Old Jail Museum recognition

Family and friends of the four volunteers who have been honored by having rooms at the McKean County Historical Society’s Old Jail Museum named for them show the plaques that will be placed in the respective rooms. Seated are Elsie Robertson, Dick Robertson’s widow, and their son, Wade. Standing are Ruth Covert, society secretary, who spoke on Robertson’s behalf; society treasurer Flo Carter, who presented Jim Baker’s case; Tony Alfieri, who spoke for George Berkwater; and Eileen McKean’s grandson, Derek McClain.

SMETHPORT — Four rooms at the McKean County Historical Society’s Old Jail Museum will be named in honor of a few esteemed volunteers.

The honorees’ vast knowledge of local history and many contributions have helped the Smethport facility enjoy its success and popularity in keeping local history alive and become a major stop for visitors to the PA Wilds.

Plaques recognizing Eileen McKean, George Berkwater, Dick Robertson and Jim Baker were shown publicly for the first time Thursday evening at a picnic the society sponsored at the Hamlin Memorial Library to recognize those volunteers who have given untold numbers of hours to the museum this year.

Smethport attorney Tony Alfieri spoke on behalf of Berkwater. A Kane native, former teacher and longtime clerk to the county commissioners and later a commissioner himself, he surveyed the damage to the courthouse following a disastrous fire in 1940.

Berkwater served as society president for some years until 2006. One year earlier, he hosted members of the de Smeth family, after whom the county seat is named, and they toured the town and museum, Alfieri said.

“George was instrumental in moving the museum from the basement of the courthouse across the street to its present location in the former jail,” added Alfieri, who knew Berkwater through their Smethport Rotary Club membership. Berkwater was club president from 1958-59.

Alfieri noted Berkwater’s longtime participation with the former Smethport Community Chest and its transition to the current United Way campaign.

For many years, the sheriff and his family resided in the upstairs of the former jail — the living quarters are a stop on the museum tour — and a bedroom will be known as the George Berkwater Room.

Speaking on behalf of James Baker was Flo Carter, society treasurer. Baker was a World War II veteran. His mother was a well-known weaver, and it was her influence that led Baker to follow in her footsteps, becoming an eminent weaver who proudly shared his knowledge and demonstrated his skills at the museum.

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According to Carter, Baker and his mother were hiking when they found an abandoned house. Upon entering the dilapidated structure, they found pieces of an old loom in a bedroom. Later, Baker was able to successfully assemble the loom and began weaving rugs.

The OJMs Loom Room, with its variety of looms, will be dedicated to Baker’s memory.

Society Secretary Ruth Covert spoke about Robertson. Not only was he an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed archery, hiking, skiing and canoeing, but he was a local historian and without a doubt, the area's foremost authority on regional railroads, Robertson's weekly programs about railroads became popular summer events at the OJM.

Covert recalled times when she asked Robertson where some former towns were located, saying with a grin, “He would tell me where they were and which former railroads could get me there.”

Robertson’s memory will be kept alive in The Pennsylvania and Wildlife Room.

Mike Alfieri, president of the historical society, said the conference room will be named in honor of Eileen McKean, a former society president who has served the organization for more than 30 years and is now vice-president. McKean credits her late mother-in-law and historian Marian McKean, for  encouraging her interest in the county’s past.

A retired teacher, McKean initiated the Smethport Area School District’s kindergarten program in 1967. She served in the Peace Corps and taught at the Oregon College of Education, and in Ethiopia. She has traveled to all 50 states and several continents.

“It was because of her leadership the society initiated the popular trial reenactments almost 15 years ago,” Alfieri.

Alfieri also said it was through McKean’s efforts that he joined the society. “It was difficult to say ‘No’ to one of my former teachers,” he said with a smile.

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