Western Pa. town turns 200, gets its own history museum


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PERRYOPOLIS, Pennsylvania — The small, one-story, stone building just off the town circle in Perryopolis has seen more history than any other building in town. Now it gets to tell everyone about it — all 200 years of it.

The Liberty Street building — Perryopolis' oldest — has undergone a four-year restoration and is now home to a new museum that will tell the story of area's history.

The Perryopolis Area History Museum, following a grand opening June 27 during the borough's bicentennial celebration, will be open to viewers from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday, noon to 8 p.m. Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

The building that houses the museum dates back to 1817, and for nearly 20 years it was home to the Old State Bank Museum, which shut its doors in 2009. It structure has remained closed for the past four years during the renovation of the new museum.

The museum came to fruition, said Perryopolis Parks and Recreation Authority treasurer Norene Halvonik, with a joint effort by the Parks and Recreation Authority — which owns the building — and the Perryopolis Area Heritage Society, which is the custodian of the museum's artifacts.

The goal of the new museum, Halvonik said, was to improve on the old one.

"There were a lot of artifacts, but there wasn't a storyline. There were just items on a shelf," Halvonik said of the Old State Bank Museum.

The artifacts on display in the Perryopolis Area History Museum are left over from the old museum, but now they are organized to better tell Perryopolis' story.

"We wanted to develop exhibits that help the storyline. We divided the history up into three areas and selected the artifacts that would help to tell that story," said Halvonik, who along with volunteer and former heritage society member Toni Dzurko was responsible for researching information and writing the storyboards that hang on the walls.

The curators have divided the museum into three sections: early settlement (1769-1879), coal and coke era (1880-1945) and post-World War II (1946-present). The new design lends viewers a chronology to follow when browsing the room.

Visitors can start by examining an original 1814 survey map of Perryopolis, locally unearthed Native American arrowheads and musical instruments played by the town's early settlers. And they can make their way through the exhibit to view the mid-20th century mining equipment and military uniforms donated by local veterans.

But the biggest draw is neither an artifact nor relic — it's a photograph.

"It's a great focal point," Halvonik said of the enlarged aerial photo of the town that covers much of the museum's back wall. It shows Perryopolis amid a celebration of George Washington's 200th birthday in 1932.

"Most of the modern buildings are up (in this photo). You see the town and the transition (between now and then)," she said.

At the museum's soft opening in early June, the old photograph proved to be one of the highlights. "This was a big attraction," said Halvonik. "Everyone stood around talking about the 'good old days.'"

If the soft opening is any indication, the museum should be well-received, Halvonik said. "People were thrilled. I think it was more professional looking than they expected," Halvonik said.

Plans for the museum originated in late 2009, when the town realized the old building was in need of an upgrade. Halvonik said building's dated and faulty wiring was a safety hazard, a condition magnified by the destruction of a nearby building due to an electrical fire.

"The real concern was the electrical wiring," Halvonik said. "We couldn't procrastinate any longer. We had to bite the bullet.

"The historical part (of the building) didn't have an attic or a basement (to run the wiring through), so we literally had to gut it."

The building's interior walls were knocked down, and a single dividing wall was erected to create a flow pattern through the now one-room museum.

The total cost of restoring the building and developing the museum was upwards of $35,000, a lot of which came from fundraising, Halvonik said. They were also able to secure funding from various grants, with financial support from the Eberly Foundation and the Community Foundation of Fayette County.

"It took a lot of perseverance," said Halvonik. "But in the end, providence provided."

"It was a slow process. We needed to have patience," added Dzurko.

Before becoming the Perryopolis Area History Museum, the building served as a school, church, post office and doctor's office, among other uses, during its 200-year existence. It was originally known as Youhiogheny Bank of Pennsylvania and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its historical importance as an early place of commerce for the area. It fell into the hands of the Heritage Society when it was left to the borough.

The building is currently home to the town's genealogy room, and there are plans to turn the second floor into a children's museum.

A gift shop will be located in the back of the museum for visitors to purchase items that commemorate Perryopolis' past, including a video that capsulizes the town's history. The video will be screened in the museum during the bicentennial celebration.

Beginning in July, the museum will be open during select hours four days week and will be manned by volunteers. Admission is free and the museum will be accepting donations.

"I am very impressed with the displays and the amount of information that is so very well presented," Perryopolis Bicentennial committee chairperson Kathy Kifer said of the museum. "I find that it is very comprehensive. It shows the impact of western Pennsylvania. It's so much of what is important to what we have in our area."

This local history is what Perryopolis will be celebrating during its bicentennial celebration, which will feature a number of demonstrators and performers representing the town's past and present. Demonstrations planned include the weaving and cooking techniques of American Indians, the weapons used during the French and Indian War and Civil War re-enactments.

Other demonstrators will display skills at quilting, rug hooking, blacksmithing, glass-blowing and pottery-making.

Additional attractions include a petting zoo, children's games and horse-drawn carriage rides.

"It is a milestone in the history of our town," Kifer said. "It is to welcome home any who have traveled from afar and for them to remember growing up in small-town America.

"Perryopolis has retained that flavor while still progressing in our schools and businesses. I want us to be known not just for our history, but for our future, as well."


Online:

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Information from: Herald-Standard, http://www.heraldstandard.com/

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