Where time stands still
Bob Vybrenner, Tamaqua, and Mary Theresa Belusko, Eckley, volunteer in support of Eckley Miners Village, a living museum operated by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Eckley almost ceased to exist two years ago at the age of 155.
But just like the miners who defined the town's existence, Eckley has re-emerged.
It's a town that refuses to give up.
"It needs to be here," says George Keifer, part-time employee of Eckley Miners' Village. "It needs to remain because of everything it stands for."
Eckley is an anthracite coal mining patch town located in Luzerne County, just 20 miles north of Tamaqua, Jim Thorpe and Lehighton. Since 1970, it has been owned and operated as a museum by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Eckley speaks to the struggles and achievements of pioneer life like no other location.
That's because Eckley is no ordinary town. There is no gas station, no sidewalks, no convenience store, and no street lights. There is no police station or supermarket.
But Eckley has 100% of something no other town in Pennsylvania can proclaim - Eckley has pure 1800s authenticity. It's not a theme park. Eckley is the real deal. And people from far and wide travel to the small village to witness something they just won't find anyplace else.
"Where else could we possibly find anything like this," asks Janis Evans, Laurel, Maryland, as she and her family stroll the streets of Eckley on Saturday morning.
But cuts in state funding, layoffs, and dwindling revenue put the town on shaky ground, and Eckley has been slowly coming back ever since a state-issued news release in November, 2009, spelled doom: "Eckley will close for the winter and may reopen in spring."
At that critical time, Eckley's future was in jeopardy. In some ways, that threat remains. But today, the streets of Eckley project a sense of renewal.
"This is a whole new Eckley," confirms Bob Vybrenner of Tamaqua, president, Eckley Miners Village Association.
An outpouring of support from volunteers has kept Eckley alive. Volunteers have pulled out all stops to expand the site's offerings and generate enthusiasm.
"We have about 64 volunteers," says Vybrenner. "We're investing in the museum. We purchased a doctor's buggy, and a new sound system for the museum, and we're going to add an antique car show next year."
Those efforts come as good news to town residents, all of whom rent their homes from the Commonwealth. They say enjoy Eckley for its rustic ambience, by both day and night. When a town has no streetlights or external lighting, nature puts its best forward.
"I love it here. It's beautiful," says Mary Theresa Belusko. "You should've seen the full moon over the past few days."
For Belusko, Eckley is her permanent home and the home of her ancestors. She revels in the opportunity to walk the same steps as her forebears.
"I lived in West Hazleton, but my great aunt lived here in the next house," she says.
To help the town, Belusko volunteers at special events. For her hobby, she raises small chickens, or peeps, always a hit with visitors. "There are 22 of them. So we're going to have a peep show later," she says with a coy smile.
Another permanent resident says Eckley is a peaceful, pleasant place to live.
"It's the perfect place to retire, says blacksmith Brian Dunnigan. A re-enactor for over 20 years, Dunnigan is a member of the 81st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry and the United States Sharpshooters. The Sharpshooters pay homage to an 1860s group raised in response to a proposal by Hiram Berdan, a noted inventor and first class target shooter.
Dunnigan and Belusko assist the Eckley Players, the town's theater troupe that specializes in historical re-enactments.
Eckley is a cultural venue that hosts a full slate of special events, lectures, musical offerings and gatherings. The town has its own auditorium and interpretive center, but there is always room for additional enrichment.
"In July, we'll bring a whole museum into town from the Poconos," says Vybrenner.
In May, Eckley was the place to be in order to grab a glimpse of Victorian high society. A few hundred visitors packed the 1861 Sharpe House for a Victorian high fashion show featuring original garments of the era.
Among the elegant models were Kathy Chorba, Dalton, Margaret Messana, Clarks Summit, and Lesley Bommer, White Haven. The women are members of Queen Victoria's Court, an educational nonprofit group supporting worthwhile causes.
"It's nice to sep back in time," says Bommer, who explained that the women go to great lengths to discover and preserve Victorian fashion and finery.
Vybrenner says Eckley's future depends largely on its volunteer base, and new volunteers are urgently needed. He says volunteers can opt for any of a variety of interests, including gardening, crafts, the Eckley Players, or at the museum proper - whatever interests you.
"We attach new volunteers to a docent," he says.
Volunteers give guided tours of the preserved village, and some are stationed in exhibit buildings during special events. They also assist in preparing displays and explaining details to visitors.
Keifer says existing volunteers stepped forward two years ago when chips were down and manpower was cut due to layoffs.
"Everyone took on an extra role," Keifer explains.
Those interested can call the museum at (570) 636-2071 or Vybrenner at (570) 668-4916.