The Pennsylvania Lumber Museum celebrates the history of the state’s forest landscape. Located in Ulysses, Pennsylvania, outside Williamsport, on a 160-acre site between Coudersport—with its millionaires’ row lumber baron homes that testify to the wealth of the industry in its heyday— and Wellsboro, there’s a recreated turn-of-the 20th-century lumber mill and camp with a visitors center and themed exhibitions.
Pennsylvania was once 90 percent forested, covered in tall, straight white pine, eastern hemlock and hardwoods. The northern tier’s Black Forest was so named because it was all forest, even as late as 1900 when civilization began finding it. The region’s black cherry is still famous.
As settlers moved inland from the east coast the need for lumber grew, and even the state’s oldest-growth forests were timbered. Water-powered sawmills sprang up in the mountains. In particular, Williamsport became a boom-town for lumber and men there made fortunes as their workforce flooded north and west to clear virgin hills. Lumber towns with associated industries, like tanneries, spread throughout the region into the late 1800s.
But by the 1920s, the trees were gone, and the land deforested. The state bought thousands of acres from the lumber barons and began to reforest the landscape, giving rise to a new conservation movement, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and a successful system of state parks. Today, Pennsylvania’s woodlands are once again in demand, and lumbering practices ensure that the forest is properly managed.
The museum, 10 miles south of the New York state line, is operated by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum Associates (PALMA).
“I like it all,” Robert Miller, PALMA’s president, said about the museum and site. “There’s something interesting everywhere – the birch still, the sawmill, the Shay locomotive engine, the CCC logging cabin and camp that paints a picture of how loggers would have lived, and the old Model-T Ford we’ve refurbished as a model of what the first forester in this area (R. Lynn Emerick) used as a small pickup for hauling tools and to get around. Most were off at war, and he had five to seven counties to cover and couldn’t go on horseback or on train.”
PALMA, a 15-member board, continues to raise money and support the museum. It sponsors events like log rolling contests and the Bark Peelers’ Convention, a signature event that dates back to 1974 that is a historical celebration of the wood hick and the traditional logging activities of Pennsylvania. Held annually over the July 4th weekend, all funds are given back to the museum. PALMA, which has a membership of 500, gave $50,000 to a major year-long renovation and expansion project of the museum’s visitor center that was completed this spring. The museum, which has increased its size by a third, now includes expanded core subject galleries, new interpretive exhibitions and a multipurpose community meeting room.
The collections focus on both the history of the lumber industry in Pennsylvania and the use of the Commonwealth’s forests and the environmental impact of lumbering activities. Collections include photographs and research materials. The museum’s mission is to collect, preserve and interpret the history of Pennsylvania’s forests and forest industries and their role in cultural and economic growth.
Many late 19th and early 20th century logging towns are ghost towns, simply a vanished way of life, but the museum and its new exhibits give the industry’s history an entirely new life and capture the imagination. The extra space allows organizers to host more programs.
“Lives were changed by the work of these loggers,” Miller said. “It was hard, dangerous work that built this country. We all talk about the good old days, and these were the good old days, but they were tough days.”
Roots of museum
The museum was started in the early 1960s by the Penn-York Lumberman’s Club (http://www.pennyork.org), which is still in operation and continued as an active supporter for years. Initially, the club sponsored a major show – the Woodsmen’s Carnival (http://www.woodsmenshow.com) – in nearby Galeton. The carnival still annually attracts the world’s top lumberjack competitors, vendors and demonstrators for a weekend-long celebration of the lumbering industry. It’s now sponsored by the Galeton Rotary Club.
Working with the PHMC, the club started devoting a portion of its proceeds from the carnival to the purchase and restoration of artifacts and exhibition materials. Construction of the museum began in the late 1960s. The official grand opening was in 1972. The first phase of construction brought the visitors center and interior exhibitions. Subsequent developments added the logging camp, sawmill pond, locomotive buildings, picnic pavilion and original CCC chestnut cabin.
Charlie Fox, the state’s acting administrator for the site, said the Adirondack-style of the logging cabin and museum fits the history, landscape and story. “It’s an inviting building that’s more accessible to (the) public, and with more space to highlight the collection, artifacts and human side of the story,” he said of the expansion. “The industry is still alive and well, albeit much different, but alive and well. It all remains powerfully relevant today. Wood – timber – built this nation and still does, and demands for these resources are not going away. The need to manage them is also not going away.”
For industry professionals, the museum represents further opportunity to be part of a continuity that can be a grounding experience, while also instilling inspirational value drawn from the challenges conquered by the profession’s forebears. For everyone, it reminds us of what we’re capable of and links the industry’s past to its present.
“You get an understanding of how timber was used in our everyday lives, how it was harvested, processed and what comes out of it – building materials, desks, chairs, paper, pretty much everything we use in daily life is associated with wood,” Miller said. “The museum relays that – the birch oil used in medicines, a sawmill the way it was. Though it’s now all computerized, it gives a perspective on older loggers and their turn-of-the-century work. It was labor intensive, but today with modern machinery one person can do what it once took 10 men to do.”
For more, visit http://lumbermuseum.org.
Photos Courtesy of Pennsylvania Lumber Museum