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A Town With Mettle

From a bronze Molly Pitcher to iron cannonball scars, Carlisle, Pa., is heavy on the history.

By Christine H. O'Toole
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 14, 2004; Page C02

She looms over me with a hunk of metal that could make a serious dent: buxom, bronzed and decidedly don't-mess. An iron lady, indeed. She must weigh a ton. Who knew? The fierce Molly Pitcher, an all-American girl who followed her man (or perhaps men) into Revolutionary War battle and actually got paid for it, turns out to be a hometown hero in Carlisle, Pa., brandishing her ramrod over the town graveyard.

"O'er Monmouth's field of carnage dread, with cooling drink and words of cheer, a woman passed who knew no fear," I declaim, beginning to read Molly's memorial plaque. "That's not the whole poem," I tell my husband. "It's enough!" he responds promptly.


The bustle of history: Molly Pitcher, storied Revolutionary War hero, looks over her native Carlisle, Pa. (J Palm/Cumberland County)

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Maybe Carlisle's poetic preferences are a bit purple. It doesn't care. And it won't shove its history at you with a ramrod. Less touristy than neighboring Gettysburg, more textured than Harrisburg to the north, the town is totally comfortable in its own skin.

The real revelation of a weekend here isn't Pitcher -- whose actions may be more legendary than real -- but how easily the town wears its 250-year history. The seat of Cumberland County since 1751, Carlisle testifies to the economic stability of the legal profession. In its courts, courtyards and taverns, jurists have debated British law and politics and American law and politics ad nauseam, but the more they argued, the less things changed.

Proud, prosperous and preservation-conscious, the town has still-inhabited log cabins that sport screened windows; the cannonball dents in the courthouse (relics of an 1863 pre-Gettysburg skirmish) are unrepaired. The Colonial street plan is untouched. The farmers market has been held weekly for a couple of centuries. And its spacious historical society, complete with research library, gift shop and guidebooks, is impressive for a town of 19,000.

That's where, on High Street, we pick up a walking-tour booklet on a breezy afternoon. Page 1 directs us to walk for less than a minute to Hanover Street, at a spacious square that is the nexus of the 1751 street plan. No high-rises here. Carlisle still feels spruce; its level streets line up at right angles. Flags snap proudly from poles all around town (the Army War College is a half-mile away), and even the buildings seem deliberately patriotic: red 19th-century brick and white Colonial limestone against bright blue skies. To call this spot the traditional town meeting place is an understatement. Five Indian paths converged here before white settlement. The settlers bent on killing western tribes mustered here in 1756.

A hot air balloon ascended in 1843. Geronimo paraded through in 1905, en route to Teddy Roosevelt's inauguration. And every event was carefully documented, right down to the "July 1, 1863" carefully painted on the damaged pillar of the county courthouse.

But the surrounding blocks of stately churches and homes also have a modest hippie vibe, thanks in part to downtown Dickinson College. Instead of costumed reenactors, the streets buzz with skateboarders, guitarists and pub patrons. The site where Ben Franklin stayed in 1753 is now Mandy's, a coffeehouse whose leisurely crowd spills onto the sidewalk.

Like Mandy's, most downtown architectural landmarks -- from Colonial to Greek Revival to Queen Anne -- boast an association with a celebrity guest. For the First Presbyterian Church, it's George Washington (en route to the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794); at the tiny tavern at the corner of Hanover and East Chapel, it's British Maj. John Andre, to whom Benedict Arnold slipped the plans for West Point's defense. At the 1854 county prison a block down High Street, with its crenelated tower and limestone walls, it's Bessie Jones, a third-generation Carlisle madam and frequent occupant. My guidebook, illustrated by local high school students, tells me its last guests were Cuban refugees, sent here in the 1980s.

I find more living history on Hanover Street, where a bed-and-breakfast sign beckons by a marble stoop. The casual new proprietor is Mary Faller Duxbury, a recently returned native who delights in the domestic history of her red-brick inn, the Carlisle House. "Want to see horsehair plaster?" she asks. She shows me a section of a first-floor hearth, and sure enough, the mortar's stiffened with tufts of gray and white mane.

A 200-year-old house must have at least one ghost, I figure, and Mary calmly confirms that it does. She suspects it's Jessie Ewing, a former owner whose octogenarian sons still own the funeral home down the street. These days, Jessie's mainly seen as a bright orb, floating in photos of her former bedroom. In a gesture of hospitality, Mary's placed a photo of her niece Jessie on the mantel -- "to keep her company," she explains.

My husband joins me to pay respects to Molly Pitcher in the town graveyard at twilight. Until she died in 1832, Mary Hays McCauley received an Army pension for her unspecified "services" -- the only woman so recognized. She keeps company with 15 other Revolutionary veterans in the cemetery, and each of their graves bears a crisp little flag. (The town square is dotted with monuments to the dead of other wars. The county lost 342 men in the Civil War alone.)

A four-block walk brings us back to our hotel. The Comfort Suites is new, but it blends seamlessly into the neighborhood (so successfully that on arrival we drove past it three times). Around the corner we find a restored Victorian home, this one a restaurant serving dinner on the veranda. As we're seated, we find that Piatto doesn't serve alcohol, but it's a task of three minutes to retrieve a bottle of wine from our hotel room. I count just two cars passing by between salad and dessert.

Saturday morning brings brilliant sunshine and a chance to visit the Old Pomfret Farmers Market. The market may be an old tradition; its new location is actually a parking garage. Truck farmers pull right up and drop tailgates. At 8 a.m., they're heaped with rhubarb, heavy loaves of bread, brown eggs and homemade "whoopie" pies, a variation on the cream-between-two-cookies theme. A few Dickinson students, as dewy-looking at the campus-grown greens at their stand, are selling organic veggies, next to a Mennonite farmer with garlic jelly and apple butter.

We grab strawberries for the road and head back toward the interstate. At the town's last traffic light, we glimpse the next phase of town history in a sign at Carlisle Commons: "Wal-Mart Coming Soon."

Having weathered war and other winds of change, Carlisle's our bet to withstand the assaults of the new century.

Escape Keys

GETTING THERE: Carlisle, Pa., is about 160 miles from the Beltway. From I-70 in Hagerstown, Md., follow I-81 north to Exit 47 (Route 34/Hanover Street).

STAYING THERE: While chain motels mass at the interstate exits, Comfort Suites (10 S. Hanover St., 717-960-1000) is convenient for downtown strolls, with free breakfast and cheap garage parking; doubles are $84 per night. The Carlisle House (148 S. Hanover St., 717-249-0350, www.thecarlislehouse.com), Mary Duxbury's bed and breakfast, offers eight antique rooms with modern conveniences, including air conditioning, from $95 to $175.

EATING THERE: There are plenty of choices in the historic district. Piatto (22 W. Pomfret) offers northern Italian specialties; it's BYOB. The Market Cross Pub & Brewery (113 N. Hanover St.) offers casual alehouse fare and an extensive list of you-know-whats. The Gingerbread Man (5 S. Courthouse Ave.), a favorite student hangout, stays open late.

WALKING THERE: Guidebooks are on sale ($5.50) at the Cumberland County Historical Society (21 N. Pitt St., 717-249-7610), Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Motor buffs should know that the Carlisle Fairground is nationally known for its series of collector automobile and motorcycle events held each year through the summer. Next up are the Carlisle Summer Bike Fest (July 23-25), Corvettes at Carlisle (August 27-29) and Fall Carlisle (Sept. 29-Oct.3), a massive swap meet. Info: 717-243-7855, www.carsatcarlisle.com. INFO: Cumberland County Economic Development, 717-243-5627, www.visitccpa.com.


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