Local historical center to expand

RICHFIELD – History buffs of yesterday and today are the reason one local center is in need of expansion.

The late Noah Zimmerman of Richfield had spent his fair share of time researching local history and contributing to the Juniata Mennonite Historical Center in Monroe Township.

Nine years after his death, the estate of the founding member of the center is helping to fund an addition to the facility that will double its size.

The historical center is getting a face lift at its location along state Route 35 and will house more information sought by the public. The current facility is bursting at the seams with its vault filled beyond capacity, employee Mary Alice Charlton said.

Charlton should know. She works hard to keep the vault organized and keys locations into her computer for future reference on where to find items such as deeds, obituaries, family Bibles, local history books, photos and other information pertaining to the families and communities in Juniata County – Mennonite or not.

Gladys Gingrich is the secretary and assistant treasurer of the JMHC and said though the board is made up of those of the Anabaptist faith, the materials reach beyond practices of religion.

“We have a lot of local history throughout Richfield and Juniata County,” she said.

The new addition which will cost approximately $200,000 will be funded partially by the Zimmerman estate and partially by means of donation.

The facility will house a new meeting room, more office space and an area for display of materials which at this point have outgrown their current locations.

As Charlton walks through the vault she meanders her way through stacks of boxes and points to the roof area as stacks touch the ceiling in some locations.

She mentions the attic space in the center had to be emptied due to the intense effects of heat on materials. Those items now sit inside the adjacent building also known as the Brick Church built in 1868.

The Brick Church was the determined site by Zimmerman and others in the 1970s for the current history center because of its significance. The church is the first Mennonite church in Juniata County. In 1800 a log building was placed on what was known as the Shelley land.

That building was dismantled in the late 1860s, and the Brick Church – the only brick church in the area at the time – was established. The building still has original benches for pews and a long pulpit and a wood stove inside. Currently the benches are stacked with boxes of materials from the JMHC attic. The walls are lined with empty shelves bought at a school sale.

These items are to be placed in the new addition expected to be completed sometime in the fall, Gingrich said. The JMCH annual hymn sing is set to occur in the Brick Church the third Sunday in September, Charlton said.

Many people who visit the center come for the same reasons, she said. They want to know more about their ancestry.

Lloyd Gingrich, life member of the JMCH and longtime friend to the late Zimmerman, understands that desire. He, like Zimmerman, is a history enthusiast, and admits to first becoming interested in ancestry as a child when he interviewed his grandmother and when he would listen to his aunt talk about the generations before him.

“Noah and I spent a lot of time tramping through cemeteries and courthouses,” he said fondly. He noted how it disturbed the two men to think of old documents with pertinent information getting burned or tossed.

“Noah recorded wrote down a lot of things. He was well-versed in genealogy. It’s a good thing it didn’t get scattered to the wind.”

Lloyd recalled one document that almost met its end. He said there is a paper inside the JMCH that was signed by Benjamin Franklin. That document, which contained information about a lot of land, was nearly burned by an individual when cleaning out some of the materials to go into the center.

It was found on the top of a stack ready to be tossed in to the already raging fire pit, he recalled.

And the information keeps coming in 35 years after the original building was opened.

“People keep bringing things,” said current director Betty Ann Landis, and those items are rarely turned away. “We hope we will be better able to serve the public and have a better facility for preservation,” she said.

Lloyd said he knows the interest in the center has grown as the information has increased.

“People from a distance come in there. The other day we had people from California in there,” he said.

Though it seems as though no one had as much interest in local history as Zimmerman, Lloyd says with a laugh as he remembers his friend’s passion for going the extra mile to buy history books on Pennsylvania, the interest is very much alive today.

“Younger people now wonder where they came from and why they believe what they believe,” he said, “People still call me and ask me about things.”

The interest exists, he said, because it is about the history of who they are – who their family was and is. In a world where most information is found on the Internet – and The JMCH offers help with gravesite.com and other web connections-people want something tangible, too.

“Sure, people can go to the Internet,” he said, “but people like to look at family Bibles and things like that.”

The JMHC is open to the public 9 a.m.-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. each Tuesday and 9 a.m.-4p.m. each Saturday.

For more information: Call 694-3211, email historycenter@embarqmail.com or visit online at sites.google.com/site/histcntr.