Historical Society’s new exhibit honors Ephrata’s 125th anniversary

By on March 16, 2016
This was the scene in downtown Ephrata in September of 1953, shortly after the town’s own Evelyn Ay was crowned Miss America. A huge celebration was held and many of the items associated with Ay’s amazing story, including the large banner that was across Main Street, are part of the new Ephrata Bor - ough 125th Anniversary display at the Historical Society Of The Cocalico Valley.

This was the scene in downtown Ephrata in September of 1953, shortly after the town’s own Evelyn Ay was crowned Miss America. A huge celebration was held and many of the items associated with Ay’s amazing story, including the large banner that was across Main Street, are part of the new Ephrata Borough 125th Anniversary display at the Historical Society Of The Cocalico Valley.

The Historical Society of the Cocalico Valley is commemorating the 125th anniversary of the incorporation of the Borough of Ephrata with a special exhibit that opens on Saturday, March 19.

Curated by former Ephrata Mayor Clarence E. Spohn, it’s co-sponsored by Ephrata Borough and the Ephrata National Bank. The exhibit will continue through Dec. 31.

“As president of Ephrata Borough Council, it is my hope that all residents will take some time from their busy schedules to spend an hour or so exploring all the historical society has to offer, especially now that we are celebrating 125 years of the incorporation of Ephrata Borough. I promise it will be time well spent,” said council President Susan Rowe, “I would also hope more of our residents be willing to support the historical society in any way possible; if we lose our connection to the past, we can never get it back.”

“Not all towns or boroughs reach 125 years. That’s a long time, and to be here to help celebrate it is awesome. The work that Clarence Spohn has done to put this exhibit together is greatly appreciated,” added Ephrata Mayor Ralph Mowen.

Spohn said the historical society usually mounts a special exhibit each year at its facility, which is located at 237 West Main St., Ephrata.

“Usually our special exhibit opens in February or the beginning of March. This exhibit is much larger than the special exhibits that we have done in the past, so it took a bit longer to put together. We went through hundreds of documents and photos to put this together,” he explained.

“History is very inspirational. It can give our current residents a greater appreciation of what we have today to learn the sacrifices of our predecessors and how they endured with so little. Learning about our past can also give us a better understanding of how our community was formed and how past decisions shaped the future,” Rowe added.

The exhibit features over 120 photographs relating to the borough’s history, among which are aerial views of the borough, dating from 1910 through the 1950’s.

“I tried to select photographs that would be of interest to people and things that people who are still alive would remember,” Spohn said.

“When I had a preview of the exhibit, I could see some buildings that I recognized. The exhibit shows how much our town has grown and prospered. We have a lot of history here, and this exhibit helps to showcase it and remind people of that fact,” Mowen said.

One of the photographs that Spohn found fascinating are some aerial photos. One set that’s particularly interesting are two photos from 1904 that were taken from Lake Street overlooking town.

“The town is almost unrecognizable, so what we did was create a key that indicates what’s at a particular location today. For instance the Westerhoff silk mill, which can be seen in the photos, stands where Keystone Villa is today,” he explained. Other aerial photographs depict other parts of town. There’s even a view of the Ephrata High School location before the school was built and one taken shortly after its construction.

“One of the most memorable events was Evelyn Ay’s homecoming (Ephrata native Evelyn Margaret Ay Sempier) in September 1953 after she was crowned Miss America 1954 in Atlantic City. There was a big party on Main Street on Sept. 29, and tens of thousands of area residents gathered to welcome the new Miss America,” Spohn said,” She was the first, and so far the only, Miss Pennsylvania to be crowned Miss America. Before that honor, she was crowned Miss Lancaster County Tobacco Queen-Miss Ephrata Fair in 1950; at that time it was a dual title.”

Next to the new exhibit here with the famous Miss America gown and trophy belonging to their mother Evelyn Ay, are daughters Stacy Sempier (standing) and Carlyn (Sempier) Darby.

Next to the new exhibit here with the famous Miss America gown and trophy belonging to their mother Evelyn Ay, are daughters Stacy Sempier (standing) and Carlyn (Sempier) Darby.

He said the Sempier family has graciously loaned the society artifacts and memorabilia from that event for the exhibit. Included in the display are the gown the late Evelyn Ay wore for her homecoming, the diamond ring and Hamilton wristwatch the town presented to her, and her “Miss Pennsylvania” and “Miss America” trophies. Also part of the exhibit are the tobacco leaf crown she wore when she was crowned “Miss Lancaster County Tobacco Queen – Miss Ephrata Fair” and the trophy she received. Mowen had met Evelyn Ay Sempier once and said that seeing the dresses that she wore was “really neat.”

“Evelyn was a wonderful person. Although after her marriage, she moved out of the Ephrata area, she was always willing to come home to help the community. She helped us dedicate the historical society museum on two occasions,” Spohn said.

In addition to the exhibit focusing on Ay, there’s also an area dedicated to “those who served” the community in some fashion. Spohn said that three generations of the Mentzer family served on borough council and there are documents singed by them, as well as personal items. There’s also Mayor Lloyd Gerhart’s top hat and J. Harry Hibshman’s shaving mug.

He said that many of the borough’s older residents may recall the “twelve o’clock whistle,” the steam whistle that was mounted on the Church Avenue light plant.

“For decades the whistle announced the noon lunch hour to borough residents, and we have the whistle itself as part of the display,” he said.

Over 125 years, clothing also changes. The museum’s parlor and bedroom features a look at some period fashion. Items on display include the wedding gown worn by Rachel (Myers) Keller in 1913, a circa 1915 bathing suit worn by Sally (Baker) Carter (a far cry from today’s beach fashions), “Dutch Greenly’s police uniform, a circa 1952 wool Ephrata baseball uniform, and a dress worn during the Diamond Jubilee in 1966.

Ephrata’s history dates back to the founding of the Ephrata Cloister in 1732. Spohn said the town’s earlier history is represented in the exhibit by an original copy of the “Chronicon Ephratense,” the history of the Cloister printed there in 1786, along with an original circa 1766 hand-carved printer’s woodcut of the seal of the Ephrata Cloister, and two pieces of its wooden communion service.

Among the documents on display are the original 1891 oaths of office for the borough’s first council and burgess. Other documents include early borough ordinances, the first minute book of the Pioneer Fire Co., and the first minute book of the Ephrata Board of Health. There is even a letter from the Ettla Fire Co. expressing the need for a new horse-drawn hook and ladder fire engine for the town; it is accompanied by the original canceled check used to pay for the hook and ladder. Also featured is the borough’s original cast iron hand seal and the original invoice for that seal.

“By documenting the significance of the past, the historical society has allowed those who have been residents for quite a while to reminisce about things that may have been forgotten; while showcasing to newer residents and visitors how much we have grown as a town and as a community,” Rowe said.

The Historical Society of the Cocalico Valley’s museum is open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., or by appointment. Group visits are welcome and may be arranged by calling 733-1616. There is no charge for admission. For further information, visit cocalicovalleyhs.org.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *