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.

Are any of our readers fans of Christmas in Connecticut, the romantic comedy starring Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, and Sydney Greenstreet released by Warner Brothers in 1945? As I try to slip into the proper frame of mind to write about winter on the Pennsylvania Trails of History,® I’m suddenly reminded of my favorite scene in that classic movie. A model of mid-century domesticity, Elizabeth Lane, played by Stanwyck, is writing a magazine column about her Connecticut farm shimmering in the falling snow, the “good cedar logs” crackling on the fire, and the enticing repast she’s prepared for her family – but she’s sitting in a small Hollywood version of a New York apartment, sans fireplace, and she can’t cook.

As the battleship-gray walls of my cozy cubicle reflect the harsh white light of overhead fluorescent fixtures, visions of snow-covered landscapes, evergreen boughs, and candlelit pathways dance in my head. Familiar buildings and fields take on a new look when they’re covered in snow, but it’s the people and programming that make the season special for me. Visit Pennsylvania Trails of History to learn what’s happening at your favorite historic site or museum. In the meantime, here are some highlights of the season.


Settling In for the Duration

Have you ever wondered how a living history site prepares for winter? I was curious about that as well, and so I spoke with Joe Schott, who oversees the Heirloom Seed Project and Farm Program atLandis Valley Village and Farm Museum in Lancaster County. Landis Valley is home to eight draft horses – three Belgians, one Clydesdale, and two fullbred and two cross-bred Percherons – eight sheep – mostly Tunis, but some Romneys – three head of American Lineback dairy cattle, and a flock of Dominique chickens. As you can probably guess, the important job in winter is to keep all animals safe, warm, dry, and well-fed. Heated troughs ensure a reliable supply of drinking water in the barn, and the animals forage in the pasture as long as weather permits, with hay as a supplement or substitute as the grass dies off. The horses, which require the most attention, also receive grain and are fed a little more fat during the winter months.

I asked Schott, who has worked at Landis Valley for ten years, what is the greatest challenge winter presents. Ice is the most dangerous. If the roads in the more than one hundred-acre compound are icy (or if the “real feel” temperature drops below 40° F and it’s raining), the horses stay in the barn, but if it’s only snowy, they can be let out to pasture or get their much-needed exercise pulling a bobsled instead of a wagon. Picturesque, yes, but also practical.

Other winter changes are evident in the fields and gardens. The first step, of course, is harvesting crops and putting up or drying the hay, grain, vegetables, and herbs, in addition to saving seeds for next year’s planting or to fill orders through the Heirloom Seed Project. Landis Valley’s Harvest Days in October celebrate the traditions and work of gathering the summer’s bounty and preparing it to last through the winter. After the harvest, the fields are covered with manure and plowed under, and oats are scattered as a cover crop if there’s any growing season left. A layer of manure is also spread on raised garden beds to keep the soil warm until early spring, when the annual cycle starts anew. The site’s Community Bonfire in December collects non-perishable foods for the Lancaster Food Bank to help folks who need assistance.

Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum is open all year, and visitors can see firsthand the seasonal changes.Pennsbury Manor in Bucks County and the Somerset Historical Center in Somerset County also offer opportunities to appreciate the change of seasons and the traditional skills required on the part of staff and volunteers each year.


History by Lantern Light

For more than thirty-five years, Lantern Tours of Ephrata Cloister in Lancaster County have been a popular winter tradition for many families in central Pennsylvania and beyond. Conducted during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day – this year Tuesday through Friday, December 27-30 – the program employs a dramatic format to explore stories from the unusual religious community’s past. Visitors traipse about the site, in and out of lantern-lit buildings, and encounter living history players enacting scenes related to the year’s overall story. This year, the theme is education at early Ephrata, including the teaching of music and fraktur to the celibate brothers and sisters, apprenticeships in the Print Shop, and Brother Obed’s school for local children. The script was developed by museum educator Michael S. Showalter who has been involved with the program for thirty-one years. Many of the dramatic roles are played by the Cloister’s Student Historians, junior and senior high school students who work with staff to present multiple tours each evening. Attendees who reserve in advance and pay admission for this program are also asked to make a donation to the Ephrata Area Social Services Fuel Assistance Program.

The historic buildings, the lantern lights, and the frosty wintry evenings create an unforgettable ambiance rarely experienced at a museum or historic site. Although it’s impossible to authentically re-create the past, it is possible to come away from the tour realizing a new understanding of the complexities of the people who made up the Ephrata community. Visit Ephrata’s website to learn more.


Another Way to See the Ship

From Lancaster County, we travel northwest to Erie for The Christmas Tree Ship program at Erie Maritime Museum and Flagship Niagara. The annual event is inspired by the true story of the three-masted schooner Rouse Simmons, which was carrying – as it had many times – a load of Christmas trees bound for Chicago when it disappeared in a violent storm on Lake Michigan in late November 1912. The remarkably intact wreck, with its cargo hold neatly stacked with trees, was discovered in 1971 by a scuba diver and has since been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

In addition to a reading of The Christmas Tree Ship, written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter, the festivities include lights on the rigging of the Niagara, holiday arts and crafts, and seasonal refreshments. The museum, partnered with the Sisters of Saint Joseph for this program, has collected and distributed more than forty decorated Christmas trees to local families in need during the holiday season. For this year’s event, attendees were asked to bring hats, scarves, mittens, or non-perishable food items.


The author thanks Joe Schott and Cindy Kirby-Reedy, Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, Michael S. Showalter, Ephrata Cloister, and Linda Bolla, Erie Maritime Museum and Flagship Niagara, for their assistance with this installment of Trailheads.


Amy Killpatrick Fox is a museum educator based in PHMC’s Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums, supporting education, interpretation, and communications efforts bureau-wide and at individual historic sites and museums along the Pennsylvania Trails of History. She writes an informative weekly blog entitled Trailheads.