A Walk Through History: Hampton’s Depreciation Lands Museum 

(Published June-July 2014) 

By David G. Young

Drivers whizzing past the intersection of Pioneer Road and Route 8 may be unaware that they’re also zipping past one of Hampton Township’s true gems. The Depreciation Lands Museum is located just a short walk from William Flinn Highway, but in reality it’s a world away!

This hidden treasure offers residents and visitors a window into Hampton’s past. Founded in 1973, the Museum offers visitors a slice of life during colonial times, at the time when what is now called Hampton Township was being settled by pioneers from the East. But don't let the name "museum" fool you. This isn't one of those institutions filled with dusty artifacts and crumbling photos. The Depreciation Lands Museum showcases living history that transports visitors back to that period with true to life depictions of how our ancestors lived, worked, hunted, farmed, cooked, played, worshiped, and died!

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Karen Parsons, the Depreciation Lands Museum’s Volunteer Coordinator, tells visitors, “Step into the 18th century village of Talley Cavey and you’ve found the best kept secret in the area. Talley Cavey, the first village in what would become Hampton Township, comes to life every Sunday afternoon from May through October. The thing that surprises most first-time visitors is the lively activity taking place all around them. Guided by our friendly, knowledgeable, costumed interpreters, visitors can enjoy open-hearth cooking, one-room school classes, spinning, weaving and  blacksmithing. Those are just a few of the skills demonstrated every week at the Depreciation Lands Museum. The Museum is alive and growing, with over 75 volunteers bringing to life the early days of the Depreciation Lands.”

However, there is one aspect of the Museum that frequently confuses visitors-- the Museum's name! The term “Depreciation Lands” dates back to the Revolutionary War and re­fers to Continental Congress’ strug­gle to pay its army. At the beginning of the war the soldiers’ pay was backed by gold, which made it valid legal ten­der. But as the conflict progressed and Congress ran out of money, they be­gan paying the soldiers with “scrip,” a type of paper money that was little more than a promise to pay the bearer in gold … someday. However, Con­gress’s money troubles never ceased, and as the war progressed the scrip became worthless. The term we use to describe the declining value of money, to this day, is “depreciation.”

Following the Revolutionary War, the Com­monwealth of Pennsylvania decided to reward the soldiers for their loyal service. It bought a tract of land from the Iroquois Indi­ans in 1784 and used the acreage to pay off the scrip, which by then was worthless. The soldiers were issued “Depreciation Certificates,” which could be used as money to pay for this land. The value of each man’s certificate depended upon his time and length of service, as well as his rank. The auctions were open to the public as well, so if a soldier didn’t want to buy land with his certificate he could sell it for gold. Thus, the area that later became Hampton Township was part of the “Depreciation Lands.” Overall, the area included all of the North Hills of Pittsburgh running to a line 4 1/2 miles north of the present city of Butler, thereby also encompassing parts of Butler, Beaver, Lawrence and Armstrong Counties.

The Township of Hampton created the Depreciation Lands Museum in 1973, with the goal of preserving and interpreting the early years of settlement in the Depreciation Lands area. The site includes the Pine Creek Covenanter Church, built in 1837 (and its associated cemetery), the Armstrong log house, built in 1803, an herb garden, a replica schoolhouse (c. 1885), a working blacksmith shop, a wagon house (which houses a vintage Conestoga wagon) and numerous other attractions, including:

   A blacksmith shop similar to those of pioneer days.

   A tavern and meeting space with a professional kitchen, in which programs and meetings can be conducted.

   An herb/dye garden.

   An outdoor bread oven

   A smokehouse

   A mercantile shop featuring period crafts and gifts

Features and Attractions

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Despite its close proximity to bustling Route 8, the grounds of the museum are actually quite "woodsy” and serene. Perhaps that has something to do with the original structure on the grounds - the Covenanter Church - and its surrounding cemetery. A casual stroll through the cemetery becomes startling when you realize that childhood illness and death were ever-present in the lives of pioneer families.

In the Miller family plot,  headstones  show that five children died in the same year, and one the following year, during a diphtheria epidemic.  Diphtheria caused their throats to swell so much that all they could eat was beef broth, which was administered by their older sister. She prepared so much of the broth that she couldn’t eat beef for the rest of her life.

Such epidemics were a major problem for the pioneers, and were particularly serious for children under the age of 12. If a child survived childhood, he or she might live another seventy years. At the original cemetery for this congregation, there are stones marked M1 or M2 (for “Male Child”) or F1 or F2 (for “Female Child”) marking the graves of children who died so young that they were not given names. * *Source: Depreciation Lands Museum Interpreter’s Guide.

The schoolhouse that was erected in 1997 is an exact replica of the McCaslin School, which was originally built in 1885. The first school in the area was built in 1800 near the intersection of Wildwood and East Hardies roads. In those days, school terms were 3 months per year. The smaller children sat on the benches in the front of the class and learned their alphabet and a few bible verses. The school’s older children had textbooks, including McGuffy Readers, and used slates to write on, since paper was rare.

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The Museum gift shop, called “Talley Cavey Mercantile,” is styled after a frontier-era trading post.  It offers a wide variety of colonial era merchandise, including toys and clothing, locally handcrafted pottery, books, quilts and decorative items for the home. Located in the "Barn," the Mercantile is open every Sunday from May through October, and during special events at the Museum. The Barn also hosts a “gun shop” and a “blacksmith shop” which produces ironwork, such as forged hooks and toasting forks. Custom items can also be crafted upon request.

The Museum’s most recent major project brings to life the feel and function of a colonial-era tavern. The “Tavern Project” is the single largest capital improvement undertaken by the Museum to date. As the Museum’s Board President Dan Connelly explains it, “Our most successful events always involve food. Besides adding an attractive and functional meeting space to the grounds, the Tavern’s food service also helps to generate additional income for the museum, so our ability to provide better quality food service is one key to the Museum’s future success.” The Museum is planning to build an 18th century style fireplace in the tavern’s main dining room, to add an authentic atmosphere to the venue. The final phase of the project calls for the addition of log siding to the exterior of the facility to create a true colonial feeling.

The oldest structure on the museum grounds is the Armstrong Cabin, which was built by Thomas Armstrong in 1803 at the junction of McNeal and Middle  roads. The Armstrong family donated it to the museum in 1973. The cabin has been rebuilt in the exact orientation in which it was originally built, with the door facing east. By today’s standards, the cabin is absolutely tiny -- not much larger than the average backyard storage shed. However, the Armstrong family raised 10 children in this small space. The dwelling is officially named the James Armstrong log cabin.  James’ son, Thomas Armstrong, bought the tract of land in 1803 and built the log home. The cabin was either rebuilt or expanded in 1839. All cooking was done either in the cabin’s hearth or outside. Today the cabin serves as a stark reminder of the hardships our ancestors endured on the frontier.

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The role of volunteers at the Depreciation Lands Museum is vital to helping the museum to grow and improve. As Karen Parsons explains, “Thanks to our volunteers and supporters, we are constantly adding new hands-on exhibits and projects. Bill Williams recently completed a loving restoration of our Conestoga style wagon, which once again rolls on its own wheels. Kent Maier supervised the building of our Mercantile Gift Shop, which offers thousands of 18th century style items for sale, including many which are hand crafted by local artisans. Other projects include our 18th century style workshop, created by Kent Maier, where you will find all manner of projects underway at any time. And Boy Scout David Antol recently completed a log construction smokehouse for his Eagle Scout project.”

Karen goes on to explain, “We’ve also undertaken other major projects in the past year. One of our newest projects involved assembling the most extensive fiber display in the area. We raise and process flax into linen, and spin local wool fleece into yarn. Both of these fibers are woven into useful items, available for purchase or used within the Village. In addition, Ed Tutino recently supervised the total renovation of our old annex building, remodeling it into an 18th century style Tavern building, complete with modern kitchen. This fully furnished building is available to rent for special events.”

These are just a few of the attractions to be seen and experienced at the Depreciation Lands Museum under the knowledgeable guidance of the museum’s interpreters.

Recreating History

What really makes history come alive for visitors is the Museum’s dedicated staff of costumed reenactors and interpreters. These dedicated volunteers dress in period costumes and carry out a variety of crafts and activities that were common to the region’s early settlers. At any given visit, guests can observe demonstrations of blacksmithing, baking, spinning, weaving, beekeeping, cooking and many other colonial-era activities.

The staff goes to great pains to dress in costumes that are, as authentic to the period as possible. Women reenactors and interpreters can dress in shifts, petticoats, aprons, kerchiefs, caps, hats, cloaks and colonial style shoes or moccasins.  Male reenactors are generally dressed in linen shirts, breeches, knee socks, colonial style shoes or moccasins, coats, waistcoats, kerchiefs and hats.

The museum is also fortunate to have connections with The Wildwood Long Rifles, a club whose members enjoy crafts from  18th century America. The members excel at recreating vintage firearms, textiles (costumes), cookware, ironwork (blacksmithing), weaving, woodwork and similar crafts.Longtime club member Dan Connolly points out that, unlike reenactors, who are typically focused upon a specific event or a historical military unit ,“The Longrifles are more like living historians or artisans who are focused upon a particular period in American history.”

For the Long Rifles, that period is America’s frontier at the time of the French and Indian War, in 1756. At that time, Western Pennsylvania was a hotspot of activity, with settlers moving into the region to farm and trade with local Indians. Events such as Pontiac’s Uprising in 1763 demonstrated the importance of firearms to colonial settlers for self-defense, as well as for hunting.

As the club’s name confirms, antique firearms are a central focus of the Wildwood Long Rifles. The group has its roots in a gun club that was started by former Hampton Middle School industrial arts teacher David Hughes several years ago. His evening “Gun Classes” were originally offered through the Community College of Allegheny County, North Campus. But, as a board member of the Depreciation Lands Museum, Hughes eventually began to offer the class through the museum.

Authentic period costumes are also an important part of the club members’ activities. The members individually research and create their own apparel, purchasing some items, such as boots, and making others. Some of their apparel  may be familiar to anyone who has studied history or visited historic sites such as Colonial Williamsburg. However, life on the frontier was rougher and less genteel than in Philadelphia, Williamsburg and the other large cities.

Other craft items recreated by the club members include powder hornsfor guns, leather pouches and bags, knives and other cutlery. As with their firearms, every project is carefully researched and meticulously crafted to be as authentic to the period as possible. While each of the club members enjoys reading about history, it is actually the recreations of the past that make history come alive for residents.

Upcoming Events and Programs

Although the Depreciation Lands Museum offers a wide variety of events on a year-round basis, there are several major events that visitors may want to mark on their calendars.

“The Museum offers wonderful programs to schools, scouts, families and other groups,” explains Karen Parsons. “Program director Robbie Seibert has developed several popular events, including the “Living in History” program, the preschool story times, and the family-oriented “Cabin Days” program. Families, for example, can create a special memory for their children this summer by spending a day living in the Armstrong Log House. Under Robbie’s guidance, the family will prepare and cook a midday meal in the open hearth, perform family chores, and learn a craft skill. What a great way to immerse your children in history and create a very special memory for a lifetime!”

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