Bellefonte, PA 16823
By Serge Bielanko
On a recent dreary Friday afternoon, Matt Maris is leading me up the steep part of town, up E. High Street by the Centre County Courthouse. Near the crest, I stop for a second, mid-sentence, to look back at the town behind and below us. Okay, alright... maybe I needed to catch my breath a second too, but whatever. That hill does offer a pretty substantial view of a part of Bellefonte that has a lot of roots in the past, you know.
And roots in the past, you see, is exactly why we're here.
Because the thing is, here we are: two grown men, two dads who just met, huffing it up Centre County's best San Francisco-style hill, just so we can hang out with the dead. Only a couple of days into this brand new decade, while almost everybody else is at work or busy with weekday life, Matt Maris and I are both aimed at the rolling hill of Union Cemetery, on foot and on purpose because that's how people like us find joy in this strange, nebulous world.
We dig reading old headstones.
We dig talking about old Civil War regiments.
And we dig standing in a place where someone else once stood, where something else once happened, a long time ago. I guess what I'm trying to say is that Maris and I, we both dig history a lot.
Is that weird?
Hell no, it's not.
A decade into a teaching career, these days Maris is well-known around Bellefonte Area High School where he's been teaching World Cultures as well as AP and elective courses the last five years.
Born and raised in North Carolina, wrestling brought him to Lock Haven University where he earned a BA in Secondary Education Social Studies. Later he married a Pennsylvanian (his wife, Alyson, is a Punxsutawney native and a PSU grad) and when the eventual opportunity came to move to Centre County, they both leaped at the chance. For Matt, it was an oppourtnity to teach and live in an area absolutely saturated with a whole lot of American history.
Now all of that has led to this. Local Historia, which I'm finding out is - more than anything else- Maris' way of giving something back to the community that has offered up such an endless buffet of the past for him to feast on. Case in point? Most of the local walking tours he has planned and researched for the past few years in preparation, he gives them away for free. If you go to his website, there are no fees listed there yet.
No special kid prices. No discounts for large groups or whatever.
Actually, the only thing that is offered is this: FREE WALKING TOURS.
You send a message, you hear back from Matt, you get a free walking tour with a guy who now knows a heck of a lot about what happened around here and when and why.
Last month he showed up in some seriously miserable weather at the Under the Lights Winter Market down in Talleyrand Park.
Hawking ghost pepper sauce? Nope. Shilling locally-sourced handmade railroad tie earrings? Oh, no.
He was there so he could offer up free tours of the old Gamble Mill building for anyone who was interested. And, not surprisingly, many were. No charge; big return. It might be the world's worst business model. Or then again, maybe it's the most brilliant one of all time. You prove yourself. You show that what you have to offer is worthwhile. And you let the people experience for free what you experience every single day of your life: this deeply entrenched love of history that makes every single place you will ever set foot more dazzling and intriguing than ever seemed possible before.
It's quite a gift to be giving, when you look at it like that. Look, I'm not trying to sound ultra hokey but this is kind of exactly the sort of thing we could use a lot more of in this world, I think. People helping other people to learn or find happiness simply because they enjoy doing that.
You see what I'm saying?
Back on our tour, as we slip into the edge of Union Cemetery together and Maris checks his notes a moment, I mention the possibility of monetizing this whole walking tour thing at some point. I tell him there's nothing wrong with that at all. For better or worse, the reality is that it's big business in a lot of towns with a historical background- towns exactly like Bellefonte- and, truthfully- when it's done right, it is one of the most valuable forms of tourism there is. Walking through history isn't about outlet stores or waterslides or bar crawls or cult-like college football madness.
It's all subtler, classier, but still with that very real potential to spark a light in the eyes of someone young or old that never goes out for the rest of their life.
I can tell right away that he's unsure, hesitant and I like that. When he does charge a little fee for any walking tours he gives, he points out, all the money goes back to historical preservation in the town somehow. He turns no profit. Yet. This is a bona fide labor of love and that's still a thing to behold in this messed-up world.
But here's the thing, people. Maris is REALLY good at this guiding-you-around-and-entertaining-the-heck-outta-you-while-you-learn kind of thing. Before we met up, I shared with him the fact that I am irreversibly hooked on Civil War history, particularly the Battle of Gettysburg that occurred back in 1863. I told him that I could probably spend the rest of my life only researching local lads who fought there, some who died there...or on any battlefield of the war for that matter.
You want to know what happened?
Almost immediately he offered me up a one-on-one tour of Bellefonte in the Civil War that he's been working on. It was a work-in-progress, he emphasized. He'd never given it before, but he was game to try it out on me if I was open-minded about any growing pains the tour might exhibit.
I was floored and immediately took him up on the offer. Maris needn't have been so trepidatious; the tour was extraordinary.
From General James Beaver and his multiple war wounds to hunting down the graves of African-American soldiers who fought for the Union; from a Gettysburg connection at the intersection of W. High and Spring St to the town's notorious Strychnine Corner where many returning veterans probably raised a glass to home sweet home, I took the very first Local Historia Bellefonte in the Civil War walking tour on a crappy winter's afternoon and had an amazing time. I learned a ton and probably talked too much, but Maris is the real deal when it comes to handling chatty know-it-alls like me! He listened intently to my ideas or vignettes and then took them into consideration. `
Mostly, though, he led me from one fascinating point in town to another, all the while sharing photos with me from his binder, pictures that often depicted what the exact place where we were standing looked like over a century ago.
As far as historical walking tours go- and I've been on my fair share, trust me- Local Historia is going to be around for a long time to come if he wants it to be. This is the sort of small enterprise that can have a gargantuan role in the way that a town like Bellefonte rolls into her coming years. There's already a real movement around here to embrace the future while never forgetting all of our past. Matt Maris is doing that now, maybe without even realizing it.
And at least for now, he's giving it away for free simply because he loves doing it. If you ask me, those are the kinds of people who are going to have the most success in the end. Guess that's why Bellefonte.com along with Downtown Bellefonte Inc. (DBI) decided to present Local Historia with the first ever Bellefonte.com LoveBFT Award at the recent DBI Annual Mixer & Meeting.
Here's a Q&A I did with Matt about the role history and Bellefonte have played in his life, what it means to younger generations, and where he wants to take Local Historia from here. Do yourself a favor and read on. Then gather up a bunch of people who are interested and connect with Local Historia for a walking tour.
You will thank me.
Why do you love history so much?
I feel a deep responsibility to speak up for the past. It is often silenced by modern life, neglected, unappreciated, misunderstood or forgotten, like fading memories. We all have that feeling that we wish we could have better understood our lost relatives and where we come from, it’s like that. I believe the lives of people in the past were valuable and that we can learn from them to better understand our own lives, our present and hopefully our future.
For me, history is about understanding the human experience. I try not to idealize the past, but there is something captivating about the pre-TV days, when life was a little more authentic to say the least. Local history is especially interesting to me because of all the connections we can make. I think we all have a deep need to connect with others, even in the past. No only can bonding with the past help us feel like a human being, but we can also connect to place, which has powerful meaning and associations to memories in our daily lives. When discussing Underground Railroad activity in Bellefonte, and someone can feel emotions about something that happened over 160 years ago, that’s really special. That’s where the past and present meet and we transcend time.
It's weird, but history is a little transcendental for me in that way. The goal is that these connections and experiences will provoke people to want to know more, and preserve more of our history. People are built to do certain things, sometimes it's to shape the future, to make history. For me, I believe the best thing I can do to contribute is to accurately and creatively interpret history, to see what we can learn, relearn, educate and to pay our respects where they are due. Public memory is an impressionable thing, and we have to keep our collective memory as alive and sound as possible. The core philosophy of Local Historia is to allow history to help history. I want to use walking tours and historical experiences to not only preserve the physical historical landscape but also importantly the historical record of our community.
What inspired you to start Local Historia Walking Tours?
Bellefonte itself inspired me to start Local Historia. When you live somewhere like Centre County, and start to embrace the inspiring and captivating history of a place like Bellefonte, its history becomes a part of you through a bottom up experience rather than a top down lecture. My passion for local history really took flight while doing an internship at the Centre County Library & Historical Museum for my master’s degree in History. The folks there are just as passionate about Centre County and preserving its history. As soon as I got some dust on my hands and started to inquire into the incredible history of our community, something inside of me set on fire. After all, Historia is the root word for history and means to inquire. Since then I’ve been in a constant state of historia. The walking tours have given me a way to practice what I preach; the journey of an ongoing field trip, and a purpose to serve our community.
The walking tours were also a natural progression. In the classroom I’ve always thrived on the challenge of making history engaging, meaningful or helping people connect with it. Years ago, I had the opportunity to take some of my students on a walking tour in Bellefonte. Bellefonte is like a history lab. You can see, touch and feel the history. I loved the experience and then developed walking tours for teacher trainings as well. Bellefonte’s history is so eclectic, you can bring it into any subject or classroom. I then had the opportunity to volunteer with the Centre County Library & Historical Museum who offered free walking tours on Friday over the past summer. Every time I did it, I wanted to get better, learn more and create more tours. That led directly to me starting Local Historia in August of 2019. Since then, I’ve created more tours featuring different parts of town, Union Cemetery, bus tours, ghost tours, property tours and I’m excited about more to come.
I just love doing it. A songbird is gonna sing. I love the research, getting lost in a question, pouring over maps, bringing what I learned to the public, my students, fellow teachers, friends, or whoever will listen.
Do you think Bellefonte is kind of the perfect place for this walking tour idea? Why?
Yes, for such a small town it’s amazing how it has links to really any historical topic one can think of from Native American history, to the iron industry, the vital role of Spring Creek, canal to airmail history, Thomas Edison and early electricity, the Seven Governors, newspaper history, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, its deep ties to Penn State University, women's suffrage, civil rights, prohibition, the World Wars, and so much more.
Not to mention all the specific local history of churches, schools, businesses, organizations and families that shaped who we are today. Again, it’s the perfect place to turn history upside down and see national or state events through the lense of our own local community. I’m not the first to try walking tours in Bellefonte, but my goal is to mix it up and bring excellence and creativity to the public through enjoyable historical experiences. Bellefonte’s layout took shape before the automobile, so in that sense the historic district is well suited for walking tours. I want to also say that Bellefonte did not develop in a vacuum.
The historical narrative and sites throughout Centre County are also rich and often tie to Bellefonte. That’s why I’m venturing into private car tours by request, so we can cover more ground in Centre County in addition to Bellefonte. Pick up a hitchhiking historian! Another reason why it’s a great place for walking tours is all the support. I’ve had a lot of support from the Bellefonte community, including fellow teachers and multiple organizations and businesses. I am thankful to live in such a place with other people who care so much about their community. If I made a list it would take too long but thanks so much to all the folks who have sat down with me and supported the vision. Many I call dear friends know who you are and what you mean to me.
Older generations like to say that younger people aren't interested in history. As a history grad, history teacher, and local historian: what are your thoughts on that?
They are, they just have to be reached in a creative way. Most of the popular series and shows that folks watch are historically based. The interest is there but young folks are not always sure what they are interested in yet, but they are not interested in anything that is not engaging.
Young people, or anyone for that matter, don’t just want the information. These days you can look almost anything up. People want to be an active participant in an authentic experience. They want to connect with something real, and my job is to help them do that. It’s not easy with all the distractions today, but that makes the enduring human connections even more meaningful as well. I welcome that challenge because I believe in the product, that history adds value to our community, that its a public good that can benefit anyone if shared in a professional, creative and accessible way.
What are your plans for Local Historia Walking Tours in 2020 ?
I’m excited about the future. I’m currently developing a Civil War Tour in Bellefonte which includes parts of town and Union Cemetery. It covers direct connections to the Civil War like Governor Curtin and his role in the Gettysburg Address, a closer look at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial, General Beaver’s story (Beaver Stadium), the 148th “Centre County Regiment,” the Underground Railroad, stories of “United States Colored Troops” and other soldiers from Bellefonte, as well as broader county topics like Penn State during the Civil War. This walking tour will be ready by Spring 2020.
Also as mentioned, the hitchhiking historian car tours are a new option as well. All tours are available by request on my Instagram, Facebook or website. I really try to customize any request to create a great experience for you.
Okay, last question. Tell us one quick little known fact or vignette about Bellefonte history?
There is so much history in Bellefonte but here is one thing that I came across while digitizing the Bellefonte Governors’ Papers Collection with the CCLHM. I chose this example because, as a teacher, it resonates with me in several ways, I am also a huge fan of General Beaver (whom Beaver Stadium is named after).
On Thursday May 19, 1892, not long after his term as Pennsylvania Governor from 1887 to 1891, General Beaver was the commencement speaker for the Bellefonte High School graduation in Garman’s Opera House. I would I have loved being in the Garman Opera House that evening as a teacher watching my students graduate and listening to James A. Beaver. After reading his speech, I couldn't help but smile and be inspired. First, he complemented the chorus who sung for him but didn’t refrain from calling out a student for chewing gum during the performance. This is a man who led men in combat through the Civil War and who had his leg amputated at the hip in a farmhouse kitchen in Virginia. I can imagine the boy swallowing the gum while his face turned pale.
Moving on from this side note, the General and former governor focused his speech on public education recommending that students receive practical training to “make a living with their hands” like what we have with CPI today.
He also recommended gymnasiums. That’s right, gyms were not a luxury back then. Beaver advocated to “develop in our children strength of muscle, courage and endurance, all of which come from a proper use of a gymnasium.”
The General, concluding, observed that “what this community is to be in the next generation will be determined very largely-- is determined to some extent already-- by what will be done and what has been done in our public schools.” Yes sir General, yes sir.
Address of General James A. Beaver, Before the Bellefonte High School at Its Commencement Exercises in Garman’s Opera House, Thursday Evening, May 19, 1892. http://digitalcollections.powerlibrary.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/pcecl-bgp/id/45
This month is the absolute perfect time of year to check out...or re-introduce yourself to all that BAM has to offer.
Remembering a Bellefonte Pennsylvania African-American soldier who served and died in the Civil War.
Two Centre County women who have taken it upon themselves to bring something to the streets of Bellefonte that is long overdue.
Part coworking space, part community gathering place which means you will find yourself a reason to visit this place before long.
Over the course of a 130-year lifespan, the school sent a dizzying array of lads out into the world, quite a few who were destined for great things.
Ritual Masks and Figures of Mexico from the Althouse Collection is much more than it even sounds in title.
Experience More of Bellefonte in the Story Archive
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