Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Caretaker of County History: Vonnie Henninger Preserves Community Heritage

If you enjoy learning about local history in Centre County, if you’re one to like historical photographs on social media, you’ve probably come across Vonnie Henninger. Almost every day, she posts on Facebook in Penns Valley Past and PresentCentre County Blogs, and her own personal page.

Vonnie (middle of first standing row, with glasses) as a third-grader at the Miles Township School, wearing a plaid feedbag dress her mother made for her. The kids would ask the feed man for bags with patterns they liked.

Vonnie’s reach and impact over the years has been immeasurable. I had a chance to talk with Vonnie about her passion for sharing local history. I wanted to try to understand the woman behind the profile—not only how she does what she does, but why.

When I arrived at Vonnie’s apartment, she led me to her home office—or archive, rather—containing shelves of photo albums, binders, and books on any topic you can think of. For example, she’s interested in marching band history. Vonnie is in The Little German Band of State College and plays the trumpet. “I work on their history,” she says, and has been keeping records of their gigs for years. 

Vonnie also has ten filing cabinets of meticulously organized histories. She has every Town & Gown magazine and even cuts the articles out so they can be filed. Her apartment is brimming with history; she had to rent an extra closet across the hall to store her newspapers, which she’s been saving and clipping for decades. 

We went to Vonnie’s computer, where she demonstrated how her databases work and what they contain: “Anything that I hear about and want to know about, and don’t want to forget.” Her Miles Township People and Places database has 5,395 entries. Another database, Things in Miles Township, has 3,616 entries. Her genealogy database has 154,919 people in it. More impressive, she’s kept these computer databases since 1995. 

By the time we sat down together at her kitchen table, I was a bit overwhelmed with the volume of it all and tried to collect myself to ask some questions. Looking around at the family photos, I overheard an emergency dispatch radio Vonnie was channeled into. She explains that her late husband, John Henninger, was a State College police officer for over 20 years and also served with Alpha Fire Company.

She says, “There were times when I knew where my husband was by the radio. He would make a comment sometimes so I knew he was busy and why he would not be home for a while.” She went on to say that she needed a hobby that was a “quiet one” since her husband was a cop and slept during the day. She would go to the library on Saturdays with her daughter Tracy Deitrich. Tracy is “just like me,” Vonnie says proudly, and will be the one to inherit and carry on “all of this.” 

Vonnie has scrapbooked and has kept a journal since she was 12 years old. She comes from seven generations of farmers in Brush Valley. Her husband’s family had the Millheim Hotel. Her family’s past has been a foundation for the wealth of information Vonnie shares daily on Facebook.

In addition to maintaining her collections, Vonnie is a force of preservation and action in real life. She says “when you get this into history, you are responsible to make things happen, to do things,” and she means it. She’s been busy.

 Between 2011 and 2013, she helped raise money to relocate and preserve the Gramley Schoolhouse, which continues to serve as a museum of Brush Valley history. She wrote books to help raise the funds, too. Between 2017 and 2021 she helped raise over $30,000 to repair and preserve the Egg Hill Church. “The people love that church; it has a lot of history,” she says. The church is still used once a year for homecoming service and for weddings. 

Vonnie once conducted a project for the Centre County Historical Society where she helped take pictures of all buildings in Penn Township. She’s done bus tours for the Rebersburg Bicentennial and tours of Penns Valley for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. She’s given 450 presentations and counting for groups, clubs, and senior centers across Centre County. She’s also visited the classrooms of Jeffry Wert and other teachers in Penns Valley. In the last month, she conducted three presentations, including a genealogy workshop at Graystone. Vonnie was able to give me these details because, in addition to her collections, she has kept notes on everything she’s ever participated in related to public history. 

That brings us to the why. On Vonnie’s Facebook profile she says, “I collect history—old photos (including unidentified), newspapers, books, most anything.” People often send her boxes of items because they trust her—trust that she earned over the years as a caretaker of community heritage and history. Vonnie believes her time spent caretaking and others’ trust in her work is why she’s been able to have success with projects like the Egg Hill Church. 

At the end of our discussion, Vonnie touched on the importance of preserving local history and why she has dedicated so much of her life to it. She has donated to every cause she’s been a part of, which is why she’s not afraid to ask others to contribute their time and resources, too.

“Give time to something you love, something you support. There are so many good organizations and causes. People need to help. … Every time someone dies, a trove of history is lost. I think about all the history my father and grandmother knew, and most of it went with them to the grave. Fifty years ago, we didn’t have computers to easily record the history.”

Vonnie simply asks all, regardless of life stage, to give whatever time they are able, as she has done over the years. “Young families are so busy. I know, my young life was busy, too. Now that I am older … anything I can possibly do to record history, I need to do.”

Local Historia is a passion for local history, community, and preservation. Its mission is to connect you with local history through engaging content and walking tours. Local Historia is owned by public historians Matt Maris and Dustin Elder, who co-author this column. For more, visit localhistoria.com.