Boalsburg Charm: History, tradition remain at the heart of this fast-growing community
Back in 1809, land speculator Andrew Stroup sold 60 tracts of land by lottery for $11 each, thus establishing the village that would become Boalsburg. Then known as Springfield, its high-quality freshwater spring and location at a strategic Pennsylvania crossroads made it a desirable place to settle.
Fast-forward to 2019 and another sale of land by lottery illustrates that Boalsburg is still a desirable place to settle. Berks Homes sold 15 lots in less than a week this April, selling out of the first phase of its new development, Kaywood North. It’s one of several neighborhoods cropping up in the township over the past decade, including Rocky Ridge, The Gates, and Liberty Hill.
“Harris Township has been the fastest-growing municipality in the Centre Region for the last four years,” says township Manager Amy Farkas. “When our next census is done, we’ll be over 5,400 residents. We’ve had 19 percent growth in 10 years.”
Perhaps its ability to thrive comes from the fact that this small “suburb” of State College has a lot to offer in its own right: a historic village square, iconic restaurants, quaint shops, a golf course, a ski resort, museums, a theater, and a growing industrial park, for starters.
History and Celebration
Boalsburg is a place where the past and present are deeply intertwined. You can’t really understand the community unless you know something of its rich history, including its role in creating the Memorial Day tradition the nation observes today.
Naturally, much of that history involves the Boal family, Scottish-Irish immigrants who first settled in Centre County when David Boal acquired a 4,000-acre tract of land after the Revolutionary War. At the time, what is now Main Street was part of a main thoroughfare from the east to the west known as King’s Highway. Boal’s son, also named David, recognized that the location made a good stopping point for weary travelers. He opened the area’s first tavern in 1804, leading the way for the town to develop as a major transportation hub.
When the village’s first post office was established in 1820, the town was officially named Boalsburg. In 1855, Boal’s son, George, helped found the Farmers High School, which eventually became Penn State University. Several years later, the village found itself affected by war.
“Boalsburg was really tuned into the Civil War because they lost a lot of their own. Harris Township sent more men per capita than any other town in the North,” says Cathy Horner, longtime Boalsburg resident and co-author of the book, A War, Three Women and a Tradition: The History of Boalsburg in the Civil War.
According to a detailed first-hand account written by Sophie Keller in the 1904 book, A History of the 148th PA Volunteers,16-year-old Keller joined her friend, Emma Hunter, who lost her father in the war, and Elizabeth Myers, who lost a son at Gettysburg, as they went to the cemetery to put flowers on their loved ones’ graves.
“Once they got there, they decided they really should put flowers on all of the graves,” Horner says. “And that was the beginning.”
While Waterloo, New York, holds the official federal designation as the birthplace of Memorial Day, Horner feels that Keller’s narrative largely proves that the nation’s first true “Decoration Day” occurred in Boalsburg in October 1864. A statue honoring the three women now stands at the edge of the Boalsburg Cemetery.
To say the community has embraced its role in the history of Memorial Day is an understatement. For decades, Boalsburg has marked the occasion with a carnival and a parade, Civil War re-enactments, the “Day in Town” event featuring vendors and live entertainment, and more. Last year, the weekend’s events drew approximately 18,000 people.
“The whole weekend is very important to us because it brings many people to see our village,” says event chair Jeff Fisher. “But the most important part is the 6 o’clock walk from the Diamond to the cemetery and the ceremony where we honor those people who have served and are no longer with us.”
Arriving from the State College side of town, the well-manicured grounds of the Pennsylvania Military Museum along the left side of Boal Avenue serve as a visible welcome to Boalsburg.
Once again the influence of the Boal family emerges, as the site’s original owner, Theodore Davis “Terry” Boal, used the grounds to train a mounted machine gun troop in preparation for America’s entrance into World War I. After the war, soldiers returned to the location to have reunions and lay monuments to the fallen. The site eventually was sold to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
The museum opened in 1969 and honors Pennsylvania’s military history from 1747 through the present. The 40 acres in front of the museum will be a hubbub of activity during Memorial Day commemorations as well as for special events like the People’s Choice Festival in July. But at other times, the spacious grounds, which now hold 29 memorial shrines, are also well-used by the general public, many of whom walk or jog the paved paths for exercise.
“Many of the things that happen on the grounds represent what our service men and women have sacrificed for – the freedom to enjoy peace and tranquility on the grounds,” says Tyler Gum, museum director.
Across Boal Avenue, another museum, the Boal Mansion and Columbus Chapel, offers a world-class collection of art and artifacts amassed by eight generations of the Boal family.
“Because of the eight generations and their prominence on the local, state, federal, and international stages, you have here a range of not only American history, but international history that goes back millennia,” says museum Director Bob Cameron.
People come from all over the world to see the exhibits, including an armory with weaponry dating back to medieval times, original artwork by Renaissance masters, and one of the world’s largest collections of Christopher Columbus artifacts.
Behind the mansion is the Boal Barn – a bank barn built in 1890 and converted to a theater in the 1950s. On May 23, the curtain will rise on what Nittany Theatre at the Barn’s producing artistic director, Dave Saxe, calls its “Gala Anniversary” season – the company’s fifth season of summer stock theater at the barn and the 60th year that the barn has been a home for live theater.
Another bank barn can be found on the grounds of the Boalsburg Heritage Museum on East Main Street. The Sara Sweet House, built in 1825, houses the museum’s collection of artifacts from the village’s history. A lighthouse on the property generated the first electricity in the village, and the summer kitchen houses a beehive oven that has been restored to allow cooking and baking demonstrations on special occasions.
Wining and Dining
Up the street, Duffy’s Boalsburg Tavern embraces its role as a historic landmark while continuing to thrive as a modern-day restaurant and bar.
According to Horner, who is writing a book entitled The History of the Boalsburg Tavern and the Woman Who Saved It slated for publication by the Centre County Historical Society later this spring, the tavern – which turns 200 years old this year – was originally called the Boalsburg Inn. It was one of three stagecoach stops in the village, including David Boal’s original Boal Tavern and Wolfe’s Tavern, each serving different classes of travelers.
All three buildings are still standing, but only Duffy’s Tavern continues to operate. Its current proprietors are Tracey and Darren Moriarty, who met at Duffy’s on St. Patrick’s Day in 2006 and were married there on St. Patrick’s Day in 2011. They bought the tavern from Carl Hacker in 2012.
“Carl was looking for somebody who would continue the tradition. Our intention was always to be caretakers of the tavern, rather than coming in and dramatically changing anything,” Tracey Moriarty says.
Moriarty serves on the Boalsburg Village Conservancy and helps to organize the village’s Wine Walk events. This year’s Wine Walks will take place on June 21 and September 27, featuring local wineries, brewers, and distilleries sharing samples on the Diamond. Money raised is earmarked to help fund a project near and dear to Moriarty’s heart, she says – the publication of a pamphlet that serves as a walking tour guide of the village’s many historic homes.
“I want people to be able to walk around and see how old the houses are, who lived there initially, and more about some of the history,” she says. “I don’t know if people realize how much of a gem they have here in Boalsburg.”
“The Wine Walks have helped bring people in. They’ve really helped Boalsburg out a lot,” says Pam Bair, who has owned A Basket Full boutique on Main Street for the past 29 years – longer than any other retailer in the village, she says. Some of the other specialty shops include Riley’s on Main, Chocolates by Leopold, Elaine’s on Main Street, and Hairy Dilemma pet grooming.
While many of Boalsburg’s treasures are tucked away out of the view of thru traffic, one of its most visible landmarks is displayed prominently along Route 322. The giant bull that stands atop what is now Kelly’s Steak and Seafood Restaurant has been greeting travelers since 1968.
When Sean Kelly and his wife, Tien, bought the Boalsburg Steakhouse in 2005, they briefly considered removing the bull. However, Kelly says, “The town sort of pleaded with us because it is such a huge landmark for Boalsburg. We realized that it is something that is very unique, so we decided to keep it.”
In turn, he says, the community has embraced the restaurant.
“Boalsburg is such a tight-knit and loving community,” he says. “The people have one another’s back. They want to see you succeed.”
Recreation and Business
The “outskirts” of Boalsburg offer a variety of recreational opportunities. Tussey Mountain offers skiing, snowboarding, and tubing in the winter. In the summer, it becomes a venue for events like the wildly popular WingFest, and people of all ages enjoy the Fun Centre, which includes go-karts, a skate park, batting cages, and miniature golf. Continuing up Bear Meadows Road beyond the Fun Centre is the gateway to Rothrock State Forest, with a diverse system of trails that make it a popular draw for hikers and mountain bikers.
On the opposite side of Route 322, Mountain View Country Club is an 18-hole semi-private golf course and home of the new Wyndham Garden State College. The 100-room hotel opened in 2018 as the result of one of several zoning changes intended to encourage growth while at the same time protecting the charm of the village, Farkas says.
Some of these changes will make a section of Boal Avenue more pedestrian-friendly, she says, while others have allowed for the ongoing development of Discovery Drive, which will soon welcome businesses like Vertical Adventures rock climbing gym and EnergyCAP.
In addition, “We’re updating regulations in our rural areas to be a little more modern, because the nature of farming has changed so much. We’re making changes to allow for agritainment – things like corn mazes and special events,” Farkas says.
“It’s a nice time to be in Boalsburg,” she says. “We’ve got a lot going on.”
Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.