Meeting the Ancestors in Prison

The second and final leg of my birthday trip involved a cemetery.  This will come as no surprise to those who have known me a long time or who have been following this blog for a while.  I love cemeteries of any kind, from poky wee family plots to provincial church graveyards to massive municipal burial grounds.  I am also a family history nerd and this trip combined both of these passions.

Mr Pict is a dual US/UK national (well, we all are now but he has been one from birth) and he has branches of his family that go all the way back to early colonial times, including Mayflower passengers, and a branch that goes back to 16th Century Switzerland.  This latter family, the Stricklers, were Mennonites who were forced to flee Switzerland because of their religious beliefs (Mr Pict’s 10x Great-Grandfather is known as “Conrad the Persecuted”) and they eventually found their way to Pennsylvania in the early 18th Century.  Back in August, I had used a family trip to Buffalo as an excuse to drag the extended family around three cemeteries to “meet” direct line Strickler ancestors.  This time, however, we were seeking to meet ancestors from two generations even further back, including the first Strickler – another Conrad – to emigrate to America.

The weird thing about this cemetery – which is named the Strickler-Miller Cemetery – is that it stands in the grounds of the York County Prison.  It is outside the walls and the barbed wire but is nevertheless plonked so adjacent to the prison facility that we were always in sight of guard towers in what presumably is an exercise yard.  The prison stands on land that my husband’s ancestors once owned and farmed in centuries past so it makes sense that the burial plot is where it is but nevertheless it was a very peculiar feeling to be pootling around a cemetery in the shadow of a prison.

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While we had experienced so much success in locating graves in Buffalo, we were much less successful in our explorations in this cemetery – despite it being vastly smaller than those cemeteries.  The issue was the age of the graves we were looking for.  My husband’s 6x Great-Grandfather died in 1771.  I was looking for a small and worn field stone and saw a couple that might be right but could also be entirely wrong.  We did, however, find several collateral ancestors and finally – after much viewing of the eroded transcription from different angles – we found the grave of Mr Pict’s 5x Great-Grandfather, Johannes Strickler, who died in 1795.  We were in pursuit of his wife Elizabeth’s grave when we were thwarted in an unexpected way.

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We were methodically wandering up and down the rows of wonky grave markers when a corrections officer drove down the road from the prison to the cemetery, rolled down his window, and ordered us to leave.  We tried to explain why we were in the cemetery but he was having absolutely none of it.  I could have either argued the toss or asked if we could speak to the governor to ask permission, as nothing I had read indicated that we were not allowed to be there.  However, I was not about to argue with an armed man in any circumstances.  Furthermore, the kids were complaining of being cold (the wind chill had picked up), one had accidentally whacked another in the face with his sleeve, and I had twisted my ankle by falling down a grass covered groundhog hole.  It was time to accept defeat and depart of our own accord before we were escorted back to the main road.

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It, therefore, was not a wholly successful cemetery trip but the kids were happy to have the prison guard anecdote to share with their classmates on Monday morning.  It’s a risky business being a nerd sometimes.

 

 

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State Museum of Pennsylvania

Once a year, on the weekend closest to my birthday, I get to impose my choice of a day trip on the other five members of the Pict family and they are not allowed to complain or picket.  Last year, everyone had to accompany me to Edgar Allan Poe’s Philadelphia home and the year before that we had a thorough wander around Laurel Hill Cemetery.  This year, for multiple reasons, my choice was to visit the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.  I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn a bit more about the state we now call home and so it proved to be.

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We began in a gallery dedicated to Pennsylvania icons.  This was a clever way to curate an eclectic array of items from stuffed animals to vintage packaging to ephemera from various industries.  I actually had not known that mountain lions had ever roamed in Pennsylvania.  1871 was when the last cougar was killed in Pennsylvania, though the last eastern mountain lion was seen in Maine in 1938.  My oldest son, snarky teen that he is, had sarcastically grumped that he was really hoping to see a coal pick so I dragged him to a display about Pennsylvania’s history of coal mining to show him the pick.  He was nowhere near as enthusiastic as he had implied he would be.  My favourite section of the icons gallery was that dedicated to big name companies based in PA because I love vintage packaging.  There were old Heinz bottles, a Tastykake tin, a cardboard Hershey’s barrel that had once held Kisses, Crayola crayon cartons, and Hires root beer bottles.  I also saw packaging from companies that I had not known were PA based – Keebler, Peeps, Zippo lighters, slinky, and Planter’s peanuts.

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The reason I like vintage packaging is that I like old graphic design and commercial art and typography.  For that same reason, I enjoyed the special exhibition dedicated to war advertising.  In order to engage the kids in the idea of art as propaganda, we took turns adopting the poses depicted in the posters.  That was good fun as was the slogan “Can vegetables, fruit, and the Kaiser too”.  Nearby was a set of display cases with military items and a model of the battleship, USS Pennsylvania.

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I had read that the museum had not so long ago been very moribund but that it had been given a boost when it stopped being free and started charging (admission is reasonable, though we had free entry) so they could invest in improving their displays to better showcase their exhibits and so they could obtain new items.  One of these new purchases was very striking.  From a distance, it looked like a beautiful sculpture of dangling sparkles, like an extra long chandelier; close up, however, it was arresting to discover that the sparkles were little gems inside glassine bags and that each of these bags represented an opioid death just from within Pennsylvania and just in 2017.  It was staggering and to see this visual representation of all those tragedies.

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My husband was looking forward to the Civil War section, since that is one of his nerd categories, but he was disappointed because it was very much focused on the “home front” and the social history aspects of the conflict rather than the military or political history that enthuses him.  The kids and I, however, enjoyed it well enough.  Our youngest learned that he could have served as a drummer boy and the boys all got to try out stereoscopic viewfinders for the first time.  For my part, I was most struck by a display of items commemorating Gettysburg that were more like tourist trinkets than sombre reminders of a terrible, traumatic tragedy.  I found it difficult to imagine women in crinolines fanning their faces with fans depicting the battlefield at some society ball.  People can be so strange.  Mr Pict did, however, enjoy a later section in the Museum featuring Civil War items, including John Burns’ rifle.  The centrepiece of this gallery was an absolutely cast painting of the battle of Gettysburg by Peter Frederick Rothermel.  Mr Pict got really into it and explained all of the areas of action being portrayed on the canvas.  My eyes glazed over and my ears went numb.

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There was an aesthetically pleasing section of the museum that had been dressed up to look like a street from times past.  It contained things like an old trough with a pump, a general store, various shop windows, and trade workshops.  My youngest was actually creeped out by the sound effects in the woodworker’s workshop.  I learned something in that section too – summer kitchens.  I had no idea summer kitchens used to be a thing, an additional building or annex room built in a shaded space and with thick stone walls so as to keep everything cool and, therefore, safely hygienic and to stop the rest of the house getting warm from the hot activities of cooking in the days before refrigeration and air conditioning.  I was aware of kitchen outbuildings only in the context of enslaved people working in them on plantations so it was new information to me that houses in various social strata had once had these.  My favourite item in this section, however, was a simple tin advertising sign that read “Pepo Worm Syrup”.  I was simply tickled by the name plus I find parasites to be fascinating (probably as an offshoot of my keen interest in pandemics).

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A trip up the escalator took us to a section largely dedicated to forms of transport.  I do love the shapes of old stagecoaches and conestoga wagons but I am otherwise not that interested in vintage vehicles.  Nor are my husband or children so we were able to whip through this section at a brisk pace.  The same space also had displays, exhibits, and information about various industries of Pennsylvania such as milling of grain or textiles.  Again, industrial history is not my bag so we moved quickly.  My husband, however, did spend a bit of time in a section about the Pennsylvania Turnpike just because he has a connection, through his employment, to the turnpike.  It was actually a really nicely presented area and probably one that had some recent investment of funds and time.  We all had a good laugh when we happened upon a record of the song “Pennsylvania Turnpike, I love you” by Dick Todd and the Appalachian Wildcats and a button that let us listen to the track.  It was a hoot.

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The top tier of the museum was like stepping through a portal in time to my childhood as it was all of the things I remember loving about museum visits as a kid: anthropology, dinosaurs, taxidermy, and dioramas on different scales.  I still get just as enthusiastic about these things as wee Laura did many birthdays ago.  The mannequins in the dioramas had that glossy look of mannequins from my late 1970s childhood but the dioramas themselves were well maintained and effective.  I liked the miniature dioramas best, however, because I like tiny wee fiddly things.  I was big into dinosaurs when I was a wee girl.  I was, therefore, definitely transported back to my childhood when it came to the fossils because I was very excited to see the skull of a gigantic fish and an entire mastodon skeleton, both found within Pennsylvania.  The dioramas of stuffed critters were also well done as they depicted small ecosystems instead of just being a plain old wolf among painted grass.  I learned that bison had once roamed in Pennsylvania but I also learned about how massively taxidermy techniques have improved.  An adjacent section was all about the process of preserving, stuffing, and displaying an animal carcass and seeing what the old mountain lion used to look like – stubby muzzled and cartoonish – demonstrated just how much techniques have improved.

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Phew!  This post is quite long enough but I will conclude it with a postscript.  The State Museum is opposite the State Capitol.  We had visited the State Capitol in 2015, though we didn’t take a formal tour, so this time we just did a circuit of the exterior.

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Then it was in the car and off to the second location for my birthday day trip ….

 

 

Hopewell Furnace

Our youngest son turned 9 over Memorial Day weekend.  He likes to get out and explore new places so, after gfit opening and birthday breakfast, we decided to take a day trip to Hopewell Furnace.  Despite being relatively close to home, it is a National Historic Site we had not visited in our four years of living in PA so it was high time we went to check it out.

As Hopewell Furnace was in operation prior to the American Revolution, it is considered to be one of America’s oldest industrial sites and, therefore, a place of historic significance.  We began our trip in the Visitor’s Centre with a video providing us with a useful potted history of the “iron plantation”.  We learned about the site having been chosen because of a confluence of natural resources, about the evolving treatment of and attitude African-American workers – ranging from slavery to early desegregation and the Underground Railroad – and of female employees, its contribution to the War of Independence, and about the process of manufacturing iron as it was undertaken from the 1770s through to its closure in the 1880s.

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As with all National Parks sites, Hopewell Furnace was beautifully maintained and easy to navigate.  We found that we could walk in a loop and take in all of the buildings and ruins.  Hopewell operated as a charcoal furnace for most of its existence because the price of hauling coal to the site was prohibitive so we saw the area where charcoal would have been created.  We had learned that the furnace could consume as much as 800 bushels of charcoal in one day so it must have been a demanding job.  We all enjoyed seeing the blast furnace, not simply because it was very cool inside on such a hot day.  I normally find it pretty challenging to engage with industrial heritage but I had no difficulty imagining the workers operating inside the furnace as it all seemed so visually clear.  We had seen where the “ingredients” would be dropped into the shaft in order to be super-heated, and then the bit at the bottom of the “chimney” from where the molten metal would flow once the seal was broken.  There was then a nearby area where the skilled workers would pour the iron into sand moulds in order to manufacture various items.  We were all somewhat mesmerised by the water wheel.  Sure it was a nifty piece of engineering and critical to the manufacturing process but I think for at least the boys and me it was really just that there is something aesthetically pleasing and calming about watching a wheel rotate.

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We had been informed that the workers’ houses were not yet open to the public for the season but, in fact, we found that a couple of them were open.  They had been furnished with reproduction furniture and household items which was fantastic as it helped us understand how families utilised the space and also allowed the kids to engage a bit more since the experience became tactile.  My husband and the birthday boy even played a quick card game in one of the houses.  Industrial history doesn’t really do it for me so it was the social history regarding issues like racial (in)equality and the lives of the workers that really helped to anchor my interest in the site.

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After some time spent befriending Maximilian the horse, our final stop was the Ironmaster’s house.  The ground floor is open for viewing, with barriers keeping visitors back from the furniture and other artefacts that bring each room to life.  I think what my kids most enjoyed about the “big house”, however, was the porch complete with rocking chairs.  After months of dismal weather, they have not yet readjusted to heat and sunlight.  They better get used to it, however, as I intend for us to be outdoors a lot this summer after hibernating for months.

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A Tree-mendous Birthday

My third son was gifted a session at Go Ape for his 11th birthday.  My oldest son had done Go Ape back in Britain for his tenth birthday but this was a first experience for the other boys.  The three older boys were eligible to do the full course under the supervision of Mr Pict and their grandfather.  My youngest son, being too wee for the full course, had a ticket to spend an hour on a junior course which my mother-in-law and I could supervise from ground level.

It was just as well I could supervise from the ground as I don’t think I could have managed even the junior course without my fear of heights causing me to go into a panic.  The staff at Go Ape were fantastic.  They were competent, of course, but they were also great with their encouragement and praise and creating challenge.  My youngest son – who is completely fearless – got the hang of the course pretty quickly so they encouraged him to try and beat his own personal record, then to do one of the routes backwards, and to try different types of jump on the zipline.  He had a whale of a time and absolutely loved it.

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Once our time was up with the junior course, we headed into the woods to track down the others and see how they were getting on.  We had seen them getting fitted into their harnesses and being trained and at that time they were all smiles and excitement.  We wondered if, almost two hours in, they were flagging or finding it was getting too challenging.  We met up with them just as they were doing the fourth stretch of the course.  They were definitely feeling challenged but were still enjoying the experience.  It made me queasy seeing how high up they were.  Shortly after we met up with them, they had a choice to make as to whether to take a difficult route over to a platform or an extreme route.  My oldest son wanted to do the extreme route which meant his father had to take a deep breath and accompany him.  They had to move between a series of short scramble nets which were dangling in the canopy of the trees.  It was pretty terrifying to watch even from ground level.  Meanwhile, our birthday boy was having an attack of nerves as he found the combination of height, wobbly platforms, and wind to be overwhelming.  It took him a while to collect himself but, with some advice and encouragement from a member of staff on the ground, he took a first step and then another and then in no time he was across to the next platform.  That experience, however, meant that once he was back on the ground, he decided he was staying there.  He was done.  So were his 12 year old brother and grandfather.  My oldest son decided he wanted to complete the course in its entirety, however, which meant one final set of challenges.  Since he had to be accompanied by an adult, that meant his father had to complete it too.  This included what my husband declared was the scariest part of the course: a just-too-long drop off of a platform to swing across onto a net.  Once they ziplined back across the lake, they too were done.

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Every member of Team Pict had challenged themselves and felt a sense of accomplishment.  Just maybe even my mother-in-law and I get to include ourselves in that since we overcame our anxiety enough to spectate and offer encouragement.  Everyone was hungry after hours spent in low temperatures in the woods, especially those who had been burning calories swinging here and there, so it was time to eat.  The birthday boy wanted to have pizza for dinner so we headed to Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza and had some delicious food.  Once we were home, he had his special birthday dessert, a platter of cannolis, one of his favourite things.

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Edgar Allan Poe in Philadelphia

The main focus of my birthday trip to Philadelphia was to visit Edgar Allan Poe’s house in the city.  We decided to walk there from the Independence Hall area since it was a lovely Autumn day and it was only about a half hour walk.  The only snag was that we had to cross a major road but we did so safely since the traffic was moving slowly.  Still, we returned by a different route.  When Poe had lived in that property, it had actually been outside the city limits so it was interesting to think how much the city has sprawled since then.

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Poe’s house is one of three in which he lived in Philly but the only one still standing.  The property has been administered by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site since the 1970s and has been expanded to include two adjacent properties – which I think post-date Poe having lived there – so that one provides space for the museum and one for an additional staircase with fire doors.  Nevertheless, this Poe house was modest but much bigger than his Baltimore home, which we had visited in August.  A Ranger explained that he had been able to afford a year’s rent there after winning a literary prize.  The rooms were much more light and spacious than they had been in the dark and cramped Baltimore home and the staircases, while steep and narrow, were not as claustrophobic as in that property either.

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The house is kept in a state of “arrested decay”.  The spaces, therefore, give an impression of how Poe, his wife-cousin, and aunt-mother-in-law would have lived but they have not been furnished and there are no personal Poe family possessions on display.  I liked all of the walls covered in layers of peeled paint and the boys loved all of the closets.

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A highlight of the house was the cellar.  Since Poe is associated with all things eerie and creepy, it was fun to be in a dark and dingy cellar in one of his houses.  The Ranger had also sparked the boys’ imaginations by asking them where in the cellar they would stash a corpse.  Worryingly, they identified several possibilities.  Perhaps I should just be glad they are problem-solvers.  It is apparently possible that the cellar inspired the one described in ‘The Black Cat’ which appealed to my cat-obsessed 8 year old.

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In the museum area of the site, in one of the houses that would have neighboured Poe’s one, there was a room set up as a reading room and a book case full of Poe’s works, books directly inspired by his works, and some volumes of Poe criticism.  My youngest son settled at a table and read a picture book.  Outside the property, there was a metal raven statue that we all liked and we also spotted a Poe mural on the gable end of a row of houses nearby.  So that was Poe’s Philly house and now I only have his cottage in the Bronx left to visit.  It is on my travel bucket list.

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We departed Poe’s house and walked back towards the centre of the city.  We stopped in at Reading Terminal Market.  The only other time I have gone in there was also for my birthday trip, back in 2013 just after we had emigrated to America.  That was a bit of a disaster of a day and we had literally walked into one door of the market and immediately out of another because the kids were fizzing out due to the crowds.  It was definitely less crowded on that Saturday evening but the narrow rows between food stalls still made it feel a bit too bustling for me.  I really don’t do crowds.  My kids are mini foodies so their eyes lit up at the possibility of buying some special treat foods.  We came away with Cajun bacon, some fancy type of jerky, and some root beer – none of which are things I consume.  Then – because we were not done being foodies – we went to a restaurant named Indeblue that serves Indian cuisine.  All of we Picts love curries and Indian flavours so we ordered a selection of items from the menu to share as a smorgasbord.  It was all perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious and was the perfect way to end my celebratory day.

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The Liberty Bell

We had a day out in Philly on Saturday to celebrate my birthday.  Last year I chose to visit a historic cemetery and this year I decided we should consume more local history.  I thought it was entirely ridiculous that I had been living in the suburbs of Philadelphia for four years now (as of 17 October) yet had never been to see the Liberty Bell or been inside Independence Hall.  That, therefore, was my selection for the first part of my birthday trip.

The lines to get in to see the Liberty Bell – part of the Independence Historic Site – were long but not as ridiculously long as they have been on other occasions when we have considered viewing it.  We, therefore, joined the line and found that it moved at a reasonable pace.  We all had to remove layers of clothing and place our possessions in boxes to be scanned for security purposes but, even so, it only took about half an hour between joining the queue and being allowed to go and view the bell.  There were displays outlining the bell’s history, its symbolism, and how it has been cared for and restored.  The boys had zero interest in lingering long enough to read so Mr Pict and I had to skim and scan.

The bell is, of course, famous for its crack.  This appeared as soon as it was rung for the first time in Philadelphia.  Poor workmanship it seems.  It was recast a couple of times by men whose names – Pass and Stow – appear on the bell and then the bell cracked to the extent it appears now in the 19th Century.  It was probably one of the bells that was rung when the Declaration of Independence was read publicly for the first time on 8 July 1776 but really the rest of its history was pretty insignificant.  Its real importance emerges from its symbolism, particularly for the abolitionist movement.  Its use as a symbol is really why I wanted to see it: the bell is used all over the place locally and nationally so I thought I had really better see the real thing.

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After our visit to the Liberty Bell, the plan was to go and explore Independence Hall.  However, all of the tickets for the day were already gone.  Completely bad planning on our part.  Tsk tsk.  We will have to return another time.  We, therefore, had to content ourselves with the adjacent Old City Hall.  Its significance rests in the fact that it housed the Supreme Court until the nation’s capital was relocated to Washington DC.  We had a quick gander and then we moved on.

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Sticking with the theme of America’s founding, our next pit stop was to see the grave of Benjamin Franklin.  There was a charge, however, to enter Christ Church Burial Ground.  Despite the modest fee, we decided not to pay so I had to content myself with a glimpse through the railings.  Oh dear.  Our planning for the day was really not going too well at all.  Happily none of this was the main event for my birthday day out.

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Hershey Park

On the day of my oldest son’s 14th Birthday, we decided to visit Hershey Park.  After the previous day’s hike, we thought that he and his brothers would prefer a busy day at a theme park by way of a birthday celebration rather than further explorations of Pennsylvania state parks.  His birthday happened to coincide with the first day that Hershey Park was open for the 2017 season.  This meant that tickets were half-price (since not all areas of the park and rides were open) but also meant that it was thronging with people.

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Theme parks are not my thing at all.  As I have had cause to state several times on this blog, I have a terrible fear of heights.  I also dislike things that move too quickly in a way that makes me feel out of control.  So, yes, theme parks are not the place for the likes of me.  Happily, Mr Pict, while not an adrenalin junkie, is quite happy to accompany our kids on any and all rides they might wish to go on.  I, therefore, get to sit back and watch them without any pressure to participate in any rides that make me freak out.

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I expected there to be more of a chocolate or candy theme to the park but, while present on and off, for the most part the park was like a gigantic fairground stuffed full of thrill rides and traditional rides.  We were there before the park opened so were among the first people in and, for the first couple of hours, it was not overly crowded and the queues were not unbearable.  It also helped that the morning was a little overcast and the temperatures not too hot.  That meant that the kids were able to get onto a good few rides they were really keen on doing without much hassle.

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After noon, temperatures steadily grew and so did the crowds and – with that combination – so did fractiousness and frustrations.  The lines started to get insufferably long for the kids.  For them, there has to be an acceptable correspondence between the length of time waiting to get on a ride and the duration of the ride itself.  They felt that every ride they did was super fun and worth doing but not necessarily worth the time and energy spent queuing.  Standing still can be more tiring than walking.  They started to get frazzled.

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There were a couple of rides left that at least some of the kids were keen to do.  However, when they saw the length of the queues, they decided it wasn’t worth the wait.  Mr Pict and I have been parents for 14 years now but have only recently become veterans enough to recognise when to call it quits, taking our lead from the kids’ moods, rather than push things to the point that it risks undermining the success of the whole day.  So we quit while the going was good but not before feeling as if we had got our money’s worth from our day at Hershey Park.

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