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Planned Westmoreland History Education Center stuck in limbo

| Saturday, June 7, 2014, 8:48 p.m.
Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
Lisa Hays, executive director of the Westmoreland County Historical Society, sorts through boxes containing historical artifacts on Thursday, June 5, 2014, in the group’s Unity headquarters.
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The main entrance of the Westmoreland County Historical Society’s proposed History Education Center at Hanna’s Town.
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An alternate view of the Westmoreland County Historical Society’s proposed History Education Center at Hanna’s Town.
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The floor plan for the Westmoreland County Historical Society’s proposed History Education Center at Hanna’s Town.
The Civil War collection of Col. Thomas Foster Gallagher, a New Alexandria native, includes two frock coats, two sashes, a sword belt, trunk, saddle and horse tack.
Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
Lisa Hays, executive director of the Westmoreland County Historical Society, sorts through boxes containing historical artifacts on Thursday, June 5, 2014, in the group’s Unity headquarters.

Polly Willman is using tiny needles and fine thread to fill in holes in the faded blue wool of a battle-worn frock coat worn by Civil War Col. Thomas Foster Gallagher of New Alexandria,

The holes were not made by bullets, but by moths that nibbled at the coat while it was in storage for more than a century.

“We stabilize what's there and try to preserve any history that is there,” said Willman, a textile expert who operates Preservation Services for Costumes in Gaithersburg, Md. “You strive to stabilize it if it's expected to be in a museum setting.”

The coat will be ready to display when Willman returns it to Westmoreland County next week. But it will go back into storage until a history center in the planning phase for nearly a decade is built.

The county commissioners and the historical society have not reached an agreement on how to fund and operate the proposed $4.5 million Westmoreland History Education Center in Historic Hanna's Town, according to parties involved in the talks.

Historical society leaders had planned to break ground for the center at the county-owned property in Hempfield in spring 2013, but that was delayed by the lack of an agreement. Executive director Lisa Hays hopes to break ground next year.

“We're sort of in a holding pattern until we get a formal agreement from the county,” Hays said. “We need a county commitment, and we're going to pursue a loan.”

The society has $2.3 million for the project, including the county money, Hays said. The county's backing would help the society's efforts to borrow money, she said.

Charles Anderson, chairman of the county board of commissioners, said he believes the sides will come to terms.

“I certainly hope so,” he said.

He and fellow Republican Commissioner Tyler Courtney want the historical society to raise more money while they attempt to work out a deal.

“I think it's a worthy project. But we need to keep our eyes on the budget and do it as frugally as possible,” Anderson said.

The agreement centers on $836,518 that the commissioners would commit to the center in installments. The money is part of $1 million promised by a previous board of commissioners in 2007. The difference in the amounts results from the architect, The Lettrich Group of Greensburg and Rostraver, and other fees being paid.

The project has been scaled down from the original $7.5 million plan for a 22,000-square-foot structure that includes general history and archeology exhibit rooms, a research library, an archives room, a gift shop on the main floor and storage areas on a lower floor.

To cut costs, the historical society decided not to finish the lower floor and a portion of the main floor intended as an exhibit area interpreting Hanna's Town, Hays said.

Visitors will be charged an admission fee.

“We're still looking for contributions,” Hays said. “We have several fundraising events planned, but mostly it will be through contributions.”

The group dedicated proceeds from an Oktoberfest golf outing in the fall to the education center and plans to hold other fundraisers, she said.

History in storage

Much of the historical society's collection is stored in boxes at the group's cramped office in Unity, Hays said.

“We have items in boxes that we're taking care of and storing properly, but we have no way to display them,” she said.

Among them are Gen. Richard Coulter's papers and a jacket the Greensburg resident wore during the Mexican-American War.

A signature quilt awaiting display bears the names of the original settlers of Norvelt, a community of 250 homes in Mt. Pleasant Township that was established by the federal government during the Great Depression as part of a New Deal homestead project. It was renamed in 1937 in honor of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was involved with the project.

In November, the historical society purchased Gallagher's frock coat and a coat he wore after the Civil War, two silk sashes, a wooden trunk, a saddle, a harness and bridle, a traveling bag called a portmanteau, and other items in an auction for $9,625. The board raised the money for the purchase through donations and grants. The items were sent to experts for preservation.

The historical society plans to showcase the Gallagher collection in the new center.

“It's not just one item. It's several items, and that makes it more grand than a single item we have in the collection,” Hays said. “And we know a lot about him.”

A Civil War story

Gallagher was captured by Confederate forces in Virginia, imprisoned, then released. He was seriously wounded during the September 1862 Battle of South Mountain.

After the war, he returned to New Alexandria and continued in his role as breveted general in the Pennsylvania militia until his death in 1883 at 61.

“The Civil War was a defining moment in American history,” Hays said. “This is a local person's story all wrapped up in those objects.”

John Mickinak, a historical society member, helped acquire the Gallagher articles through phone bids with the auction house, and he traveled to Marlborough, Mass., to collect them.

Preserving history is important, Mickinak said.

“It's like the old cliche: We have to know where we came from to know where we're going,” he said.

The leather items owned by Gallagher, including the portmanteau, the bridle and bit and two sword belts, were sent to Textile Conservation and Restoration Studio in Girard, Ohio.

The historical society will pay $6,936 to the Ohio and Maryland conservators to preserve the items, Hays said.

“A lot of my work is done by hand. You use thread as fine as you can to do the job,” Willman said of restoring the Civil War coat.

Gallagher's saddle and other items did not need to be restored, Hays said.

All the items are expected to be back in Westmoreland County this summer and returned to storage.

Bob Stiles is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6622 or bstiles@tribweb.com.

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