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.

 

 

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 ….

 

 

Shofuso Japanese Cultural Center

Our Labour Day weekend trip – our last hurrah of Summer break – was to the Shofuso Japanese Cultural Center.  It’s this little portion of Japan in the midst of Philadelphia.  It is also authentically Japanese as the buildings were built in Nagoya, using traditional materials and techniques, and were then transported to America.  I read that even the rocks in the garden were imported from Japan.  Originally, it was part of an exhibition in New York before being disassembled and reconstructed in Philadelphia.  It has been in Philly since the late 1950s.

We started our visit with the house.  We slipped off our shoes and entered the house in our socks.  It was everything you think about when you think about traditional Japanese architecture: elevated off the ground, connections between the interior and the exterior, between the man-made and the natural, verandas, lots of wood, sliding doors, and gently curved roofs.  There is something inherently relaxing about being in those spaces but I know myself well enough to know I could never actually live in such a space.  I am far too fond of objects to be capable of minimalism and maintaining clean lines.  And my pelvis is too wrecked to cope with floor sitting.  But I like to imagine I could live in such a space.  I especially loved the kitchen.  I feel like you learn a lot about a culture by looking at kitchens (and supermarkets actually) because so much of culture revolves around food.  My kids had zero patience for me reading the information about each room of the house but I insisted on reading all the detail about the kitchen.  It was pretty fascinating stuff.  I thought the little tea house would be the most intriguing and engaging part of the house but for me it was actually the kitchen.

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The garden surrounding the house was similarly gorgeous.  It is such an obvious and probably uninteresting thing to state but it was so green and so harmonious.  Apparently the landscaping was designed to echo 17th Century styles.  The boys absolutely loved the pond which was stocked with carp.  They had some fish food and, within seconds of throwing the first pellet into the water, there was a scrum of koi torpedoing towards them.  There was a line of them wiggling through the water from the bridge and making a beeline to the area where my kids were waiting to feed them.  Their dorsal fins cut through the surface of the water and created wakes.  I couldn’t help but hum the soundtrack from ‘Jaws’.  Despite the fact these carp must surely get so fed up of eating the same pellets all the time, there was a serious feeding frenzy.

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This is such a cliche that I initially resisted typing it out but the whole space really was so peaceful.  I could have chilled there for ages.  A good book and a glass of cold lemonade and it would have been so easy to just sit there for hours enjoying the garden.  But I had four kids with me who had run out of patience and wanted to get home to do their own thing for the final days of Summer so no chance of zen for me.

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Longwood Gardens

It was our 22nd Wedding Anniversary last week and  – as our children happened to be gallivanting with their grandparent for a few days – we could celebrate the occasion as a couple.  Unfortunately, I was still recovering from my oral surgery – a complication having caused me two weeks of excruciating and ceaseless neuralgic pain – which slightly put the damper on things and certainly reduced my ability to enjoy a meal out on the actual day.  However, eight days into my recovery, I felt well enough to venture out for the evening.  We opted for a visit to Longwood Gardens, having never been before and knowing that our children might not have the required patience for a visit to formal gardens.

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Longwood Gardens developed from a site that had been farmed and turned into an arboretum in the 18th Century.  When, at the dawn of the 20th Century, the trees of the arboretum were at risk from being chopped down for lumber, the super-wealthy businessman Pierre du Pont stepped in to save the trees by purchasing the entire property.  The site then developed into the formal gardens that exist today.  It is spread across over a thousand acres so there is a massive amount to see – too much for us as it turned out.

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I am not much of a gardener at all and my knowledge of flowers, plants and trees is pretty limited.  However, I can appreciate the aesthetic qualities of plants and I certainly like garden features, such as fountains and sculptures.  I, therefore, thoroughly enjoyed wandering along the pathways at Longwood and seeing what vistas and colours opened up before me.  Visiting in the evening not only meant we were spared the worst of the day’s baking heat and gross humidity but were also bathed in a golden light as the sun started to slip lower.

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We stopped to watch the fountains in action as music played.  It was all very pleasing and relaxing.  We had visited the pump room and were amazed by all the power involved in working the fountains but, as we watched water shoot up into the sky and dance and spray from so many fountains at once, we understood why that power was required.

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Apparently Longwood’s main conservatory is one of the world’s largest greenhouses.  I would certainly estimate it to be the largest I have ever visited.  It was arranged into a series of spaces that each focused on a theme.  Although we had no kids with us, Mr Pict and I wandered around the children’s indoor garden and found it to be charming.  Younger visitors seemed to be delighted by all of the wonderful details and fun little nooks and crannies.  We explored the main conservatory – including the ballroom and organ – and also enjoyed the other conservatories and the lily pond, complete with giant lily pads, between them.  I loved the gallery of orchids and Mr Pict loved all the banana plants.  The whole place was supremely polished and thoughtful in its detailing.  It was a feast for the eyes and the nose.

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We realised too late that we should have saved the conservatories for last since they had interior lighting while the exterior gardens had, during our time indoors, been plunged into darkness.  We still had a good wander in the dark.  There was actually something pretty magical about being at the Italian gardens and seeing all the fireflies glowing as they flew up from the grass and into the air.  We also saw bats swooping down to chomp on the insects that were hovering above the ponds.  Some areas, however, were just too dark to permit any exploration so we had to abandon those.  However, an advantage of having found ourselves in Longwood Gardens in the pitch darkness was that we could watch the performance of water, lighting, and music back at the main fountains.  The theme of the show happened to be “movies” which was completely perfect for Mr Pict and me since we are such movie nerds.  The whole show was amazingly accomplished and very impressive.  We thoroughly enjoyed it.  Unfortunately, my pain meds had completely worn off about halfway through the show and I was so close to passing out from the pain that I had to sit on the gravel behind rows of standing spectators so missed the last quarter of the event.

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Mr Pict and I both agreed that we would love to return to Longwood Gardens some time, maybe another summer trip to take in the things we missed, maybe during one of their festivals, maybe in a different season to see it in a different context.  We might even take the kids some time.

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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