Good Life

Good Life | 6 questions with Historical Society’s Mary Sorensen

Mary Sorensen, executive director for the Centre County Historical Society and Centre Furnace Mansion, is planning the mansion’s “Everyday Iron” show featuring objects of the 18th & 19th Centuries.
Mary Sorensen, executive director for the Centre County Historical Society and Centre Furnace Mansion, is planning the mansion’s “Everyday Iron” show featuring objects of the 18th & 19th Centuries. CDT photo

Sometimes it’s OK to live in the past — especially if it’s part of the job description.

Mary Sorensen is the executive director of the Centre County Historical Society and the gatekeeper of the rich tradition and cultural heritage that firmly roots the days to come in the days of yore. The CCHS fields more than 150 research requests every year and offers a variety of lecture programs and exhibits that take visitors deep into the past.

Opening earlier this month, the exhibit “Everyday Iron: Iron Objects of the 18th and 19th Centuries” explores Centre County’s metallic roots, which extend to the 18th century. The display features the traditional tools used by 19th-century blacksmiths and photos of the original furnaces and foundries that made it all possible.

“Everyday Iron” will be on display through November 15.

Q: What are some of the resources the historical society makes available to the public?

A: CCHS owns and maintains the Centre Furnace Mansion and Furnace Stack and the Boogersburg Schoolhouse historic sites and makes these resources available through its tour programs.

The society is a regular recipient of artifact donations ranging from historic documents to object artifacts related to the mansion’s residents, Centre County history and Victorian culture. The museum’s collection is an important educational tool used to interpret 19th-century life in Centre County.

The Centre Furnace Mansion Gardens feature a breathtaking living collection of over 200 different period perennials, herbs which will soon emerge provided the snow melts.

Q: How is the CCHS using history to impact Centre County today?

A: Beyond preservation efforts at the mansion and the school, the society has been involved in authoring listings of sites and districts in the National Register of Historic Places, including, most recently, the Brush/Penns Valley Rural Historic District eligible nomination.

The society has served as a consulting party in state history code mitigation efforts for everything from transportation and construction projects like cell and radio towers to demolition projects.

The society also hosts the annual John H. Ziegler Historic Preservation Awards of the Centre County Historical Society. Each year since 1988, CCHS has recognized various individuals and organizations around the county for their outstanding work in preserving and interpreting Centre County history. Categories for nominations include preservation and restoration, history and heritage, education and advocacy, and support and volunteerism.

Q: How do you decide what exhibits to feature?

A: We typically coordinate an exhibition committee that begins to define a project a year or more in advance; there is normally not a lack for ideas. Collaborations with our own members along with other history organizations and museums, collectors, Penn State, state agencies and sometimes student interns play a vital role in developing a rich context and storyline for exhibitions.

We have had a series of 18th- and 19th-century object exhibitions beginning in 2012 with “Everyday Objects,” then “Shedding Light,” “Veiled Arts of Victorian Women” and now “Everyday Iron.” These exhibitions have allowed us to focus on one area of interest more deeply with the common themes of Centre County, material culture and Colonial and Victorian life. Concurrently, we have also offered history and art-based exhibitions.

Q: You recently opened your “Everyday Iron” exhibition. What can visitors expect to see when they walk through the door?

A: “Everyday Iron” explores the progression from “furnace to market,” with a special emphasis on the role of the blacksmith. Featuring a rich and wide variety of over 165 iron artifacts from CCHS, private collectors and other local historical organizations, this broad range of artifacts made of iron punctuates its importance in the economic development and expansion of our country. Artifacts and didactic panels and labels guide the visitor through the point of iron smelting to the company store, where iron and many other objects could be purchased on an iron plantation.

Q: How can people get involved with CCHS?

A: Be a member. Join a dedicated team of colleagues who volunteer to help us with all aspects of programming, gardening, regular and school tours, and research to name a few. ... Visit us at the mansion ... Consider a business sponsorships for events, programs or other initiatives. Sign up to receive our e-letters to receive program information by visiting our website.

Q: What’s something that people may be surprised to know about the history of Centre County?

A: Centre County has 60 individual sites on the National Register of Historic Places including 15 historic districts. From the fabulous Victorian architecture of Bellefonte and the late 19th- to mid-20th-century architecture in State College, to the beautifully restored Rowland Theatre of Philipsburg and the charming Boalsburg Village, to the scenic Brush/Penns Valley Rural Historic District. There is rich heritage in every corner of our county to explore. Get out and be surprised.