Museum's Great War Connection
On the eve of the centennial of the United States’ involvement in World War I, the PA Military Museum prepares to tell the story of its own unique contribution to the war.
People have been gathering, walking and picnicking on the grounds at the 28th Division Shrine in Boalsburg for more than 100 years, but before there were farmers markets and families walking their dogs, the area served as training grounds for Theodore Boal’s volunteer horse-mounted machine gun troop.
“The whole purpose of the site and museum being here is directly related to World War I,” explains Joe Horvath, museum educator at the Pennsylvania Military Museum, which will host a range of events in April to commemorate the centennial of the United States’ involvement in The Great War. “When World War I broke out, Boal felt very strongly about the war because his wife was French. He became a very ardent supporter of the Preparedness Movement. He carved out this part of the estate into a training ground for a ground machine gun troop. In May of 1916 he had a big picnic here, a preparedness picnic. It attracted 2,000 people.”
That began what would be called the “Boal Troop,” a group of 78 men that trained and was later accepted into the National Guard. The first excursion for the troop was to the Texas/Mexico border to search for Poncho Villa. Then America entered WWI, and the troop shipped out. “They suffered some losses,” says Horvath, “but when they came back in 1919, the division officers got together and talked about forming a club to cement the camaraderie experienced in combat.”
The club, which included a lodge behind the current museum, a tennis court and a swimming area, existed at the site in Boalsburg until the Great Depression. “By 1931, they no longer had polo games here,” says Horvath. “The unit was transferred to Philadelphia, and the club went bankrupt.”
But remnants of the club’s heyday are still visible — and are an integral part of the museum’s grounds.
“In the 1920s, they started dedicating monuments to different units, which created what we call the shrine,” says Horvath. “They would come every year for an anniversary to honor those who had been killed.” Those honors included the 115 officers whose names are inscribed on the stone wall. And that legacy remains strong, with the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 28th Division gathering at the shrine each May for the “A Celebration of Service: Honoring Pennsylvania Veterans” program.
And that’s just on the grounds. Inside the museum, World War I connections abound. Upon entering the museum’s exhibit space, visitors are greeted with a display of a bunker and trenches — though it’s very different than the one that took up most of the room in the ’80s. Various types of artillery show the technology — and the point of its rapid acceleration — used from the Civil War through World War II.
“The pièce de resistance,” says Horvath, “is a tank that is the only surviving example of a tank with that type of turret. It wasn’t until the French invented this that you had a mobile light tank that was very innovative. The designs of this tank survive to this day.” It’s unique because all of the other tanks of this style were converted to retrofit Browning machine guns, but this one retains the original Marlin setup, he says.
There are many more pieces of World War I history in the museum, which has undergone quite a facelift in the 20 years Horvath has worked there. But he’s still not sure townspeople understand what the museum is all about.
“People like us for the recreation out there on the grounds, but as far as the significance, I’m not sure they realize,” he says. “Maybe people think we honor war or glorify war, but we don’t. We’re about history.” •SCM
To hear more about Pennsylvania’s connection to World War I, visit the museum during April, when programming will focus on The Great War.
Kids Day: “Dress Up and Discover”
Try on combat gear and helmets from the museum education collection, and visit education stations throughout the museum.
Lecture: “The Boal Troop in World War I”
Local historian Philip Sauerlender describes the history of the local militia raised by Theodore Boal.
Lecture: “The Boal Troop in World War I”
Retired Maj. Gen. John Stevens discusses the organization, training and readiness of the National Guard as it prepared to enter WWI.
APRIL 15 & 29
Lecture: “History of the 28th Division Shrine”
Museum educator Joe Horvath shares the fascinating history of the grounds and the museum.
APRIL 22 & 23
Living Encampment: “The Great War Remembered”
Living historians encamp on the grounds to demonstrate life on the Western front. Lectures will be held in the museum theater.