts of knowledge that modern demonstrators learn through trial and error. Pennsbury Manor has developed a beer-brewing program by experimenting with techniques known to brewers in the 17th century but not so common today. Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum’s interpretation of Pennsylvania German life in Lancaster County from the 1750s to the early 1900s includes heritage livestock breeds and its well-known Heirloom Seed Project, programs that have taken years of research and development to bring to their current level of expertise.

In addition to presenting programs for casual visitors, many of PHMC’s historic sites also offer opportunities for living historians and members of the general public to learn new skills. Offerings range from short workshops to multiday immersion classes – such as the annual School of Coopering at Somerset Historical Center – that provide participants first exposure to past techniques or the chance to gain more advanced training. At a number of sites, class participants have become highly skilled demonstrators and teachers themselves, fulfilling the goal of making sure that historical knowledge is sustained and given new life.


Amy Kilpatrick Fox is a museum educator in PHMC’s Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums. She writes a weekly blog also called Trailheads.