The Mahantongo Heritage Center
at the Hermitage
The Mahantongo Heritage Center is the only museum dedicated to the folk culture of the Mahantongo Valley’s Pennsylvania German settlers.
It is located in the 1927 timber-frame barn rebuilt after a disastrous fire consumed the previous, second barn at this location. By that time the farm had been sold out of the Hepler family and was owned by the Chukuski family of Polish farmers. The original barn was log and was built by the property’s first settlers, the George Maurer family.
The Center consists of seventeen display areas featuring primarily locally-produced furniture, tools, crafts, clothing, photographs and music.
The objects have been gathered from a number of sources since the 1980s, including auctions, flea markets, other collectors and private donors. They show the creative inventiveness of primarily nineteenth-century furniture makers, potters, weavers, photographers, printers and other crafts and trades people. They also show the love and respect for the traditional culture by the valley’s resident families who trace their lineage to the Mahantongo’s earliest settlers.
The center showcases objects that have been passed down from generation to generation, a tradition that continues even today.
Many of the rooms contain similar types of commonly used, everyday items found in every household and on every farm. None of the collection can be considered unusual or fancy. Those items, the famed angel-decorated chests and bureaus, for example, were for the most part collected and taken from the valley decades ago to find their way into museums in New York, Philadelphia and other major centers. What we emphasize is by far the more common and relatively inexpensive items for daily use. Walking from room to room, one sees similar pieces - bureaus, bedsteads, chairs, tables, chests - begging the question “Just how many ways are there of making a chair?” for example. The answer is: “Practically unlimited!” Local furniture makers and other crafts people showed a nearly infinite gift for not repeating themselves in their objects. There may be a set of matching chairs, but almost never are any two sets exactly alike. The same is true for tables, chests, bedsteads, etc. This meant that every farm in the valley had its own, unique furniture examples while remaining within commonly recognized styles such as half-spindle, lyre-back and arrow-back chairs, for example, or between half-column and sleigh-front bureaus. What makes each room interesting are the differences between its furniture and those of adjacent rooms.
Local crafts people were also familiar with styles being made outside the valley, both in adjacent regions as well as in urban areas and and strove to offer the latest fashions to families who, even then, liked to keep up with their neighbors. They were also familiar with urban styles as seen in newspapers from Pottsville, Reading and larger cities further away, as well as magazines such as Godey’s Ladies’ Journal which was brought by train and mail wagon up from Philadelphia.
From the days of earliest settlement in the later decades of the eighteenth century, local crafts people competed with those outside the area. The first settlers usually brought at least some basic necessities with them, such as chests for storage, spinning wheels, iron tools, even window glass, salt, sugar and other provisions. The valley was never completely self-sufficient though its isolation and difficulty of access caused by the surrounding mountains certainly encouraged its people to be self-reliant. Even the advent of the canals and railroads beginning in the 1820s, 1830s and 1840s affected primarily those living closest to those transportation lines along the Susquehanna River. Those living at the upper end of the valley continued to receive much of their imported goods via horse-drawn wagon using the rough roads leading through it from Pottsville and Reading up to Sunbury.
Improved transportation such as the railroads and the advent of mass-produced, factory-made clothing, furniture, pottery and other items (which was well begun by the mid-nineteenth century) spelled the gradual demise of local production due to the inability of local craftspeople to match the lower prices of factory production.
The Mahantongo Heritage Center celebrates the unique, the individual, made by crafts people working in their own shop on their own farm or in one of the many small villages in the valley. As with any museum, all we can present is a snapshot of a time and place that was far more complex than any museum can possibly show.