Donation gives glimpse at local history

BURGETTSTOWN, Pa. – The Fort Vance Historical Society will be hosting Bonnie Reese, Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Museum of Rural History curator and textile expert April 12 at the Burgettstown Community Library.

Reese will give the presentation “The Mid-Wife’s Tale,” on the history of midwivery and the ever-present danger of death and complications to pregnant and laboring women and infants on the American frontier based on the book, “Diary of a Midwife.” She also will speak about the McNary sampler, a recent acquisition by the historical society.

The sampler was donated to the society by the Forrest Kuhn family of Louisville, Ky. It was created more than 150 years ago, using cross-stitching on paper, explained Debbie Vraninin, society volunteer.

Reese is a textile historian and artist, focusing on the historical interplay of textiles and technology. Over the last few years, she developed a unique historical documentation project, “Preserving Life’s Journey.”

“I am dedicated to preserving our rich history, traditions and cultures, bringing to life each unique family story,” Reese said. “As a researcher, guest lecturer and museum curator, my research is driven by a desire to extract meaning from a material culture existing from the 17th to 20th century.

“It has been personally and professionally rewarding to preserve thousands of artifacts and archival materials at Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village. My desire is to share the untold stories found in these hidden treasures and I have published award winning articles in several historic and professional publications.”

The sampler was created to memorialize James and Jane R. McNary’s three children, a daughter who died in early childhood and two infant sons, and include the childrens’ obituaries and three locks of hair. Two of the children died within days of one another of scarlet fever and the third died at two days old of an unspecified cause. The family lived in Smith Township.

The sampler also will be on display during the event.

This is one of several upcoming events the group is planning, including an observation of Memorial Day for which members plan to recognize World War II veterans.

Vraninin noted the group also plans to hold a spring open house once the group’s Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War Post 96 flag has been preserved and mounted for display. The flag will be treated with a special three-day hydration process to prevent it from cracking as it is unfolded.

Member Phil Esno, who wrote the grant which enabled the society to have the flag preserved; PNC Bank, which issued the grant; and volunteers will be recognized during the spring open house.

The historical society will participate in the library’s May 3 Past and Present tour, with new displays and volunteers staffing the Fort Vance room. The group also will be providing photos for the tour.

Society members also are planning to participate in the annual Avella History Fair in the fall.

Volunteers are needed to help identify, collect and organize newspaper articles on important events, people and places in history. Two ongoing projects are organizing information on local efforts during World War II and the construction and staffing of the Burgettstown Post Office.

Vraninin noted much of the post office’s own information on the 1941 construction was lost during flooding in 2004, but copies of construction photos had been donated to the historical society and recently discovered.

“They had photos taken each week, so they didn’t have to have an inspector sent down,” said Vraninin of the collection, which shows the step-by-step construction of the building.

Once the collection is completed and organized, copies will be donated to the post office for display there.

Vraninin, with the assistance of post office officials, also is researching a potential Burgettstown connection with a 1936 stamp featuring a rural mail carrier and horse and buggy. Vraninin noted the mail carrier featured may have been long-time Burgettstown-area carrier Matthew McCullough.

The group also is organizing a collection of World War II materials, which already span two large volumes, and include mentions of local young men going to boot camp, articles on local families with multiple sons in the service and notices of those killed or missing in action or taken as Prisoners of War. Vraninin said the collection also details local war efforts, such as metal drives and advertisements for the purchase of war bonds.

The collection also includes a canteen lost by local Clyde Bigger on Guam during the war. Bigger was killed in action, and his canteen remained lost for 50 years. When it was found, it was sent back to his family in the borough, who donated it to the historical society.

In addition to these projects, the society also is working on making local obituaries available online through a partnership with the Burgettstown Community Library.

Vraninin noted there are currently 200 obituaries ready to be launched in mid-February, and the group is working on preparing more, hoping to be able to offer regular monthly or bi-monthly updates to the collection, which will be searchable.

Volunteers can stop by from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays at the library for information.