The town’s newest museum is set to open this spring—while making history of its own
By Karen Hendricks | Photography by Casey Martin
When the Gettysburg Beyond the Battle museum opens on April 15, it will reveal chapters of Adams County history encompassing hundreds and thousands of years preceding and following the one chapter you likely already know: The pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 that determined the fate of our nation.
But beyond the battle, what do you know about Gettysburg and Adams County history?
“The story of this community has never been told before, and it’s a story that will resonate with everyone. This museum is really special—unlike anything that’s ever been done before,” says Andrew Dalton, 26, executive director of the Adams County Historical Society (ACHS). “It’s not the typical story of Gettysburg.”
For a town as synonymous with history as Gettysburg, the nonprofit historical society found a way to make new history. The $11 million facility is the first museum dedicated to the entire scope of Adams County’s history—and its 25,000 square feet also house the nonprofit’s entire treasure trove of artifacts and archives in one location for the first time. For many Adams Countians, and history lovers around the world, it’s the realization of a dream.
“The support from community members and people around the country speaks to the significance of this place,” Dalton says. “We never imagined we could put together a museum that is this high quality. It’s beyond what anyone expected.”
From Dinosaurs to Dignitaries
The range of the museum stretches from prehistoric through contemporary times. Eight exhibit areas flow together in one continuous museum pathway, beginning with Adams County’s natural history, encompassing some 200 million years.
For the first time in history, Adams County rock slabs with dinosaur footprints will be on public display. Yes, dinosaurs were in Adams County! And how many historical societies own dinosaur footprints? Those are likely the first of many eye-opening revelations visitors will have.
At the museum entrance, a video sets the scene, cleverly projected onto rock formations that simulate the unique boulders strewn across Devil’s Den, a landmark within Gettysburg National Military Park that existed eons before the battle.
“The idea is to introduce and tease the experience of walking through hundreds of years of Gettysburg’s and Adams County’s history,” says Jake Boritt, 47, of Gettysburg, a documentary filmmaker who produced the museum’s videos—with the first one called “Enduring Witness.”
“In a way, it’s a microcosm of the American story—how people came to this land, the conflicts they suffered, dealing with serious issues of freedom and slavery and war, and then people making a living—growing apple orchards and so forth,” he explains.
A Gettysburg native, Boritt says it was especially meaningful to be involved in the museum project alongside some of the most highly regarded museum planners and designers in the country—including renowned Washington, D.C. firm HealyKohler, whose resume includes Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution among other iconic American attractions. Nashville-based 1220 Exhibits served as the museum fabricator.
“It’s a crown jewel of a museum,” says Michaela Shaffer, ACHS director of marketing and development. “One of the things I’m most excited about is—we’re recreating the colonial tavern home of James Gettys, founder of Gettysburg. And we’ll have conversations about the Revolution that people can overhear there.”
People are the heart and soul of any community, and they bring Adams County’s stories to life. While many of their names may be familiar—famous abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, for one—others’ stories are being preserved anew.
“I believe we have the largest number of accounts of civilians through the Battle of Gettysburg,” Shaffer says.
Perhaps the museum’s most groundbreaking achievement? The way those civilians’ experiences from July 1863 are brought to life.
“Caught in the Crossfire” is a recreated Civil War-era house where visitors feel the floorboards shaking and hear the whiz of bullets and frightened voices from a family taking cover in the basement below.
“It’s a powerful experience, a fully-immersive simulation,” says Shaffer.
The aftermath of the battle follows and sets Gettysburg on its fateful course as “the most famous small town in America.” When President Abraham Lincoln visited in November 1863, imagine being an Adams County resident and hearing firsthand the words that would go on to become widely regarded as the greatest speech in American history. The “Witnessing Lincoln” exhibit shares eyewitness accounts and treasured memorabilia from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Subsequent galleries examine the thought-provoking balance of preservation vs. commercialism in post-war Gettysburg, pay tribute to U.S. presidents who have visited Gettysburg, and shine a light on extraordinary Americans who hailed from Adams County. For example, do you know the story of Bill “Wee Willie” Sherdel of McSherrystown? The southpaw notched his way into the record books during Major League Baseball’s early days.
The Scope and Support
Tim Smith, 59, the historical society’s director of education, had the enviable—or daunting, depending on how you look at it—task of choosing which artifacts to include within museum displays and writing much of the exhibit text. The former Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide of 30 years is also the longest continuous ACHS employee, with service stretching back nearly 35 years.
He recalls many twists and turns in the historical society’s journey toward a new facility—“lots of plans” over the years that didn’t pan out. Since 1961, the ACHS’s home has been in cramped quarters at the Lutheran Theological Seminary—first at Schmucker Hall, then the Wolf House. Artifacts were squirreled away at numerous locations.
Smith explains the significance of ACHS’s new Biglerville Road site.
“This had been county property at the time of the Civil War,” says Smith. The county’s Alms House once occupied the property (the cemetery still remains), then the prison—until it was relocated about 20 years ago. That’s when the county offered the property to the ACHS.
The next step of fundraising took off beyond all expectations. ACHS’s first capital campaign goal of $400,000 was quickly blown out of the water, and the scope of the project grew more complex and comprehensive.
“I think everyone in the community was surprised by our ability and Andrew’s ability to raise the money for this new building,” Smith says. Campaign support from Ken Burns, Stephen Lang, and Jeff Shaara gave the enterprising project celebrity cachet. Donors hailed from nearly every U.S. state and numerous countries.
“The budget increased as our fundraising increased, but it’s very important to have a balanced budget, and we’re on track to do that,” says Dalton, noting that pandemic-related price increases tacked about $1 million to the project’s price tag.
“And as we received more support, we were able to increase the quality of the project—it took off beyond our wildest expectations,” Dalton says. “This project started as a campaign to save our collection, and I don’t think at that point anyone imagined we’d be able to create a world-class museum.”
The second floor, above the museum, houses the ACHS’s climate-controlled collections, research room, and its Battlefield Overlook Events Center. Appropriately, it offers a birds-eye view of Gettysburg National Military Park’s first day of battle sites, such as Barlow’s Knoll.
“I found my own family history here in the archives, and I have a relative buried in the Alms House Cemetery,” says Shaffer, 26, gesturing out the window overlooking the cemetery. “It means a lot to me to be around my own family history every day,” adds the East Berlin native.
The ACHS’s collection includes county records pertaining to wills, orphans, taxes, properties, maps, and more. Huge ledgers contain every single issue of every single Adams County newspaper. In addition to the Gettysburg Times and other Gettysburg papers, there once existed the East Berlin News Comet, the New Oxford Item, and Littlestown’s Adams County Independent. There are even boxes of donated family Bibles and a wall of framed art and photographs.
“It’s a collection that’s been growing for over 100 years,” says Shaffer. “These are all things that local residents have donated over the years—they’re people’s treasures that are now our treasures.”
The Rest is History
Ultimately, what are the ACHS’s goals for the new 25,000-square-foot facility?
“I think history is a powerful tool to foster empathy,” says Dalton. “We can learn from the past, and it can help us have a better future. History is a fundamental element of education—without it, we become isolated—it shows us how we’re part of a community together.”
Speaking of education, all Adams County students of all ages will receive free admission.
“To open these doors on April 15—
I think I’m most excited about sparking a lifelong passion or appreciation for history in our visitors, especially young people,” says Dalton, who grew up in Gettysburg—attending Gettysburg Area High School not so long ago himself.
And that’s what makes this project’s fruition and success all the sweeter
“This community means everything to me,” he says. “It’s an incredible privilege, having grown up here, to see it coming together. I think I’ll look back on this as one of the greatest periods of time in my life, one of the most rewarding.
I think every community has a story to tell, and this community has one of the best in the country.”
That’s the Ticket:
Gettysburg Beyond the Battle’s Grand Opening: April 15–16
Tickets: $15, with discounts for seniors and children
Free admission: All Adams County students, kindergarten through college
Gettysburg Beyond the Battle
Adams County Historical Society
625 Biglerville Road, Gettysburg