Sunday, October 31, 2010

William Penn And Slavery

As we approach the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War, many may be curious about William Penn's attitude toward slavery. Unfortunately I have to report that, for his time, it was just slightly above average.
Penn was a slaveowner, like many of his fellow Quakers of the time. Historian Douglas Harper of Lancaster County says Penn preferred slaves to indentured servants, because the slaves could be kept for a lifetime. He quotes Penn to that effect. (Harper's online paper "Slavery In The North" is, by the way, a must-read for northerners, including Pennsylvanians, who think we are superior to those slave-owning southerners. Slavery did not legally end in Pennsylvania until 1845, and there were some nasty vicissitudes along the way.)
So, what made the state's founder a slight cut above the rest--at least in my opinion? First, when he was preparing to return to England, he freed the slaves at his Pennsbury estate. Second, and perhaps even more important, he persuaded Pennsylvania's provincial government to pass a law forbidding the breaking up of slave families through sales to various masters.
William Penn was a very great man, and is not to be blamed for lacking our more advanced ideas about race and rights. Perhaps we ought to look into the mirror and ask ourselves why we are not living up to the advanced ideas people like Penn helped us evolve. These ideas did not come to us from nowhere. We should, I think, question why we have not yet turned them into realities.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Pete Gray At Bat: A Remarkable Baseball Tale

It's the middle of World Series 2010, and I'm lucky enough to have tripped over a baseball story so different it has merited a Pennsylvania State historic marker--no mean distinction. It is the story of the first amputee to play Major League baseball.
Pete Gray was born and christened Peter J. Wyshner in the anthracite mining town of Nanticoke. He was the son of immigrants.Somewhere along the line he took, or was given, the more "American"-sounding last name, Gray.
When he was only six he lost much of his right arm in a fall from a wagon. But his love for baseball was so keen that he taught himself to play effectively despite a handicap which would have stopped anyone of lesser determination.
He played left and center field for a variety of semiprofessional and minor league teams, and in 1944 was named Most Valuable Player of the Southern League. Around that point he was signed by the St. Louis Browns, a major league team that either does not exist any longer or has long since morphed into something else . He batted 218. for the Browns.
World War II was going on during this period, and Pete Gray made many visits to hospitals to encourage wounded veterans, especially amputees. The end of the war, though, limited his baseball career. The famous players who had been in the service returned, shed their uniforms, and rejoined their teams.
Could Pete Gray have competed in this new climate in the Majors? Perhaps; perhaps not. It seems the proposition was not tested by anyone. Gray went back to minor league baseball for a while, and then returned to Nanticoke, where he died in 2002. His last years were spent in disappointment, and in battling problems with alcohol and gambling. He was admired by his fellow townspeople, though; and now he is remembered by the blue and gold marker put up by the state.
One of his wishes had been to play in Yankee Stadium. It was granted. As a nice touch, his Browns "whupped" the Yankees the day it happened.
Pete Gray was the subject of the 1966 made-for-television movie "Winners Never Quit."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dead Pigeons And The Pennsylvania Senate

Recently I learned from the Humane Society's Heidi Prescott that Pennsylvania's infamous pigeon shoots remain legal--this, despite the fact that Ms. Prescott had once again been assured they would finally be ended. As they should be.
I was heartened to learn that my own State Representative, Joe Brennan, had led the charge against them; and that my own State Senator, Lisa Boscola. had been against them as well. But when losing means a world of suffering inflicted on innocent beings, having some great people on your side is not as consoling as it might otherwise be.
I have noticed that the big block was on the State Senate side. This appears to be so more often than not; and it suggests that Pennsylvanians need to keep an eye, not only on their legislature, but on the upper house in particular.
It could be argued that the legislature has more important things to concern itself with the fate of a lot of non-voting birds. But how much time--how many minutes--can it take to vote for a measure granting an inoffensive species some peace and safety? And besides, evidence suggests that legislators often procrastinate on matters of policy they themselves presumably consider far more vital than the well-being of pigeons.
ARE the pigeons less important than the often--neglected votes on budgets and policy? I am not sure that is so. If we will not take a few minutes, reach out our hands, speak up to end a bloody cruelty we could prevent, what does it say about our hearts? What does it say about our capacity to serve our society as a whole? What larger task can we be entrusted with?

Monday, October 25, 2010

About the Pennsylvania Bookstore--Oops!

I must retract some of the things I said 0r implied about the Pennsylvania Bookstore in my previous post. It definitely will not be there forever, as I had hoped. In a message I got from staff there just this morning, I learned there is a real possibility the shop would close at some future time. No date was given.
But now the good news. You can still use the site for your winter holiday shopping this year. You can still join the Pennsylvania Heritage Society and get its great magazine. You can still sign up for Save Our Stories and help in the preservation of Civil War records. And maybe the Bookstore will go on for a while. Who knows? Maybe our orders could help, though I am not guaranteeing that.
I promise to double-check my information next time, and to remember that an online website is not an inscription carved in stone or molded in bronze.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Thinking Christmas? Think Pennsylvania

If you're wondering where to shop for the upcoming winter holidays, you might start by looking at the online Pennsylvania Bookstore, Here you will find gifts for your brightest and most intellectually curious friends and relatives, and probably some nice things for yourself as well. Also, you will find a couple of ways to become more deeply involved with the state and its heritage. Here you can buy membership in the Pennsylvania Heritage Society, with its benefit of a subscription to the outstanding Pennsylvania Heritage magazine. You can buy an impressive blue and gold Pennsylvania flag, a big one to fly on your lawn next to the national one.
You can even take an active step toward saving part of the state heritage by clicking on Save Our Stories on the bookstore site.
Here's what that's all about. During the Civil War Pennsylvania raised over 215 regiments for the Union Army. All of these had muster rolls, some multi-volume ones. These muster rolls are important sources for learning about our Civil War soldiers. Some 900 of them are moldering away, though; and funds are needed to save them. This is where your help comes in. Give if you can; and help pass the stories on.
Now to turn to the store's books. They are on a fabulous range of subjects--all having to do with Pennsylvania. It is not clear to me, but you may have to join the Pennsylvania Heritage Society to shop here. I plan to do that myself; and you certainly should consider it as a present to yourself. (Remember, you get the magazine...)
The books range in topic from art and architecture to history, military history, natural science, and beyond. There are books for children; and, of course, there are cook books. One of those that caught my eye is The Pennsbury Manor Cookbook--featuring recipes that might have been served by William Penn's first wife Gulielma at the Penns' Pennsylvania country home, Pennsbury Manor. Gulielma did plan for such things; but it is difficult to look at this title without a twinge. The poor woman was sickly, and did not live to spend a day in the elegant home by the Delaware.
In case anyone is wondering, this post is not an ad. I just found this great site, and I am pleased to give it a plug. Please let me know about any personal experiences you may have with it.

Friday, October 22, 2010

William Penn, Fighter

We tend to think of Pennsylvania's founder as a round, placid, middle-aged man in gray, and probably somewhat past his prime. Perhaps we should remember that even the semi-portly middle- aged William Penn (then 38) was able to enter a Native American foot race and finish ahead of some of indigenous runners.
He was a strong and resourceful man, both by genetic inheritance and by the training given to young men of his class--or aspirants to that class--in England.
There is a portrait of a handsome, dashing young William Penn which reminds us of his background--he was the son of a knight, a fighting admiral who had succeeded enough to be seen as a national hero and who owned a house in Navy Gardens, London, as well as country estates near Wanstead and in Ireland.
The portrait of William Penn the younger shows him clad in aristocratic costume--militaristic, too, because part of the costume is the armor of the time. His bearing is forthright, almost regal; and he gives the impression that here is someone you would not wish to have as an enemy. It seems a little ironic that in the end he did, in fact, become a Friend--as the Quakers called themselves.
But it took some time to train him to gentle but firm Quaker standards. And at one point he performed so well as a soldier that it seemed as if he might become 0ne.
That was in Ireland, during a period when he was managing his father's Irish estate. When the garrison at Carrickfergus rebelled against the king, Penn joined his admired friend Richard, Lord Arran, in putting down the mutiny. As captain of one of Arran's companies, Penn was hailed for taking the lead in capturing a fiercely held stone tower. When this was reported to the Earl of Ormonde, Lord Arran's father, Ormonde suggested he be made commander of the garrison on his own estate.
For a while, William thought so, too; it seems to have been around this time that he had the portrait painted of himself in armor. But his own father, the admiral--who seemed by then to realize his son would never be a conventional fighting man--vetoed the idea.
Soon after that, still in Ireland, young William Penn became a member of the Society of Friends. There were plenty of battles ahead in his life--almost all of them with words written or spoken, and all of them for justice. But war with the sword was, for him, a thing of the past.
For a quick but fact-filled look at Penn's career, I would suggest William Penn, Quaker Hero, by Hildegarde Dolson.

Friday, October 15, 2010

What Is Penn's Woods?

I've just caught up on Feedjit with a Fort Loudon visitor who wants to know the history of Penn's Woods. Sorry--I just assumed everybody knew about Penn's Woods, but I guess I may have been luckier in my teachers than some.
Penn's Woods=Pennsylvania. So the history of Penn's Woods is the history of Pennsylvania.
So why not just call it that?
Well, because back in Penn's time people thought Latin was classy, especially for names of places, book titles, anything official. Many people knew Latin in addition to their national language.
William Penn knew he had been granted a vast acreage that was heavily forested. He wanted to call it "Sylvania," which is Latin for "forest" or "wood".
But King Charles II wanted more. He wanted to honor Penn's father, Admiral William Penn, to whom he was indebted both for stellar service in the Royal Navy and for at least one crucial advance of money. He suggested the province be named "Pennsylvania"--"Penn's Wood" or "Penn's Woods", or "Penn's Forest."
Since the King was making the grant of land available (it was payment for at least part of the debt he owed young Penn's father), William, Jr. readily agreed. The state's name is not a salute to the ego of our founder, then; the place really is named after his father.
I am sorry it took so long to attend to this question. If you have questions, I believe it will be easier to enter them in the comment box below, and I will be able to help you much sooner.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ole Bull and Oleana

Ole Bull, well known Norwegian concert violinist, composer and social philosopher, would have turned 200 earlier this year. There has been no hullabaloo like that which has attended the bicentenary celebrations of, say, Frederic Chopin and Felix Mendelssohn, his fellow musicians. Bull remains a misty but controversial figure, revered, it seems, by his fellow countrymen--including the unquestionably great composer Edvard Grieg, whose career he helped promote. On the other hand, he is vilified on at least one website whose url shall remain unacknowledged, at least by me. I don't like passing on disagreeable opinions, especially when I don't know their origins.
Was Bull a truly great violinist, like his Italian contemporary Niccolo Paganini? Probably not. Paganini was the fiddler of the 19th century. But Bull did a lot of concertizing, including five long tours in the United States. ( Presumably we Americans still were unsophisticated enough in music to appreciate anyone who came along--at least, this seems to be the view of the anti-Bull website.)
Well, then, was Bull a great composer? Again, probably not. It seems he only composed 100 works. Of these, just 10 survive; and I have heard only one of them. I would characterize it as pleasant, but not exceptional. It is possible that great composers have lived and died, and all their works have been lost--but Bull's "Solitude On The Mountain" does not seem like a remnant of a composer of that caliber.
He was evidently a great showman--he once played his violin atop Egypt's Great Pyramid--a great dreamer, and a man who wished humanity well. This is a lot. And his big dream involved Pennsylvania.
He wanted to set up a colony for Norwegian farmers, so they could have a better life. His musical career had made him rich; and so in 1852 he bought 11,000 acres in Potter County--an area known as the Black Forest of Pennsylvania. It seems to be one of those areas that needs to be developed very carefully; otherwise in 50 years it will be a desert studded with natural gas derricks, through which poisoned streams meander. Right now it seems still to be wooded.
Here Bull proposed to establish his colony, to be known as Oleana. There are those (notably those on the anti-Bull website) who think the man egotistically planned to name the place after himself; but in fact, "Oleana" seems to mean something like "New Norway'. Or even "Heaven". There is a song, "Oleana", in which the place sounds like a poor man's version of the Holy City, jammed with good things to eat and drink.
Unfortunately for Bull and his colonists, the Pennsylvania Oleana didn't turn out to be like that at all. The colonists lacked the skills (or time) to clear the land and plant crops; they were not woodsmen. Some died and were buried in the forest; the rest moved on after a year to farmland in places like Minnesota, North and South Dakota.
Today all that is left of "New Norway", Bull's vision of heaven, can be found in Ole Bull State Park. It consists of the colonists' cemetery, and the remains of Bull's "castle"--a log cabin in which he never got a chance to live.
As to the dreamer himself, he died in 1880, back home in Norway; Edward Grieg delivered his eulogy.

Happy Birthday, William Penn!

Today, October 14, marks the birthday in 1644 of Pennsylvania's founder, William Penn. Had I remembered this I would have "baked a cake", figuratively speaking--for my readers, not for the founder. That's because Penn was one of the great men of his time, and would be well up there, I think, in any time. So he deserves to have more information about him served up to the public.
It's coming, I promise. I am even thinking of asking a guest blogger join me in that presentation. But I don't want you to think you'll be overwhelmed. More likely there will be an occasional post as we go along.
Meanwhile, the next post will be about another visionary in our state's history. Stand by...

Monday, October 4, 2010

Bethlehem Plans: Threat To Water And Wildlife?

For decades the two massive reservoirs of the City of Bethlehem water system have supplied Bethlehem and its neighbors with generous amounts of what must be some of the purest and best-tasting water in Pennsylvania, maybe in the nation. Even when the Penn Forest Reservoir had to be totally replaced, there was no threat to the supply.
That was then. Tomorrow could be different. In these crisis-ridden days, the Bethlehem Authority is under pressure to turn what had been essentially two enormous sponges, peaceably collecting water for residents of the city and neigboring communities into a real multitasking money-maker.
Among the many ideas being talked about or in the actual planning stage are these: timbering of selected high-quality trees, the raising of grasses to be sold and converted into ethanol, and the erection of numerous--perhaps as many as 14--industrial-size wind farms.
It may all sound good--even capitalistic in the very best sense, making full use of your resources and adjusting to circumstances. But beware of unintended consequences.
Perhaps the best thing to do with a community watershed is to let it alone as much as possible. At least, if you want it to continue generating a water supply for you. All the projects being mentioned as ways to "finely improve" the Bethlehem Watershed involve intrusive changes, such as hacking roads through the woods and taking out healthy trees--trees being those growths whose roots help filter the water and retain it in the ground until it is needed. Bethlehem area activist Peter Crownfield noted that even well-managed logging "could have significant negative impacts on watershed quality."
But it is the wind farms, in those particular locations, that could have the most disastrous effects on the environment as a whole, notably on wildlife. This is especially true for the great raptors, the hawks and eagles whose migratory pathways take them nearby, past the eager observers at the Bake Oven Knob observation post. The unsuspecting birds--songbirds also are potential victims. as are bats--stand an above-average chance of being sliced up by the blades of the giant wind turbines.
This unintended consequence was pointed out by noted ornithologist (bird scientist) Donald Heintzelman of Zionsville. Heintzelman also noted that a wind turbine in the works for the nearby Blue Mountain Ski Resort could heighten the slaughter.
There is nothing that cannot be improved. That includes the management of the Bethlehem Watershed. But the Bethlehem Authority needs to proceed carefully at this point--VERY carefully. Always, they need to keep in mind that nothing must be done to harm the water supply. And that means not harming the community of life of which it is part.
With that unshakable priority guiding them, nothing too bad is likely to happen.

The Lands At Hillside Farms: More Events

The annual Fall Fest at The Lands At Hillside Farms has just come to a successful conclusion; but more special events are to come. Between now and the end of 1210 there are a couple of them on the agenda. October 23 brings Old McDonald's Farm' an event limited to 100 people, who will each pay $12. There will be hayrides, a pumpkin hunt, and pumpkin ice cream for dessert. Then, on December 20-21, stop by for Christmas at the Cottage, a get-together in the splendid Victorian cottage that once was the summer residence at Hillside Farms. Admission is $10.
More important than special events are the things that The Lands At Hillside Farms manages to do--and be--all year round. Yes, it provides a basis for understanding farm life in the late 19th century; but it is much more than a historic site--interesting as that is. It provides education in nature and ecology for all ages from pre-kindergarten to adult. It encourages people to grow at least some of their own food, and teaches them how. It benefits the local economy by providing an outlet for products grown, baked, and produced by people who live in the area.
Just want a walk in the woods, a thing no one can put a price on? It offers a chance to do that, too. To get the full, amazing story, visit the organization's web site--which is one of the best and most inviting I have ever seen. It's at
All this does not come cheap; and this is where we, the public, come in. We live in an era in which, if we want good things to last, we have to see to it ourselves.
The Lands At Hillside Farms does what it can to support itself. It maintains its famous dairy store--which, by the way, sells many other kinds of foods besides milk, butter, cheese, and ice cream. It rents out its cottage and ballroom--and ice cream truck--for special events. It charges something for its educational programs and materials. And so on.
Taken together, this only leaves it $490,000 short. Gasp!
So it needs volunteers. And donations. Nobody expects you to give the whole $490,000, or to work as a full-time volunteer; but they will be grateful if you can chip in.
Check it all out through the website--which, again, is at Or call 570-696-4500. Or, if you live nearby, go there--65 Hillside Rd., Shavertown--and check it out. See if you feel comfortable there as a visitor. A customer. Or maybe even a volunteer.