Bringing German Culture to Life at the Landis Valley Museum

Hands-On History features stories that focus on history in practice at museums and historic sites throughout Pennsylvania.

Not far from a paved Lancaster County road and the distant buzz of afternoon traffic, Pennsylvania’s centuries-old German culture is alive and well.

At the Landis Valley Museum on Kissel Hill Road, in Lancaster, one of the popular stops along the Pennsylvania Trails of History administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), members of the Pennsylvania Conservation Corps (PCC), working with volunteers and staff, don’t just know about the area’s rich German heritage—they live it. Daily.

Tourism is one of the Commonwealth’s two largest industries, and approximately 300 bus tours pass through the museum complex each year, in addition to the many school tours and seasonal visitors. Landis Valley Museum also celebrates Pennsylvania’s other leading industry — agriculture.

Just a quick stroll past the visitors center and a flock of sheep sleeping beneath a willow tree, down a windy, dirt path only wide enough to accommodate a horse-drawn wagon, visitors discover the crew’s log cabin and find themselves stepping back in time.

“I tell people, ‘From nine to five everyday, I’m a German housewife,’” PCC member Kori Huddock, 25, says as she sits on a wooden bench outside the crew’s log cabin, shucking yellow beans freshly picked from the farm’s garden, a plot that Huddock researched to ensure that even the produce planted there is what would have been grown by early German settlers. “I think of how many hundreds of women did this before me — and with fourteen kids at that,” she adds. “It’s the coolest job.”

For Huddock and fellow corps members and Lancaster County residents Brandon Bunting, 20, Kayla Pitts, 18, and Julian Rittenhouse, 20, the “coolest job” is helping to maintain the 100-acre museum complex’s farm in the same way, with the same tools — and even in the same style of clothing — as the land’s earliest German pioneers would have used more than two and a half centuries ago.

Julian Rittenhouse, who is a full-time student at Millersville University, points out the original settlers left some tough shoes that haven’t always been easy to fill — literally. “There wasn’t a right shoe and a left shoe,” he says as he adjusts his tri-corner hat and points to the black, brass-buckled replica shoes he wears, “as you wear them, they’re just supposed to mold to your feet.”

“It really makes me appreciate what we have today,” Huddock continues. “They did everything themselves. Things we use on a daily basis and don’t even think about, they didn’t even have, or had to make from scratch. You start to think about how hard things must have been for them, and how easy things can be for us.”

Throughout the year, visitors can see the five-person crew, including Doris Russ, PCC crew leader, mending fences that corral sheep, pigs, horses, oxen, turkeys, and other animals in the farm’s menagerie; chopping wood for the fire the crew uses to cook and stay warm; or undertaking a number of diverse tasks necessary to maintain the farm year-round. Crew members work without the luxuries of power tools and trips to the local home improvement store, all while replicating an authentic experience for the museum’s many visitors.

“One of the ways we could expand and maintain the [museum] experience was by working with the PCC through the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry [L&I],” Museum Educator Michael Emery says. “When we wanted to build a fence around the garden, L&I provided funding, materials, expertise for training, and the labor for a project that would have otherwise languished. In many ways, with the labor at hand, we can do more.” PHMC Executive Director Barbara Franco agrees. “The Pennsylvania Conservation Corps program at Landis Valley Museum,” she says, “provides young people with new job skills and provides substantial benefit to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.” Equally important is how the crew’s knowledge of the land and its early settlers brings yesterday’s cultural traditions to today’s generations of visitors, from students to seniors, and how PHMC’s management of this fascinating attraction affords these corps members such an unusual career experience. “The crew there has moved both the living history activities and the collection care program toward a higher standard of excellence,” Franco adds.

Guided by Russ and skilled artisan instructors, each member of the crew has found a particular niche on the farm. While Huddock can usually be found basket-weaving or harvesting fresh beans, ripe rhubarb, and plum-colored cabbage from the farm’s garden, Kayla Pitts enjoys taking those ingredients and adding them to made-from-scratch meals the crew shares for lunch, Pennsylvania German favorites such as homemade chicken pot pie. Rittenhouse is formidable with the farm’s plowing oxen, and Brandon Bunting is a blacksmith’s apprentice. Bunting is also the undisputed favorite of the farm’s apple-loving, one-and-a-half-horned, speckled cow named Sarah. On most days visitors can catch Sarah lazily chewing a mouthful of grass, trailing behind the twenty-year-old Bunting as he passes her paddock.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Pitts remarks about being able to work while receiving PCC financial assistance and attending GED classes at Intermediate Unit-13, located at Pennsylvania CareerLink Lancaster County. “I’ve never heard of a program where you could go to work, go to school, and get paid for both.” While qualified corps members like Pitts can receive financial assistance to fund continued education or pay off school loans, corps members earn a starting wage of $7.15 an hour, receive a 10 percent increase in pay after six months in the corps, and earn a $1,000 cash bonus after completing one year of service.

Huddock believes her time as a corps member at the Landis Valley Museum comes with other rewards, too. “It’s awesome to be part of preserving Pennsylvania’s German culture, and to add life to the museum,” she says.

Created by brothers Henry and George Landis in 1925, the museum preserves and replicates the culture of German settlers who searched for land and religious freedom in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The museum still captures that German culture, from the country’s largest collection of Pennsylvania German artifacts to the jars of strawberry-rhubarb jam softly glimmering in sunlight streaming through the windows of the Weathervane Museum Store. The museum’s highly acclaimed Heirloom Seed Project preserves and offers more than fifty varieties of seeds so future generations can grow their own Huberschmidt Ground Cherries, Munchen Bier Radishes, or Jenny Lind Melons, says Stephen S. Miller, site administrator. “The Heirloom Seed Project was created in the mid-1980s,” Miller explains, “to preserve and share seeds from heirloom varieties of vegetables, fruits, herbs, and ornamentals that had historical significance to Pennsylvania Germans from 1750 to 1940.”

“This place is an endless source of information,” Huddock comments, “I even learn a lot from the visitors, most of whom are history buffs.” For her, living the past is also about preparing for her future. Learning centuries-old vocational skills translates into modern-day career experiences that she will carry over to the part-time tour escort position awaiting her at the museum. “Public speaking is something a lot of people have a hard time with,” Huddock says. “When a tour comes in, visitors have no idea who works for the PCC, who works for the museum, or who’s a volunteer, so you just have to present yourself as the expert they’re counting on you to be. Public speaking and confidence are skills you can take to any office environment, along with the concept of teamwork.”

It is that sense of teamwork that helps the crew tackle larger tasks, such as thatching the roof of a gazebo, gathering pumpkins from the patch this past fall, and feeding animals under their care. For Huddock, who didn’t grow up on a farm, that means fulfilling her personal dream of raising chickens, as she is responsible for the flock of domestic fowl and its coop. “We all have to work together here,” she says, tossing an egg from hand to hand. “The setting is different from an office; but whether it’s a suit and tie or cap and petticoat, you have to work together for the common good.”

“If you can do this and be in front of the public, you can add to any job you get,” says Russ of how corps members benefit from working with the public and tailoring their presentations to tour groups that visit the museum each year. “With tourism on the rise, knowledge of less common trades is increasingly valuable,” she adds, a woven basket slung over her shoulder. “You can make a career out of what you learn here.” Emery concurs. “This crew is unique by undertaking historical interpretation,” he says, “and they prove that the younger generation does care.” At the Landis Valley Museum, caring about Pennsylvania’s history and the future of its youth is no thing of the past.

 

Pennsylvania Conservation Corps

The Pennsylvania Conservation Corps (PCC) and the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) are markedly similar. Established in 1933 as a work relief program for young men, the CCC was designed to combat poverty and unemployment caused by the Great Depression. The CCC, assigned to the federal Department of Labor for oversight, emerged as one of the most popular New Deal programs in the country, employing more than two-and-a-half million workers during its nine-year run. Pennsylvania recruited the second highest number of CCC workers in the nation and claimed the second highest number of work camps in the country. The CCC ended in 1942, but became a model for state agencies thirty years later.

Since its inception in 1984, the Pennsylvania Conservation Corps, administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, has enrolled more than fourteen thousand members. The PCC members have earned valuable vocational experience in trades, among them carpentry, construction, and masonry, while earning educational credits and competitive wages, and preserving the Keystone State’s historic buildings and structures and beautifying its public land. The PCC has worked on more than twelve hundred projects in urban, rural, and suburban areas throughout the Commonwealth. Although the corps is more often associated with construction work and manual labor than with living history programs and cultural preservation, the breadth of historical knowledge the crew at Landis Valley Museum now possesses makes it different from its counterparts.

 

The editor thanks Stephen S. Miller, site administrator, Landis Valley Museum, for his review of this installment of Hands-On History prior to publication.

 

Rebecca Halton recently joined the Office of the Governor as communications manager. She discovered the unique connection between the Pennsylvania Conservation Corps and the Commonwealth’s history and heritage while serving as a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. Passionate about photography, she especially enjoyed capturing the PCC crew as they worked at the Landis Valley Museum. After living in many states and countries as the daughter of a United States Marine, she is proud to call Harrisburg home. The author dedicates this article – her first with a byline – to her uncle, Mike Halton.