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Group hopes to save 275-year-old Mercersburg house

September 18, 2010|By DANA BROWN
  • Karen Ramsburg, president of the Committee to Save the Justice William Smith House, stands near the 275-year-old home in Mercersburg, Pa.
By Dana Brown,

MERCERSBURG, Pa. -- A 275-year-old Mercersburg house has become a bone of contention between a local citizens group that wants to preserve the house for its historical value and the MMP&W Fire Department, which owns the property and wants to demolish the house to make way for future expansion.

The two groups have been at odds over the issue for months.

Karen Ramsburg heads up the Committee to Save the Justice William Smith House, a group of 10 residents working to find a solution that will keep the house standing in Mercersburg.

Ron Funk, president of the fire board of directors, said the board has not reached a decision about the future of the house and continues to look at several options, including relocating the fire station.

The fire department purchased the property adjacent to the fire department, at 11 Veterans Way, a block off Main Street, last year for future expansion of the firehouse to include room to get organized, additional parking, a bunk area and amenities designed to recruit younger volunteers.

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"The financial situation has a lot do with it," Funk said. "We'll see how far we go there."

The fire board likely will not make any decisions "for another month or two," Funk said.

Scholarly research points to the historical significance of the Smith House as the meetinghouse where, over a nine-month period, the first armed resistance against British rule was organized in 1765, Ramsburg said.

"The Pennsylvania frontier was the American Revolution and Smith's rebellion gave rise to ideas that would later impact our U.S. Bill of Rights Second Amendment right to bear arms," she said. "This is local history, but it is also national history."

The fire department suspended demolition plans earlier this year to allow the preservationists to do archaeological digs, which uncovered 81 bags of artifacts dating to the 1700s and 1800s.

"These artifacts tell the story of the house," Ramsburg said. "But the house is the best artifact."

While the preservationist group wants to save the house, Ramsburg said it also recognizes the fire department's needs.

She has toured the fire department and said she wants to help.

"I saw right then that we needed to help the fire company," Ramsburg said. "If we could help them get a new station, we could save the house."

Ramsburg said her group is at a standstill until it knows whether the board will consider selling the house. She said the committee would develop a campaign to raise funds to purchase the house if the fire department will put it up for sale.

"No one is against the fire department," Ramsburg said. "We need to help them get what they need."

The problem now is finding the best option for both sides, Ramsburg said.

"Everything is being worked on from all angles," Funk said. "If we stay here, we will have to tear it down. We're trying to work through this to keep everybody happy and informed."

Rumors have fueled speculation that a company from Ireland wants to purchase the Ulster-style house to dismantle and rebuild it at the Ulster American Folk Park Museum in Northern Ireland, Ramsburg said.

Funk said there is no movement in that direction yet.

The group has nominated the Smith House for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, Ramsburg said. While previous nominations have been denied, she hopes to receive good news after the nomination again comes up for review in October.

The preservationists also have launched efforts to spread the word about the history of the Smith House and the events surrounding it, including hosting information sessions, giving presentations and developing a website -- http://smithrebellion1765.com/ -- that averages about 100 hits per day, Ramsburg said.

Penn State history professor William Pencak, who also serves as an adviser to Ramsburg's website, said the Smith House "is not only the most important historical site in Mercersburg, but probably the most important historical site related to the American Revolution in Pennsylvania west of the Susquehanna River."

Ramsburg said keeping the house standing in Mercersburg also could boost tourism in the area.

"If this property was in Boston, it would already be a shrine," she said.

Jerry Ross, another committee member, echoed Ramsburg's sentiments, adding that the community should capitalize on attracting tourism to the area.

"We have history," Ross said. "That's all that's left."

While the fate of the house is yet to be determined, Ramsburg hopes the group's efforts have helped keep it standing where it was built.

"This is our heritage," she said. "I don't want people to say after its gone, 'Oh, I didn't know.'"

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