Final Escapades of 2019

Trigger Warning: This blog post contains photos of spiders and other bugs.

Happy New Year!

This brief blog post is a precis of the last Pict family escapades of 2019, what we got up to over winter break.  We were not overly ambitious or adventurous, choosing to stick fairly close to home and keeping each outing brief, because our focus was on quality family time, enjoying each other’s company, and relaxing after what has been a stressful, chaotic, and busy few months.

The first family event of winter break was a cinema trip to see ‘Rise of Skywalker’.  We are a family of Star Wars nerds.  Mr Pict and I have loved it since we were kids and so we introduced it to each of the boys when they were babies. We, therefore, had to see the latest installment in the saga as soon as we possibly could.

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Mr Pict and I took our youngest son into Philly to see the Christmas lights and wander around the market that sets up near city hall every holiday season.  The light show that projects images onto the facade of city hall is well done, though the accompanying music could have been louder.  I really detest crowds but at least the throngs were all people in good spirits and nobody was in a particular rush.  It did, however, make me appreciate the relative peace and quiet of the adjacent garden space with its antler clad figures and twinkling fairy lights.  We had a wander around the market stalls, just taking in the sights, sounds, and smells.  We were not making any purchases so didn’t have to get involved with any jostling and thankfully we didn’t need any refreshments because the queues for food were astounding.  The whole area of the city had a good buzz to it.  I think maybe sparkling lights make everything feel better.

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We had a lovely Christmas Day, full of fun and feasting.  My personal highlight was receiving a Little Baby Yoda made for me by my 14 year old son.

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Mr Pict took our 12 year old skiing in the Poconos.  I have never had an interest in skiing but Mr Pict introduced all of the boys to the sport a few years ago.  Our current 12 year old is the only one who took to it so a day of skiing has become an annual event for the two of them.

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Finally, we had some tickets for the Insectarium so we took a trip there just before the new year.  Our only previous visit there had been in our first winter in Pennsylvania, almost exactly six years ago.  It was the subject of one of my early blog posts.  Much of the Insectarium was the same but the building has also expanded so it includes a butterfly pavilion.  We enjoyed wandering among the large butterflies, most of which were the same species.  I cannot remember the name of them but they were large with brown patterned wings which opened up to reveal a stunning, shiny blue.  They also seemed to be fond of eating oranges.  The absolute highlight of our time there for my youngest son and me, however, was being permitted to hold a tarantula.  We loved it.  I was completely smitten.

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That concludes my round up of the last embers of 2019.  Let’s see what is in store for us in 2020.

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Nemours

We had four guests visiting us over the Thanksgiving holiday: my in-laws and Mr Pict’s oldest friend and his partner.  After a day of over-indulging in feasting, we all felt the need to get some fresh air and burn off some calories.  We, therefore, headed to Valley Forge to hike around the site of the encampment and the surrounding fields.  I have blogged about a previous visit to Valley Forge, back in Spring of 2016, so will not repeat myself here.  Suffice to say it was a fair bit colder than it had been during that first exploration.  The wind was so biting that I lost feeling in my ears.  I also tried to recreate a previous “gargoyle” photo but had misremembered which son was the model.

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The following day, the six adults went on a child-free trip across the border into Delaware.  Our destination for the day was Nemours.  This is a French chateau style mansion that Alfred Dupont built for the woman who would become his second wife.  We learned that Alicia was not easily wooed and that the mansion was Alfred’s final pitch at winning her affections.  She agreed to marry him but I am pretty certain he did not win her affections.  Indeed, the subtext of our entire tour of the property was how problematic and dysfunctional Alfred’s marriages were – and obviously he was the common denominator – and how suspicious a few events in the biographical timeline were, including sudden deaths that removed the necessity for a divorce or the mysterious advent of infants.  I basically had my own little dramatic soap opera playing in my head as I moved from room to room and learned more about Alfred and his wives.

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After a quick pootle around the grounds, we embarked on a guided tour led by an enthusiastic young woman named Kat.  She started the tour in the mansion’s basement and that turned out to be my favourite part of the house.  I have visited hundreds of stately homes, palaces, and castles in my time and the public rooms tend to be much of a muchness.  What set this home apart from the others that I have visited was that basement level.  Since he had built his mansion from scratch in the early 20th Century, Alfred was not having to cram modern technology into a much older building or try to couple the old and new.  He also seemed to be especially enthralled with engineering and with the cutting edge of mod cons so there were lots of fascinating gizmos, gadgets, and gubbins going on beneath the surface of the building.  As someone who spends too much of her life doing laundry, I especially liked the spacious laundry room – housed in an exterior building but connected to the mansion through a tunnel so that undies need never be exposed to public view.

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Each room in the house had been decorated for the Christmas season.  The chosen decorations were on a theme connected to the space in which they were sited and I enjoyed the festive sparkle and the attention to detail.  Again, my favourite trees were to be found in the basement level – a steampunk tree in the boiler room and a bottle tree in the bottling room.

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The house is beautifully decorated and immaculately maintained.  I found myself admiring the skill of the people who must remove every speck of dust from the surfaces in advance of doors being opened each day.  There was a lot of opulence on display but it was not so lavish as to be garish or excessive.  My favourite room was the conservatory closely followed by the kitchen.

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After completing our tour of the house, we wandered over to the garage – which was larger than my house – to see the family’s collection of very shiny luxury cars.  We contemplated having a walk around the grounds, which are laid out in a French style, but it was far too cold and we were too hungry to tolerate the cold.  We, therefore, bid farewell to Nemours and its muffled tales of familial dysfunction.  Since we have also visited Hagley Museum (way back in 2015), we now need to visit Delaware’s other open-to-the-public DuPont property at Winterarthur.

 

National Museum of American Jewish History and Ghost Ship

Today is my birthday.  Today is also election day and, since my workplace is used as a polling station, my birthday treat is a day off of work to be home alone.  Each year, on a weekend adjacent to my birthday, I get to decide where we go and what we do for a day trip.  I love museums so my choice was to visit a museum in Philly that we had not yet visited.

The National Museum of American Jewish History is situated in the old city.  It is housed in a lovely building that allows its collections to be organised into clear chronological and narrative strands.  We started on the an upper floor and with the story of the first Jewish community to immigrate to the United States and then moved throughout the galleries and levels to learn about the contributions the Jewish community have made to American history and culture.  I realised that I knew almost nothing about Jews in colonial America so I found that gallery to be especially interesting.  My kids enjoyed the section about migration within the US and my youngest had a hoot dressing up in prairie clothes and pretending to cook beneath the covered wagon.  He tried on various costumes in several sections of the museum which was a great way to keep him moving and engaged.  At one point he even pretended to be a dog in a kennel.  My 14 year old is currently reading the book ‘Refugee’ by Alan Gratz so he liked the display about the perilous journey of the St Louis and, of course, the tragic consequences of countries refusing permission to land.  Predictably, Mr Pict liked the section on the Civil War.  For my part, I really enjoyed my visit to this museum.  I especially like social history and there was plenty of that being showcased.  I actually would have benefited from more time in the museum as I had to rush through the last section and even then we were the last visitors to leave and they literally locked the doors behind us.

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After the museum, we headed off in search of food.  Before we found a suitable option, however, we passed Shanes Confectionery and had to pop in.  Aside from being a sweet-toothed family, Shanes claims to be the longest running confectionery shop in the US.  We were gifted some Shanes chocolate and famous clear candy a few years ago now so we have sampled some but it was great to finally be in the store.  Stepping across the threshold was like stepping back in time as the store has been lovingly and beautifully restored to its early 20th Century style, including restored machinery and gadgets.  My oldest son found the narrowness of the store to be too claustrophobic for his liking but the rest of us thought it was all wonderful.  My youngest is a chocaholic so he was smitten to the point of being overwhelmed by all the marvellous chocolates.  He is also cat-obsessed so he loved seeing chocolate in feline form.  I loved seeing the old cash registers and the stained glass and the patina on all the wooden shelves.  There were so many fabulous confections to choose from but we rose to the challenge and made our selections.

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Dinner was in a British themed pub.  We were all excited to spot that Irn Bru was one of the soft drinks available.  Even though the recipe has (somewhat controversially) changed since we left Scotland, it was a taste of home.  There were also mushy peas available as a side so Mr Pict and I ordered those.  They were far too good quality to taste authentic but that is not a cause for complaint.  I can usually only manage a single course when eating but I had spotted sticky toffee pudding on the menu so had to order it – though I did share with some of the boys.  I was delighted to discover that it had been made with dates just as it should be.  It was scrumptious.

The closing ceremony for my birthday trip was to view an art installation on the Delaware River.  When we arrived at the Race Street Pier, it was already dark so the ghost ship should have been visible.  Alas, it was not.  We were informed that the organizers were experiencing technical difficulties and they had no timeline whatsoever for a resolution.  Oh dear.  The crowd was restless.  Some people were loudly complaining.  We took up a position along the pier’s barrier and waited patiently for the glitch to be fixed.  After half an hour of waiting, however, the boys were bottomed out on patience and started to plead with me to give up and to just go home.  I was, however, determined to see this thing so just tuned out their gripes.  I admit that even my patience was waning as the cold seeped into my bones some time after the 40 minute mark.  Finally, water erupted from rigging that sat on the water’s surface and, as the fountains spumed, the image of an 18th Century schooner appeared, projected onto the water.  It was impressive and I was glad to see it.  Was it remarkable enough to wait almost an hour in the cold with four moaning children?  The verdict is still out.

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Space Race Centrifuge

I am sure it has not escaped your notice but this past Saturday was the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.  It’s a significant moment in human history, of course, and one of those events in history where those who were alive then can remember exactly where they were, the context in which they watched or listened to Neil Armstrong’s words.  Neither Mr Pict or I had been born yet but Mr Pict is a bit of an outer space nerd, an out-of-practice amateur astronomer, and he was keen to do something to mark this anniversary.  I really don’t have much interest in astronomy or space exploration and have almost zero knowledge of astrophysics but I stumbled across the fact that we live not too far from a location used in training astronauts and that they were holding an open door event for the anniversary.  It is amazing to me that we have lived here for over 5 years now and are still so unaware of some of the things that are in our vicinity.

The piece of equipment in question is a centrifuge and it is tucked away in an industrial park area of Warminster, in a building called The Fuge.  I sometimes shop in the Costco that is practically across the street and yet I had absolutely no idea this piece of scientific history was there.  There had been a naval laboratory there that was tasked with developing various technologies from the 1940s onwards.  We have all heard of “black box” recorders and GPS and these are things that were developed at this site.  Who knew?  Not me.  One of the things they developed and experimented with was a human centrifuge and it now forms the centrepiece of this building.  If you have somehow ended up at this blog post, post-google, hoping to find something educational, please return to your search results because that is not something I can provide.  My brain just doesn’t absorb physics.  I cannot assimilate those facts.  I can read it and find it somewhat interesting but I just do not retain the detail.  Therefore, all I can convey is our experience.

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We saw the gondola, where the human would sit, at the end of a long arm.  It would have been swung around in a circle at high speed to subject the person in the gondola to gravitational forces.  Initially the idea was to develop understanding of this science for the purposes of putting pilots into ever faster fighter jets but it got co-opted into the space programme.  A number of celebrity astronauts trained there, certainly all of the Cold War era astronauts that I could name.  Unfortunately for Mr Pict, all of the slots for getting up close to the centrifuge’s gondola were filled up so he missed out on that but he enjoyed seeing the equipment and viewing the accompanying display boards, some of which seem to have been contributed by local high school students.  He even learned a few things so he was chuffed.

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Reading World War II Weekend

Followers of this blog will know that both Mr Pict and I have a keen interest in history.  Mr Pict, however, is really into military history which is not really my bag unless it intersects with family history or social history.  My husband is very much an American Civil War nerd but his next favourite period of military history is the Second World War.  He was, therefore, really keen to go along to an event in Reading that focused on that particular conflict and, since I like to go on jaunts and have new experiences, I decided to accompany him and our youngest son.

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It’s a massive event.  It takes place over a whole weekend, though we only went for a day, and covers a huge area.  We were absolutely staggered by the number of people who were in attendance.  There were umpteen parking lots to accommodate all of the visitors’ cars and multiple school buses taxiing people from those lots to the actual airfield that was hosting the event.  That place absorbed a heck of a lot of people without it ever feeling ridiculously crowded – though there were exceedingly long lines for portaloos – and I was impressed with how organised the staff were at keeping people flowing.

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Given it was being accommodated at an airfield, the event was especially focused on the airshow element and there were vintage planes galore.  I know nothing about planes and even less than that about vintage planes but Mr Pict was excited.  We had a gander at a lot of planes that were being exhibited at ground level, watched a reenactment of a dog fight, and watched planes doing aerial stunts.  The highlight of my husband’s day was seeing a Mitsubishi Zero, which apparently was the fastest propellor plane (if I was paying attention to what I was told).

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The other thing there were a lot of were reenactors.  For obvious reasons, the majority of people chose to depict American military personnel but there were also some Brits, a smattering of Poles, some Japanese pilots, a smattering of Russians, and a surprising number of Germans.  I observed that the latter had by far the most immaculate uniforms and best posture.  The reenactors were really into the details too and I enjoyed looking at all of the vignettes they had created in their camps and the still lifes of vintage objects they had curated.  I guess I like those little human details and the creativity because, goodness knows, the vehicles, weapons, and military paraphernalia don’t do it for me.

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There was a fun Home Front section housed in one of the hangars.  Part had been turned into a movie theatre that was showing old newsreels and cartoons.  We didn’t catch any of those but we did sit in some shade to take in one of the radio show performances which happened to be a couple of singers.  There was also the recreation of a 1940s American sitting room, a group who were putting women’s hair up into “victory rolls”, and a candy store.  From the latter, we bought a fresh lemon that had a lemon candy straw poked into it.  It was deliciously refreshing.

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We watched a reenactment of a skirmish between the Germans and the Allies in a French village.  I was amused by the incongruity of a bunch of blokes in German military uniforms standing around and chatting in front of a fleet of yellow school buses.  When they got going, however, the action was very well choreographed and the volume of the artillery noise was pretty arresting.  I could feel the vibrations in my sternum.  The smoke and noise and crowds was a bit too much sensory overload for our ten year old so we skedaddled from there to the flea market section where a bit of retail therapy (even in the form of “window shopping”) got him recalibrated.

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We somehow managed to spend four hours there despite the fact we were getting toasted by the blazing sunshine and the fact that 2/3 of us were not that engrossed by the subject.  I thought the whole event was very polished and there was clearly a lot to do and engage with if World War II history is your thing so it was definitely worth doing.  It was an enjoyable day out and I was glad I tagged along.  I don’t have a need to repeat the experience but I can definitely envisage my husband making a return visit.

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Straight Outta Scranton

Our third son turned 12 on Monday so the preceding weekend was filled with celebrations for him.  Our oldest son turns 16 on Saturday so our week is bookended with birthday festivities.  We have a tradition that the person with the birthday gets to choose the activity for the closest weekend.  My middle two sons are obsessed with the TV show ‘The Office’ so the decision was that we would go to Scranton and tour sites associated with that show and its cast of characters.  I have only seen the odd episode of the show so I had to do a lot of research and pick the brains of my 13 year old.  I may know next to nothing about ‘The Office’ but I am always happy to support, encourage, and facilitate someone else’s nerdy interests.

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We parked up at the Steamtown Mall.  We had been watching that mall gradually deteriorate into something out of a dystopia during our previous visits to Scranton.  I was anticipating it being even more moribund and empty so was pleasantly surprised to see that real inroads have been made to turning around its fortunes.  What they seem to be doing is letting spaces to small, independent retailers – possibly for a peppercorn rent – which meant there were far fewer empty store spaces and much greater footfall.  An aquarium has also moved in which is presumably a way of pulling people into the mall.  My boys – including Mr Pict – liked a store dedicated to vintage video games.  It was the type of niche business that would never be able to afford a retail spot normally but it had a large space within the Steamtown Mall.  I was most impressed by the makeover of what had been the food court area.  It had been very sad and stale when we last visited – ghastly enough that I would never have thought to eat there – but it had been totally redesigned to provide compact spaces for eateries and artisans.  But I digress….

We started off outside Boscov’s, a department store founded in Pennsylvania.  Apparently this was where the characters Pam and Phyllis bought the same outfit.  Right next to Boscov’s was an Auntie Anne’s pretzel store.  Aside from the fact that a character named Kelly is fond of this brand of pretzel, it is nigh impossible for my kids to travel anywhere within Pennsylvania without snacking on a pretzel so we had to buy pretzel for elevenses.  Birthday boy had a pizza pretzel, the 13 year old had a jalapeno pretzel, and our youngest son had a pretzel dog which is, yes, a hot dog sausage wrapped in pretzel dough.  Our final Office item in the Mall was the “Welcome to Scranton” sign that features in the shows opening credits.  It used to be outside on the roadside but has been moved inside to become a tourist attraction.  My wee nerds were delighted to be able to pose beside it.

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We exited the Mall and headed towards Courthouse Square.  From there, we could see the electrified sign atop the Trade building.  I have yet to see this lit up, which I imagine would be very impressive, but I love the design even without the illumination.  Scranton is named the Electric City because it was the home of the first electrified trolley (tram) system which operated from 1886.  However, the reason my boys were keen to see the historic sign was because the sign and the lyric “electric city” feature in a rap performed by the characters Michael and Dwight on ‘The Office’ – the same rap that gave me the title for this blog post.  There is also an Electric City mural on a wall alongside a busy road so, of course, we had to go and see that too.  While that mural functions as a welcome to Scranton, I actually preferred a colourful mural tucked away in an alley just off of Courthouse Square.  I had to go and see that on my own, however, since it was “off theme” and superfluous to our tour.

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After the Electric City sign, we walked along to the Pennsylvania Paper and Supply company.  En route, we had a detour into a comic book store because apparently it is OK to go “off theme” if you are a child but not if you are an adult.  For those not in the know, ‘The Office’ is about the employees of Dunder Mifflin, a fictional paper company.  The building in which the real paper company is housed features in the opening credits and they have embraced the connection to the show by placing “Dunder Mifflin” on one side of the building’s tower.  As we stood on the street taking photos, a car drove past playing the theme music for us.  We laughed and waved.  It seems some Scrantonians are very welcoming towards nerdy TV tourists.

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Next up was Cooper’s Seafood.  According to my 13 year old, this was the location where Michael and Holly argued about Meredith’s ethics.  I have no idea but I was quite keen on the idea of dining there.   Unfortunately, our arrival there did not coincide with anyone feeling hungry (thanks, pretzels!) so instead we just had to take in the building with our eyes and not with our stomachs.  There is a striped faux lighthouse surrounded by pirates and a gigantic octopus on the roof.  It looked like a lot of fun.  It was definitely the place for purchasing ‘Office’ merchandise.  My 12 year old could have gone bankrupt in there.  They even had things like staff badges for each character and paper with the Dunder Mifflin letterhead.  In the end, he chose to buy a poster for the movie-within-a-show ‘Threat Level Midnight’ and was chuffed to bits with his purchase.

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We then drove to an industrial estate on the fringes of Scranton.  First stop there was a bowling alley in which there is sited a bar called Poor Richard’s Pub.  It’s a favourite hang out spot for the characters.  I couldn’t take the kids into the bar so we just dipped into the building to claim it and snap some photos of the outside.  Nearby is a pizza restaurant called ‘Alfredo’s Pizza Cafe’.  Apparently there is a joke in the show that involves confusion between this pizza place and one called ‘Pizza by Alfredo’s’ that serves “hot circles of garbage”.  The smells wafting out of the restaurant were deeply appealing and had me drooling but we took a vote and again the kids declared that they were not hungry enough.  Gah!  So frustrating.  I love pizza.  We will need to try it out next time we find ourselves in Scranton.  I spotted a Rite Aid at the corner so we quickly nipped there for another photo op because, again, it is tied into the show since characters purchase a cologne from there called “Night Swept”.  Rite Aid is also part of Scranton’s economic history since it was founded there in the early 1960s.

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Having done all the major ‘Office’ themed stops within Scranton’s limits, the boys then decided we should go see Lake Wallenpaupack.  This lake features in an episode called “Booze Cruise”.  While it uses the name of the real lake, it was actually filmed in California but the kids were up for the idea of a lake visit regardless.  Unfortunately, at least from the direction we approached Lake Wallenpaupack, we could not find a public access route down towards the water or even a place to park up and walk down.  The lake is vast – Pennsylvania’s third largest indeed – so we decided to give up on the plan instead of wasting time circuiting the lake.  We turned around and gradually started working our way along very windy rural back roads towards major roads that would take us home.  That route took us past an abandoned motel so, of course, I had to quickly brake, pull the car over, and leap out to take photos.  I was way “off theme” again so everybody else refused to get out of the car.

By this time, it was very late in the afternoon, we still had a long drive home, and everyone was famished with hunger.  Having not eaten at either Cooper’s or Alfredo’s, we had one last attempt at eating “on theme” by opting for a Chilli’s, a chain restaurant that is the favourite of Michael’s, the main protagonist of ‘The Office’.  The boys even ordered the Awesome Blossom – Michael Scott’s favourite dish – though they were disappointed it was only petals and not a full onion blossom.  The service was excellent and the food so plentiful that we took home several boxes.  The birthday boy was well-fed, happy, and delighted with his ‘Office’ day out.

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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.