WILKES-BARRE — History can be found everywhere, from Public Square in Wilkes-Barre to any expanse in Luzerne County.
But the one place a person can find the most history in Luzerne County is the Luzerne County Historical Society. The society serves as an institution attempts to hold all of the county’s historical information under one roof.
The organization was initially known as the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society and was incorporated in May 1858. Mary Ruth Burke, curator of the Luzerne County Museum, said a group of gentlemen thought of the idea of such an organization.
The group met annually to celebrate the first-known successful burning of anthracite coal in an open grate by Judge Jesse Fell. The group celebrated the 50th anniversary in 1858 at the Old Fell Tavern — it was during that ceremony that General E.L. Dana suggested the founding of a historical society.
“They wanted to preserve and collect things that had to do with the valley,” Burke said.
The society had rooms in the Old Fellows Hall, and the public was able to access the growing collection on Friday nights. Burke explained that there only a few volunteers, hence why the public had limited access. The collection also didn’t have a permanent home at that point. Burke said the agency had to rent out rooms for the collection.
The collection would finally receive its permanent home at the same time as the Osterhout Free Library.
Isaac Osterhout indicated in his will that space for the society was to be included in the free library. Burke, however, said space was probably a main reason the Osterhout Free Library trustees decided to erect a separate building.
That building opened in 1893, while the Osterhout Free Library moved into the old First Presbyterian Church. The society would go on to acquire the Swetland Homestead in 1958 and the Bishop Library in 1971, earning it its present stature as the Luzerne County Historical Society.
Since its inception, the Luzerne County Historical Society mission was to preserve and promote the history and heritage of the county.
The Agnes flood, however, put a wrench in those plans in 1972. Burke said the archives were stored in the basement at the time of the flood that rocked the city.
“Even though our first floor was up several steps, the water came up to the first floor,” Burke said. “There were some volunteers that moved some things up to a higher floor, but we did lose a lot of things as well.”
Burke said the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission took some items to Hershey so that they could be dried properly.
A tool for the community
Burke has been with the Luzerne County Historical Society since 1987. She started out as a librarian, and eventually became the executive director and later and member of the board.
She became curator in 2009, and is responsible for the exhibits at the Luzerne County Museum and the collections.
She has done her own family research in the Historical Society’s expansive collections, and said that’s something that the public tends to do as well. Burke believed that the Historical Society’s library is well utilized — she said the Luzerne County Museum, however, is under utilized.
She speculated that a reason for that could be the museum’s location behind the Historical Society. Under utilization is not the only challenge that the museum faces.
“We lost a lot of funding over the years as the economy has tanked,” Burke said. While the museum used to have a full-time curators, Burke said it now relies on her to work part-time.
“I’m trying to do the same amount on a part-time basis,” Burke said. “With any nonprofit, there’s never enough time or money to do the things you want to do.”
Wilkes-Barre and the Wyoming Valley is best known for its glory days in the anthracite mining history. A number of battles from the American Revolution also happened here, and there are enough historical buildings, monuments and places to satisfy the biggest history buff.
With that history in mind, Burke encouraged others to dig deeper on the area’s history.
“It’s important to know your history,” Burke said. “We’re here to make sure you can do that.”