There’s a clear message at the Pennsylvania Forest Fire Museum in Caledonia State Park in Fayetteville, Pa.: Forest conservation is important.

“It’s our duty to help protect forests, and it’s important on farms too,” says Peter Linehan, vice president of the Pennsylvania Forest Fire Museum Association, the organization responsible for opening the Forest Heritage and Discovery Center in 2011 in the park. “Farms have woods, and forests are used for windbreaks, and if there’s a fire and it’s not stopped, a fire could damage an entire farm.”

The museum fittingly celebrates the forestry story, as well as the evolution of forest management, and focuses on the pioneers of forestry in Pennsylvania. The goal is to preserve and showcase Pennsylvania’s heritage of forest fire protection, but also the more significant story of the state’s pioneers in forest stewardship.

“We’re doing pretty well now,” Linehan says. “We have more forest now than we had 100 years ago, though we still have our challenges.”

Pennsylvania once had some 200 fire towers made of steel or wood, but none are standing today.

Typical museum visitors are in the midst of camping or hiking at the state park, but Linehan, for one, has brought students there. A Maine native with a doctorate in forestry, Linehan moved to Pennsylvania for a teaching job at Penn State Mont Alto in the forest technology program, a two-year associate degree track that currently has 40 students enrolled. About half land jobs when they graduate, either with the state system or in tree care in the private sector. The rest continue at Penn State’s main campus to work toward a bachelor’s degree. The school is about 10 miles from the museum.

Forestry takes root

It was the early 1900s when forestry – the concept that trees and wood growth should be managed in sustainable ways – took root. Prior to that, lumber companies ravaged forests, basically taking what they wanted and from where they wanted without much forethought. The onslaught was so severe that entire mountainsides – vast growths of untouched timber – were leveled. Parts of the state became known as the “Pennsylvania desert.” Before that, it was thought that a squirrel could make its way from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia without ever touching the ground.

“There was much foresting, too much, and fires after forests were cut and burned down as part of the harvesting operations,” Linehan explains. “It was easier to burn down what brush was left. Early timber harvesting took no account of sustainability or reforestation. Forest fires were frequent. It was more like mining.”

Even to start a hunt – Pennsylvania is a big state for hunting – it was common practice to start a fire to drive deer or other wildlife out. Those fires also caused damage, and no one was brought to trial. “It took many years to change the prevailing point of view,” Linehan says. “Everyone just thought that the forest would go on forever. Few thought of the need to grow forest and conserve it.”

There weren’t schools where someone with an interest could go to study forestry. Forest management wasn’t yet a profession. However, there was an intense period of logging, the likes of which will never happen again. One has to understand the past to anticipate the future in woodlot work.

For those in the industry – tree farmers, loggers and woodlot managers – Linehan says the museum offers an opportunity to gain some perspective on past efforts and to understand “how we got to where we are, and the need to keep up with conservation. People harvest wood for fuel, or they grow to harvest timber, so it’s important for them, even for farmers for whom deer are a problem. They need to strike a balance between providing habitat and clearing open fields.”

From the end of the Civil War to the turn of the 20th century, Pennsylvania turned the nation’s largest cash crop in timber. The forests were an asset, and loggers came for the asset and nearly decimated it.

The ruins that remained were prime for fire, and in 1915 alone, 341,000 acres of Pennsylvania forest burned. In 1923, a record 375,000 acres of forest in the state burned, according to the association.

“Some come through and say they didn’t know anything about the fires, or that they thought that Pennsylvania always had forest, and they don’t know that 100 years ago, we’d cut much of it down. They think it was always old growth, but it was a struggle to bring back the forest. Now they think all the forest fires are out west, but we had them here too,” Linehan adds.

The pioneers spark a new fire

The movement to protect the remaining forest assets first began with men like Joseph T. Rothrock, first president of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association (founded in 1886) and the first to publicly promote the need to conserve forests. He also founded the Pennsylvania State Forestry Academy in 1903, which became part of Penn State University in 1929.

Rothrock traveled, spoke and wrote a report for the state in 1895 that basically said that the forest was being lost. With his work, laws were passed that allowed the state to begin buying large tracts of forestland that would become state forestland and the raw material for the state forestry system, which today is one of the best in the nation, along with Pennsylvania’s highly regarded park system.

There was also George Wirt, Pennsylvania’s first state forester, and women like Mira Dock, who simply wanted to preserve forestland for public recreation and enjoyment and who really started the parks system. They were the pioneers, folks who began promoting the idea of woodlands conservation, schools to train foresters, the creation of nurseries to replenish and restore with replanting, and the development of a better way to suppress forest fires. The museum’s wall displays now feature these “fathers and mothers” of forest conservation, Linehan says.

Over time, Pennsylvania became a model state, one still heralded in some regard as the birthplace of forestry – that’s what the museum celebrates, and it’s the mission of the Pennsylvania Forest Fire Museum Association. The Discovery Center is fittingly located in the state’s oldest surviving Civilian Conservation Corps building.

There were high hopes of leasing some land and building a museum, but fundraising hasn’t been easy. In the meantime, the state park built a new park office, and its previous location, a 1930s stone and wood-frame building that’s about the size of a small house (1,500 to 1,600 square feet), was to be torn down. However, the building still stands and is now leased by the association.

A world of artifacts

Artifacts include tools used to fight fires in the earliest days, like brooms and wooden and metal rakes, often donations from the railroad, which had its own fire problems with the sparks generated by locomotives. There are water cans, old saws and safety equipment. As a repository for all things forest and fire, the association and museum arrived in the nick of time to keep some of these tools, many misunderstood or unidentifiable, from extinction.

The evolution of fighting forest fires is clear in photos from the collection and in videos, from men carrying water by hand or on mules to today’s use of helicopters and even bombers.

The museum also has a Smokey Bear room. “The museum helps to educate people, and children especially,” Linehan says. “Those who come out to the park and participate can spark their interest. For those children, Smokey Bear remains a really good symbol.”

One room focuses on fire towers. Pennsylvania once had some 200 towers made of steel or wood, but none are standing today. People stationed at the fire towers used an alidade – a circular tabletop with a topographical map and a compass-like pointer for taking bearing – to determine the location of a fire. Once pinpointed, they would descend from the tower, spread the word on horseback, and find a telephone to call for help.

At the museum, a mannequin stands dressed in the uniform of a forest firefighter, and fire blankets are also on display. Many items are donated, some from the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry and others that were once part of collections from retired servicemen. One gave a fire truck, a pickup with fire tanks and a pump.

At this time, there aren’t specific displays on logging or timbering-focused content, but they’re obvious choices when it’s time to expand beyond the “saving-growing message,” Linehan says.

Plans are to eventually relocate and expand the museum on 20-plus acres of state forest near Mont Alto. The association hopes to re-erect seven fire towers, representing each type that had been in use.

“There are plans, but I think we’ll be here for a while,” Linehan says.