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York Agricultural and Industrial Museum


Workers of York, by Lorann K. Jacobs, 1999

Where Gumbo Was #474

York, Pennsylvania isn't very big, but it has a history larger than its numbers and a name recognition based both on a unique role in history and the surprising number of products that bear its name.


It is, after all, the birthplace of York barbells and York caskets and York air-conditioning systems and, of course, York Peppermint Patties—to name just a few. The history of all those industries and the rich agriculture of the surrounding areas is at the heart of York's Agricultural and Industrial Museum.

Congratulations to George G. who recognized our Where in the World location.

P1210713P1210728P1210719P1210793York Wagon Parts moved with the auto age, and made Pullman cars in York. When that faded out, they switched to custom truck bodies like the one above, and eventually moved the wood and metal trades expertise into York Casket.

York claims to be the nation's 'first capital' because the Articles of Confederation were written there while Congress met there after British troops captured Philadelphia. But that's not what gave York its real importance. Chalk that up to its location on the Susquehanna River and on the 18th-century roads to the west, which made it an important transportation center.

P1210749P1210752Conestoga wagons, named for a nearby town, were among York's transportation-based early industries.

When the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad ran a contest for an American steam engine to replace its English imports, this entry from York was the only one to pass muster.


Important enough that when Confederate troops invaded Pennsylvania in 1863, their first objective was York, which they held for several days, taking supplies, equipment and food before heading to Gettysburg. York was the largest northern city ever held by the Confederates.

P1210737P1210891-001More familiar household names from York include Pfalzgraff Pottery, whose truck body was also a York product. Still in business, but under Japanese ownership, Stauffer makes animal crackers and many other brands. At left, a section of the roller that shapes the crackers.


The story of the Agricultural and Industrial Museum parallels the history of a number of York's industries: It's the product of mergers of different organizations and museums that formed to celebrate different aspects of the town's history, and it's slated to move in the next few years to an old steam generating plant that will unify the different parts of the York County Historic Trust, its parent.

P1210771A mystery image on its own! It's actually the frame of an early ski-mobile produced by AMF/Harley-Davidson when they were one company. Harley is independent again, but its largest factory is in York, in a building put up in World War II to make naval weapons.

For now, though, the Museum still occupies the former George Motter and Sons factory. Motter made many kinds of machinery including large printing presses, and the space still includes the huge cranes used to move large loads through the huge spaces of the building.


Sadly, in the move to the new Steam Plant site, some floor space will be lost, although plans aren't finalized; we can only hope there's still room for the deep variety of small and large exhibits available now, including those covering less-known local industries, including being the world capital of false-tooth manufacturing or an important cigar-making region.


Factory whistles all over the city called workers in and out of the factories; like these, they were powered from the plants' steam systems. The most versatile played Christmas carols in season. On a more melodious note, York also produced thousands of pianos and organs.


Some more York products: S. Morgan Smith, a Mennonite minister who left church work because of his health, created the first commercially-successful washing machine, sold under the name of 'Success.' His company moved on into large-scale machinery including turbines and governors for power-generating dams. After a series of mergers, the company is still in York, under the name Voith.


I've focused heavily here on York's industrial heritage, but I haven't forgotten that the name of the museum is 'Agricultural and Industrial,' and I'll be back in a later blog with more of the agricultural side... but for now, here's a particular local success story: the York Imperial apple.


Jonathan Jessop, a local nurseryman (and also civil engineer and clockmaker), developed the variety known for its keeping qualities. He first called it Johnson's Fine Winter, but when he began distributing it to visiting friends and then down the Shenandoah Valley and westward, it was giving a name that recognized where it came from. For decades, it was the leading market variety apple sold in the U.S.


There's quite a bit of farm equipment on display at the museum, from mills to tractors (including this locally-built Sheppard built in the 1950s) as well as dairy churns, canning equipment, and more.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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