Friends of Caledonia State Park needs more friends

The Friends of Caledonia State Park, the site of Thaddeus Stevens iron works, needs a lot of new friends.

The group that supports the operation of the Caledonia State Park near Chambersburg is holding an open house on Saturday, May 18, from 2 to 5 p.m. at the park’s office at 101 Pine Grove Road, Fayetteville, PA 17222. The Friends provides extra funds for the park by raising money at this annual craft fair in July and by selling firewood to campers. But the group in recent years has dwindled to only a handful of people who are overburdened. The Friends also need Thaddeus  Stevens admirers who could help tell the fascinating history of the park.

If you are interested in coming to this meeting, please contact the Thaddeus Stevens Society at or call 717-347-8159.

The thousand acre park has a lot to offer. There are hiking trails, playgrounds, camp sites, a stream to wade in and a large swimming pool. It also has a great history connected to Thaddeus Stevens that could be more fully developed to inform visitors about the struggle for freedom and equality in the mid-1800s.

Stevens, who was a prominent Gettysburg lawyer and politician, started his iron works in 1837 and named it Caledonia after his native county of Caledonia, Vermont. The operation consisted of 18,000 acres of land and employed about 250 people. The iron works needed the large amount of land for wood to make charcoal, an essential ingredient in the iron making process. One acre of woods would have to be chopped down and converted into charcoal for every ton of iron produced.

The iron mill turned out to be a very bad investment for Stevens. By 1842, he was $200,000 in debt, the equivalent of millions of dollars today. He was urged by friends to declare bankruptcy, but that was against his principles. “I may be forced to take advantage of the bankruptcy laws in the next world, but that I will never do in this . . . there is no way out of such things except to pay the unttermost farthing.” So he picked up and moved to Lancaster where he could make more money as an attorney.

Stevens continued to lose money at Caledonia in the 1840s and 50s calling it his “sinking fund.” He started making some money there in the 1860s because of the war, but that was put to an end in June 1863 when Confederate General Jubal Early on his way to the Gettysburg battle burnt the mill to the ground because of Stevens’s abolitionist policies. The foreman pleaded with Early not to torch Caledonia, saying the mill was not making any money and that it was being kept open for the sake of the workers. Early cynically replied, “Yankees don’t do business that way.” Early also said that if he had caught Stevens, he would have hanged him on the spot and distribute his bones to Confederate states as souvenirs. 

Stevens took it all in stride, saying when he heard the news: “Did he burn the debts also.” And even though it cost him $75,000 — the largest civilian financial loss of the Gettysburg campaign — he considered it a “cheap purchase,” if finally, “the government shall be re-established over our whole territory and not a vestige of slavery left.”

Caledonia’s history is extremely rich and needs to be highlighted more. Currently the telling of the history is limited to a few hours on the weekends during the summers when there are blacksmith demonstrations and a Thaddeus Stevens reenactor at the park’s blacksmith shop. But so much more could be done. Perhaps the blacksmith could be upgrade so it could house more extensive exhibits about the iron mill and Stevens. Maybe there could be a Thaddeus Stevens festival in park highlighting the fight against slavery and the iron mill’s role in the Underground Railroad..

But it will only happen if volunteers get involved. So please come to the meeting at Caledonia on May 18 from 2 to 5 p.m. and if you plan to come, please email or call 717-347-8159. Do it for Thad

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Ross Hetrick is president and founder of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, which is dedicated to promoting Stevens's important legacy. Hetrick was a business reporter for 18 years in Baltimore and owned Ross's Coffeehouse & Eatery in Gettysburg from 1996 to 2004.

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