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British Roots in The Forests of Pa.

Ligonier: Where the Union Jack Still Flies and the Past Is Ever Present

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By Christine H. O'Toole
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Cute as a very valuable antique button, Ligonier is a high-end village that keeps it on the down low. Never heard of it? That's because the deep forests of Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands, 200 miles northwest of Washington, guard this old English fort town as well as the redcoats ever did. Want new and trendy? Head to Deep Creek. Ligonier is a place in love with the past.

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Bluebloods take refuge just outside town, at the private, keep-out-this-means-you Rolling Rock Club. The rest of us get a just-folks reception on Main Street. A big draw is antiques shopping. (The locals, with such surnames as Mellon and Scaife, keep their treasures on well-hidden estates.) As we discover one lazy June weekend, other local attractions are equally old-school: a straw-hat theater, a gem of a history museum, even Sunday evening band concerts on the aptly named Diamond in the center of town. When my husband and I arrive, the Victorian bandstand is dressed for summer in bunting and flowers.

On a Saturday afternoon, Nantucket red trousers and bucket hats seem to be the outfit of choice on the Diamond. Kilts are optional. That's because Ligonier descends proudly from the Scottish First Highland Battalion, which arrived here (with Colonial backup) to build a fort for the British in 1758. That fateful connection gave Ligonier an enduring fondness for all things English (a Union Jack still flies at Fort Ligonier) and deep pride in its pre-Revolutionary roots. Street posters advertise the upcoming Highland Games, which promise cabers, sporrans and Scottish dancers. Yes, there will be bagpipes.

We head in the direction of the Union Jack to Fort Ligonier and its museum for a quick history lesson and instead find an absorbing trove of 18th-century lore. The museum's opulent portrait gallery showcases celebrities of the French and Indian War: King George III, swaddled in ermine in Allen Ramsey's coronation portrait, and Joshua Reynolds's salute to British field marshal Lord Ligonier flank a Peale portrait of young George Washington, a 26-year-old colonel in the conflict. (A rare handwritten battle memoir by Washington and his saddle pistols are here, too.)

For the town's 250th anniversary, the museum has launched "The World Ablaze," an ambitious exhibit on the Seven Years' War, the 1756-63 struggle of which North America's French and Indian War was only a part.

"We have an Anglo-centric view," museum director Martin West admits. "But this was the most important and decisive war of the 18th century, with global strategies and massive spending. We're putting the North American struggle into greater context, to help explain the next 2 1/2 centuries." West spent seven years buying artifacts that tell the story of the massive conflict, which involved every major European power and caused a million deaths. The lavish exhibit features 300 items, including portrait miniatures of Austrian empress Maria Theresa and my favorite, a curved trunk piece of an elephant's armor from the dawn of the British Raj in India.

Even the shops around the Diamond have an upper-crust British accent. The Dovecote sells shabby-chic manor accessories, and Equine Chic ("for those who own and love horses") offers buttery riding boots and a book with an intriguing title, "How to Think Like a Horse." The Post and Rail has such buttoned-up men's styles that I suspect it might still sell spats.

Along Main Street are several dozen tiny booksellers, boutiques and antiques shops, all of which could fit comfortably inside half of a Wal-Mart. Mary Jo Culbertson, the doyenne of On the Diamond Antiques, says savvy customers flock to the town's summer antiques shows. (Seventy dealers will bring their wares to the next one, on Aug. 23.)

"Ligonier is a destination," she says. "The shows are very good, and three-quarters of the folks come from out of state." I price a good Pennsylvania stoneware jug, but at $400, Culbertson's salt-glazed pioneer pottery is out of my price range. I settle for a souvenir charm bracelet, so five Chicago landmarks dangle from my wrist for a mere $18.

Ligonier's summer nightlife, we decide, ends at sundown. Aside from those decorous bandstand concerts, there's high-decibel drag racing at the Jennerstown Speedway and a multiplex 12 miles west. We opt for a lighter alternative at the lakeside Mountain Playhouse, which bills itself as the oldest summer theater in the state.

Near the summit of Laurel Mountain, we turn at an 1805 gristmill, moved here in 1939 and flanking the area's best restaurant. The pairing was no accident: The owner of a former sandwich stand put a theater in the gristmill to lure Pittsburghers to his eatery next door. Now the elegant Green Gables overlooks the same lake as the theater, and most patrons, including us, stroll from their dinners to their seats. The straw-hat fare hasn't varied much since that first season: no irony, no angst, just "Unnecessary Farce," a new comedy played for belly laughs. Outside at intermission, the skies over the lake are clear; an hour later, they open. We creep back down Laurel Mountain in a downpour, braking for a steep descent to the Ligonier Country Inn.

Despite its name, the inn commands the only crossroads in Laughlintown, and it's ideally situated: It stands opposite the Pie Shoppe, a sweet-smelling old bakery. The next morning, we mull a breakfast of 20 flavors of pie, buy a raft of puffy glazed doughnuts and grab a few apple tarts to fuel the pastoral part of the weekend.

My husband drives as I enjoy the doughnuts and the mountain greenery. A patchwork of state parks, forests and conservancies surrounds Ligonier, ensuring that the valley between the Chestnut and Laurel ridges remains a flyway for birds. Powdermill Nature Reserve in nearby Rector tracks more than 300 species that visit here. When we arrive, it sounds as if all of them are having a convention. We stroll the Black Birch Trail (easy) and finish our Pie Shoppe treats (hard). Then we spiral downhill again and again, winding through pastures and panoramic mountain views. As we approach the Pennsylvania Turnpike, we're back in the landscape of gas stations, fast food and billboards. I glance back, but Ligonier has vanished into the forest.

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