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A SUEPUR DESTINATION:

The Belles of Bellefonte

by Susan Purdy

 

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 In the southwest corner of Pennsylvania known as Westsylvania, in the county called Centre, there is a town still so much a part of the 19th century that it's possible to believe that time travel brought you there.

The town is Bellefonte, home to five Pennsylvania governors and an architectural paradise. Three hundred individual structures and a portion of the borough are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A bevy of comely Victorian mansions, like belles at a ball, wear the gingerbread and iron accessories of the period, seeming to spread their colorful skirting over the slight hills of the North Ward.

The history of this town dates back to 1795, when legend has it that Prince Talleyrand, an exiled French nobleman, first saw Bellefonte's large spring ( that still supplies 12 million gallons of fresh water each day) and cried out, "La belle font!" (beautiful spring). Today pumps strain to supply the town's people, as well as water bottler's, with this treasure of water. Drinking fountains in town give visitor's and locals a chance to quench their thirst free of charge.

Iron ore was the town's economic base and its riches provided a genteel lifestyle from 1832 to 1901. The Garmen Hotel and Opera House were meeting places for politicians, salesmen, attorneys and the fun-loving vaudeville actors starring at the Opera House. When the iron industry declined, the city of Bellefonte did not due to the presence of the influential politicians who resided here. Bellefont quickly became the State's hub of influence with the commercial establishments that sprang up, catering to the influx of these important people, keeping the economy booming.

Naturally, many might say other services followed. On such example was provided at the crossroads of Allegheny Street and Bishop Street, known as "Strychnine Corner." The corner became known as the location of Bellefonte's red-light district, and the name was taken from the fact that strychnine was used to cure syphilis.

This may be a small town, population 7000, but there's much to do. A walking tour is a must and the town has put together an excellent map, detailing areas and history. Stickley furniture lovers might want to browse at the Alden House shop downtown. Visit Tallyrand Park, where you can buy fish food from dispensers and feed the hungry Palomino (orange colored), Brown and Rainbow trout that come to the water's edge for their treat. While you're in the Park, take a wonderful ride on the Bellefonte Historical Railroad. Guided tours make this an excellent peek into the town's past. If you've ever hummed the tunes, "Paper Doll," "Till Then," "Lazy River," or "Glow Worm," then you know the famous singing group, the Mills Brothers, who have deep family roots in this town. The song, "After the Ball is Over," was first sung in public at the Opera House. One of the first women architects in the country, Bellefonte High graduate Anna Wagner Keichline, also set up shop here during the Victorian era. A gallery of her works is open to the public in the old Brockerhoff Hotel at High and Allegheny Streets.

Lodging is part of the time-travel fantasy in Bellefonte, and a stay at one of the Victorian mansions, now B & B's is a must. Charlotte and Joe Heidt, are the owners of the Reynolds Mansion, located at 101 Linn Street. Soft-spoken and gracious, Charlotte is a retired school teacher. She and Joe have lovingly furnished this most marvelous mansion with an eclectic mix of Gothic, Italianate, and Queen Anne furniture. Built in 1883 and 1884 by Major William F. Reynolds, the building later became the home of Col. W. Fred Reynolds, a bachelor who must have invited many guests to help fill this huge home. Ask the Heidt's for a tour, and notice the hand-crafted woodwork, a marble vestibule and the mirrors in the vestibule, that Charlotte tells visiting brides and grooms, reflect their love that will go on forever, inlaid parquet floors, the majestic hand-carved staircase, the cherry wood Snuggery, where Col. Reynolds and his cronies once enjoyed cigars and brandy, and today sits waiting for a guest to curl up and enjoy a good book, and a Billiard Room where you can play a game, or sit in the window nook and watch the people of Bellefonte pass by. Six very private bedrooms are decorated in their own individual style, one with a fresco of cherubs on the ceiling. Owning a B & B was a dream come true for Charlotte. She said, "Remember when it wasn't fashionable to trust anyone over 30? Today, the age to be is fifty-plus, especially for women. We are independent, open-minded, fun-loving, and adventurous. We can reinvent ourselves, as I did when Joe and I purchased our home, and we are the envy of our younger sisters."

At 176 Linn Street, sits The Queen, owned by Nancy Noll and Curtis Miller. This 18-room Queen Anne style home has curved glass windows, stone shingles, decorative turrets, witch cap roofs, edged in pink and a house cat named Miss Kitty. Nancy collects collectibles, but thinks that perhaps they collect her. The kitchen is crammed with sentimental memorabilia from her great grandfather, Henry Hoffman's general store in Millersburg, Pa. His general ledger is kept in a guest room and the butcher;s block, part of the family's emporium, is now part of Nancy's collection. From that butcher's block Henry sold coffee and baking powder with his own label in bright metal tins, yet another part of the collection.

Nancy's love of life extends to her son, grandson, and guests. She believes, "it is important to have fun. I have fun with my guests, and I like to think I've never had a stranger in my home. Once people cross the threshold, they are friends."

For more information, contact the Centre County Convention and Visitor's Bureau at (814) 231-1401, website www.visitpennstate.org. And don't forget to bring a camera. Bellefonte is definitely a town for your picture book.

Reynolds Mansion: 1-800-899-3929, website: http://www.reynoldsmansion

The Queen, (814) 355-7946, website: http://bellefonte.com/queen

Susan Purdy can be emailed at Suepur@aol.com for comments and questions.

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