Winter 2008

Volume XXXIV, Number 1


From the Editor
Michael J. O'Malley III

Executive Director's Letter
Barbara Franco


Out and About

Forty Fort Meeting House: The Architecture of a Union
Vance Packard

The exterior and interior appearance of the Forty Fort Meeting House, near Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, is nearly the same today as when it was built in 1807. The original white pine interior pews and elevated pulpit, designed by master cabinetmaker Gideon Underwood, have darkened naturally over time—a coat of paint or wood stain has never touched the wood, nor has it been necessary! Vance Packard's feature story, Forty Fort Meeting House: The Architecture of a Union, deftly traces its origins and history. The author leads up to its construction with a narrative about the bloody struggle between Connecticut and Pennsylvania settlers for control of the surrounding Wyoming Valley. The bitter land dispute for the northern tier of the Commonwealth resulted in the Yankee-Penn Amite Wars and the climatic 1778 Battle of Wyoming, known to students of history as the Wyoming Massacre. Joseph Hitchcock of New Haven, Connecticut, served as the building's architect, hence its New England character. Among its fascinating architectural details, the author notes the pulpit which towers above the pews of the congregation, unusually large windows, and the meeting house's remarkable symmetry. The union of two congregations allowed them to share the building while freely practicing religious customs according to their beliefs. Long after the original congregations departed, determined citizens have protected the building against industrial expansion, the devastating 1972 flood of Hurricane Agnes that ripped apart one-third of the adjoining cemetery, and, more recently, completed a successful Herculean effort to hold back the ravages of time.

An Activist Government in Harrisburg: Governor George H. Earle III and Pennsylvania's "Little New Deal"
Kenneth C. Wolensky

Pennsylvania's "Little New Deal" was misleading; there was nothing diminutive about the ambitious economic recovery and relief programs propelled by Governor George H. Earle III during the bleak years of the Great Depression. In our cover story, An Activist Government in Harrisburg: Governor George H. Earle III and Pennsylvania's "Little New Deal," by Ken Wolensky, describes the grim challenges facing Pennsylvanians in the wake of the Wall Street Crash of 1929: massive layoffs, rampant unemployment, mortgage foreclosures, and factory closings. Pennsylvania's industrial centers were especially hard hit as unemployment soared to nearly 40 percent. Earle was a staunch Republican - until Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the national stage. Inspired by FDR, Earle became a Democrat and contributed thirty-five thousand dollars—nearly a half-million dollars today - to Roosevelt's presidential campaign. After a narrow victory, Earle set the tone for his administration by advocating minimum wage laws, abolition of existing sweatshops, institution of worker compensation laws, and unemployment insurance. Staid state government had rarely encountered such radical reforms. Earle signed the act creating the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, providing jobs for 15,000 unemployed workers. Construction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike - touted as "America's First Superhighway" - was one of the largest public works project undertaken during the New Deal. Time magazine featured Earle on its cover of its July 5, 1937, edition, and the American Mercury declared him to be "the nation's Number One Carbon Copy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt." A Gallup Poll conducted in 1937 showed that Pennsylvania's governor was the third most popular Democrat in the nation. Many expected Governor Earle to succeed Roosevelt had FDR chosen not to seek a third term.

Our Documentary Heritage
Willis L. Shirk Jr.

From the Ashes at Boyertown - Safety Legislation for All
Mary Jane Schneider

Pennsylvania's most disastrous fire in history broke out on the evening of Monday, January 13, 1908, engulfing the Boyertown, Berks County, building housing the second-floor Rhoads Opera House. By dawn, residents confronted a tragedy of epic proportions: 170 people attending a historical play died in the conflagration and prompted headlines around the world. The World Almanac records the disaster as one of the five worst fires in the United States during the twentieth century. Mary Jane Schneider, author of two books devoted exclusively to the tragedy, recounts the story of that fateful evening in From the Ashes at Boyertown - Safety Legislation for All. The author offers a chilling look at the lack of safety measures which accounted for the astonishing loss of lives and provides a strong case for the most likely cause of the fire. Not one family in the small community of 2,500 residents was left untouched by the horror. Entire families attending a church-sponsored theatrical production perished together. If survivors did not have to face the loss of a child, parent, or other relative, they were confronted by seemingly endless funerals, empty school desks, missing co-workers, and the loss of best friends. The bodies of twenty-five persons were never identified and are buried in a common grave. Out of the ashes at Boyertown came landmark fire safety reforms passed by the General Assembly of Pennsylvania and signed into law by Governor Edwin S. Stuart on May 1, 1909. Two days later, the governor signed Act 233, which stipulated the need for proper exits, signage, fire escapes, fire extinguishers, and other safety measures, such as requiring that all doors to public venues must open outward.

Hands-On History: Bringing German Culture to Life at the Landis Valley Museum
Rebecca Halton

Along the Pennsylvania Trails of History

Pennsylvania Heritage Society Newsletter

PHMC Highlights


Wish You Were Here!

Marking Time: Norvelt

Sharing the Common Wealth

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