Living Columns & Blogs

Centre Furnace Mansion holds collection of memories

Arts festival banners hang outside the Centre Furnance Mansion in June, celebrating an exhibit on the 50th anniversary of Arts Fest.
Arts festival banners hang outside the Centre Furnance Mansion in June, celebrating an exhibit on the 50th anniversary of Arts Fest. Centre Daily Times, file

We are nearing the end of the centennial year of the National Park Service and the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Both have been transformational for the stewardship of historic preservation and their impact on conservation efforts in our country. Celebrations like these help to bring awareness to our historical and cultural resources both nationally and locally.

There are more than 90,000 properties in the United States listed in the National Register of Historic Places, part of the 1966 Act. This represents more than 1.4 million individual resources, many open to the public, and many that house artifact collections of local and broader significance. Almost every county in America has at least one place listed in the National Register. Centre County has 60 sites, including 15 historic districts. The Centre Furnace Mansion is one of these many sites. The collections that are held in these sites help tell the stories of our daily lives, heritage, industry and built environment.

Jackie Melander, president emeritus of the Centre County Historical Society, has emphasized that one of Centre County’s and the Society’s most valuable artifacts is the Centre Furnace Mansion and surrounding property. With its rich history, the mansion and furnace stack are all that remains of the 18th and 19th century ironmaking village that represented the beginning of the iron industry in 1791 in what is now Centre County.

Centre County was established on Feb. 13, 1800, and is named after Centre Furnace. The ironmasters mansion was a center for local society at the time of the founding of the Farmers’ High School in 1855, and the letter penned by Centre Furnace owner Gen. James Irvin that offers to donate 200 to 250 acres of Centre Furnace land was signed at this site. Irvin’s partner and resident ironmaster, Moses Thompson, also played a major role in bringing the school to Centre County and served as its treasurer through the difficult first years.

The Historical Society’s collections represent the history of Centre Furnace and, more broadly, Centre County. One of our recent acquisitions is a sampler made by Mary Irvin (Thompson) in 1825 when she was only 13 years old, and donated by Anne Hamilton Henszey Pyle. The sampler is worked on linen which is common for this period, and cross stitched in silk thread with alphabets, numbers, a star and bird, grapevine and flower-and-vine motifs.

According to the research of Cathy Horner: “One constant in a young girl’s education in early America was instruction in needlework. Whether the schoolgirl was living an upper-class life in Philadelphia or was the daughter of a laborer in rural Centre County, the importance of using needle and thread was imperative.” In the spring of 2017, an exhibition is planned that will feature Mary Irvin’s and other Centre County and Central Pa. samplers.

Another fascinating collection held at the Centre Furnace Mansion is that of local aviator Sherm Lutz. With assistance from Penn State Library Special Collections, the Historical Society has been working on organizing the Sherm Lutz Collection donated by Lutz’s niece, Phyllis Barr. The collection documents the development of aviation in Centre County. Lutz taught 477 students to fly between the years 1933 and 1985. Lutz and his students and colleagues, many of whom went on to work for the military or in the private sector, maintained lifelong friendships. An exhibition of this rich multimedia collection is planned for 2018 at the Centre Furnace Mansion.

OLLI at Penn State — open to adults who love to learn — offered 120 courses this past semester. Mary Sorenson led a course on the “Collection of Centre County Memories: From the Collections of the Centre County Historical Society.” To receive a free catalog for the upcoming spring semester, call OLLI at Penn State at 867-4278 or visit

Mary Sorenson is the executive director of the Centre County Historical Society.