From Fallingwater, we drove to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a town of about 20,000, to see the Cumberland County Historical Society. Before heading to the Historical Society, we had lunch in the nicely preserved downtown of Carlisle, whose streets were mapped out in 1751. Unlike many small American towns whose fortunes have faded, Carlisle, while not exuding luxuriant prosperity, appeared to be holding its own. It seems to have a secure economic base because the United States Army War College is located at the Carlisle Barracks, one of the country’s oldest active military installations. In addition, Dickinson College, chartered in 1785, with about 2,500 undergraduates is there, three blocks from downtown. (But nothing in Carlisle is far from downtown.)
Perhaps on another trip to Carlisle (not likely, but, hey, who knows?), I will visit the museum at the War College or Trout Gallery at Dickinson, which seems to put on some interesting art exhibits, but on this trip we just went to the Cumberland County Historical Society. It was already mid-afternoon when we got there.
On the one hand, the museum is generic encapsulating the history of many similar towns of the Northeast: There was a section on the pioneers who settled the area in the eighteenth and nineteenth century (most towns in this region emerged then). There were other displays on the industry or crafts that emerged in the 1800s. After all, there had to be some reason why a settlement grew. In Williamsport, for example, it was lumber. In Cumberland County, it was partly farming (it is in a rich agricultural area), but Carlisle also had diverse industries not just one dominant one.
A small-town museum must have a section on the prominent citizens who most benefited from the early wealth of the place. This, however, is invariably followed by a section on the town’s decline in the twentieth century. If there had been no decline, then the place would have continued to grow so that it would not just be a small town today. Then the museum almost always has a careful attempt at boosterism. First, something on how the town coped after that decline and a little bit about the success of the place today. In addition, perhaps something on churches and religious movements and definitely displays on local participation in our various wars. And something on the lighter side—sports or music.
The Cumberland County Historical Society had all this with some distinctive local touches. Carlisle, for example, was twice invaded by Confederates during the Civil War, and the town housed prisoners of war from both Germany and Japan during World War II. But I wanted to see the museum because a show about it on the Pennsylvania Cable Network indicated that it had several other unique displays that intrigued me.
I had never heard of Wilhelm Schimmel until I saw the TV presentation. He was a nineteenth century folk artist, born in Germany in 1817, who emigrated to Cumberland County during the Civil War. Using salvaged wood, he carved animals, frequently eagles, and human figures in a primitive style. He colorfully painted the pieces. They are striking. Schimmel was an “itinerant,” which in his case meant that he could not hold a steady job and sold his carvings for a few pennies or bartered them for food and lodging. And drink. Schimmel appears to have been an alcoholic with an ugly disposition who landed in jail more than once. On one of those occasions in 1869, he broke up an office and got in a brawl. It took three men to subdue him, and then, according to a contemporary news report, he “became perfectly docile.” He was charged with assault with intent to kill and pleaded guilty to simple assault. “He was sentenced to one year in jail, a fine of six cents plus costs.” I have no explanation for a six-cent fine. When he died in 1890, a local newspaper’s obituary said Schimmel had made “his headquarters in jails and almshouses and died at the almshouse. . . . He was apparently a man of very surly disposition.”
Today, however, his creations are collectors’ items. They routinely sell for thousands of dollars all the way up to $50,000. His work can be found in several museums including the Art Institute of Chicago. The Carlisle museum has perhaps the largest collection of Schimmel pieces. I was happy to see them, but I was a bit disappointed that there were not even more.
The Cumberland County Historical Society is also different from other small-town museums, not only in being free, but by having a display about the inventor of the telephone. You may be surprised that Alexander Graham Bell lived in Pennsylvania, but the exhibit is not about AGB. It highlights instead one Daniel Drawbaugh who was born near Carlisle in 1827. By the time of his death in 1911, he had invented many things, some of which were on display in the museum, including an ingenious coin sorter. Yes, but did Drawbaugh invent the telephone?
Alexander Graham Bell received patents for the telephone in the 1870s. Others, however, claimed that they had preceded Bell in the invention and companies competing with the American Bell Telephone Company sought to invalidate the patents. The Peoples Telephone Company heard stories that Drawbaugh had produced a telephone a decade before Bell’s but that he had not had the money to patent his invention. Peoples funded a lawsuit for Drawbaugh, who apparently made a lousy witness. Nevertheless, his case and a collection of others challenging Bell’s patent, mostly funded by Western Union, made their way to the United States Supreme Court, where, in 1888, the Court upheld Bell by a four to three vote. Two justices did not sit. I don’t know why. I also cannot summarize for you the issues and the justices’ opinions, which I am told take up an entire volume of the Supreme Court reports. My curiosity does not run to four or five hundred pages; it caps at five to ten.
This story does intrigue me, however. If one vote had shifted, the history of American business would be significantly different, and we might all know the name Daniel Drawbaugh. I believe that histories are waiting to be written about the many consequential patent fights in this country, of which this was one.
The Carlisle museum is also different from other small-town museums because of its unique display concerning the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the prime reason I wanted to visit the historical society.
(to be continued)