Guest blog entry by Shayla Carey, Media Assistant at Landis Valley.
Henry K. and George D. Landis, the founders of what is today Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, wanted to preserve the Pennsylvania German way of life that was disappearing before their eyes. 56 years ago, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission took their idea of preservation to a whole new level when it began the Institute of Pennsylvania German Life, a program of classes that pass down the skills utilized centuries ago.
“The late 50’s into the 60’s saw a change in the PHMC towards real professionalism,” says Dr. Irwin Richman, Landis Valley’s resident historian and former head of the Institute Program (’64-’68). “They wanted to try new things and this was something that had never been done before in Pennsylvania.”
The four-day program, modeled after programs at the New York Historical Association at Cooperstown and at Colonial Williamsburg, was originally set up as a series of lectures on various topics pertaining to Pennsylvania history, with a few hands-on courses peppered in. There were three to five courses of morning and afternoon seminars, some attended by whole families, with the day broken up by three meals. After dinner, participants could enjoy special programs in the Yellow Barn, such as concerts of 18th and 19th century music and early American plays, including Royall Tyler’s “The Contrast,” considered the first American comedy.
“One class that was really neat was one on the history of baseball,” says Richman. “At the end of the class, they all got together and played a 19th century baseball game. My son took it and had a blast.”
“There were some wonderful seminars,” remembers Lee Winborne, an Institute participant for over fifty years. “They would be like condensed college courses.” She points out that men were interested in the seminars, while women, like her, enjoyed the hands-on classes.
The octogenarian, whose home is in Virginia, but hails from Devon, PA, was raised in a family with a long interest in hand crafts. “My father made his own shoes during the Depression and he would make our Christmas presents. I was taught to do things with my hands,” she says.
Winborne’s involvement with Institute began with the Tinsmithing class taught by Phil Kelly, a renowned tinsmith who taught at Institute for twenty years. She brought her skills home to her son, Terry, who has gone on to become an accomplished tinsmith in his own right. Today, mother and son occasionally travel to craft shows close to home, plying their trade as long as it is remains a fun hobby.
“My husband, who was a doctor, always said, ‘Get a hobby, because some day you’ll retire and you’ll need something to do,” says Winborne, who has used her skills, just as her father did, to make valuable Christmas presents for her family. Grand-daughter and fellow Institute participant Emma Kibler remembers dolls “Dottie” and “Ruthie” that were especially well-loved.
Over the years, society has changed, and so has Institute. Since the 1980’s, the focus of coursework has transferred to programs that featured even more hands-on crafts, many of them unusual. Winborne remembers a stone carving class and this year’s Domestic Medicine instructor Nancy Webster, another tinsmithing alumnus, remembers taking a rifle-making course where participants brought home their own carved stock, which could be fitted with a barrel and lock. Other remarkable courses include crafting a still, building a hit-and-miss or a sterling engine, working with draft horses, and sewing an 18th century doll (right).
Long-time Institute Participant Peggy Gelnett (left) and her Domestic Medicine on the Farm instructor, Nancy Webster
Another change noticed through the life of Summer Institute is the rise in popularity of short and “ala carte” courses. “There used to be one workshop for all four days and now you can choose one, two, or three day courses,” says Richman, who has taught at Institute on and off since 1963, when he began working for the PHMC. He also points to the rising popularity of the children’s camp, which allows Institute participants and their children to play separately at the museum and enjoy breakfast and lunch together. Some of the children grow up to become students themselves. Institute has become a family affair for Winborne’s family, with children and grandchildren participating together.
Beth Leensvaart and her colonial toy creation.
Seminars are gaining a stronger foothold in the Institute program again, as they’ve been enhanced by becoming field trips to locations all around Lancaster County, including historic Schaefferstown, Millbach, and towns along the Susquehanna River. The program has expanded to Berks County as well, with tours to the Tulpehocken and Oley Valley regions.
Institute has changed along with the caprices of the people who participate in it. One thing remains the same: the program has catered to those with an insatiable curiosity and a desire to learn timeless skills to take home and share with friends and family