Adams County Historical Society
By Tessa Adams
“I know very well that history can be boring for many people,” admits Andrew Dalton, executive director of the Adams County Historical Society. “I like to think we are more in the business of storytelling and discovery. Everyone can appreciate a good story, and we are fortunate to have so many in Adams County.”
Dalton is no stranger to the historical society. He started with the society during his high school years as a volunteer, filing away old papers and photographs of our well-preserved, charming town. “I think my favorite part of ACHS is the prospect of discovering something that hasn’t really been looked at in 50, 100, or even 200 years. Sometimes, when I have a spare moment, I’ll pull a box off the shelf and read an old letter, diary entry, or court case from centuries ago. It is amazing how easy we can relate to people who lived so long ago; they faced so many of the same struggles, hardships, and uncertainty that we face today. It gives me hope that we will get through today’s rough patches.”
One of Dalton’s favorite stories to tell is about Margaret “Mag” Palm. Among the organization’s hundreds of old photos is one of Palm, a slave who lived in Gettysburg in the 1850s. Dalton explains that Palm was the victim of a kidnapping attempt. Slave catchers tried to take her down South to sell her, but she was incredibly strong and fought them off. Palm was a well-known figure in Gettysburg’s Black community at the time, and her story was later used for a fictional novel.
“Local Black history is something that is extremely important to me. We need to do a better job of including this perspective, and I am excited about a partnership we will be announcing early next year with the Gettysburg Black History Museum,” Dalton shares.
A New Home for Priceless Local History
The historical society’s capital campaign is another reason for excitement. “Over the next two years, the ACHS will build a facility that both secures the collection and provides an exciting educational venue for both the community and visitors to Gettysburg,” Dalton says. This new building will feature an exhibit gallery with dinosaur footprints and meteorites; an events calendar with lectures, book signings, and community programs; and a reading room and archives that ensures the long-term safety and preservation of the society’s priceless holdings.
The new facility will be built on property owned by ACHS in Cumberland Township at the northern edge of Gettysburg Borough. Formerly the site of the Adams County Prison, the 2.85-acre tract at 625 Biglerville Road is now a vacant lot, says Dalton.
The planned two-story facility will be roughly 25,000 square feet with a climate-controlled storage barn. “The building will be within easy walking distance of downtown Gettysburg, two miles from the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center, and only three miles from U.S. 15, making it accessible to both local residents and visitors,” says Dalton.
The targeted opening date for the facility is October 2022.
“With over one million historic items in its care, the ACHS inspires people of all ages to discover the incredible story of one of America’s most famous communities,” Dalton says.
The society was originally located in the basement of the Adams County Courthouse, then in the mid-1950s moved its headquarters to Schmucker Hall on the campus of the United Lutheran Seminary. In 2011, the building was converted into a museum, and the society’s headquarters moved to the Edmund Wolf House on the edge of the seminary campus.
“Due to limited space, there is not enough room at the Wolf House for the Society to fulfill its mission of preservation and education,” says Dalton. “Large portions of the collection formerly displayed at Schmucker Hall are stored offsite and remain inaccessible to the public. Additionally, all of the society’s storage locations, including the Wolf House, lack vital fire safety mechanisms, security, and climate controls needed for the protection of irreplaceable historical items. Space limitations at the Wolf House prevent us from creating exhibits, hosting large groups, and presenting on-site educational programs.”
With the new building, historical society visitors will be able to enjoy a variety of artifact-driven and interactive exhibits rooted in powerful stories, such as an exhibit on Thaddeus Stevens, Adams County civilians’ life in a war zone in 1863, Dwight D. Eisenhower and World War I, Adams County as a fruit growing powerhouse, and the fight for justice in Adams County (suffrage, integration and immigration).
The Adams County Historical Society also offers educational programming and research services. “We typically host researchers who are interested in genealogy, property history, or any other topic related to Gettysburg and/or Adams County,” Dalton says. “We have two reading rooms where visitors can access millions of historic records, photographs, and more.” With the upcoming expansion, the society is looking forward to being able to reach community members and visitors in an abundance of the unique and thoughtful ways that the exhibits can provide.
Joining the Society
The historical society has a membership fee that starts at $40 per year, but anyone can visit. “I know the word ‘society’ can sometimes make people think that something is exclusive,” Dalton says. “We are trying to fight that notion.”
But individuals do not have to be a member of the historical society to access its resources; non-members can research for $10 a day, and it is expected the rate will stay the same at the new building. “When we do open the new facility, we’ll have free exhibits, a gift shop, free programs, and very small fees to access the museum and research library, even for non-members.”
As of press time, the Adams County Historical Society has had to physically close to the public due to COVID-19, but community members interested in learning more about the organization or the new building may contact Dalton via email or phone.
A free Thursday evening program series on the society’s Facebook page has been part of the organization’s community outreach. Dozens of programs on a variety of topics have been featured, from the Battle of Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Address to the French & Indian War, the founding of Gettysburg, and birth of the tourism industry.
“This is not just about a building full of old papers. ACHS holds the entire memory and legacy of this community,” says Dalton. “Without it, we lose our identity—the DNA of this remarkable place.”
Giving To History
No matter the size, your gift is essential to preserving Adams County’s incredible 300+ year history. With your help, the Adams County Historical Society can ensure that future generations will have access to the same treasure trove of materials that is preserved today. Gettysburg and Adams County have so many remarkable stories, and the society is counting on our community to help save some of America’s most sacred local history for generations to come.
Donations can be made online at www.achs-pa.org/join-us or by mailing checks to the Adams County Historical Society, P.O. Box 4325, Gettysburg PA 17325. Please write “Capital Campaign” on checks if you’d like your gift to go toward the construction of the new building.