Skip to Content

Preserving Boalsburg’s past no easy task

by Norah Shipman


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


With its museums, old homes and Memorial Day celebration, Boalsburg is well-known for its history. But far less is known about the work that goes on behind the scenes to preserve that history and share it with the public. So Voices talked to some of the people responsible for ensuring the future of Boalsburg’s past.


Earl Kesler, president of the Boalsburg Heritage Museum, has helped with elementary school tours at the museum for years. In the spring, local schools bring their students, usually between second and fifth grade, to the house-turned-museum to teach them about life before modern conveniences such as electricity and in-door plumbing.


One time when I was stationed here, I showed them about lighting the kerosene lamps,” he said. “Children don’t know about this. I would invite them to blow it out, and they found that that’s not too easy.”


The Pennsylvania Military Museum also offers tours to students. Joseph Horvath, museum educator, said they have developed a number of educational modules that cover conflicts from the Spanish-American War through the Vietnam War.


We don’t discuss battles. It’s not a blood-and-guts deal,” he said. “We talk about the conflict in the context of what’s happening in the world, what’s happening in Pennsylvania at that time, how the commonwealth mobilizes for war with the conflict, a very brief history of the conflict, and inventions and innovations that came out of the conflict.”


When Boalsburg Elementary School students come for their annual visit, they do a “reconnaissance mission” that helps them see how history can be fun, Horvath said. Students are given a list of 12 questions they must answer, with the stipulation that they cannot use pens and pencils. They divide into teams, with each student assigned a question and answer to memorize.


They learn to like history rather than learning like, ‘Oh, God, numbers and dates again!’ We want to make it fun, because history can be a ball,” Horvath said.


Karen Schuckman helps to preserve the town’s history by maintaining her historic home. She bought her house last year and completed a three-month renovation project before moving in last September. She said she loves her old house and wants to preserve its dignity and integrity by maintaining the original architecture.


I like the uniqueness of an older house. I like the sense that the house has a life of its own, seeing things in the past. It just has more character,” she said.


But Schuckman admitted that she did have to make a few changes to accommodate her modern lifestyle.


I like all the ambiance of an older house, but I definitely like modern conveniences,” she said. “But I guess I just try to keep the feel by still using natural materials and keeping things that had a more classic design to them.”


Dick Bailey echoed the importance of maintaining Boalsburg’s historic homes as they were first built.


We don’t change anything,” he said of his home. “We had a new kitchen put in, and we wouldn’t let them change a window or anything. You just build around what was there.”


Bailey, who is only the second person to own his house, said that he much prefers living in an older home.


It has so much more character than a new house, you know? And you always have something nice to look at. These new houses are so stark, I mean they don’t have doors from one room to the other, and (older houses) have so much more woodwork and everything,” he said.


Preserving history, however, comes at a price.


Though the Heritage Museum receives some funding from Harris Township, it doesn’t have enough money to pay staffers, instead relying on volunteers.


Our volunteers are limited, so we’re only able to have the place open Tuesdays and Saturdays in the afternoon,” Kesler said.


To raise money, museum volunteers sell soup on Memorial Day and hold an annual open house. They do not charge admission, though there is a basket for donations.


Our funds have never been very adequate, but enough that we’ve done fairly well,” Kesler said. “We usually just have about enough for turnover, for maintenance.”


The Boal Mansion Museum, said CEO Chris Lee, “gets by on a shoestring,” with two full-time employees—himself and the groundskeeper—and volunteers. The museum, which charges admission to supplement its $80,000 annual budget, is currently $40,000 in debt because of rewiring that cost $150,000.


Every penny generated by the site goes back into the site,” Lee said. “I’ve also just learned from an operational point of view to get by with less.”


Lee said he often has to make the tough decision of cutting some budgetary items to make room for others. The most tragic example of this was in 1991, when he was deciding whether to invest in a security system.


I priced out a security system. It cost $8,000, and we didn’t have the money. In 1993, the chapel was burglarized, and a 1615 painting, a Spanish-Italian painting, 4 feet by 6 feet, was stolen. We now have a security system,” he said.


The Pennsylvania Military Museum, on the other hand, is funded by the state, so it does not have the money problems associated with the other museums in town.


Restoring her home cost Schuckman nearly $100,000, but she thinks it will pay off in the end by increasing the house’s value.


All of the time and money that go into preserving Boalsburg’s history is worth it, Kesler said.


It’s a unique village. There’s a good deal of community pride in this village,” he said. “I think it’s important to the community and to the individuals as well to have some touch of the past.”

Dr. Radut | page