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Plans to build Native American longhouse in Pennslyvania

By Tom Knapp
Willow Street, Pennslyvania (AP) August 2010

The Hans Herr House is primitive to modern eyes.

Compared to other houses in Lancaster County at the time, however, it was positively palatial.

Now, the 1719 Hans Herr House & Museum is raising funds to add a new structure to the Willow Street heritage site: a Native American longhouse that was typical to the area prior to European settlement.

“It’s a story that’s not being told,” director Becky Gochnauer said last week. “And it’s a very important part of our local history.”

The Hans Herr site already includes houses from three historical eras – the Herr house of 1719, the Shaub house of 1835 and the Huber house of 1892 – “so it seemed to make sense to add a house representing the people who were here before,” she said.

Unlike the more war-like Susquehannocks, the local natives – the Lenni Lenape, or Delaware tribe – had “a very positive relationship with the Anabaptists who settled here, Gochnauer said.

The Delawares and Conestogas were the Herrs’ closest neighbors for many years, Lowell Brown, publicity assistant for the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, said.

“The closest European settlers were much further afield,” he said. “So, in terms of the Native American context of the time, it’s completely appropriate.”

Besides, he said, there is evidence of farm settlements in the region – some as large as a modern Akron or Lititz – dating back millennia before Europeans arrived.

“It’s an amazing swath of American history that gets glossed over in the history books,” Brown said. “To our knowledge, this will be the only outdoor Native American longhouse in Pennsylvania.”

Longhouses were sometimes domed but were more often loaf-shaped and could stretch up to 200 feet in length.

“We’re building a small one,” Gochnauer said. “It will be 20 feet wide, 20 feet high and 40 feet long.”

With some variations, longhouses were used by natives from New England down into the Southern states, as well as the Pacific Northwest and Canada.

“But there aren’t any blueprints,” Brown said. “We’re making as close a replica as we can.”

The site, which will be dedicated during a ceremony Oct. 9, is situated in a small copse of woods across the street from the Herr house and adjacent to the Shaub house. A neighboring horse pasture will be planted with a variety of native trees and shrubs to create a larger woodland setting.

The structure will be built of tree saplings arched over a wooden frame – “It’s essentially a pole barn,” Brown explained – under an exterior covering of bark.

The bark, Gochnauer said, will not be real. To be more ecologically sound and reduce long-term maintenance costs, they’ll use a faux bark that is commonly used in museum exhibits.

The site will include furnishings appropriate to the time, such as wooden racks for drying fish, frames for tanning hides and cooking fires outside, a variety of bunks, skins, baskets, pots and tools inside.

Costumed volunteers will interpret the site. They chose the late 1600s – post-European contact, Gochnauer said – “because, before that, they didn’t wear clothes.”

They hope to break ground next spring, she added. It’s likely the house will be open for viewing sometime next summer, although she’s not certain yet when the full display will be completed.

The museum is sponsoring a Heritage Trail Walk and Bike Ride, later this month at the Hans Herr House, to raise funds for the project.

The event includes 62-, 30- and 10-mile bike routes and a 5-mile walking trail through the Pequea Settlement. Each course will pass sites of historic significance.

Registration fees – $20 for riders, $10 for walkers, free for children 12 and under – will raise funds toward a $300,000 goal that, Gochnauer said, will cover construction costs and create an endowment for upkeep and interpretation.




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