How the E-town Historical Society found its home
In 1964 the Kiwanis Club in Elizabethtown voted to restore the deteriorating old building in Peach Alley. The building had most recently been used as a garage but originally had been a state-supported elementary schoolhouse. It had just one room. The public service project undertaken by the Kiwanis Club took seven years to complete.
Jacob N. Olweiler had purchased the school house in 1920 to house Troop I of the Boy Scouts of America. He bequeathed it to his daughter, Anna Olweiler Needham in his will. Anna had a soft spot in her heart for the old building as her grandmother, Sarah Nissley Oldweiler attended the schoolhouse in her childhood in the 1850s.
When Jake Olweiler was alive, he had allowed Anna to use space in his men’s clothing store, the Olweiler Clothing Store, on S. Market Street as a gift shop–The Friendly Gift Shop. When the customer entered the store, he turned left of the center aisle to purchase men’s clothes. If the customer wanted candy, a card or gift, he turned to the right of the center aisle and that was the gift shop. As the years wore on, the gift shop did most of the business. Jake didn’t believe in clearance sales so much of his inventory was out of style by the 1960s. Nobody wanted the high button shoes and woolen bathing suits he had in stock.
For a time in the 1930s Anna had a gift shop on the boardwalk at Avalon, N.J. At the end of the summer of 1940, she came home with a husband, Thomas Needham.
The Needhams were interested in history and wanted to help preserve knowledge of Elizabethtown’s unique past. They agreed to lease the schoolhouse to the Elizabethtown Historical Society if the Kiwanis members fixed the leaking roof, broken window panes, splintered shutters and the structural damage.
Under the leadership of Henry S. Kenderdine the building was slowly restored and the Elizabethtown Historical Society met for the first time on May 31, 1971.
The Needhams also made public a provision in their wills leaving the schoolhouse and a neighboring two-family house on South Poplar Street to the Historical Society. When the will was read the Needhams had also included money as an endowment to keep the Historical Society in the black financially, at least in the beginning. The money the Needhams made in Elizabethtown was going back to the people in town in the form of a Historical Society.
The Kiwanis Club had done so much work that the schoolhouse was in the best shape it had been in since it was built. Nevertheless, running water and indoor plumbing had been frugally added by building a small room with a toilet and sink at the side of the building. A broken down shed at the rear of the building was removed when the Lancaster County Foundation granted the Society $1,000 and an herb garden replaced it.
When faced with the responsibility of spending the bequest, the Historical Society decided to keep the old schoolhouse as authentic as possible. The Board voted to build an annex to join the schoolhouse. A large meeting room, a kitchen, men’s and women’s lavatories, and storage space comprised the new addition.
Under the loving care and supervision of the president, Marty Weiss, and the treasurer, Beverly Weiss, the addition was ready for use in the fall of 1997. The society has had many dedicated board members over the years. Anna Ruth Hess, Margaret Gabel, Ed and Joan Puchaty, Harry Barnhart, Edythe Heisey, Martha Geibe, Henry and Bonnie Kenderdine, Cathy Brown, Beverly Ulrich (deceased), Margaret Garber, Ruth Maumaw, Carl Shull, Dennis Zubler, Jobie Riley, Martha Apgar-Farver, Helen Myers, Carol Kinard, Janet Kanoff have all volunteered time as officers to keep the organization going.
Time has caught up with many of the Needhams’ friends and some are gone now and some are in poor heath. The Historical Society needs you and your friends to join the organization, to come to evening programs and to volunteer as officers. That wonderful couple gave all they had to make Elizabethtown a vital community united by common memories and stories. What is the next generation of Elizabethtonians going to do with that gift?
There is an old saying that you don’t know where you are going unless you know where you have been. We need to pass on stories of the town’s people and what they did so young people and new residents will be inspired to work as diligently for themselves and their Elizabethtown community as their predecessors.
Allen, Marianna. History of the Olweiler Family.
MacMaster, Richard K. Elizabethtown: The First Three Centuries. 1999, Masthof Press, Morgantown, PA
Lesher, Robert. Conversation in 2004.