We have probably all visited places or done things in our childhood that we’ve long since forgotten, and certainly didn’t appreciate the significance of it until much later in life. Thinking about the National Park Service’s Centennial and the #FindYourPark campaign recently brought back a memory of visiting Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site with my parents when I was a kid. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but I’m beginning to realize that a fun little day trip many years ago helped to pique my interest in and appreciation for historic places in ways that changed my life.
When I was about 10 years old my parents loaded my siblings and I in the car and drove us from our home near Kutztown to the southern tip of Berks County to join in a celebration. It was 1988 and Hopewell Furnace was celebrating its 50th anniversary as a unit of the National Park system. I can remember being confused – was this place real? Are the people talking to us actors? Why were they wearing funny clothes? Doesn’t charcoal come out of a bag?
But I can also remember watching with rapt attention as the man with the long apron retrieved the smoking kettle of glowing orange liquid from the fire and turned it into little metal bars right before my eyes. The wood frame building was enormous to a child my size and the smell of hot smoke was everywhere. I remember standing next to a different man in a tiny building while he swung a (relatively) huge hammer, turning one of those iron pieces into tiny nails – don’t nails come from the bins at the hardware store? And I remember helping to neatly stack wood into a tight mound that was later lit on fire. Was this going to be a bonfire?
A Legacy Forged in Iron
Hopewell Furnace was one of dozens of 18th-century iron works that made Pennsylvania a critical player in the American Revolution, and later helped launch the state to the forefront of the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Founded by Mark Bird in 1771, Hopewell turned iron ore, limestone, and charcoal into pig iron that could be forged into a variety of metal products – nails, hinges, utensils, plows – and stove plates. The southeastern Pennsylvania countryside was rich with these natural resources and transected by fast flowing creeks that could be dammed for power. Proximity to Philadelphia, the largest English speaking city outside of London, meant that there was easy access to markets and transportation routes to sell these goods.Bird was a key supporter of the American Revolution and supplied the Continental Army with much needed supplies of wheat, gunshot, and even cannon throughout the war. But the war also ruined Bird, leaving him bankrupt and unable to keep the furnace in operation during the financial turmoil that gripped the nation following the war. He sold the furnace in 1794 and eventually died a debtor in 1816 in North Carolina. Subsequent owners, most notably Matthew Brooke, Daniel Buckley and their heirs, bought the furnace in 1800 and guided the industrial complex through a period of expansion and prosperity. The cast house, ironmaster’s house and most of the buildings on the site today date from the heyday of the furnace during the 19th century.
Who Says You Can’t Go Back Again?
Some years after my first visit to Hopewell with my family, I again found myself wandering past the buildings unexpectedly. Each summer starting at age 7, I spent a week at a camp that nearly bordered the furnace, which is entirely surrounded by French Creek State Park. One of our activities during camp would be a day hike to a nearby church, St. Peter’s Village, or if you were old enough, to Hopewell Furnace. I can remember the line of kids and our college-aged counselors marching along the Horseshoe Trail, winding down the craggy hillsides, and navigating the rocky creek crossings. Modern day French Creek State Park had once been the land that supplied Hopewell with water, stone, timber, and iron and scattered amongst the forest were remnants of the charcoal pits, mill races, and rock outcroppings. When the National Park Service assumed ownership of the 5,000+ acres of the Hopewell property during World War II, they kept the historic core of the furnace and gave the surrounding land to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for use as a park. I eventually became a counselor at the camp and led my own groups of campers on day trips and overnight excursions through French Creek and Hopewell Furnace.Somewhere, I’m certain I have some pictures of that family excursion taken with my seemingly primitive 110 style camera (look it up), but I’m not sure I need them. I can see that trip and that place vividly in my mind’s eye and can attribute at least some of my interest in history, historic places, and preservation to that fateful fall day when I was 10 years old. So, if you’re wondering if a trip to a historic place can really make an impression on a child, I can confidently say – YES. Get out there and #FindYourPark and share your story.