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Writer/historian honored by museum

  • AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Louise Gilbert (daughter), left, David Gilbert (husband), join Joan Gilbert as she receives plaque presented by Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center membership chair Bill Allison and president John Drury.
    AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Louise Gilbert (daughter), left, David Gilbert (husband), join Joan Gilbert as she receives plaque presented by Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center membership chair Bill Allison and president John Drury.
Published October 19. 2011 05:02PM

Writer/historian Joan Gilbert was honored at a celebration at the Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center in Jim Thorpe on Friday, Oct. 14.

In 1993, Ms. Gilbert was invited by John Drury to join a small team tasked with creating a museum focusing on the history of Jim Thorpe, formerly Mauch Chunk. As a writer, Gilbert would compose the text for the Mauch Chunk Museum original exhibits and for the video introducing visitors to the museum.

Drury conceived of the Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center as "an attraction to help bring people to see the remarkable history of the town that I have fallen in love with."

In the museum's fledgling days, Gilbert and Laura Thomas were key players in creating the museum. Thomas passed away.

In the nearly 20 years since the museum opened, it has seen 80,000 guests pass through the exhibits that Gilbert annotated and organized.

Gilbert, a native of England, met her husband David during World War II, and returned with him to the United States after the war. After completing bachelor's and master's degrees, she operated a literary agency and helped at a playwriting theater.

After Joan and David moved to a farmhouse in Mahoning Valley, she met John Drury. "I owe my fun to John Drury," Gilbert said in a halted voice. "He gave me a job at his nonexistent museum and set me on the path to whatever I did in local history."

Gilbert explained about her difficulty in speaking, "I apologize for my voice-the result of asthma medication. Medicines either kill or cure you. Mine did both."

She described John Drury as, "an idea man and an adventurer, someone who loves to rehabilitate every dilapidated 19th century building he comes across," she noted. "That has been great for Jim Thorpe. I know that because I saw the transition. This transformed church that became the museum, the Inn at Jim Thorpe, and now the Kemmerer Coach House have all benefitted from John's touch."

"When I worked in the museum, we looked forward to Saturday staff meetings. They always concluded with an adventure. We never knew where we would end up-at another museum, a historic site, someone's collection of artifacts, a house basement to see a reconstruction project in progress, or on the canal bank to see a canal boat rescued from a watery grave."

Gilbert and Drury partnered on two books for Arcadia Press' Image of America series: Jim Thorpe (Mauch Chunk) and Jim Thorpe in the 20th Century (PA). She went on to write two additional books, a work of fiction, Mule Boy, and a Gateway to the Coalfields-the Upper Grand Section of the Lehigh Canal.

Mule Boy and Gateway were the result of Gilbert's research with Richard Arner, a former canal worker turned construction engineer, canal historian, and preservationist. "He filled me with so much information that I felt obliged to put this down in Mule Boy-with a fictional overlay on the Lehigh and Delaware Canals."

"I went on a journey with Arner on the Upper Division of the Lehigh Canal which was scary, unforgettable, and inspirational," Gilbert said. "It was responsible for my second book."

"Arner, who was approaching 90 at the time (Gilbert is now 85 years old), drove my husband and me along the disused and partially washed out Quakake from Weatherly to PennHaven Junction. We were relieved when a ranger let use the tow path to exit at Rockport."

With additional help from canal historians Wouter de Nie and Clarence Hendricks, and from archives from the National Canal Museum provided by Lance Metz, Gilbert produced Gateways-the only book to detail the Upper Division of the Lehigh Navigation.

Gilbert's current book, An American Victorian Town (Mauch Chunk), follows the development of Jim Thorpe from 1818 to present day and compares it to what was going on in England during that period. The book is currently in negotiations with a publisher.

The plaque given to Gilbert was inscribed, "In appreciation of Joan Gilbert who developed the core exhibit at the Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center and whose scholarly writings more than any other writer has brought public awareness to the rich history of Mauch Chunk/Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania."

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