Northern Ireland museum may rescue piece of history

1765 meeting place in Franklin County could be relocated

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MERCERSBURG, Pa. -- It was bad enough that the British government couldn't stop Indian massacres on the Pennsylvania frontier, supporters of Justice William Smith say.

Now a museum in Northern Ireland with ties to Pittsburgh's Mellon family is in talks to acquire Smith's home in this Franklin County community and ship it to Europe.

Smith, an 18th century businessman and magistrate, was one of the leaders of what historians describe as the first armed opposition to British misrule of its American colonies.

His home, which the Ulster American Folk Park is interested in buying, was the meeting place in 1765 for mostly Scots-Irish settlers who organized themselves into armed bands. The folk park is outside Omagh, in County Tyrone, and its collection includes the cottage where Judge Thomas Mellon -- founder of Mellon Bank and father of Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon -- was born in 1813.

"This is the Independence Hall on the western side of the Susquehanna," said Karen Ramsburg, president of the loosely organized Committee to Save the Justice William Smith House.

"If this building were in New York or Massachusetts or Philadelphia, it already would be a national shrine."

The question of what should be done with the home, which was extensively renovated in the early 20th century, has divided Mercersburg, a borough of about 1,500 people about 150 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

A regional volunteer fire company recently acquired the Smith house, which stands next door to the fire company building.

"We bought it because we need to expand," said Ron Funk, president of the fire board, which oversees the MMP & W Volunteer Fire Co. The initials represent the communities it serves: Mercersburg, Montgomery, Peters and Warren.

If the fire company could find an affordable alternate location, its members would consider moving, Mr. Funk said.

"But we have to house 50-foot-long fire trucks, and there are only one or two other places in Mercersburg where we could relocate," he said.

Still, no decision has been made on the future of the Smith house.

"We're looking at all angles," he said.

As the fire board reviews its options, one scenario it is considering is selling the Smith house to the museum. The folk park would be responsible for taking the building down, shipping the pieces to Europe and rebuilding it in Northern Ireland.

Folk park curator Dr. Phil Mowat said he sees relocation as a last resort if the building does not remain standing in its original location. His institution would act as a "safety net" to preserve the Smith house if it becomes clear that the alternative is demolition.

"Then we are prepared to rescue it," he said.

Northern Ireland today is part of the United Kingdom, and that alone would have offended William Smith and his brother-in-law, James Smith, foes of relocation argue.

The British government had been unable to protect settlers in the Conococheague Valley of central Pennsylvania from Indian raiding parties in the 1750s and 1760s, Mercersburg resident Jerry Ross said.

"This whole area was a battleground," as whites and Native Americans struggled for control of the region, he explained.

In 1765, settlers took matters into their own hands. The two Smiths were among the primary organizers of efforts to stop Philadelphia merchants from sending arms and ammunition to Fort Pitt. Settlers on the frontier feared those muskets, knives and tomahawks would be sold to American Indian warriors and turned against them.

Magistrate William Smith's approach to the problem was based on English Common Law principles of the right to self-defense, Ms. Ramsburg said. James Smith, who was married to William's sister, took more direct action.

In an incident predating the Boston Tea Party by eight years, he and other settlers armed themselves, dressed in Indian-style clothes and painted their faces black to disguise their identities. Then they stopped pack trains heading west with goods from Philadelphia. The raiders confiscated and burned supplies they thought might end up in the hands of the Indians.

When the British sent troops to nearby Fort Loudon to protect the traders and arrest the "Black Boys," the soldiers found themselves surrounded and besieged by frontiersmen. "Allegheny Uprising," a 1939 Hollywood movie starring John Wayne, is a fictionalized version of that story.

The shots fired at British troops huddled behind the log walls of Fort Loudon in 1765 -- not those at Concord and Lexington in 1774 -- marked the real start of the American Revolution, Mr. Ross and Ms. Ramsburg said.

Mr. Funk, the fire board president, said he is a little surprised at the fuss that has been kicked up about the house in recent months.

"That house was empty for two years, and nobody even looked at it," he said.

William Smith's connections to the house have weakened over the centuries, he said. While part of the first floor was built around 1750, the building was expanded and a second floor added in about 1919, he said. That makes it as much a 20th-century building as an 18th-century structure, he said. Over the years, it has been used as a tavern, private residence and social club.

Richard MacMaster, a representative of the museum in the United States, said in an e-mail response to questions that its's "a little premature for a story about the future of the Smith house." The folk park is interested in the building, "if the only other alternative is demolition," he wrote.

Mr. Funk confirmed that Dr. MacMaster has visited the house. A retired professor of history, he is co-editor of the Journal of Scotch-Irish Studies.

Michael Ross, who is no relation to Jerry, sees merit in the positions of those who would preserve and those who would relocate the house. He is the president of the Franklin County Area Development Corp., and his group has advised the save-the-house committee on possible sources of financing to help with preservation efforts.

The problem with keeping the Smith House in its present location is that the fire company specifically acquired the site for the land -- not the building -- with an eye to expanding its operation, Mr. Ross said. An alternate location has proved hard to find and likely would be more expensive.

"Jerry and his team oppose relocation, and I understand why," Michael Ross said "But if the end result is preservation of the house, you can get that at the folk park -- even if [the building] is no longer situated here."

Jerry Ross and Ms. Ramsburg are not persuaded.

"We've already sent so many of our jobs abroad," he said.

"It would be really troubling to see our American heritage leaving the country, too," she said.

Should the museum acquire the Smith House, Dr. Mowat pledged that the folk park would be a good steward.

"We, too, are trying to protect America's heritage," he said. "But we are doing it from afar."


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.


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