Genealogical and Historical Society of Somerset County

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

Since the founding of the Histori­cal and Genealogical Society of Somerset County in 1959, members have worked together diligently in presenting historically-oriented pro­grams and in developing a wide range of genealogical resources.

During the past twenty-one years, history and genealogy have shared equal time in the society’s activities. Since 1960, this balance has been ably maintained in the society’s quarterly publication, the “Laurel Messenger,” which presents a variety of interesting historical features and is a valuable research aid for local and distant genealogists.

The focal point for society activity is the Somerset Historical Center, a regional museum administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. The museum interprets the theme, “Life beyond the Moun­tain Barrier,” through a permanent exhibit of domestic tools and artifacts from the period prior to 1840. Histori­cal structures at the center, including a furnished 1804 log house, a covered bridge indigenous to the area and a fully equipped maple sugar camp, are an integral part of the interpretive program which has been evolving since the museum’s opening in 1970.

As the associate group for the his­torical center, the society contributes in many ways to the success of this regional facility. The center’s extensive library of historical and genealogical resources is the product of years of researching, collecting and cataloging by society members; in genealogy alone, materials on over 1,000 families fill shelves and filing cabinets. Outside the museum, the society has planted shade and flowering ornamental trees in accordance with a long-range land­scape plan. A memorial tree planting ceremony is held each May when new trees are dedicated as living memorials to past residents of the area.

Because one of the major purposes of the society is to provide educational opportunities for students of all ages to learn about Somerset County his­tory, members of the society designed a course, “Teaching Living History in the Classroom,” which they success­fully present to area teachers in co­operation with Intermediate Unit 8. This popular course has helped teachers develop new methods and activities for teaching local history in the classroom, thereby benefiting students through­out the county.

School tours at the Somerset His­torical Center are another part of the society’s attention to education. Each year hundreds of students from Somerset and surrounding counties come to the center and actively participate in “hands on” experiences in spinning, weaving, wool dyeing and candle dipping. Students learn about log house construction, early lighting, fire-making and methods which the settlers used in obtaining, preparing and preserving their food. School tours are adapted to the varying curricula of area schools, and every effort is made to provide useful and exciting experi­ences for students visiting the center.

Throughout the year, members of the society are involved with prepara­tions for Mountain Craft Days, an edu­cational event which attracts more than 30,000 visitors to the Somerset Historical Center grounds each Sep­tember. Over 100 craftspeople in peri­od costume demonstrate such crafts as coopering, railsplitting, charcoal making, broommaking and printing. Ham potpie, apple butter, fastnachts and other regional foods are served in a wooded setting; traditional music, group dancing and a military pageant add to this colorful festival, which has developed steadily through ten years of cooperative effort between the society and the community.

In a newly constructed building on society property adjacent to the his­torical center grounds, the society has collected artifacts which represent distinct periods in the history of Somerset County. Because the build­ing is spacious, large items such as conestoga wagons, sleighs and farm implements have been accommodated and preserved. Plans for the future in­clude simulation of a general store in one section of the building for the display of period clothing and early household items which have been donated by area residents.

The society also sponsors tours to historic sites in other counties, holds two public meetings annually and sup­ports an energetic chapter of Student Historians who work on weekends at the center as tour guides and as genealogical research assistants in the library. In 1980, the society published ‘Mongst the Hills of Somerset, a collec­tion of family, church, business and topical historical sketches; and cur­rently, members are involved with a public education program in historic preservation which is underway in selected sites throughout the county.

Well-defined programs and annual events are products of the enthusiastic effort with which the society has grown. Today, with the experience of twenty-one active years, the Historical and Genealogical Society has come of age as a productive and vital force in Somerset County.

 

Elizabeth M. Haupt is director of the Somerset Historical Center.