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Snapshot: Discovering Columbus, Through Marriage

by on June 29, 2018 3:15 PM

Touring the Columbus Chapel & Boal Mansion Museum in Boalsburg is like taking a trip back in time. All in a day, you can experience America through the Boal family and discover Christopher Columbus in Pennsylvania.

The Boal Mansion in Boalsburg is the home of the Columbus Chapel, containing the most significant collection of Christopher Columbus artifacts in North America.

The centuries-old chapel was inherited and imported from Asturias, Spain, to Boalsburg in 1909 by Boal descendants of Columbus. It contains Columbus’ Admiral’s Desk, Columbus family archives dating from 1453 to 1908, an exceptional collection of 15th- through 18th-century fine European paintings and sculpture, and two pieces of the True Cross of Jesus.

Dr. Robert Cameron has been director of the museum since March 2015.

“One of the things that sets us apart from other museums throughout the world, is that everything you see here is original,” says Cameron, an adjunct professor at Penn State. “There are no reproductions and there are no period pieces.”

The museum new Columbus exhibit opens in July. Its latest acquisition on permanent loan is a locket of hair from Christopher Columbus from his deathbed.

“The person who has put that on loan to us has agreed to allow us to have one of the hairs analyzed to demonstrate that it is Columbus’ hair,” Cameron says.

Also included in the exhibit are a bust of Columbus from the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, for which the Boal and Columbus families were featured guests to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Columbus expedition; and Columbus’ sea chest, which one would think it would be empty after about five centuries.

“We just found the key to it and unlocked it,” Cameron says. “And it’s filled, including a book by Pope Gregory dated 1532, manuscripts that were lost and never before seen by scholars, and a host of other items.

“We have the largest collection of Christopher Columbus artifacts in North America, and possibly the Western Hemisphere, in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania – despite the fact that Columbus never made it to North America, let alone Boalsburg, Pennsylvania,” Cameron says. “It is through marriage that all this happened.”

Colonel Theodore Davis Boal, married Mathilde de Lagarde, a Parisian aristocrat, when he was studying architecture as a young man in the 1890s. Her aunt, Victoria Montalvo, married Diego Colon. In Spanish, Columbus is pronounced Colon. They never had children, so at the end of Victoria’s life, she bequeathed to Colonel Boal’s wife, her niece, the contents of the Columbus family castle in the north of Spain.

“That is a consecrated church and is from the Columbus family castle in the north of Spain built in 1450,” Cameron says. “How many historic homes in the United States have you ever gone to that have a private church? It’s unheard of. When you go inside you’re going to see Renaissance art. It’s just amazing.”

In the Boal Mansion, visitors will discover intact two centuries of Boal family furnishings, fine art, papers, portraits, tools and weapons of nine generations of this American family. Also contained are the original signatures of five U.S. presidents, and even a lock of Napoleon’s hair.

“A second thing that sets us apart – and it almost makes this museum at times seem more European than American – is that nine generations of the Boals lived here for 200 years,” Cameron says.

Also on display today are many relics from the family’s incredible international ancestry as well as a large collection of weapons and tools from medieval times through World War I.

Another exhibit that will be opening soon is Transportation and Early American Life, which contains a beautifully restored 1850s stage coach, a buckboard buggy, old farming tools, the 1816 accounts book from David Boal’s tavern, and many more farm and kitchen implements.

Also on display are a collection of saddles and an Eastern stagecoach, which at the time was extremely rare.

“Colonel Boal actually acquired this to be able to pick his guests up, who would come up from Washington, D.C., and other places,” Cameron says. “His servants would go pick them up from the train station just a few miles away.”

The museum grounds cover 48 acres, with two miles of public trails that have been constructed for hiking. Cameron has designed eight public gardens that are under construction. Also on the grounds is the Nittany Theatre at The Barn playhouse.

“We’re going to be moving the historic greenhouse from Rockview Prison, and we’re going to move it over here, excavate the Olympic-size swimming pool that was filled in, and place the greenhouse above,” he says. “With that we’ll have a 30-foot differential, so we’re going to put a waterfall in and a tropical rainforest where we’ll raise butterflies. That will be a great project.”

Upcoming events at Boal Mansion include the Annual Antique Faire & Berry Festival during Arts Festival week, July 13- 15, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The event will feature the annual antique show and sale, showcasing vendors of quality antiques and collectibles from near and far, and food, beer, and wine vendors. Music and demonstrations of traditional home crafts such as spinning, quilting, and embroidery are also planned, as are short tours of various exhibits. It’s also a great time to try some delicious foods like fresh blueberry pies and milkshakes.

Other upcoming events include the Herb & Garlic Festival/Teddy Bear Tea/PennDel Tree Climbing Competition on September 9, Olde Europe Festival on October 7, and on October 8 a Mass will be held in the Columbus Chapel, with limited seating by reservation only. Visitors can celebrate the holiday season with the Hanging of the Greens November 25, Home for the Holidays at the Mansion December 1-2, and the Drive-thru Illumination Display & Kristkindl Market on the first two weekends in December.

For Christmas, Cameron is also planning a Charles Dickens Christmas dinner and ball in the mansion ballroom.

The Boal Mansion Museum & Columbus Chapel is open six days a week from May 1 to October 31; it is closed Mondays, except on Memorial Day.

Jason Klose is a freelance writer from Mifflinburg.
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