Meadowcroft Marks 50 Years of Interpreting History

Photos Provided A blacksmith demonstrates his craft in the 19th-century rural village at Meadowcroft near Avella, Pa.

Fifty years ago, Albert Miller, a livestock farmer with a hankering for history, opened a 19th-century historical village called Meadowcroft on 198 acres of ancestral land he and his brother Delvin had bought back from the Jefferson Coal and Coke Co.

The historic village, operated as a nonprofit, included an old log home from the Bancroft Farm, which had been a working farm in the Miller family for more than 200 years. (Their grandfather sold part of it to the coal company in the 1920s.) Albert also moved the Pine Bank covered bridge and the Miller one-room schoolhouse to the property. He built camping shelters and opened the village to school and Scout groups to explore a bygone way of life.

Although it had been deep- and strip-mined for a half-century, by the late 1960s the land was home to tens of thousands of young hardwood and evergreen trees that Albert had received permission from the company to plant a decade or so before.

“Visitors to the property today would never know that it was once strip mined,” Meadowcroft director Dave Scofield said.

An undisturbed portion was home to a rockshelter, which Albert long hypothesized had been used by Native Americans. With the help of a groundhog and a spade in 1955, he proved himself right by unearthing ancient artifacts. It was nearly 20 years before the site was professionally excavated, however. In the summer of 1973, archaeologist James Adavasio and his team of students from University of Pittsburgh uncovered spearheads, tools and other specimens that have been calculated to be 16,000 years old — making it the oldest site of human habitation in North America.

This facility, opened in 2008, houses the excavation site beneath the natural rockshelter at Meadowcroft near Avella, Pa.

In the decades following the official opening of the historical village site on Decoration Day (what is now Memorial Day) in 1969, Meadowcroft has been expanded to include a 16th-century Monongahela Indian village complete with woven-mat covered wigwams, and an 18th-century frontier trading post that shows how early European settlers and Native Americans engaged in commerce. There’s also a transportation exhibit, “From Trails to Rails,” that shows visitors the history of transportation in Western Pennsylvania, from walking to wagons to stage coaches to the railroad.

“Both Albert and Delvin were remarkable people, generous, and had a lot of forethought about preserving and educating. So we owe a lot to them,” Scofield said. Both brothers died in the late 1990s.

In 2005, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior designated Meadowcroft Rockshelter a National Historic Landmark. In 2008, a new facility opened that houses and protects the rockshelter area, allowing for easier access to visitors and additional interpretive tools.

The Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village, now part of the Smithsonian Institution-affiliated Heinz History Center, opened for its 50th season on May 5. It is located east of Brooke Hills Park and northwest of Avella in Washington County, Pa., about 45 minutes from Wheeling.

Annual events include the Atlatl Competition, featuring athletes who vie to be the best at wielding reproductions of the prehistoric spear-thrower; a 19th-century baseball game with two regional teams wearing vintage uniforms and playing by 1860s-era rules; and a Frontier Heritage Weekend featuring activities common among both Native Americans and European settlers in the 1700s. Live demonstrations include cooking, blacksmithing, hunting and trapping, using flintlock firearms and two-man sawing, Scofield said.

Photos Provided A one-room schoolhouse, log home and blacksmith shop are part of the 19th-century rural village at Meadowcroft.

New this season is Life With a Shawnee Family, during which a family with Shawnee heritage will demonstrate daily life skills practiced by their 18th-century ancestors. The family lives in Indiana, and Scofield said he was introduced to them through a colleague at the Fort Pitt Museum.

Another new program this year is Walk in Penn’s Woods, an all-ages, two-mile interpretive hike exploring the property’s natural resources, such as the plants used for food and natural materials used for tools through the ages. The program is in conjunction with Penn State University and the Bureau of Forestry in the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

In addition, every year, Adavasio, the archaeologist who achieved international acclaim from his Meadowcroft work, returns several times to provide a lecture and an insider’s look at the rockshelter excavation site.

Ongoing tours — which include the rockshelter, the 16th-century Monongahela village, 19th-century rural life and 18th-century trading post and the From Trails to Rails museum — take place from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 1-5 p.m. Sundays the throughout the summer. There’s also an exhibit featuring photographs and memorabilia from Delvin Miller’s expansive and successful harness racing career. Delvin opened the Meadowlands harness racing track on another part of the old Bancroft Farm property. Meadowcroft is a mashup of the two names.

Scofield said Meadowcroft is a family-friendly destination for multiple generations. While the majority of visitors come from the tri-state area, the excavation site and atlatl competition in particular draw visitors from all over the United States and 13 countries.

Guests wander the 16th-century Monongahela Indian village on the Meadowcroft property.

“It’s an opportunity to be outdoors and really kind of unplug from technology for an afternoon. People enjoy that aspect of it,” he said.

For more information, visit www.heinzhistorycenter.org/meadowcroft or call 724-587-3412.

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