A-K museum honors Rachel Carson, Fannie Sellins, Evelyn Nesbit
By Jill Henry Szish
Published: Sunday, March 10, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Rachel Carson, Fannie Sellins and Evelyn Nesbit. The three women seemingly have little in common aside from their ties to the Alle-Kiski Valley. But the environmentalist, the union organizer and the chorus girl each made a name for herself.
“Each stood out in a period when women didn't really stand out,” says Jamie Stoner, curator of the Allegheny-Kiski Valley Historical Society's Heritage Museum in Tarentum. “They all led very different lives, and all accomplished very different things. They all left a lasting impact on our world.”
For that reason, the women are the subject of an exhibit at the museum to mark National Women's History month. The exhibit will run through the end of March. The highlight, a presentation titled “Rachel Carson: A Local History and Legacy,” is planned for March 17.
A nature-lover, Stoner always considered Rachel Carson one of her personal heroes. So, when the historical society decided to have a women's history exhibit, Carson was a natural first choice.
Carson was born in 1907 in Springdale. It was at her childhood home where she developed a passion for the environment.
In 1929, she graduated from Pennsylvania Women's College (now Chatham University) with a degree in biology. She later received a master's degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University and began working for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries.
Carson wrote scientific articles and books on conservation and natural resources, then later wrote to teach the general public about the beauty of the living world.
She became an activist, speaking out against the use of chemical pesticides, and wrote “Silent Spring.” She testified before Congress in 1963, calling for policies that would protect people's health as well as the environment.
The milestones in Carson's life and work are highlighted on panels affixed with photographs and text and displayed in a small room at the museum. The panels are on loan from the Rachel Carson Homestead Association, and half of the $5 admission charge for the March 17 event will be donated to the association to help with restoration of Carson's childhood home.
Dr. Patricia DeMarco, director of the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham University, will be the keynote speaker.
She will address why Carson's work resonates today and how her upbringing in Springdale influenced her work.
Carson's mother believed that nature is the best teacher, so she homeschooled young Rachel, letting her spend hours roaming their 65-acre homestead.
She was drawn to the animals and plants on the family's property and began writing about them.
“She was tightly connected to nature, and that gave strength to her writing,” DeMarco says. “She was immersed in being a creature, like the other creatures in the woods around her home.”
She says Carson's work reminds us today to think about how our actions affect the world around us.
“There are side effects and consequences to introducing things into our environment,” DeMarco says.
Representatives from Beechwood Farms Nature reserve and Powdermill Nature Reserve will also make presentations about contemporary environmental issues and answer questions.
Stoner's questions brought Fannie Sellins into the Women's History exhibit.
“There are so many different versions of stories about her, that I was interested in digging deeper to learn more about her,” Stoner says.
Sellins was a single mother in the early 1900s, who worked in a St. Louis garment factory to support her children. She formed the United Garment Workers Local union in 1909, and then was hired by the United Mine Workers of America in West Virginia to support striking miners in 1913.
Sellins moved to the Alle-Kiski Valley in 1916. She was shot and killed in 1919 in Natrona during the Allegheny Coal strike.
“There were many eyewitnesses to her death, and no two agreed on what happened,” Stoner says.
One story is that Sellins was just walking by picketers and was shot, another is that she was trying to help miners' children, and yet another is that she started a riot. She was killed by two bullets; two deputy sheriffs were acquitted in the shooting.
Sellins is buried in Union Cemetery in Arnold.
Referred to as the first supermodel, Evelyn Nesbit was the focus of the Historical Society's annual dinner in October. The chorus girl was almost as popular at the dinner as she was more than 100 years ago.
“She was such a hit in October, we decided to make her world come alive for this exhibit,” Stoner says.
Born in Tarentum in the mid-1880s, Nesbit moved to New York City in 1900 and became a model and chorus girl. A teenage Evelyn became Madison Square Garden architect Stanford White's mistress the following year. In 1905, she married Pittsburgh millionaire Harry Thaw. Thaw murdered White in Madison Square Garden in 1906, thrusting Nesbit into the spotlight as the star witness in what the media called “the trial of the century.”
“Evelyn Nesbit either lived a very glamorous life or a very depressing life, depending on what you read,” Stoner says.
In addition to a variety of glamorous Nesbit photographs, the museum has added a Victorian fashion exhibit to showcase the styles worn by women in Nesbit's heyday.
Jill Henry Szish is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.
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