Indiana, PA - Indiana County

County fair display evokes past

by HEATHER ROTH on August 30, 2011 10:00 AM

It will tell you a story, if you know how to listen.

But luckily for those less accustomed to taking tales away from a slice of a tree trunk, members of the Indiana County Archeology Society will spend their days at the Indiana County Fair translating the rings so everyone can understand.

"This tree can say so much: how much rain there was in the area, when rain fell," said Marion Smeltzer, of Penn Run, president of the Indiana County Archeology Society. "The tree can tell the story."

The society's booth at the fair, in the pavilion above the food vendors and the tractor supplies, shows a roughly 2-inch-thick slice of an oak tree that was hit by lightning in July in the Oak Grove on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus.

Smeltzer, always on the lookout for a good fair exhibit, asked to take a cutting from the fallen tree.

"When you see the display, you're going to love it," she said.

By counting the rings into the darker center of the tree, Smeltzer said it's at least 195 years old; a more exact age would require a microscope, she said.

That means the oak tree predates IUP and even the founding of Indiana County.

Land records from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission show the land where it grew was granted to James Brison in the late 1780s; in 1868, James Sutton bought a 4.5-acre piece of a tree plantation. The oak tree was just one of many growing there.

IUP was founded as the Indiana Normal School a few years later, in 1875.

Smeltzer said she can see in the tree rings when the Oak Grove was thinned, and this particular oak was left to grow outside Leonard Hall. The rings are wider, indicating faster growth because of less competition.

Thicker rings also show years when more rain fell, she said.

And a big blue-black stain a couple inches in from the edge shows where a piece of metal was imbedded into the trunk years ago.

That is something that Bill Yagle, also an archeology society member, learned from the grandson of a lumberman passing by the exhibit, he said.

"We can learn quite a bit here," he said.

The tree is only part of the society's larger exhibit, featuring ancient artifacts and some more recent, including arrowheads and an 18th-century earthenware thermos. A wooden camel tells viewers that the creatures once populated North America.

The goal, Smeltzer said, is "to help the public understand exactly what archeology is, what it involves, who the shareholders are, and what we can do … to ensure that our cultural resources are being noticed and protected as best we can."

Often, people walk away from the booth eager to start digging in their own backyards, just to see what they can find, she said.

"You can learn so much from the soil, you can learn so much from burnt charcoal," she said. "There's so much in our own back yards, in our own immediate area, that has yet to be discovered."

But it's not all digging and counting tree rings. Smeltzer said. An archeologist must put her find in context with history. So she eagerly shows the surveying records from that land grant to James Brison, back in the late 1780s.

"Education is always important; it's not a closed subject," she said. "We want the public to get involved because they are our best advocates."

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