There are 67 counties in Pennsylvania, and I had visited 66 of them by the time I rolled into Lawrence County for the first time. After a morning exploring the eastern edges of the county, I decided it was time to stop by New Castle, the county seat, to learn more about the county that somehow managed to be the last county I visited in Pennsylvania.
The Lawrence County Historical Society is located in one of the city’s grand mansions. The home was built in 1905 by George Greer, a local tin magnate. The home was lived in until the mid-1980s, when it was donated to the historical society.
Today, the home serves as a museum that tells the story of Lawrence County. The home’s first floor is set up as the Greers would have likely used it, complete with period furniture. Though there are some displays on the first floor, most of the museum’s display areas are on the home’s second floor.
While little on the first floor is original to the home, it is all period antiques that have been carefully selected to recreate what the home would likely have looked like. One highlight on the first floor is in the dining room, where a collection of Shenango China is on display.
Shenango China was produced in the New Castle area for 90 years, finally shutting down in the early 1990s. The company manufactured china for both commercial and private uses, and even produced china for several presidents. In the museum’s collection, one of the largest collections of Shenango China in the world, are pieces of china made for both President Ronald Reagan’s and President Bill Clinton’s inaugurations. There also are several pieces on display that feature designs commissioned from Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.
The second floor contains many of the museum’s displays related to the history of Lawrence County. The first room features a large and well laid out collection of Native American items found around the county. Whether you are interested in reading more about the history of the tribes, looking at stone tools, or just want to see some taxidermied animals, there’s really a lot to see in this room.
The next room contains items related to the Civil War and Underground Railroad in Lawrence County.
As with every county in the state, Lawrence County sent many men to fight in the Civil War, and information is presented on local units that fought in the war. One interesting display was a timeline that showcased major events in the war on one side, and where the local troops, many of whom were part of the Roundheads, were located during the war. The room also contains weapons, clothing, and old photos from the war.
New Castle and the surrounding area were considered major stops along the Underground Railroad as fugitive slaves traveled through western Pennsylvania. It is estimated that nearly three dozen people in the county were conductors on the Underground Railroad, and they used a variety of buildings to house escaped slaves. There are even unconfirmed reports that the Lawrence County Courthouse may have been a stop.
While all the records of the Underground Railroad are based on memories recorded in later years, they are almost entirely based upon firsthand accounts of the activities. The museum has information and photos of the various people and buildings that were used for the Underground Railroad in Lawrence County.
Another fascinating room in the Lawrence County Historical Society Museum focuses on the county’s reputation as the “Fireworks Capital of America.” At one point in time, Lawrence County produced more fireworks than anywhere else in the world, and the area is still home to two world-renowned fireworks companies: Zambelli Fireworks Internationale and Pyrotecnico.
The room devoted to fireworks has information on these two companies, as well as several other families that were once in the area. There are also letters of thanks from several presidents to the Zambelli family, thanking them for the displays that they had put on. Finally, the room has a collection of old fireworks, which give visitors a chance to see how fireworks have changed over the years.
Before leaving the home, make sure to see the stained glass window on the second floor. The window is original to the home and is very beautiful.
Overall, I really enjoyed my visit the Lawrence County Historical Society Museum. The museum does a great job showcasing a beautiful home and telling the history of the region. Far from being a place that would just interest locals, the museum has many interesting displays that give all visitors a chance to better understand the role that Lawrence County has played on the national stage.
Note: My visit to the Lawrence County Historical Society was hosted by the museum. However, the opinions expressed are my own.
Lawrence County Historical Society Museum
Hours: Tues, Thurs, Sat: 11am-4pm
Museum tours offered Tues & Thurs at 1pm by appointment
Address: 408 North Jefferson Street