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History comes alive in streets of Boalsburg

photo by Julia Sinn

A statue of Emma Hunter, Sophie Keller and Elizabeth Myers overlooks the Boalsburg Cemetery, where the women first laid flowers on the graves of soldiers fallen in the Civil War.

by Norah Shipman

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a three-story series to commemorate Boalsburg’s bicentennial in October.

Christopher Lee begins the tour of the Boal Mansion in a narrow hallway covered with tan and yellow wallpaper. This wallpaper, Lee says, was originally hung upside down, but the current wallpaper is a copy and is hung correctly.

Family paintings from the nine generations of Boals line both walls, and Lee explains the significance of each Boal depicted in the portraits. From Captain David Boal Sr., who fought in the Revolutionary War; to David Boal Jr., who opened the famous Boal Tavern, around which the town was built; to George Boal, who was part of the movement for education and a founding president of the Centre County Agricultural Society, the Boal family has made a place for itself in the history of not just Boalsburg, but the United States.

“The story of the Boal family is a story of America, an emerging nation,” says Lee, a Boalsburg resident and the museum CEO.

The Boal Mansion is located in Boalsburg, which will celebrate its 200th birthday in October.

“There is a keen sense of history in Boalsburg because there is so much history, and because the history is so representative of America,” Lee said.

The history of Boalsburg began in 1804 with the Boal Tavern, located on “the king’s highway, the highway to the west,” said Boalsburg resident Debbie Simpson. The village grew up around the tavern because it was such a popular route.

On Oct. 9, 1808, Andrew Stroup finished the first map of Boalsburg, originally called Springfield because of the large spring to the east. The first lots were sold in May of the following year. In 1820, the post office was officially established, and the town was renamed Boalsburg after the second David Boal, owner of the Boal Tavern.

Bypassed by the post–Civil War railroad boom, Boalsburg avoided much of the rapid growth associated with railroad towns, but with the rise of Penn State University came expansion.

The structure of the town, which is the same today as it was two centuries ago, is very important to Boalsburg’s sense of community, Lee said.

“Geography lends itself to community,” he said. “The shape of the community lends itself to how that community comes together.”

Boalsburg was developed around a central square, used both for markets and for horses and wagons to turn around. The houses along the streets are close to the sidewalks, allowing residents to sit on their porches and chat up passersby. The town’s design, known as “traditional neighborhood design,” combined with the current trend in housing development, allows for a mixture of residential and commercial.

Simpson said she likes Boalsburg’s design because everything is within walking distance.

“Well, you know the nice thing about living here, I would say, is everything’s just right here,” Simpson said. “You’ve got Duffy’s (Tavern) here; you have a place to eat. The bank’s down there. The post office is over there. Specialty shops … It’s just so easy.”

Boalsburg is also said to be the birthplace of Memorial Day.

As the story goes, in 1864, Emma Hunter and Sophie Keller went to the cemetery to lay flowers on the grave of Hunter’s father, a doctor during the Civil War. Along the way to the cemetery, they met Elizabeth Myers, who was going to lay flowers on the grave of her son killed in the Battle of Gettysburg.

They went together and decided that the following year they would meet again to place flowers on the graves of all those who died in the Civil War. They told their friends of the plan and Memorial Day was born. Today there is a statue in the cemetery commemorating the three women.

Lee said the sense of community and the history of Boalsburg are connected through its celebration of Memorial Day.

“A township of 4,500 people welcomes 25,000 people in one day, celebrates its history, honors those who have put us where we are now and comes together in the present as a community,” Lee said.

The sense of community, Simpson said, makes Boalsburg an ideal place to live.

“When I was in grade school, I’d read a book called Mack and Muff,” Simpson said. “And there was always a family and a little white picket fence and a yard. And the daddy would come home and the kids and the family would go eat. And that’s what this seems like to people.”

Lee continues the tour of the Boal Mansion, going first into the parlor, where the family formally greeted visitors, then to the more comfortable living room, and then finally to what Lee calls “the most interesting room in central Pennsylvania.” This is where visitors see, among other things, pictures with signatures of past presidents, a lock of Napoleon’s hair and a signed photo of the first landing on the moon.

This is also where visitors learn about the family’s connection with Christopher Columbus, wrought through the marriage of Col. Theodore Davis Boal and Mathilde de Lagarde, a direct relative of Columbus.

De Lagarde inherited the Columbus Chapel, which was shipped to the United States and placed across the yard from the Boal Mansion. The chapel contains a desk used by Christopher Columbus himself, which, Lee said, is the strongest connection to Christopher Columbus in America.

All of this originates from a small pioneer family in a rural town in Pennsylvania.

“If you learn one lesson from the Boal family story, the lesson is that you shape the culture that you’ve lived in,” Lee said. “If you don’t like the way things are now, change it. Things are what you say they are.”

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