• Best of Pennsylvania - 1000 Steps Hiking Trail

  • Happy Holidays - Pennsylvania Dutch Style

    It’s hard to escape the Pennsylvania Dutch influence during the holiday season as many of the modern day traditions evolved from their traditions.

    For instance, the central symbol of modern American Christmas’ is a decorated tree. And while the Puritans in Massachusetts were able to ban the actual celebration of Christmas, along with all of the (so called) pagan rituals associated with it, the Pennsylvania Amish, Quakers, Mennonites, and Friends faiths kept their homeland traditions going -- like the Christmas Tree.

    Traditionally, they would cut off a limb of a cherry tree on December 4th (St. Barbara’s Day) and would decorate it with candies, nuts, and fruit - hoping for the buds to blossom on Christmas Day. Also, the children would place an empty plate under the tree hoping for the Grishkindel, or Christ-child to leave them treats.

    Of course, there are traditions worth mentioning that did not carry over into mainstream culture, but are still practiced in Pennsylvania Dutch communities. Some of most interesting are:

    Belsnickel  - Covered head-to-toe in furs and usually wearing a mask, Belsnickel's "mission" was to punish naughty children. You could say he was Santa’s opposite, but really, he was there to scare the children into doing good. Sometimes, Belsnickel would appear weeks ahead of the holiday in the windows of the house and would tap a switch on the pane to frighten the children inside. During Second Christmas (see next item), Belsnickel would appear carrying a bag filled with bells, nuts, and candy as he went door-to-door, again, hitting the windows along the way. The children would then open the door and Belsnickel would throw candy and treats onto the floor and slap the hands of the kids who were trying to pick up the sweets. There are lots of story twists to Belsnickel character, but most involve him punishing children. Dwight Schrute from NBC’s The Office, portrayed Belsnickel in their latest Christmas episode.

    {The Office Tweet: Belsnickel Fact: Belsnickel doesn't use elfin slave labor. Yet another reason why he's superior to Santa. http://t.co/rdLBDZvp}

    Second Christmas - While most people who celebrate Christmas do so on the Eve (24th) or the Day (25th), the Pennsylvania Dutch reserve the day after (26th), not for returning gifts, but parties, egg dying (what most people do at Easter), and Belsnickling (going around with Belsnickel to deliver treats). Some traditions actually use this day to pull pranks on each other (like April Fools Day). Sounds like a great idea to me!

    However you and your family are celebrating this season, I hope you have the merriest of time and make the most of your own traditions. (And be good, or Belsnickel will be in your window.)

    BTW...I’d love to hear about your traditions in the comments.

  • Gods of Pennsylvania: Henry Mercer

    From the moment I stepped inside the central atrium of the Mercer Museum, I felt like Alice falling through the rabbit hole and emerging in Wonderland.

    My senses were overloaded as floor after floor contained an eclectic display of pre-industrial tools, seen from a multitude of vantage points, which made each tier of this castle grander than the next.

    Simply put -- this place is magical.

    Unless you live in the Doylestown area (a northwest Philadelphia suburb), it is doubtful you know much, if anything, about Henry Mercer and his giant, six story, cement building in the middle of the borough.

    So -  let me take a moment to introduce you to the man and his mission.

    Henry Chapman Mercer was born just prior to the Civil War in 1856, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania to the wealthy Mercer family (Massachusetts textile industry). He was well educated and had lots of opportunities to travel, especially throughout Europe. He acquired a degree at Harvard, then went onto law school at the University of Pennsylvania, but never practiced because his interests turned toward archaeology - this is when he helped found the Bucks County Historical Society and was appointed the curator of American and prehistoric archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania's museum.

    His turning point in life was around 1897 when he noticed the quick decay of early American society, which was being replaced by industrialism. Mercer’s story is that he saw a mess of old agricultural tools and household utensils piled together to be sold, and then realized that American pre-industrial history was being discarded. He made it his mission to start saving these items to be preserved for future generations and according to the Annapolis Capital Newspaper, he went about "rummaging the bake ovens, wagon houses, cellars, haylofts, smokehouses, garrets, and chimney corners" for anything Americana.

    The collection continued to grow until he had over 30,000 items - and like any good collector, he needed a place to display his wares.  This is where the Mercer Museum comes into play.

    In 1913, Henry, along with eight day-laborers and “Lucy” the horse started construction on the 6-story concrete castle (completed in 1916) and filled it with his vast inventory. Every year, more than 80,000 people visit the showroom and leave awestruck over what they see. And since the museum was specifically designed by Mercer to display pre-industrial tools, he created an experience for people to view the items up close and from many different perspectives - this produces an intimate connection to the people who used these devices.

    One of the best compliments about the location came from Henry Ford, who stated that “the Mercer museum was the only museum worth visiting in the United States”, and if you have ever been to Ford’s own museum in Dearborn, Michigan, it’s apparent that Mercer inspired him greatly.

    So - now that you have a little background, here’s my picks for why he made the Gods of Pennsylvania list:


    When we see a problem, what do most of us do? We usually shrug our shoulders and wish there was something they could do about it. Well, when Mercer saw a problem, he went about fixing it.

    For instance, while he was amassing his collection of pre-industrial tools, he became interested in German Pennsylvanian tile making and quickly realized this craft was going the way of the dinosaurs. Mercer immediately apprenticed himself to an authentic potter in Bucks County where he became proficient in the art. He then followed up by building the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works to preserve the craft (which still operates to this date).

    His passion led him to action - something we all should desire.


    In a few of  Mercer’s books, he talks about his frustration with certain aspects of archeology, especially drawing conclusions from finding items that don’t have a connective line to the present. So his idea was to start with the present (what we know) and then work toward the past.

    Also, while he travelled throughout Europe, he became aware that many museums had been destroyed (and with it their collections) by fire. He had the foresight to make his house, tile factory, and museum out of reinforced concrete to ensure they would around for a very long time.

    Renaissance Man

    Much like Thomas Jefferson and Leonardo Da Vinci, Mercer was well educated and gifted in many fields of study. In his lifetime, he was a lawyer, architect, artisan, engineer, anthropologist, collector, curator, author, historian, and a tile-maker (to name a few).

    After talking with Ed Reidell, site administrator at the Fonthill Museum (Mercer’s home), it became apparent that Henry was incredibly gifted at whatever he set his mind to do. Henry’s skill at tile-working landed him the job of creating four hundred different scenes from Pennsylvania’s history to decorate the state Capitol’s floor. His work also shows up at the Monte Carlo casino, Rockefeller's New York estate, the St. Louis Public Library, and Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, California.

    Upon his death in 1930, Henry Mercer left Fonthill Castle to his housekeeper and the museum and tile-works to the Bucks County Historical Society where they continue to keep his vision alive today.

    I highly recommend you put Doylestown on your lists of “must sees” and visit all three of Mercer’s buildings (The Mercer Mile), but if you can’t get there immediately, check out this virtual tour of the main atrium.  (http://www.mercermuseum.org/themes/mysite/swf/p01tm.swf)

    To see pictures from my adventure there, click here.

  • Pennsylvania Castles - Mercer Museum

    I had the privilege of touring the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, PA last week (thanks to the Here A Year-ers voting me there) and -- WOW -- I was blown away. So this week, I'm spending three days highlighting the adventure, and in doing so, make you desperately want to go see this Pennsylvanian masterpiece.

    Let's start with a slideshow (and may I suggest clicking the full page button) >>

  • #GivingTuesday Meets Movember

    We’ve all heard of Black Friday and Cyber Monday -- so it seems quite natural to add another day to the mix with #GivingTuesday.

    #GivingTuesday (yep, it’s spelled that way with the hashtag and no space) consists of more than 2,000 recognized partners, from all 50 U.S. states, which are either registered charities, or they are for-profit businesses, schools, religious or community groups who have committed to spearhead a project that will benefit at least one 501(c)3.

    Personally, I think it’s a great reminder to keep charities in focus during the holiday season. As much fun as it is to give to family and friends, it’s equally fun to donate to a great cause. And trust me, non-profits need your gifts quite badly.

    The more I travel around to meet with charitable organizations, the more I hear about how funding is drying up. Mostly because of government cuts, the economic downturn, and general public opinion about some charities. Simply put, they need your help to continue serving their communities.

    For me, #GivingTuesday means building a fence at a local animal rescue, donating some cash to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and raising awareness and money for Movember (men’s health initiatives & prostate cancer research) by growing out my ugly stache. (Click here to watch my Movember video or click here to donate on my Movember page.)

    So -- if you have a dollar to spare, a hand to lend, or some time to give, please do so this Tuesday (November 27, 2012) as a way to promote and encourage your favorite organizations.

    If you’re looking for some suggestions on where to give, here are just some of the places I’ve volunteered at while in Pennsylvania. They’re worth your time to check out and support.

    Special Olympics Pennsylvania

    The Super Hero Foundation

    Angel Acres Horse Haven Rescue

    Mercer Museum & Fontill Castle

    Are you participating in #GivingTuesday?

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