Boalsburg

Another blog I just found thanks to one of my Google Alerts (searching for the keyword Boalsburg) is written by a doctor from Philadelphia. He’s written a series of posts on central Pennsylvania, including one devoted solely to Boalsburg, a town named for the Boal family from Northern Ireland, of which I am a descendant.

They were what’s known as Ulster Scots. Their namesake town is five miles east of State College, home of Penn State and Joe Paterno, who’s been the football coach there for ages. According to the doc, Boalsburg “is by far the most interesting place in Central Pennsylvania” and describes it as “a photographer’s dream, and well worth anyone’s drive around the main streets.”

He gives a tremendous amount of background on just how and why the Ulster Scots, including my Boal and Welch ancestors, decided on specifically immigrating to this part of Pennsylvania.

The Scots in Northern Ireland were much resented by their Roman Catholic neighbors, and gladly accepted James Logan’s offer to come to William Penn’s haven of religious freedom, in return for their settling near the Indians. This was Logan’s solution to the problem of keeping peace between the pacifist Quakers in Philadelphia, and the sensitivities of the Indians about settlers on their ancient lands. The Quakers wanted to avoid conflict with the Indians, wouldn’t sell them either liquor or gunpowder, while Logan was under orders from Penn’s descendants to sell the land. So, being Scotch-Irish himself, he felt confident his relatives would find ways of coping with the problem. Much of the turmoil of Pontiac’s War and the French and Indian Wars, the marauding Paxtang Boys and King George’s War, grew out of the resulting conflicts between the two notoriously combative groups. In any event, this decision explains why Scotch-Irish settled the frontier early, and surprisingly far west of the centers of Pennsylvania Dutch settlement.

One of the traditions among the Ulster Scots is the town diamond, a section of land often used as a public space.

[T]he town itself is laid out around the most perfect surviving example of a Scotch-Irish diamond. . . . The Scotch Irish had a tradition of favoring the cross-roads of two main highways. Their habit was to cut off the four corners of an intersection, leaving a diamond-shaped park in the middle. Traditionally, the enlarged intersection would have a flagpole in the middle.Naturally, the diamond was a good place to put a post office, a general store, or a tavern. A man named Boal put up an early tavern, and this diamond became Boalsburg. . . . [T]here is a log cabin near the diamond, with a dozen Boal tombstones in front of it.

Figuring out how my Boal ancestors fit into the family tree hasn’t been easy. The research on this is far from comprehensive. The details get a little murky. There are so many with the same names that tracking pedigrees is difficult.

At some time, the Boal family moved out of the center of town to a mansion about half a mile away.

It’s not as simple as one Boal family. There were many branches, and whether or not they were all related isn’t clear. However, moving on, the mansion is now a museum.

The walls are hung with dozens of sabers and swords from many different wars, each with its story. There are muskets and rifles, dating back to the Revolutionary War.

Then the story starts getting over-the-top weird, with claims of connections to Spain, Columbus, and Jesus Christ himself.

. . . The walls are covered with trophies and mementos, with five signatures of US Presidents identifiable. Lots of Boals seem to have married lots of European nobility, perhaps in one of these rooms. One old rake is quoted as saying he inherited three fortunes — and spent ‘em all. Over and over again the theme emerges: the Boals were a military family, often raising their own regiments. Across the road in what seems surely to have once been Boal property, is the Military Museum, with real battleship cannons at the gate. Memorial Day was started here after the Civil War, and it is the headquarters of the local National Guard Division; it’s by far the most popular tourist attraction in town.

But off in one corner of the side yard of the mansion is a little stone house, perhaps two stories high. It is a replica of the Columbus family chapel in Spain, copied stone for stone. The stories vary somewhat between guides, but apparently two or more relatives were descended from Christopher Columbus, and while one Boal was Ambassador to Bolivia, he married a lady in waiting to the Queen who was also descended. . . . [T]he personal belongings of the Columbus family were judged to be the property of the Boals, so they were moved here to the chapel replica. . . . Two pieces of wood are still shown as pieces of the True Cross of Jesus, with authentication going back to the 5th Century, and numerous hand written journals are there. The Goya paintings and tapestries, and a solid gold crucifix are among the pieces which are now somewhere else. The matter is one of considerable embarrassment. Most of the many pieces which remain, are seemingly of the nature of things which would be enormously valuable if you knew what they were, but just about worthless if you don’t. In a sense, the best protection is the ignorance which surrounds them. The guide last month remembers one day when 27 visitors came to the Mansion, and many days when no one came. As he spoke, you could see at least five hundred cars parked in the Military Museum across the road. There may have been five cars parked in the diamond in the center of Boalsburg. It’s sort of a shame that this would be true, just as it makes you grit your teeth to imagine the indifference the whole place would receive if you moved it to Times Square. But, let’s face it, the main protection for these invaluable pieces of history lies in that general lack of interest in them.

AJH

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s