It was a dark and stormy day, quite apropos of fall in Centre County, when the Leadership Centre County Class of 2018 had its first program day, history day. I was appreciative that Georgia Abbey, executive director of LCC, sent out the weather forecast the day before as I hadn’t taken the time to look, and would have been terribly unprepared for the rain and chill.
Program days are an integral component of Leadership Centre County. These monthly occurrences from the kickoff retreat in October to the following May are opportunities for class members to really delve into the heart and soul of Centre County. Heightening our awareness of history, the environment, and the area’s social and economic needs prepares us to become knowledgeable advocates for promoting quality of life in Centre County.
We had the privilege of having the historic match factory building in Bellefonte as our headquarters for the day. After opening in 1900, it became one of the largest match producing plants in the country. As often happens, the plant didn’t keep up with its competition, so matchbooks and lighters became its demise, with the plant closing in 1947. Today, it is home to the American Philatelic Society and a variety of other tenants, and is truly a place worth visiting. I recommend perusing the onsite library and then stopping in at Big Spring Spirits for a tasting of their handcrafted distilled spirits.
Local archivist Lee Stout provided a history on the origins of Penn State. I found the changes to the institution’s name and curriculum over the years fascinating, and a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of Centre County. The university was originally founded as the Farmer’s High School of Pennsylvania after a donation of 200 acres by James Irvin, but the name was changed to the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania in 1862 and then to the Pennsylvania State College in 1874. While agriculture might have been the curriculum on which the university was founded, George Atherton, president beginning in 1882, expanded the curriculum to include engineering studies in an effort to increase enrollment and provide a broader educational experience. In 1953, the name was changed to what it is today, the Pennsylvania State University.
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If you’re not a history buff (which I am not), you may not be aware of how deep and rich Centre County history runs. Although I’ve been a resident of Centre County for 17 years, I have never taken the time to explore its past. It literally runs rich and deep — the geology of Centre County, rich in limestone and iron ore, naturally lent itself to becoming a center for iron furnaces as well as agriculture. From the match factory, we boarded buses to Milesburg to visit historic Curtin Village, the former home of Eagle Ironworks, to see the engineering accomplishments of the early 1800s firsthand.
The afternoon involved a soggy but nostalgic scavenger hunt through the historic streets of Bellefonte. A visit to the Bellefonte Art Museum will somber you with a reminder of a dark past of the Civil War. The Cadillac Building will inspire you with the success of women in male-dominated fields. The Sailor and Soldiers Memorial and Andrew Curtin Monument will encourage you to remember our region’s roots.
The train station at Talleyrand Park will conjure up childlike desire for a ride on a train. It’s important to know our past because it helps us understand how to plan for a future filled with growth and abundance as well as inspires us to be strong leaders in Centre County like those who came before.