Pennsylvania Forest Fire Museum to open

Pennsylvania Forest Fire Museum to open

08 May 2011

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USA: Forest fires were once so feared in the timbered-off mountains of Pennsylvania that a fire watch tower was located on the dome of the capitol building in Harrisburg. The state’s forestry industry was shaped in part by the prevalence of these fires.

Caledonia State Park will gain a new attraction Saturday when the Pennsylvania Forest Heritage and Discovery Center opens its doors in the former park office, across the road from the current park office and visitors center. A ribbon-cutting ceremony at 10:30 a.m. will open the doors to the history of fighting forest fires. For one day only, forest fire fighting trucks will be on display. Children will have a chance to meet Smokey Bear and receive souvenir balloons.

The forestry museum is a private, non-profit organization with no official link to the state parks or state forest organizations. It is fitting, though, that they have selected a stone building built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as the initial location for the first museum of its kind in Pennsylvania.

It is located in a stone building that at one time seemed destined to be bulldozed.

“We wanted to be functioning and build some credibility for our long-range project,” said Steve Cummings, past president and present board member of the museum. “We have a lease on 23 acres on U.S. 30 for a permanent museum.”

It is also fitting that a museum extolling the virtues and history of forestry in Pennsylvania should be located in the
second oldest operating state park in Pennsylvania. Caledonia was third in terms of creation but it is the second oldest now operating. Much of the history being recounted in the museum took place very nearby.

“There are museums that are related but nothing else quite like ours,” Cummings said. “The Museum and Historical Commission currently has a display in Harrisburg but that’s not going to be a permanent exhibit. It is there until the end of May. And of course, there’s a forestry museum that the commission operates which is called the Lumberman’s Museum. They do quite a good job and we will be working with them to develop some prevention aspects to their museum.”

The museum will feature four rooms: the reception room, the tower room, the prevention room and an equipment room. In all four rooms the visitor will be exposed to firefighting history embedded in general forestry lore.

Reception room: A display about the CCC tells the tremendous impact that organization had on our state. Also one will learn about the founding of the Pennsylvania State School of Forestry in Mont Alto, now a satellite campus of Penn State, and Dr. Joseph T. Rothrock’s overwhelming role in that endeavor.

Visitors will also learn of George Wirt’s contribution to forestry, not only locally but nationwide.

Tower room: Exhibits will take visitors back through history to a time when there was a fire tower watch on the dome of the state capitol building. Not only is there a picture of the first steel fire tower built by the state in 1914 on Piney Knob, but a part of the ladder which led to the top of that tower is also on display.

“Fire has played a major role in the evolution of forestry in Pennsylvania,” Cummings said. “But that role is not too well known. Timber in the state was almost completely harvested in the 1800s. Pennsylvania at that time was the number one cash timber producing state in the entire United States, but after the harvesting there was little timber left and the fires were worse — the former timber land was open to air and sun and there was much detritus on the ground from harvesting. The fires burned hot and frequently.”

Rothrock, who was a civil war veteran, had some unusual ideas, said Cummings. One of them was to restore the timber and get the industry back but he believed the forests were useful for more than timber sales; he believed we should also have land for public recreation.

His inclination was for the state to buy up land where taxes were overdue — timber lands where businesses had moved on — and start growing trees. Some of that land, he thought, should be set aside for citizens to walk in, fish in, camp in.

“Of course some people thought he was pretty far out,” Cummings said. “They didn’t want to spend state money to buy land and then let people use it for free.”

Rothrock’s ideas became the beginning of our state park system.

Equipment room: This area is replete with early tools that were used to fight forest fires. Today the equipment is issued by the state but the initial tools were privately owned. Some of the best tools today were invented by local firefighters.

Cummings told the story of a man who came up with a rake that had an adjustable head — the original design is on display. The man produced his rakes for sale but couldn’t compete against commercial manufacturers who started getting in on the action. His adjustable head made his rakes more expensive.

So, the man went to the chief fire warden, who was George Wirt, to help determine what permanent angle he should put on his rakes. Wirt had someone use the rake at all different angles and settled on one he thought best. Today, all commercial fire rakes have that angle.

Indian tanks, helmets and clothing are also on display — all with stories to be told.

Safety requirements have brought about a substantial change in the clothing that these firefighters wear. Present day apparel is on display.

Prevention room: Tips on fire prevention include some endearing tales about Smokey the Bear. Artifacts from past efforts to stay on top of fire situations before they erupt can be seen here, and visitors may try their hands at identifying potential fire problems.

At first, Cummings said there will not be a fee to visit the museum but donations will be accepted.

The museum will be operated by volunteers and hours of operation will be determined by the number of visitors who drop by.

When you go

WHAT: Pennsylvania Forest Heritage and Discovery Center

WHEN: Opening begins at 10:30 a.m. May 14

WHERE: Former state park office, Caledonia State Park, 101 Pine Grove Road, Fayetteville

COST: Free

DETAILS: Jack Graham at 582-2235 or

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