By Roger DuPuis, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — You probably figured that the Susquehanna River is old.
Did you know it’s one of the oldest surviving rivers on earth?
Or that local Revolutionary War hero Nathan Denison quietly lived out his days as a county judge long after the fighting was over?
Or that radicals who later settled in our area were picking armed fights with British colonial officials a decade before the war back home in their native Connecticut?
Take a stroll down to Public Square this weekend and you can learn all that — and more — at a new “pop up” museum dedicated to showcasing the region’s rich history.
Displays about the Wyoming Valley’s prehistoric, Native American and colonial sagas can be found on the 4th floor at 1 South Main St.
Not only are they the first exhibits of which will soon grow into two floors of local history, but the whole effort is designed to raise awareness of the past in order to support the the Irem Temple Restoration Project, which aims to restore that century-old structure on North Franklin Street for use as a permanent museum and performance/events venue.
The pop-up museum is an initiative of the Irem Temple group with input from others who are interested in local history and preservation, and a means of demonstrating that history can be a draw for visitors.
“We want everyone who comes here to know the history and get excited about the history and understand it is something we can really use to build heritage tourism,” said Irem Temple Restoration Project board member Beth Archer, who was instrumental in writing, proofreading and designing the pop-up museum’s displays.
Now occupying the Main Street building’s 4th floor, the exhibits are expected to soon take up the 3rd floor as well, with displays highlighting the area’s military, industrial and ethnic histories, said Archer and Irem Temple Restoration Project Chairman Christian Wielage.
Yes, that includes the coal mines.
“We’ve done half the museum. For the second half, anyone who might be interested in contributing family stories should come here and talk with us,” Wielage said.
Putting together the displays on Native American and colonial history required many weekends spent huddled around computer screens with local historians including Tony Brooks of the Wilkes-Barré Preservation Society; Clark Switzer, head of the Social Studies Department at the Wyoming Seminary Lower School; and Bob Mischak, a volunteer at the Nathan Denison House in Forty Fort who is a former educator and colonial-era re-enactor.
“I think every community has individual histories that make us unique,” said Brooks, who also is president of Wilkes-Barre City Council.
“It’s important in this day and age in America when there’s a blandness and sameness across the country — like strip malls — to celebrate that,” Brooks said. “We have a proud local history that we want to share with the rest of the country.”
Brooks, like Wielage, has long family roots in the region and knowledge of its early pioneers.
Brooks’s group, for example, uses the traditional spelling of Isaac Barré’s last name, in remembrance of the Irish-born soldier and politician who became one of the people for whom the city takes its name. The other was British radical John Wilkes, and visitors to the pop-up museum can read about both.
Archer, Wielage and Brooks believe there is a large potential market of visitors who would be eager to learn about that history, too.
“We already have tour groups who come up for a day and stay overnight already,” Brooks said.
“They go to the casino, they see the fall foliage, they stay at the Woodlands,” he added. “They go on a tour of the Luzerne County Courthouse and are mesmerized by our architecture. They have lunch at the Frederick Stegmaier Mansion and they have ice cream at Hillside before going back to Philadelphia.
“We could do more with that here,” he concluded.
“A lot of times I talk about how tourists spend $700 million a year at Gettysburg and they only stay for 1.3 days,” he said.
“The most frustrating thing is when people scoff or laugh that the Wyoming Valley and Wilkes-Barre have a history on par with Gettysburg,” he added. “The purpose is to show that we have a history that’s worthy of being put on display, and given our location, how many people are passing through here, who we can get to stop for 1.3 days and spend hundreds of millions of dollars.”