18,000 years and counting: Blue Rock Heritage Center takes us WAY back in time

Lancaster

LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — On June 6 from 1-4 p.m., the Blue Rock Heritage Center holds its annual Open House, kicking off a new season. “There’ll be lots of activities for children, for families,” says Charlie Dout, president of the center. “Not only can you come and have a free tour of the heritage center, you’ll also be able to talk to people from the Circle Legacy about their native American culture, Raven Ridge about their animal rescue program, and then there’s also a local archaeological society they will be here and they will identify your artifacts.”

The building that houses the Blue Rock Heritage Center is itself part of the history of Washington Borough. Built in 1832 as a gristmill, it operated for a century, millstones turned by the power of rushing water from Witmer Creek.

Then in 1932, the Safe Harbor Dam turned part of the Susquehanna River into Lake Clarke and raised the water level about twelve feet.

“It backed up the stream, so they didn’t have the head, the power to run it.” says Douts, “And put the mill out of business. When the grist mill went out of business, they used it to raise turkeys and chickens, and the mill workings were taken out then.”

Then the local area sewer authority purchased the building–about the same time borough residents started looking for a place to bring bits of dispersed history back home.

“Washington Borough is unique, in the state of Pennsylvania,” explains Douts. “It has the most archaeological sites that are recorded in the state, as well as extensive excavations. Most of the material is either at Franklin and Marshall College or the State Museum or other colleges, that came and have done a lot of the digs, as well as private collectors.”

“We wanted to see if we could bring back and showcase a lot of the Native American heritage, as well as the local villages that once thrived here along the river. And we created a partnership with the sewer authority, and have converted this into our local heritage center.”

The center’s exhibits cover a lot of history, and prehistory, stretching back 18,000 years. The center’s Curator, Debbie Saylor, took us through their new “Footprints Through Time” display, a collection of artifacts that chronicles the changes in Native American culture in the area. It starts with the Paleoindian Period (16,000-8,000 BCE).

“This particular era is when the mastodons would roam here, and you had nomadic peoples, and these were the big game hunters,” explains Saylor.

From there you go through the Archaic Period, where stone tools and fishing net weights show people starting to exploit the resources of the river. Then comes the (relatively) brief Transitional Period of 1,800 to 1,200 BCE, marked by the use of carved soapstone bowls, which, while being a step forward in technology, caused a lot of misery. As Saylor explains, when they ground their food in the soft bowls, particles of rock got mixed in. “When the Native Americans were eating that food, they would grind down their teeth, where bacteria would go in and they would get sepsis.”

The Woodland Period (1200 BCE-1550 AD) saw the development of pottery (and, presumably, healthier teeth.) They also started making pipes for tobacco. The area became something of a melting pot. “There were many, many multi-component people,” Saylor explains. “We don’t know their names, we don’t know their tribes, but Shenk’s Ferry People, they were before the Susquehannocks.”

The Contact Period, the final display in the exhibit, shows what happened when Native Americans and Europeans met. A lot of what happened, at least in the beginning, was peaceful trading.

“What the Europeans wanted were beaver skins, and what the Native Americans wanted was their metal and iron axes,” says Saylor. The natives got a lot of copper and brass cooking pots-but they didn’t cook in them. “They cut them up, and they made jewelry out of them. Or they made what they called tinklers out of them, and they would sew them onto clothing.”

By now the local tribes were crafting some very beautiful, sophisticated pottery. It was traded south, to the Chesapeake Bay, and caught the attention of Captain John Smith “Captain John Smith said their pottery, Susquehannock women made the most beautiful pottery, that they were better potters than the European men back in England.”

Strictly in terms of size, the most impressive part of the exhibit is two large rocks, chiseled out of islands in the river when Safe Harbor Dam was built. What earns them a place in the exhibit is what’s on them-petroglyphs. “They had Thunderbirds, they had all kind of carvings of animals, turkey tracks, things like that we do not know what these mean. We’ve all speculated, but no one really knows the true symbolic meaning. That is really lost to history.”

The center also covers more recent history, from the seventeenth century through today, from the border disputes between Maryland and Pennsylvania, through the boomtown times when giant log rafts were floated down the river to lumber mills, to life on the islands before the dam submerged them.

“My grandfather would tell us stories, of taking the mules on a flatboat just across the small portion of the river, and he farmed the island,” says Dout. “And I always like to say we were ahead of our time because Washington Borough had a baseball team, guess where their field was, on one of the River Islands. So, we beat Harrisburg” he adds with a laugh.

Charlie Dout hopes people will have a good time at the open house-and more.

“I hope they go away having a better understanding of who was here before us, and possibly what all of us are going to be leaving behind, our legacy may be.”

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