Sunday, March 17, 2024

The Great Commoner, Spring 2024, No. 48,

 Two big Thaddeus Stevens events in April

        There are two important Thaddeus Stevens events on April 4 and 5. The grand opening of the new Stevens museum will be held at 46 Chambersburg Street in Gettysburg from 5 to 7 p.m. on April 4. Then the next day, Friday, April 5, the annual graveside ceremony will be held at 4:30 p.m. at the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery at Mulberry and Chestnut Streets in Lancaster, PA. 

The grand opening of the first Stevens museum is on the 232nd birthday of Stevens and the 25th anniversary of the Thaddeus Stevens Society. The schedule for the grand opening is elsewhere in the newsletter.

The graveside ceremony, sponsored by the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology and the Stevens Society, honors Stevens with speeches and presentations in front of the Great Commoner’s inspirational grave. The event is followed by a free dinner at 6 p.m. at the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology at 750 E. King Street in its Jones Conference Room. If you plan to attend, please email or call 717-347-8159.

Gettysburg museum opens

Thad's Place, home of the Thaddeus Stevens Museum, has opened at 46 Chambersburg Street in Gettysburg, PA. The grand opening will be Thursday, April 4.

The museum, had its "soft" opening on March 1 and the public reception has been gratifying. History buffs roaming Gettysburg are thrilled to find a Stevens museum. The hours will be 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Outside those hours, appointments can be made by calling 717-347-8159..

The museum has an extensive collection of letters, newspapers and two stoves made at iron works owned by Stevens. There is also study carrels where researchers can use the Society's collection of books and documents about Stevens. Visitors can also catch videos about Stevens in the lounge area where there is free coffee and a vending machine providing snacks. Below are photo of the museum, which is still in the process of being set up.

                                        Stoves made at iron works owned by Stevens

Letters and documents in a display case

Study carrels next to Stevens books and documents.

Lounge and video area

Grand opening schedule

5 to 6 p.m. – Attendees will be able to tour the new museum and Civil War era music will be played by noted musician Tom Jolin. The first 100 people will receive a bag of souvenirs, including DVDs about Thaddeus Stevens, a button and a bookmark commemorating the grand opening, and flyers about Stevens. Light refreshments will be served

6 to 7 p.m. – Gettysburg Independent Blues, a Civil War color guard, will present arms to begin the ceremonies in front of Christ Lutheran Evangelical Church next to the museum. This will be followed by Jesse Holt, a local vocalist, singing the Star-Spangled Banner. This will be followed by remarks by local officials and others.

Fundraising Banquet

    From 7 to 9 p.m. there will be a fundraising banquet at the social hall of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church next to the museum. The lasagna dinner will include a ticket to a wine reception at the Adams County Winery shop across the street at 25 Chambersburg Street before the grand opening. Tickets are $50 a person and can be obtained by emailing or calling 717-347-8159.

History of almost Thaddeus Stevens museums

    While there are several books about Thaddeus Stevens and a few movies that include his character, his relatives and admirers did little to preserve the places he lived or to find a location for artifacts related to him. His house in Gettysburg was torn down in the 1920s and his home is Lancaster was altered to the point of being unrecognizable. 

The first attempt to have some sort of museum was at Caledonia State Park near Chambersburg, PA, the site of Stevens iron furnace, which he owned from 1837 to his death in 1868. By the early 20th century, only a few buildings survived, including the blacksmith shop. That shop was converted into a trolley station for the electric railroad that ran from Chambersburg. In 1935 it was converted back to a blacksmith with the addition of a belfry, that had not been there before.

The restored structure was outfitted with a hearth and blacksmith equipment and some products made at the furnace, such as a stove, were put on display. There was even a gift shop selling park souvenirs. But its focus was the history of the iron works and not Stevens’s legislative career, though more information about that has been added in recent decades. Also, the unheated brick building was not suitable for storing artifacts. 

One particular drawback to the shop was the sign on the front of the building which read: “Thaddeus Stevens Blacksmith Shop.” This has caused people to think Stevens was a blacksmith and not a powerful legislator. The shop is now open on weekends during the summer with blacksmith demonstrations and presentations by a Thaddeus Stevens portrayer. 

                                                                 A postcard showing the blacksmith shop in the 1940s

Another effort at a Stevens museum was at the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, PA, a technical school established on a bequest from Stevens. In the 1990s, the school set up an archives room in its library This room had a variety of Stevens’s artifacts including his clubfoot boot, his suitcase, a bed frame and a writing desk. 

While this was a wonderful tribute to Stevens, it was located in an upper floor of the library and was not readily available to the public. The room was normally open only on special occasions or by asking the librarian to unlock the room. But even this limited accessibility was ended in 2023 when a leak developed in the room’s ceiling and the college transferred most of the artifacts over to LancasterHistory, the non-profit which plans to open a $25 million museum in early 2025 that will include Stevens.

                                        The display case at the archives room at Stevens College

The trail towards a museum at the site of Stevens's Lancaster house started in the early 2000s when the Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, a non-profit concerned with preserving historic buildings, was successful in saving what was left of the Stevens house in downtown Lancaster and was able to restore the outside to its 1860s appearance. But the trust encountered financial problems in the effort and had to turn the project over to LancasterHistory in 2010, which then postponed any fundraising for more than a dozen years because it was still paying for its new museum.

LancasterHistory, which also operates President James Buchanan’s home Wheatland, now has the largest collections of Stevens artifacts anywhere, including a desk, rocking chair, boots, a variety of documents and even his wig. But these items are only brought out for specific exhibits and there is no permanent Stevens exhibit at its museum, much to the disappointment of tourists looking for for Stevens artifacts. This should change next year when LancasterHistory plans to open the Thaddeus Stevens & Lydia Hamilton Smith Center for History and Democracy in April 2025. Besides Stevens, the museum will include information about his housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith and the Underground Railroad.

The Thaddeus Stevens Society also tried its hand at Stevens exhibits over the years. Shortly after it was formed in 1999, the Society set up the Thaddeus Stevens room at Ross's Coffeehouse & Eatery in Gettysburg, owned by Ross Hetrick, the founder of the Society. That collection was rather small since the Society had just started collecting artifacts. That room shutdown when the coffeehouse was sold in 2004. But the Society continued to acquire Stevens items and now they will be displayed at the new museum.

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