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Cameron looks to bring new life to historic Boal Mansion

Director Bob Cameron is building nature trails and designing gardens on the grounds of the Boal Mansion Museum and Columbus Chapel.
Director Bob Cameron is building nature trails and designing gardens on the grounds of the Boal Mansion Museum and Columbus Chapel. For the Centre Daily Times

They expected to be warned. Instead, they were welcomed.

Bob Cameron, director of the Boal Mansion Museum and Columbus Chapel, was walking to work one day when he came across a father and son sailing toy boats made of weeds along a stream on the property.

Thinking he was trespassing, the father apologized.

“Of course you can be here,” Cameron recalled saying. “Come and enjoy this stream. Bring your family.”

It’s a standing invitation for everyone.

In his second season, Cameron hopes to turn the venerable Boalsburg site — the ancestral home of nine generations of the Boal family, with familial ties ranging from signers of the Declaration of Independence to Christopher Columbus — into a tourist destination and community resource. He envisions a mini-Longwood Gardens meeting a mini-Smithsonian, and he’s well on his way, busy reinvigorating a local landmark.

He’s building nature trails, designing gardens, improving the museum and chapel with their priceless artifacts, and adding exhibits and events. Last Sunday, he held the first Old World Festival featuring food, music, dance and displays inspired by the Boals’ European roots. Beneath stately sugar maples and spruces, local restaurants, arts organizations and Penn State and high school students came together to stage a lively seasonal celebration.

Like the gorgeous fall weather that day, Cameron brought sunshine to the Boal Mansion, bringing it from a dark period toward a bright future. He took over from Boal descendant Christopher Lee, now serving a prison sentence for child pornography, and embarked on a five-year plan to revitalize a historic property in danger of sliding into genteel irrelevance.

“To me, this is such an incredible gem here, but I had observed how this was just deteriorating over the years,” Cameron said.

From day one, out of his interests in historical renovation, education and horticulture, he has pursued a mission to elevate an already lofty property. The Boal Mansion Museum’s collection of antiquities includes two centuries of furnishings and fine art, the original signatures of five American presidents, a gallery of weapons from the medieval period to World War 1, and even a lock of Napoleon’s hair.

“It’s just incredible,” Cameron said. “These are the sort of things that set this museum apart and why I think it’s something that has to be saved. It’s not your typical museum. Most America museums go back 100, 200 years. In this case, we go back to the Renaissance period.”

More treasures fill the stone chapel, given to Mathilde de Lagarde Boal by her aunt, Victoria Montalvo Columbus, and brought in pieces from Spain in 1909. It contains Columbus’ desk, Columbus family archives dating to 1453, and European paintings and sculpture from the 15th to 18th centuries.

Cameron could have stopped at reorganizing and modernizing the displays, at adding climate-control systems to the Armory Room and Ship Room exhibition buildings near the carriage house. But you don’t lead science and engineering for an international company for more than two decades without ambition and a penchant for thinking big, and Cameron hasn’t lost either.

Next year, he plans to unveil a transportation museum in the Armory Room, which used to house the weapons collection now in the mansion. About 10 carriages will help teach about Boalsburg’s 19th-century role as a stagecoach stop. Not far away, the Ship Room will be a culinary museum highlighting foods that Columbus introduced to Europe.

A much larger display excites Cameron even more.

He dreams of the property’s 48 acres serving as a public park nestled in a developing area. To that end, he’s constructing seven gardens, including a 300-seat garden amphitheater with a wooden stage for plays, concerts and weddings and a wrought-iron arbor leading to seats amid rows of plants.

Also in the works are a culinary garden, a sensory garden, a theater garden featuring plants Shakespeare mentioned and an heirloom rose garden shaped like a compass, with five sections representing 500 years of roses.

Along with the gardens, Cameron plans on erecting wildlife observation decks on the grounds. Already, he has built trails that link his acres of woods and wetlands to Blue Spring Park and the Stan Yoder Memorial Preserve.

The goal, he said, was to open up the property for the public’s enjoyment.

“If we can maintain this green space, this could become almost like our little Central Park for our urban area,” he said.

He exudes enthusiasm, and why not? These are exciting days at Boal Mansion.

Visitors have doubled, he says. Schools are booking field trips. Historians, archeologists, writers and TV shows are contacting him. He’s adding docents for the exhibits and volunteers for his committees, and the museum membership program he started is growing.

“That has been one of the most rewarding parts of it, how people in the community are stepping up to come out and volunteer,” he said.

This year saw new events such as British High Teas, the Herb and Garlic Festival, and the Annual Antique Faire and Blueberry Festival. But Cameron didn’t dispense with tradition, keeping the Memorial Day celebration, but added twists such as an old-time mule-driven carousel and re-enactors demonstrating woodworking, blacksmithing and broom making.

Next year may bring further changes. Memorial Day might also feature a Civil War ball in the mansion. Christmas could bring an illuminated driveway and holiday market. The Old World Festival might have jousting and trebuchets to add to medieval sword fighting demonstrations, and if he can arrange it, a choir singing Gregorian chants. Maybe in time, it could become a homegrown version of the Pennsylvania Renaissance Fair in Mount Hope.

Boal Mansion has come alive, thanks to Cameron’s vision and energy. His wife kids him about working 70 hours a week at a part-time job, but it’s all worth it when he sees visitors coming for tours or just to enjoy a serene moment by a stream.

“I like that people recognize what a gem this is and they share in that vision, that this is something very worthwhile saving,” he said. “It’s very worthwhile putting the effort into it to ensure future generations will be able to enjoy this.”

Chris Rosenblum writes about local people, places and events. Send column ideas to chrisrosenblum@comcast.net.

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