Everything listed under: History

  • Punxsutawney Phil & the Gobbler's Knob

    When I read the blog title, I think it sounds like a lost book in the Harry Potter series -- LOL! -- you never know... :)

    I'm in Punxsutawney for the 117th weather prognostication from the world's most famous groundhog, Phil. Promoters are expecting a large crowd (possible up to 40,000) to be at the ceremony, so I'm going to get there by 5:00am to see if I can get a good spot for the event at 7:20am. What a great tradition!

    For those of you who can't make it here, you're in luck, as you can watch the whole shebang go down **live** here. And for those who think the who thing is a little silly, let me tell you more about the tradition that dates back before the Roman empire. 

    (Adapted from "Groundhog Day: 1886 to 1992" by Bill Anderson)

    Groundhog Day, February 2nd, is a popular tradition in the United States. It is also a legend that traverses centuries, its origins clouded in the mists of time with ethnic cultures and animals awakening on specific dates. Myths such as this tie our present to the distant past when nature did, indeed, influence our lives. It is the day that the Groundhog comes out of his hole after a long winter sleep to look for his shadow.

    If he sees it, he regards it as an omen of six more weeks of bad weather and returns to his hole.

    If the day is cloudy and, hence, shadowless, he takes it as a sign of spring and stays above ground.

    The groundhog tradition stems from similar beliefs associated with Candlemas Day and the days of early Christians in Europe, and for centuries the custom was to have the clergy bless candles and distribute them to the people. Even then, it marked a milestone in the winter and the weather that day was important.

    The Roman legions, during the conquest of the northern country, supposedly brought this tradition to the Teutons, or Germans, who picked it up and concluded that if the sun made an appearance on Candlemas Day, an animal, the hedgehog, would cast a shadow, thus predicting six more weeks of bad weather, which they interpolated as the length of the "Second Winter."

    Pennsylvania's earliest settlers were Germans and they found groundhogs to in profusion in many parts of the state. They determined that the groundhog, resembling the European hedgehog, was a most intelligent and sensible animal and therefore decided that if the sun did appear on February 2nd, so wise an animal as the groundhog would see its shadow and hurry back into its underground home for another six weeks of winter.

    This passage may be the one most closely represented by the first Punxsutawney Groundhog Day observances because there were references to the length of shadows in early Groundhog Day predictions.

    The ancient Candlemas legend and similar belief continue to be recognized annually on February 2nd due to the efforts of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.

    The Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper is credited with printing the news of the first observance in 1886 (one year before the first legendary trek to Gobbler's Knob):

    "Today is groundhog day, and up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen his shadow."

    To me, it's remarkable that this fun tradition survived and that it puts this town on the world's map -- everyone seems to know who Punxsutawney Phil is, and that he is the highest ranking groundhog in the New World.

    By the way, since 1887, the groundhog has seen his shadow 100 times, and not seen it 16 times to predict an early spring. Also, www.groundhog.org has a ton of great info about Groundhog Day -- check them out. And let's hope that Phil's shadow stays away and that this winter will be done shortly. 

    Groundhog Day cheers Here-A-Year-ers!!

  • Gods of Pennsylvania: Benjamin Franklin

    Today is Benjamin Franklin’s 307th birthday. Happy birthday Ben!

    I figured today would be a great day to add Franklin to my “Gods of Pennsylvania” list -- and if this list were like the pantheon of Greek gods, Franklin would Zeus.

    Although Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, he is better known as a Pennsylvanian, spending most of his life in Philadelphia (even being the President of PA for three years). His resume includes being an author, activist, diplomat, inventor, musician, politician, postmaster, printer, satirist, scientist, and statesman. He is often referred to as "The First American" and is still looked highly upon as one of the most important figures in American history.

    Franklin had a fierce belief in being a virtuous person and having a country that was morally in-tune (their civic duty). This was evidenced by his active involvement many “do-good” organizations along with volunteering his time to help the poor.

    At the age of twenty, Franklin was looking for ways to build up his own character and created a list of thirteen virtues:

    1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

    2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

    3. Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

    4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

    5. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

    6. Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

    7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

    8. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

    9. Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

    10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.

    11. Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

    12. Chastity: Rarely use venery (sexual indulgence) but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation"

    13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

    Even more than his striving to be upright, Franklin is known for his witty words, and is still one of the most quoted individuals in history. Some of my favorites:

    “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.”

    “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”

    “Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle.”

    “If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.”

    “To find out a girl's faults, praise her to her girlfriends.”

    Other well-known quotes:

    “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

    “Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.”

    “God helps those who help themselves.”

    So, take a moment to honor the memory of this man by sharing this story, or your favorite Franklin quote, with your world.

    Three cheers, and long live the memory of Benjamin Franklin!

  • 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.

  • 8 Pennsylvanians to be thankful for

    There is a lot to be grateful for this Thanksgiving.

    And as important as it is to be thankful for a job or home or family or lots of food -- there are many people we should be grateful for as well. Many of whom have passed on, but their ability to make our world a better place lives on.

    Since I’m in the state of Pennsylvania this year, why not consider these eight individuals as starting points of praise?

    1. Benjamin Franklin
    - although he was born in Boston, Massachusetts, Franklin is better known as a Pennsylvanian, spending most of his life in Philadelphia. His resume includes being an author, activist, diplomat, inventor, musician, politician, postmaster, printer, satirist, scientist, and statesman. He is often referred to as "The First American" and is still looked highly upon as one of the most important figures in American history.

    2. Louisa May Alcott
    - born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, she is known for her literary classic, Little Women depicting everyday life in post Civil War America. She used her influence to be a strong voice in the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements.

    3. J. Presper Eckert - an electrical engineer and a pioneer in the field of computers, along with John Mauchly, he invented the first general-use electronic digital computer. This, along with being the first person to teach a college course on computing, and founding the first commercial computer company, makes him one of the most notable, yet unknown people from the Keystone State.

    4. Robert Fulton
    - American engineer and inventor who is widely credited with developing the first commercial steamboat. In 1800, he was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte to design the first practical submarine in history. His inventions helped usher in an age of faster, more reliable transportation and trade.

    5. Fred Rogers
    - best known for creating and starring in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Rogers was crucial in the promotion of early childhood education and is noted for saving PBS back in the 1970’s. He testified before congress over the use of VCR’s in 1979 and is often credited with being the savior of video recording devices.

    6. Andrew Carnegie
    - thought to be the second richest man in history, Carnegie made his fortune in steel. Even though he was mostly known as a shrewd businessman (with a handful of big business blunders), toward the end of his life, he became one of the most charitable individuals ever to walk this earth, giving away almost five billion dollars (in today’s money).

    7. Milton Hershey
    - American confectioner, philanthropist, and the founder of The Hershey Chocolate Company. No campfire “s'mores” would be complete without this man’s contributions. Not only was he a wonderful chocolatier, his contributions to the social well-being of his employees are known worldwide.

    8. William Penn
    - as the Founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn was able to set up the colony as he deemed fit and made it a “melting pot”. He is credited with framing many of the principles for the current United States Constitution and is noted for impressing many ideas of the Founding Father, such as: the freedom of religion, an amendable constitution, and that “all men are created equal”. Penn is also credited with fair trade with the natives and the layout of Philadelphia, which was made the first capital of the United States.

    Happy Thanksgiving friends!

    {All pictures used are in the Public Domain.}