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We walked through downtown Lancaster looking like a bunch of cold, out-of-town tourists.
The 40-degree temperatures, along with the wind, were no laughing matter. But despite the chill, we focused in and hung onto everything Lindsay Pettus told us.
Pettus, a local historian, led a tour of centuries-old structures in Lancaster County as part of the first day of this year’s Leadership Lancaster program.
The program, now in its 25 year, allows a group of professionals to spend seven months engaging in various activities that broaden their knowledge of Lancaster County. That, in turn, can help them become better – and more active – community leaders.
I'm one of 22 people taking part in this latest class.
One of our first stops Wednesday, Nov. 14, was the historic Lancaster County Courthouse, which now serves as the county’s welcome center.
The building, built in 1828, was designed by Robert Mills, a Charleston architect who also designed the original plans for the Washington Monument and other structures in the nation's capital.
The courthouse is said to have served as the location for the last witchcraft trial in the United States. I find that very interesting.
A large part of its storied history, though, is marred by fire. In 1865, Union soldiers tried to destroy the building by throwing turpentine balls on the roof. They tried a second time – also unsuccessfully – by setting fire to court documents in the hallway.
Just four years ago, fire destroyed the courtroom and burned through the roof, causing extensive damage.
Fortunately, many items weren’t destroyed, such as the graffiti that is believed to be the work of Civil War prisoners detained at the courthouse.
“A lot of things have happened in this building along the way,” Pettus said.
Our group then walked to the old Lancaster jail on Gay Street and then to the Olde Presbyterian Church, where we entered and listened to Pettus speak effortlessly about its history.
I’m amazed by how Pettus knows everything about everything that pertains to the history of Lancaster County and surrounding areas. He spits out names, years, numbers and tidbits as if he’s reading off a paper.
But no, it’s all mentally ingrained. He's a walking encyclopedia. Very impressive.
The tour continues
After lunch, we boarded a bus that took us to Old Waxhaw Presbyterian Church off Old Hickory Road.
Its cemetery features a wide array of tombstones and grave markers – some as simple as modest rocks. Others were quite eye-catching.
Pettus spoke for a while there about the William R. Davie Memorial.
Davie, who lived in Lancaster County as a child, later become governor of North Carolina and helped found the University of North Carolina. He and several of his family members are buried in the cemetery.
We then ventured farther north to Van Wyck. In my six years working and living in Lancaster County, I admit this was my first time spending time in this quaint community.
We visited Van Wyck Presbyterian Church, where longtime community resident Betty Broome talked about its history.
I couldn’t help but ask her how to correctly pronounce “Van Wyck.” She confirmed that you’re “Right with Wyck.” However, she said if you pronounce the y as a “y,” “a” or “i,” somebody will always say you're wrong.
But in seriousness, I find it interesting that Van Wyck has been able to insulate itself against the robust development that’s taken place throughout the county’s panhandle.
“We hope to keep this little community intact,” she said.
Parkes Coggins, one of my Leadership Lancaster classmates, said Wednesday was beneficial for him. He moved here in June from Richmond, Va.
“It gives me a base with which to start learning about Lancaster County,” said Coggins, assistant chief executive officer at Springs Memorial Hospital.
Fellow classmate Shelly Casper said she enjoyed the Van Wyck visit as well as all the information about the courthouse.
“I really liked learning about the history of the courthouse,” she said. “It’s sad that it burned.”
Leadership Lancaster is organized and sponsored each year by the Lancaster County Chamber of Commerce. I heard the title in years past, but didn’t know much about it. Now being part of it, I look forward to all of the engaging experiences that are to come.
Wednesday’s experience made me feel as if I was back in the classroom – and I like that. I believe we should never stop learning.
The focus of December’s session is local education. Though the activities will begin inside, I’m bracing myself for more walking in the cold.
I don’t sport much hair, so this time I’ll make sure I have something to keep my head warm.
Jesef Williams is a reporter for The Lancaster News.