*Photo provided by Bellefonte.com
High school history teachers holds virtual walking tour of downtown Bellefonte
Matt Maris, a social studies teacher at Bellefonte Area High School, found a way to engage the community in a historic tour of downtown Bellefonte that allowed people to see it right from the comfort of their own homes. It came at a time officials suggested that residents practice social distancing during the state-mandated school closure and general stay-at-home order due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, also known as novel coronavirus.
With help from Ellen Matis of Downtown Bellefonte Inc., who videoed the tour, Maris took to the relatively vacant streets of Bellefonte to explain its history to online viewers.
Walking tours were something he created last year as part of professional learning-type activities among staff at Bellefonte Area School District. It also came with a mission to bring new knowledge of the community’s history into the classroom
The tours are made possible through a partnership with the Centre County Library and Historical Museum, where Maris interned while obtaining his master’s degree in history from Arizona State. Fellow social studies teacher Chris Morris also often helps guide the tours.
*See more about the walking tours in the district’s summer 2018 feature: Bellefonte walking tours. See more about the virtual walking tour held in March by Bellefonte.com: Virtual walking tour, March 2020
*By Brit Milazzo, public relations director, BASD
Question and answer
Question: What did the tour include?
Answer: This virtual tour featured some historical highlights of Allegheny and High streets, making our way down from the Bellefonte Art Museum to the waterfront area. It was about an hour and covered some new sites I researched like Soldiers and Sailors Memorial, the former G.C. Murphy Store, Beezer Meet Market, Decker Motor (Company), and some Underground Railroad sites and stories.
Q: How did you get the opportunity to do this?
A: This was a collaboration between Downtown Bellefonte Inc. as well as Bellefonte.com. The Facebook event was also co-sponsored by Happy Valley Adventure Bureau. Downtown Bellefonte Inc. actually broadcasted it via Facebook Live. We collaborated to help bring some virtual history to folks during this challenging period of social distancing.
Q: What was the response like?
A: It was incredible. I think around 184 people joined the virtual tour. Lots of positive comments and great questions, too. I love this community. I know some of my students watched it, as well, which made me happy.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced doing it virtually?
A: I really like the engagement of having actual people in front of me. My goal is to help individuals make authentic connections with local history, so this was a little challenging because I couldn't get to all the questions. However, this online format made it accessible to more people and not just people living in Bellefonte.
Q: What do you hope your students learned from it?
A: Not only is learning about Bellefonte's local history a great way to make real connections to all kinds of historical topics, I really want my students to appreciate what incredible local history we have right in our backyard. I hope my passion for the Bellefonte area makes them proud to live here and want to learn more. Maybe this will help preserve the future of our community, too, if more students and people value it.
Q: What are some of your personal favorite historical facts about Bellefonte?
A: There is so much I love about Bellefont's history. Right now, I'm doing a lot of research for a Civil War themed tour in Bellefonte – in particular, the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in front of the courthouse. There are 20 bronze plates with over 3,800 names of veterans from the Revolutionary War through the Spanish American War and mostly regiments from the Civil War. Each of those names is a life and story, and I've had the opportunity to learn about several. The Soldiers and Sailors and Curtin (Monument) memorials were dedicated in 1906. The committee that organized it included Gens. James Beaver and George Atherton who was president of Penn State at the time. Atherton actually left Yale during the Civil War to volunteer, and served in the Union army for a period of time.
Q: Do you hope to start the walking tours again?
A: Absolutely. I was disappointed because I had a walking tour field trip planned in April for my students. I will definitely take them when the next opportunity presents itself. I'll also resume trade time tours for staff if possible and my free public tours, as well. I have a Civil War themed walking tour planned to share when things get back to normal.