The Eldred World War II Museum
Upon arriving in the tiny town of Eldred, tucked away in McKean County, one might wonder why there is a tank bursting through the side of a Main Street building—that is, until one realizes that this building is the site of the Eldred World War II Museum.
Then, one might ask, why is there a World War II museum in this town with a population of just around 800? It is not pretension or a preoccupation with history; Eldred has a very real claim to winning the Second World War.
Situated in the oil-rich hills of northern Pennsylvania, Eldred in the early 1900s was the site of a munitions plant that produced explosives used in the oil fields to “blow” the wells. The plant employed between forty and fifty people.
When England went to war in 1939 against Germany, the country found itself in desperate need of munitions. It looked to the United States for help, but it was still three years before the sleeping giant would be awakened by the Japanese and enter the war. But that didn’t stop our government from selling munitions to England.
George Roudebush, who worked for the State Department, was tasked with finding a plant where those munitions could be safely produced. He found the National Munitions Company in Eldred. With a government contract the plant expanded and increased production. When the United States entered the war in 1941, women replaced the male workforce at the plant. At its zenith, 1,500 were employed in the facility and 95 percent of those workers were female.
“They came from miles around to work at the plant,” says Eldred native Steve Appleby, curator of the museum. “There were buses running from Olean, New York, Bradford, and from all over.” Those workers assembled, filled, primed, boxed, and shipped eight million explosives, fuses, thermite incendiary bombs and grenades during the war.
Then the ladies added something extra.
As he guides visitors through the more than 15,000 square feet of displays, Steve shares facts and little-known anecdotes from the war he has studied since he was eight years old.
“We had a man visit us who was from Coudersport,” Steve says. “He recalled that when he was fighting in the Pacific that he was sent back to get more thermite incendiary grenades. He said that when he opened the box he was excited because someone had written ‘From Eldred, Pa’ on the inside of the lid and that when he tore away the packaging he found dozens of pieces of paper covered with lipstick kisses. It seems the women in the plant were not only providing the tools for the soldiers to win the war, but also the incentive.”
Years later, after the plant had closed, businessman Tim Roudebush, the son of the man who had founded the plant, became concerned that the valor and courage, the dedication and sacrifice of the men and women of World War II was being forgotten and was little-known to the teenagers of today. He was especially concerned that the work of the women of the National Munitions Company was being forgotten. In the early 1990s he decided to do something about it. He subsidized a museum.
A one-room display was opened in 1996 in Eldred as a tribute to the women who made the munitions. It quickly grew with the addition of a Hall of Valor displaying and emphasizing the training, shipping, transportation, and roles played by the individual branches of the military. With the acquisition of an adjacent building, the museum continued to grow.
Today the museum includes an interactive time line of the war and how it started. There is a hands-on tank battle and a wall display of the events that took place at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, with excerpts from the attack. There is a special exhibit from the Russian front and a special room dedicated to the Holocaust. There are displays from the home front and of Jeeps, motorcycles, a command post, a working periscope, and models of planes and ships.
There is a special display dedicated to local Purple Heart recipients and a hall dedicated to Medal of Honor recipient Mitchell Paige, born in Charleroi, near Pittsburgh. The accomplishments of Eldred’s own Laurence R. Burgoon, a Pathfinder with the 101st Airborne who parachuted into Normandy the night prior to D-Day, are also remembered.
In addition to those displays, the museum houses 500 uniforms; its library has thousands of World War II-era books and hundreds of notebooks and CDs preserving first-hand accounts from those who fought.
“We take information from anyone who fought in the war, and we’ll even travel to interview them,” Steve says. “I cringe when kids come into the museum and look up at the sign and ask, ‘What’s W W Eye Eye?’ We’re dedicated to educating people about World War II and teaching kids there are real-life role models that are better than someone who sinks a basket for a million dollars. We want them to know about the valor and courage of the greatest generation and what they did for them.”
“Because,” he adds, quoting Spanish philosopher George Santayana, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Eldred World War II Museum; www.eldredpaww2museum.com; (814) 225-2220; Open Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sunday 1-4 p.m.; $5 per person (under 18 free); $3/person for groups over 20.