Another Man’s Treasure: Digging Into Local History

In Search of Old Shamokin, February 2021 edition. Runs last Saturday of every month in the Weekender.

Eyeing that unexplained sinkhole or dip in your backyard? According to bottle-digger Garry Reigle of Shamokin, it could be the site of a long-gone outhouse–and a forgotten trove of local history.

Over the past twelve years, Reigle estimates he has excavated over 1000 sites in Shamokin and surrounding areas, often accompanied by fellow hobbyist Chuck Harris, in search of rare bottles discarded as trash by prior generations. For many of us, history is found in the comfort of libraries and museums, but Reigle isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, following his passion for the past underground, into backyards, town dumps, and yes–even into former privies.

Before the modern convenience of indoor plumbing began to be taken for granted, the outhouse was a common sight. Like anything else, however, its usefulness had a lifespan–about ten years, according to Reigle, after which the hole would be filled in with large amounts of trash gathered from the household and neighbors. The result? Dozens, even hundreds, of glass bottles of every shape, size, and use: milk, beer, liquor, furniture polish, cure-alls. But the finds aren’t just limited to bottles.

Continue reading

Home of History: Archival Research in the Northumberland County Courthouse

In Search of Old Shamokin, December 2020 edition. Find more local history in the Weekender the last Saturday of every month.

The digital age has reinvented the way researchers of all kinds obtain information. For historians and genealogists, digitized newspapers, vital records, and an immense variety of books can now be accessed from home, adding historical research to the ever-growing list of pursuits which have “gone virtual.” Even those studying a topic as specialized as local history or genealogy can conduct most of their research online. Sometimes, however, the romance of research in the field still beckons–and for historians of Greater Shamokin, that romance resides in the Northumberland County Courthouse in Sunbury.

The iconic 1865 Italianate courthouse structure, known to most as a familiar symbol of the county seat and a landmark in its own right, is also home to the county’s largest and oldest collection of original historical records. Almost every type of transaction recorded at the county level and disclosed to the public in the past two hundred years–whether a real estate sale, a last will and testament, or a lawsuit–is preserved in the Northumberland County Courthouse’s offices. While its most frequently accessed collections have been digitized for reasons of convenience and preservation, every record still exists in its original format–a bound book, a typewritten document, a will hastily scrawled in the original handwriting of its author. The courthouse is not a museum, nor a library, nor an online database–but for historians, it is something even better: a vast, raw quarry of information, as organic as an archaeological site.

Continue reading

In Search of Old Shamokin: Before Coal Was King

The following is the inaugural installment of my new column in the News-Item, In Search of Old Shamokin. Find it monthly in the Lifestyle section.

I started researching this fascinating topic while writing my short feature film, “Jesse’s Diamonds,” inspired by the story of Jesse Major, John C. Boyd, and the founding of Shamokin. The film is currently in the casting phase. Find out more here.

Before Coal Was King
Jesse Major, John Boyd, and the Origins of Shamokin

In 1824, a notorious outlaw pays down the paltry sum of twelve dollars for a tract of land which will one day become the center of a prosperous city. The outlaw is Jesse Major, who ultimately sells his land for two hundred thirty dollars and a horse to a land speculator named John C. Boyd. The city? Shamokin, Pennsylvania.

Continue reading

New exhibit coming to the Heritage Museum

Recently we featured the Kulp Memorial Church on this blog as one of the Shamokin area’s Great Buildings. Next weekend, Saturday, September 21, visitors to the Greater Shamokin Heritage Museum can view the contents of the Kulp church’s original cornerstone in a new exhibit.

Myself and Dave Shinskie of Kulpmont100 visit the Kulp church in August 2019.

The cornerstone was laid in 1912 and contained coins, a Bible and prayer book, and a number of rare issues of Shamokin newspapers including the Dispatch, Herald, and Daily News. Most of these will be on display during the September 21 event, which runs from 1:00 P.M. to 3:30 P.M.

The museum would like to extend special thanks to Kulpmont100 for lending the cornerstone contents to this exhibit.

In addition to the opening of the exhibit, there are several community activities and events also scheduled for September 21, including an AOAA ride, Shamokin Cemetery community cleanup, and the Edison Illuminating Walking Tour at 6:30 P.M.

A Crisis of Heritage

(The following is a guest commentary by yours truly which appeared in Thursday’s edition of the News-Item.)

Shamokin is in crisis.

It is a crisis which stems not from the issues of crime, poverty, or even blight—topics which have been exhaustively lamented, and remain constant and serious threats to our community. Behind these more familiar issues—and perhaps contributing to some of them—is a danger as deeply rooted and similarly destructive to the past, present and future of Shamokin. That crisis is the indifferent and reckless eradication of the city’s history, heritage and culture, one landmark at a time.

In an article of August 7, 2018, the News-Item announced the imminent demolition of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church located on Lincoln Street. The old-world charm of the chapel’s stone facade, together with its adjoining Tudor-style rectory, has been one of the most recognizable and distinctive examples of local architecture since 1891. Generations of worshippers have passed through its great oak doors. Sarah W. Kulp (1862-1931), the wife of Kulpmont founder Monroe H. Kulp, was one well-known parishioner. A stained glass window above the altar was commissioned in her memory over eighty years ago, and remains a central feature of the chapel today. In the 1970s, national attention was drawn to the Shamokin church after an image of Christ was said to have appeared on an altar cloth.

Now, citing structural issues the Church deems too costly to repair, the diocese has elected to desacralize Trinity Episcopal by the end of the year. Despite the fact that the structure is clearly not beyond saving—and undoubtedly at a far less substantial cost than the exaggerated repair estimates obtained thus far—it has been decreed that simply because it is considered unsuitable for regular public use in its current condition, this cornerstone of history must be razed to the ground in short order.

If this occurs, Trinity Episcopal will join the long list of landmarks wiped off the map in recent decades. The former Independence Street YMCA building, Edgewood Lake and the surrounding Edgewood Park, the Park Hotel, the McConnell Mansion, and the J.H. and C.K. Eagle Silk Mill together with its iconic clocktower are among the lost. Many historic structures, rather than being preserved and restored, were destroyed and replaced with projects deemed more worthwhile, such as the Victoria Theatre on Independence Street, razed in the 1990s and currently the location of a Rite-Aid. In the 1970s, the palatial Queen Anne residence known as Oaklawn, which stood on lands occupying an entire city block in Edgewood and was once the home of Trinity Episcopal’s own Sarah Kulp, was demolished to make way for a housing development.

Time and again, the powers that be have sacrificed heritage in the name of profit and convenience. Yet one has only to look around to recognize that for their efforts, Shamokin ultimately has been left with neither heritage, nor profit, nor convenience. The affliction in the city is not only economic, but spiritual. With each landmark lost, a part of the region’s identity is discarded. We are on the road to becoming a city of Rite-Aids and parking lots. As the soul of a community withers, it is little wonder that its citzenry and businesses take flight. While most communities take measures to safeguard the treasures of their past, we have repeatedly demonstrated by our actions and by our inaction that to Shamokinites, our history is not worth the gravel we pave over it.

As we so cavalierly dispose of our past, so should we prepare to dispose of our future.

The recent unveiling of a time capsule, secured in the cornerstone of the former YMCA and Masonic temple since 1901, comes at a timely moment to remind us that history should be protected and preserved. We look back in wonder at one bequest of a lost age, by a people who wanted to be remembered—just as we stand ready to obliterate another.

I urge my fellow citizens, whether in Shamokin or anywhere in the anthracite region, to take action before another chapter of history is erased with the impending destruction of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. This is an issue which, like our heritage, we cannot allow to be buried and forgotten. Instead, share it with neighbors, friends, parishioners, and city officials, and make it known that the destruction must stop now. Recently, an historic church in Kulpmont, the Church of the Ascension, was preserved and restored in a project led by Kulpmont100. Likewise, through a joint effort of our citizens, elected officials and community leaders, we have the ability—and the responsibility—to save Trinity Episcopal Church, and with it, an irreplaceable block in the foundation of our own community identity.


Red Cross again…?

This afternoon, passing the time before leaving for an appointment, I browsed through a copy of Greater Shamokin Centennial, published in 1964, the 100th anniversary of Shamokin’s incorporation as a borough. I first learned of the Red Cross connection (see posting of May 21) in this book, and today while browsing through that section, I came across a photo captioned: “Life Honorary Memberships being presented by area Red Cross.”

I’ve been through this book, cover to cover, before, but now I happened to study this particular photo more closely. Strangely, one of the men in the photo distinctly reminded me of M.H. Kulp, though the time period was much too late (I estimate 1960’s). There was no identification of the people in the photo, but I am thinking he may have been a relative. Even some of my family members say they notice a resemblance, and they don’t keep up with my research generally.

I’m still waiting for the Mount Carmel Red Cross to call back. Will have to ask about that honorary membership thing and see if I can find out the names of the people in the photo. A rather interesting development today.

Back from the festival

I have just returned from the festival, after arriving at about 9:45 as planned, heading home for a brief break, and returning for church tours. The cemetery tour, which lasted about an hour and a half, was first on my list, but, unfortunately, I forgot my camera so no photos were taken. In addition to brief mentions of various historical figures buried in the cemetery, a few of them were portrayed by reenactors. Those portrayed included Kimber Cleaver, Henry Reese, J.J. John, Alexander Caldwell, and Sarah W. Kulp. The reenactors, in their roles as prominent Shamokin citizens of the past, spoke in the first person in a conversational, and, I imagine, a partially ad-lib manner, about their lives, careers, and achievements.

Later, I paid a visit to the Trinity Episcopal Church on Lincoln Street, which was open for self-guided tours. The interior was exceedingly beautiful; the vestibule walls were of stone, and large doors led into the nave, which included a vaulted ceiling of magnificent dark wood. The walls, of a pale ivory color, were lined with stained glass windows, dedicated in memory of various prominent members of the parish.

The main window behind the altar, also of stained glass, is dedicated to the memory of Monroe H. and Sarah W. Kulp. Their names, as well as the dates that they were born and died, can be read on the lower panels of the window.

I brought my camera this time, and took three photos, featured below.

Left: A view of the church pews – Center: Toward altar – Right: Stained glass window in memory of M.H. and Sarah Kulp. (Due to the height of the window, I was unable to get close enough for a clear photo.)