Friday, April 25, 2014


Recently I was asked to co-author an article on the Historical Marker Program of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum, for whom I worked as director of the marker program in the 1990s. The article will appear in an upcoming issue of Pennsylvania Heritage© magazine. (If you follow this link, note the photo of Pennsylvania German potter Lester Breininger on the cover to the extreme left. An interview with Lester was my first article for Heritage.)

The marker program was begun in 1914, just a year after the then Pennsylvania Historical Commission was created. Of course, 2014 is the 100th anniversary of this significant and popular program.

The first markers were big ol' bronze plaques attached -- usually -- to bigger ol' rocks and other heavy stuff. These bronze plaques attempted to mark the sites of important events in the early life of the Commonwealth.They were often found set back a bit from the road, so you had to stop to read them.

The marker shown in the photo was recently moved to a "more historically accurate" position. A newspaper reports that it was dedicated in 1924, is more than eight feet tall, and weighs a mere five tons or so.

Personally, I feel something was lost by moving this to make it "more accessible to the public." Something that has stood in place since 1924 now has a history of its own. A new marker could have been created for the "heritage center" in the photo.

As roads got better and cars faster, the bronze plaques fell out of favor, and in September 1946 the first of a new style marker was dedicated along US 22 in East Hanover Twp., near Grantville, Dauphin County, within view of the Lebanon County line. The text reads: The earliest resolves for independence in the State. Drawn June 4, 1774, by Col. Timothy Green and eight Hanover Township patriots. They committed their cause to "Heaven and our Rifles."

Take a look at an earlier photo of the marker to see if you can find the error, based on the text above. Because the error was never corrected, I suspect this is the original plate. If it was ever replaced, the text would have had to be re-set, so wouldn't it have been corrected? Nowadays the year the marker is made is included in the lower right-hand corner of the plate.

This photo was taken at the dedication of the marker. That's future governor James Duff to the left. Do you think he was the only one to show up?

This was the new "history on a stick" style, with an aluminum plate containing the text on both sides so that it could be read from either direction, mounted on a steel post. These posts have evolved over the years into aluminum posts, which is safer if a vehicle strikes it.
When speaking with my co-author Karen, the present program director, I recalled that I had not seen that first marker in place when I passed by recently. (Ask my wife what I say each time we pass it: "There's the very first historical marker of its kind ever installed." "Yes, dear.") I asked if it were down for cleaning and painting, perhaps in anticipation of our article, which will feature a photo of the dedication of this new-style marker. The answer was, "No, I thought it was standing." (So many of the more than 2,500 markers are "missing" at any one time that it's impossible to know the count. They often turn up, but sometimes they are lost forever.)

After our meeting, I determined to go out to the site of the marker, which commemorates the "Hanover Resolves," to see what was up. As I approached, I saw that the post and two-thirds of a broken frame were still standing. Upon closer inspection, I found the text plate lying on the ground. It was there long enough to just about have killed the grass beneath it.

Here's what I found upon arriving at the marker site.
Using my enormous strength, I lugged the marker over to the car, determined to save it from the first mowing of the lawn (there's an office building just beyond the marker, so you know they will hire someone with a heavy mower). 

I hoisted it into the Box, where it fit perfectly.

I returned to the marker site, a few yards away, to see if I could find the piece of the frame that had broken off. Unfortunately, I could not find it.

The marker certainly made an impression on the lawn!
The next day I reported that I was in possession of the plate and would hold on to it until a contractor came to pick it up, clean it, and paint it.

All this work made me thirsty. Can you tell where I stopped for a diet soda?

So, how do you think this marker ended up on the ground? When I last saw it, it was leaning east (see below), and I bet it was hit by a ton of snow from one of PennDOT's plows. 

This photo was taken last year.
How that problem will ever be solved I do not know. I am pretty sure PennDOT would love to take them all down and return them to the marker office in one big pile.That'd fix the problem, right?

Here's one suggestion. Hire guys like the one below, balancing the marker on his head. This "human pole" can just step aside with the marker when a snow plow approaches. What do you think?

From the Internet.

You can see how the markers are made, although ours are made by a Pennsylvania company in Erie.

Sunday, April 6, 2014


Can you stand one more entry catering to my like for houses? If you can't, click up in the right hand corner of your screen. If you can, then read on. I promise you I will move on to other topics.

Together, dear reader, we visited Harrisburg's Bellevue Park late last month. You will recall it was one of the first planned communities in central Pennsylvania, laid out in the teens and 20s by the famous printer, horticulturist, and civic beautification leader J. Horace McFarland.

I've decided finally to read a biography of McFarland, "A Thorn for Beauty" by Ernest Morrison. It was published in 1995 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

I see from a bookmark that I have read the first fifty pages, but I can't recall a thing, so I will start over.

Here's a plan of the development circa 1910. The information in the lower right corner states, "Black smoke, billboards, public stables, public garages, [and] the sale of intoxicants are prohibited." Wait, no intoxicants? In that case, I wouldn't want to live there, anyway!

One house in my earlier entry on Bellevue Park was this one --

-- which had been trimmed back to this.

It is soon to be for sale when renovations are complete.

Well, I called Tom (this sign told me to) to see what it was all about. He was very nice and answered all my questions. He said he or his wife would show the house any time. In describing the house, he said there were four bedrooms! I asked how that was possible, as the house appears to be so small.

He told me that the lower level of the house is hidden from the street. It is there that you will find the kitchen and living areas. The upper floor, at street level, is the bedroom area. When you walk in the front door, which you see in the photo, you are on the second floor. An attractive banister enclosed a stairwell to the lower level.

Tom invited me to walk around and peek in the windows, so I did just that. The slope is pretty steep so I hung onto the railing and descended to the heart of the house. There is no yard to speak of, just a hill covered with growth. There is nothing to mow but the little flat lawn out front.

The lot slopes down to the road and a man-made pond beyond.

You can see that there is more house here than first meets the eye.
This small but attractive flagstone patio would make a dandy screened-in porch.

The French doors enter into the living area. I like the double screen doors. In a new house, this would most likely be a sliding glass door with a sliding screen.

 I looked like one of the coneheads when I peeked into the new kitchen.

I suppose your guests would have to park out front and walk down to the living level. I appreciated the no-step blacktop path beside the steps.

So there's the mystery of the Upside Down House. Give Tom a call if you want buy it!

Before we leave Bellevue Park, let's see a few other houses.

This 1940s ranch house is quite appealing. For sale.

I like the Dutch Colonial roof line. Think "Amityville Horror."
This typical 40s suburban home is for sale.

Another attractive stone and frame Cape Cod.

A grand house on an imposing site.
A small house with tile roof.

Well, there you have it. Enough houses to hold you until I see the next one that I just have to have!

Saturday, April 5, 2014


The first Saturday in April we drove to a small town in Berks County called Robesonia. You've read other posts about our trips there to the famous Porch Sale of legendary Pennsylvania German redware potter and collector Lester Breininger. After Lester's death in December 2011, three of his former employees, Curt Pearson and his brother Thilo Schmitz, and their father Scott Madeira started Robesonia Redware, pretty much around the corner from the old Breininger Mansion, and that was were we went for an event featuring their annual crop of Easter bunnies, eggs, and the like, and the first anniversary of their permanent home, a storefront on the main street of Robesonia.

We began by cruising eastward on U.S. 22, past what was once a favorite restaurant, now a pile of rubble following a disastrous fire; past the first Pennsylvania state historical marker ever placed, way back in 1946, the year I was born (for the Hanover Resolves -- look it up!); Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County; then into Berks County until the road ended and we were forced on to I78 toward Allentown and New York City.

Our exit was the second one we came to, at Bethel, a little crossroads town with a promising new antiques store on the square. We want to get back there sometime and see what old junque they have that we don't need. Turning right there, we were now on Pa. 501 south, passing some through some beautiful farm country and small towns, finally hitting a traffic light at U.S. 422 at Myerstown.

There stood a sight for sore eyes -- the Kumm Esse ("Come eat") Diner, scene of memories of Porch Sales past. We always stopped there for breakfast after the sale. Many times we had friends or relatives with us and enjoyed the tales told around the table about "the plate that got away," or who traded what pieces on the lawn, or who was kind enough to snatch up a piece for which another had been searching.

The Sienna pulled up right to the door of the Kum Esse.

Susanne ordered a liverwurst sandwich. Don't say it! I already know. What kind of person orders a liverwurst sandwich? Even worse, it was accompanied by a cucumber and onion concoction in a white creamy dressing.

Being more sensible, and even though it was about 2:45 p.m., long after breakfast time, I ordered a cheese omelet and home fries. What a smart selection, if I do say so myself. The omelet was fine (maybe one more egg would have made it better) but the home fries were the best I have ever had. They were sliced very thin and browned thoroughly. And nice and hot. I'd go in and order them for a snack if I lived closer.


It was only a few more miles east to Robesonia on U.S. 422. We passed markers for Charming Forge, Charles A. Schulze, and the Tulpehocken E&R Church. On our right at Womelsdorf was the homestead of Conrad Weiser, famous interpreter and peacekeeper between the colonists and Native Americans in the 18th century. Then came the sign welcoming us to Robesonia.

We entered the store with trepidation, fearing the wave of nostalgia that was certain to overcome us; the sensory overload of gleaming glaze on colorful pottery; and the price tags!

This piece -- staring us in the face as we entered -- is enormous, maybe 24 inches across. The clay weighed 25 pounds before it went into the kiln. The decoration is a combination of sgraffito and slip painting, using traditional motifs of birds and flowers, prominent among them the tulip. I was in love.

Most of the pieces are in the traditional Pennsylvania German style. Some are actual replications of early pieces. A few are more modern and a little jarring to the eye -- our eyes, that is. Remember, we are trying to break out of the "early American" mold, but its grip is strong.

This one closely resembles the original 18th century piece.
We had just seen this pattern in an old piece in an antiques store.
I have a Breininger piece similar to this, a gift from my daughter.
My collection of redware looks much like this.
Potters Curt and Thilo posed for this - against their better judgment.
(They are modest about their talent and thus the spotlight.)

  A View of Robesonia Redware store from John Robinson on Vimeo.

After a few turns around the room and some pictures taken, we ventured into the "back room," where four other craftspeople had set up show. Susanne was thrilled to see a display of hooked rugs, the kind that you hang on the wall or lay on a table. Small. But beautiful. Susanne has recently taken up this craft and has hooked two pieces so far. She is always happy to see another crafter with whom she may commune. She and Janice Sonnen had a lively chat. Janice also makes "penny" rugs from felt, something made by women in the second half of the 19th century to pretty up their surroundings -- "chust for nice" as I have read elsewhere.

Hooked rugs galore!
Susanne loves Janice's work.
A fine example of the penny rug.
Meanwhile, I looked at the tin from Handwerk Tin (they had a little stylized Tin Man from "The Wizard of Oz") and ironwork from Furnace Creek Forge. Next, a collection of small houses from 1860 Wood Company. (You know how I am about houses and about things in miniature.) The houses are made by Terry Boyer, and his wife Judy makes lovely pictures from pressed flowers.

A log house and stone cottage.
A thatched-roof New England house.

A stone barn with wooden hay loft.
Judy Boyer works on a pressed flower project.
Terry and Judy were among the artists that I had selected in 2001 to represent the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on the White House Christmas Tree, at the invitation of Mrs. Bush. The request for four ornaments representing historic buildings came through the Governor's Office and, happily, was assigned to me as Press Secretary for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Interestingly, the Bush Center (presidential library) just a few years ago re-created the 2001 tree in Dallas at Christmas time.

Being a frequent visitor to craft shows, I knew a number of artists who could make what the White House wanted. I sent out email invitations (Judy told me she has kept every email they received -- the first one just days before September 11.) The White House required that the ornaments not exceed a certain size or weight and later that they be sent directly to a facility where all White House mail was being examined in light of the terrorist attacks.

At that time, it was not certain if the artists would be invited to the White House, as planned, to view their creations on the trees and, of course, to meet the President and Mrs. Bush. The White House was closed to visitors and might not be open in time for Christmas. So, I arranged -- as sort of a consolation prize -- for the four artists to meet at the Pennsylvania Governors' Residence in Harrisburg and present their creations to First Lady Kathy Schweiker.

There the artists were offered coffee and tea in the Erie Room and a chance to present their ornaments and speak with the First Lady.

( r.) Mrs. Schweiker, PHMC Executive Director Brent Glass, moi, and one of the artists.

After the event, I took the ornaments to the Commission mail room to be wrapped, insulated, and coddled as UPS delivered them into the hands of a Republican administration. You can see photos of the tree with at least one item from Pennsylvania -- a model of President James Buchanan's home in Lancaster.

While the White House was not open to the public by December, the artists were able to enjoy their reward, an evening at the White House. Unfortunately, the poor schlub who made all this happen in Pennsylvania was not invited, even though the next year he tried to wangle an invitation directly from the White House chief floral designer. Perhaps they had checked my voter registration card.

I did this search for craftspeople for several years until the White House moved away from this sort of decoration, and I count it as among my happier duties as press secretary. (Incidentally, one year Lester Breininger made a gold finch out of clay when the theme was birds. He thought long and hard before deciding whether to participate, because he was vehemently opposed to the war in Iraq.)

Well, I digressed mucho, didn't I?

Returning to the main sales area of the store, we finalized our purchases of eggs and bunnies, paid the damages, and hopped (get it?) back into the car. The trip home was uneventful but pleasant, basking in the memory of all that redware in one place and only forty-three miles away.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


Every once in a while, we say we're gonna throw out all our furniture, pictures, and other accoutrements and change our style completely. Should we go modern? Mid-century? Cottage? Beach house? Traditional?

We go out looking at various shops and stores. Sometimes we even buy things! And they are usually in the same style that we already have. No matter how much we determine to change, we are stuck in the same vein -- I guess you'd call it "country" (but without all the kitsch -- "something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality," according to Merriam-Webster's online dictionary). They used to call it "Early American."

Well, yesterday we drove to a small town in southern York County, Pa., to look at woven goods at the Family Heirloom Weavers shop near Red Lion. I did a post on this place last year so I won't repeat all the particulars. Suffice it to say that it was fun speaking with a member of the family, who told us about the presidents' homes and other historic houses for which they have woven carpeting and other fabrics. They do it for movies, too, like the relatively recent Lincoln and the older film Cold Mountain, among many others.

We traveled south in I83 to Pa. 74 and on to Dallastown, where we turned onto a two-lane road, drove a mile or so through farm country, and arrived at a tiny community of a few houses, a church, and the Heirloom Weavers' mill.

Our Sienna met the weavers' truck in the parking lot.
The entrance to the mill building.
Original 1838 coverlet to the left, reproduction to the right.
Additional coverlets and carpeting.
Next door is the show house.
I liked this vintage wash stand because it looks French.
Susanne bought napkins and some other woven pieces.
She also bought this tool for winding yarn, or something!
 These colorful spools of silk were for sale as decorations.

Once our visit was completed, we head back into Dallastown and, on the advice of the weaver, went to lunch at Lion's Pride in Dairyland Square. This was a great experience with a very efficient and personable server and great food.

I got an open-face Rachel sandwich -- turkey, cole slaw, Russian dressing, and cheese.
For dessert I tried "Jewish Apple Cake."

After lunch we drove a few blocks to Broad Street Antiques Market, located on, you guessed it, Broad Street! It's located in an old warehouse building that has been nicely cleaned up and made suitable for selling vintage and antique items.

According to the owner, there are no antiques or reproductions, and all items must be older than fifty years. We toured the whole place, and these are some of the items I found appealing.

A 19th-century (I am guessing) maple bed with a beautiful head board.
Gorgeous Roseville pottery.
Early children's farm toys.
A nice example of E.S&B pottery from New Brighton, Pa., where my daughter Sarah lives.

Anyone for a stoneware decorated mug?
This strawberry-patterned bowl was nearly irresistible.
I like the shape of these cordial glasses. Bottoms up!
Who doesn't like bright tulips in the spring?
Old Glory.
I was intrigued by this plate, allegedly made in western Pa. in the first half of the twentieth century.

An old pie safe holds lots of goodies.
So does this wooden cabinet with what appears to be original paint.
The primitive table sports a beautiful green color.
On the way home we took the scenic route (of course) and passed Three Mile Island nuclear generating station in the Susquehanna River near Falmouth. It's always impressive to see the water vapor rising from the cooling towers -- no matter how many times you see it.

Soon we arrived home. No new style. No new furniture. Oh well. After all, tomorrow is another day!