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Cumberland County: A Quiet Hub of American History

By David Boegaard

Those who spend a great deal of time in Cumberland County develop an awareness of the history, suggests Cara Holtry Curtis, Librarian for the Cumberland County Historical Society. "It may be cliché to say that a person's or place's history impacts who they are but you can definitely see that in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania." Eventually, they come to know the history of the place in their bones. "History seeps into you a little bit when you live in Cumberland County," says Curtis.

Cumberland is not quite identical with itself, historically speaking. The County was once far larger, stretching from Pittsburgh to Centre County, PA. But that was back when white settlers were first landing in the area. It's easy to forget that the East was ever settled, but Curtis reminds us, "this was the frontier. This was the 'West' for a period of time."

Nowadays, Cumberland County has a split identity, suggests Curtis. "The county is a mix between the agricultural Western Cumberland County and the more suburban Eastern Cumberland County." But no matter where you are in Cumberland, you are in meeting point between a number of rich cultural centers. "We are close to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, NYC, Washington D.C., and Baltimore," notes Curtis. "It makes it a great place for people who enjoy the cities but also enjoy getting away from them."

That location made Cumberland a transportation hub since the time when indigenous peoples ruled the land. "There were many important trade and migration routes," notes Curtis. People travelling west from Philadelphia and other eastern cities frequently came through Cumberland. "Some would settle here and never move on," says Curtis. "Others would settle here for a time before working their way further west in to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kansas, California or south in to places like Natchez, Mississippi." And the location brought a number of famous historical people through the County. Even "George Washington came through Carlisle on his way west to deal with the Whiskey Rebellion," mentions Curtis with pride.

But it would be a mistake to think that you need to leave Cumberland County to enjoy yourself. Cumberland, says Curtis, "is a picturesque valley that has some of the best fly/trout fishing in the country." It's also at the center point of the Appalachian Trail, and has a variety of other hiking trails for every interest and ability.

Carlisle, a lovely town in the center of Cumberland County, is "home to the 2nd oldest active military base," the Carlisle Barracks, mentions Curtis. From 1879-1918, the Carlisle Barracks was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a school for Indigenous young men to learn settler culture and integrate into society. This school was the founded by RH Pratt, and at one time had Pop Warner and Jim Thorpe, one of the greatest of American athletes, and a stick in the eye of Hitler. Since 1951, the Carlisle Barracks have been returned to something closer to their original use as the US Army War College.

Today, Carlisle honors the many students who passed through the school, right along with all of its other ancestors. But grandchildren and great-grandchildren can still return to Carlisle to see a slice of their own history. "They can visit places their ancestors were," says Curtis. When they come to Carlisle, "they are seeing a town that is very similar to what their ancestors would have seen."

Cumberland County has so many fascinating historical facts that it's difficult to select out just one or two. There's the Carlisle inventor who claimed to have invented the telephone, but not to have patented it. Daniel Drawbaugh even took his case to the Supreme Court and only lost by one vote - though a number of the Justices owned stock in the Bell Telephone Company.

And there's the long history of Cumberland County producing heroes and great patriots. "Eleven men affiliated with Cumberland County have received the Medal of Honor from conflicts ranging from the Civil War to United Nations Operations in Somalia II (Blackhawk Down)," boasts Curtis. Moreover, says Curtis, "three men from Cumberland County (James Wilson, James Smith, and George Ross) were living in Cumberland County when they signed the Declaration of Independence." And Robert Whitehill not only helped write the Pennsylvania Constitution, he is widely believed to have been instrumental in the creation of the U.S. Bill of Rights.

If you live in Cumberland County, these things become the backdrop of your days. But history is still being made there. The local residents can always find time to celebrate life. From the Jubilee Day street fair in Mechanicsburg to the Shippensburg Corn Festival to Greek Fest or the Fall Furnace Festival in Pine Grove Forest State Park, people get together here to celebrate their history and their communities. The Cumberland County Historical Society even hosts an annual "McLain Celtic Festival" on Labor day of each year.

If you come to the quaint hub of history that is Cumberland County, make sure check out the wonderful Cumberland County Historical Society in Carlisle for a richer taste of the deep history of the area. But whatever you do, take some time to enjoy. Great communities are what brings Cumberland County history to life, suggests Curtis. "We like to have a good time and delight in having opportunities to get out within our communities."

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