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200 years of heritage

  • An early view of the Schuylkill County Courthouse.
    An early view of the Schuylkill County Courthouse.
Published February 18. 2011 05:00PM

Schuylkill County is the story of diversity.

From its towns, to its people, and to the gears that drive its economy, Schuylkill County exhibits a divergence of approaches - something as evident now as during its founding exactly 200 years ago.

The county was created on March 1, 1811, from parts of Berks and Northampton counties and named for the Schuylkill River.

Part of what makes the county special is that its growth wasn't defined by the dominance of one central community. Instead, a multitude of towns emerged, dotting the landscape like individual seeds of growth. Communities were established at mine heads, key river ports and railroad junctions.

Orwigsburg was the first county seat, later moved to Pottsville. But the community with the largest population at the county's peak was Shenandoah, with 30,000.

Each of the communities developed independently, often times in competition with one another in terms of coal production, transportation, and general economy.

While agriculture, railroad and other industries emerged, it was coal that spawned county growth.

The uniquess of each of those industries and communities is spotlighted at the annual Schuylkill County History Faire, now in its 11th year.

The event is sponsored by the Schuylkill County Association of Historical Societies and Museums, representing over two dozen entities. The groups gather once a year at the Fairlane Village Mall in Norwegian Township, reserving the second Saturday in February as their meeting date.

"We have sixteen organizations here today," said Jennifer Bowen, president, Orwigsburg Historical Society, and organizer of the gathering.

Valerie Mcdonald, president, Shenandoah Historical Society, displayed Shenandoah-area artifacts, such as the 1800s official stamp of the St. Nicholas Society of St. Michael's Ukrainian Catholic Church, and a collection of genealogical volumes of Shenandoah families.

"People are really into genealogy," she said. "Each one was donated to the Society.

The Girardville Historical Society was represented by Edna Labie, Rosalie Kuzma Thomasine Moran and Bruce Mervine.

The four responded to questions about the town's claims to fame, including the Molly Maguires saga and the legacy of town founder Stephen Girard, a Philadelphia philanthropist who died December 26, 1831, as the wealthiest man in America.

The Cressona Historical Society display was in the capable hands of President Jane Ferrier, 90, who spoke of the town's prominence as a railroad center and mining town.

"The majority of the men worked at the railroad," she said. "The Schuylkill County Fair started in Cressona about 1924." The town has a population of about 500 and a small corps of volunteers who devote themselves to preserving the richness of Cressona history.

Not all of the exhibitors were town historical societies.

The Schuylkill County Agricultural Museum, near Summit Station, preserves the farming heritage of the county. The Museum's collection includes vintage dairy equipment, butchering tools, tractors, hit-and-miss engines, an authentic Conestoga wagon, buggies and sleighs, an operating sawmill and other rare artifacts.

President Charlie Heim and guide Arlin Kramer were on hand to describe the early days of agriculture and how some of the equipment was used. One of the most attention-getting items was an early, foot pumped vacuum cleaner invented in the days before electricity.

"It was bought at an auction. There is a hose missing from it. But someone would stand here and do the pumping," said Kramer, demonstrating the odd-looking contraption.

Some of the exhibits were privately owned.

For instance, Richard J. Nagle was on hand to showcase his 30-year collection of all things Schuylkill Haven.

"My collection is a cross-section of fraternal group items, business items, school history and other things," he said.

Nagle also hosts a website, The site is filled with information about the town and 1,100 articles, stories and nearly 800 photos about the town, its people, history and events. The site was created January 1, 2007, and has received over 94,000 views.

Nagle's collection represents his own nonprofit venture not affiliated with any organization or historical society.

A passer-by stopped at Nagle's display and said the artifacts brought back memories.

"My mom and dad worked at Ethel Maid," said Melissa Strauch, Schuylkill Haven, spotting an old milk carrier. "And I shopped here at Messner & Hess. It was a five and ten cent store," she added, examining the many novelties on display.

Janet Keich, Tamaqua, stopped by to see if she could uncover information about the Tamaqua Rosebuds baseball team.

"My father was a pitcher on that team," she said. "My dad was born in 1900," said Keich, noting that she'd also be interested in finding information about the teams the Tamaqua Rosebuds played against.

The Tamaqua Historical Society, always a popular attraction at the History Faire, was unable to participate in this year's event due to illness among its corps of volunteers.

The annual Schuylkill County History Faire is presented free to the public.

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