Bellefonte, PA 16823
By Serge Bielanko
Ever wonder what the town of Bellefonte was actually like during the Civil War?
Did you know that young fellas who once lived right down the road from where you live right now once fought in the thick of it all at Gettysburg?
Can you guess the prominent Civil War connection between Penn State football and Centre County?
Local Historia will be digging deep into our area's very rich Civil War history when they host two walking tours dedicated to the cause. Led by Bellefonte Area High School history teacher (and Local Historia founder) Matt Maris, these walking tours are designed to engage everyone from fervent Civil War nerds to mildly curious folks just looking to learn a bit about where they live. Maris is a master guide whose love of local history is the driving force behind these tours. Truth is: even if no one attended, he'd probably still be out there on the streets, teaching the songbirds and pigeons all about our collective past.
That said, he doesn't have to worry, but you might. Local Historia's walking tours have all been wildly successful at full capacity. And also absolutely FREE. Which is why you need to reach out to Matt as soon as possible to RSVP for his tours, you see, because they are limited to only 15 people each (with social distancing, of course)! So you'd better go ahead and do that right now by emailing him at email@example.com OR by messaging him through his Local Historia Facebook page.
I reached out to Matt to catch up with him about what these Bellefonte's Civil War tours are all about.
Bellefonte.com: Centre County's Civil War history is richer and deeper than most people around here even realize. Have you been surprised at how much there is to learn and share?
Matt Maris: Yes for sure, there is a lifetime of learning to do in regards to Centre County connections to the Civil War. The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial has about 3,800 veteran names on it. Union Cemetery, just one of many beautiful cemeteries in Centre County with veterans throughout, has about 19 acres of ground to cover. There are guys from Centre County who marched with the Union Army all over the country, from Louisiana to Pennsylvania and most places in between. It’s also important to let those soldiers tell their story in their own words as much as possible, so I rely on whatever primary sources I can find like The Story of Our Regiment; a History of the 148th Pennsylvania Vols., written by the comrades.
BFT: What topics will you be touching on?
MM: The walking tour will cover sites in town and Union Cemetery with local connections to the Civil War. Some of the topics include a heartwarming connection between Petrikin Hall and the Battle of Antietam, the local G.A.R. Gregg Post #95 in Bellefonte, the Underground Railroad, “United States Colored Troops” buried in Union Cemetery, Governor Curtin and his role in the Gettysburg Address, a closer look at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial, including stories of individual soldiers, General Beaver’s story (Beaver Stadium), the 148th “Centre County Regiment,” as well as broader county topics like Penn State during the Civil War.
Even a local connection to the hanging of Lincoln’s conspirators. I’m also excited about partnering with the Bellefonte Art Museum, who extended an invitation during the tour to visit their permanent Underground Railroad exhibit.
BFT: Why does learning about the American Civil War still matter?
MM: I believe being a lifelong learner of American history is essential to being an informed and productive citizen. I also feel strongly that it’s important to honor and remember all who have given their lives or served our country in any war. In particular, learning about the American Civil War is essential to understanding the effects of slavery in our nation’s history and our evolution as a democracy. As Lincoln said at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg (the Gettysburg Address): “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” Education in the American Civil War is an essential part of our “unfinished work” and progress in American society.
BFT: A lot of times people associate learning history with stiff classrooms or boring books, but it's really so much more than that when it's in the hands of a passionate teacher/guide like yourself. What would you say to folks who are maybe reading this and raising an intrigued eyebrow....but are not sure that a history walk is for them?
MM: Learning by doing/walking really helps the learning process in a unique way. For example, people will travel to Colonial Williamsburg or Gettysburg National Military Park, and for good reason, and will allow themselves to geek out by thinking historically, with an appetite to take in all the history around them. Why not do that in any town? Why not do that when you walk around Bellefonte, I do! That’s what I try to do is bring that sense of curiosity and excitement about history to my own hometown. I’d also say that you will be surprised how much history is right here in Centre County.
BFT: These guided walking tours you are giving to the public for free are so entertaining and inspirational that I suspect word-of-mouth via social media and the like will soon make them very popular indeed. So tell me this. If you had a big group of like 100 people on one of these walking tours, who would be in your dream walking tour group? What walks of life would they come from?
MM: It’s a pleasure to have folks from out of town, locals, students, or any walk of life join my tours. I always learn something from participants so it’s certainly not a one way street. One in particular group I’ve had the pleasure of hosting were the Daughters of Union Veterans. This was so special to me because deep down this tour is for those veterans and connecting with their ancestors is a true honor. That being said, I’d be happy to see more folks on the tours or events because that’s what I love to do, connect people with local history.
BFT: As a high school history teacher you have, in my humble opinion, one of the coolest and most valuable jobs in the world. But it's also a job that places massive responsibility upon your shoulders. You are teaching young bright minds the good, the bad, and the ugly of human history and why understanding those things can ultimately make us better people. Do you ever feel burdened by that responsibility or do you think it makes you dig deeper and try harder?
MM: Absolutely, you pretty much said it Serge. It’s a huge responsibility and something I don’t take lightly. My students are what drive me to be a better role model and historian. Ultimately, they are the future, and it’s my job to help them carry not only an appreciation of the past with them, but also the skills they will need to contribute to our society moving forward.
BFT: What other walking tours or events are in Local Historia's near future?
MM: I’m always trying to learn and share more local history so my next adventure will be a Bellefonte Waterfront area walking tour from the Match Factory, through Talleyrand, and down the waterfront to the Gamble Mill. There is so much history down there because of the vital role of Spring Creek in powering so much industry and history. This Fall, I will also be at the Outdoor Adventure Expo offering these free Historic Waterfront Walking Tours as well. Also, look for new ghost tours too! Aside from walking tours, I have some other unique events in mind so stay tuned on Local Historia.
Bellefonte's Civil War Walking Tour by Local Historia
Friday July 24, 2020 @ 10:00am
Friday July 24, 2020 @ 6:30pm
The tour is FREE and is 1.5 hour in length.
RSVP to attend and get more details. 15 people max with social distancing. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to RSVP.
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