Compared to those of some of my friends, my travels have been limited. I have not been to Tanzania, South Africa, or Ethiopia. I have not gone to Kazakhstan or Mongolia. I have been to neither Argentina, Brazil, nor Chile. I have not been to Japan, China, or Singapore, or New Zealand or Australia, or even Scotland or Ireland, much less the Faroe or Shetland Islands. But, in pre-Covid times when the spouse and I talked about trips to some of these places, we also realized that we had not traveled to many potentially interesting parts of the United States, some not far from us. We started planning driving trips to places we had not been before with stops along the way to see some local attractions.
And so, recently we drove from our northeast Pennsylvania house with the goal of visiting Fallingwater, the house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright over a small waterfall. The trip had been planned months before with hopes of seeing some fall foliage along the way. While occasionally we had stretches of a mile or two with yellows and reds, the deciduous trees remained largely green, perhaps, we speculated, because the autumn had been warm. We realized, though, that we did not know why leaves turned colors—was it colder weather or shortening days or both? Although we have many, many years of education between us, we had to concede ignorance of these matters.
The first leg of our trip was a two-hour drive from our Pocono Mountains home to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a town of about 30,000, perhaps best known today as the home of the Little League World Series and a museum for the same. That held little interest for me, but it did not matter because the museum was not open, presumably because of Covid.
We arrived for lunch at the Sawhorse Café, a tiny, crowded restaurant on the edge of a college campus with good food that came after an inordinately long wait. I was struck yet again by the fact that this country has a vast number of colleges and universities many of which, even though I was an academic for decades, I have never heard of or know little about, including Lycoming College which was a few blocks from the café. To my surprise I found that Lycoming, a private coeducational institution of about 1,200 undergraduates and affiliated with the United Methodist Church, was one of the oldest colleges in the country with roots going back to the early nineteenth century. I had at least heard of Lycoming before going to Williamsport, but I had no previous knowledge of the public Pennsylvania College of Technology, with 5,400 undergrads, which is also located in Williamsport.
After lunch we went to the Thomas T. Taber Museum of the Lycoming County Historical Society. (Mr. Taber is a local historian and philanthropist.) The spouse and I have now learned to seek out small-town museums. Many of them are surprisingly good, exposing us to history and artists we do not know. The Taber Museum is an outstanding example with geology, Native American, lumbering, weaving, and blacksmithing exhibits. The spouse was most impressed with a demonstration of a complicated, ingenious, nineteenth-century rickrack weaving machine. (She had to educate me about rickrack.) We were both amazed that someone had invented such a thing that was simultaneously useful and beautiful.
I was drawn to the extensive displays about the development of Williamsport’s lumbering industry, the source of the region’s late nineteenth century wealth. It was clear that the work was hard and dangerous, not just the felling of the timber but also the floating of a huge number of logs down a branch of the Susquehanna River where Williamsport is located. The industry was essential in the development of the town, but, of course, a ready supply of lumber fueled the development of many parts of America.
In the blacksmith section, I learned that oxen have small hooves split into two sections. Each foot requires two small shoes, but oxen cannot support their massive weight on only three legs. The smithy could not shoe an ox the way I had seen horses shoed many times in old western movies where the leather-aproned blacksmith picks up a leg and nails on a horseshoe. Instead, a sling was invented to bear part the ox’s weight so that a leg could be raised and the two ox shoes could be hammered onto each foot.
Other exhibits documented Williamsport’s famous Repasz Brass Band, which was founded in 1831 and claims to be the country’s longest continuously operated band. However, the Taber Museum is especially known for its model trains, a collection of one person, Larue Shempp. It contains over 2,000 pieces and 347 complete train sets, some of which run in large, interactive displays. Awesome.
The visit-worthy Taber Museum is housed in a modern building, but it is situated on Millionaires’ Row, a national historic district. The street is lined with fantastic, extravagant homes built in the Victorian era. The town proclaims, “Once the Lumber Capital of the World, Williamsport had more millionaires per person than any other city in the USA.” I remembered a similar boast when we were in Merida, Yucatan, which proclaims that, at the turn of the 20th century, Merida had more millionaires than any other city in the world. I wonder how many other towns or cities make similar claims.
Most of the homes on Williamsport’s Millionaires’ Row have now been broken up into apartments and offices, but the Rowley House, finished in 1888, is open to the public—unfortunately not on the day we were there. The helpful, friendly staff member at the Taber Museum made a call to a gregarious, eighty-nine-year-old volunteer at the Rowley House. He agreed to meet us there and show us around, but then he remembered that an alarm was set. He had not written down the code and could not recall it, and, thus, we could not visit the nineteenth century house.