Why Mount Nittany is on every Penn Stater’s bucket list

Here’s something I wrote a few years ago for Onward State, which I thought I’d share here too:

In “The Legends of the Nittany Valley,” folklorist Henry Shoemaker records some of the American Indian and settler stories that provide a cultural and historical foundation for Penn State mythology, including Mount Nittany as our sacred symbol and pristine retreat, the love story of Princess Nittany and Lion’s Paw, and even the reclusive Nittany Lion.

Yet stories alone have no independent life to speak of; their significance grows from the affection, tenderness, and patience of the reader, from the moments spent in solitude or near friends with the words of a long-dead peer over a coffee at Saints or W.C. Clarke’s. Herodotus or Dante would be nothing without the gift of time and attention paid in gratitude by the living reader. It’s through that gift that we reverence something culturally significant, and make something from the past a part of our present time.

This is what tradition is, if distilled — the continuing act of encountering the past, helping it come alive again in some way, and then in due course becoming a part of the past ourselves as we look to the future. This beautiful notion is encapsulated in an even more beautiful practical, example: The singing of Robert Burns’s 1788 “Auld Lang Syne” every New Year’s Eve. It’s a literal and lyrical Scottish injunction to remember our friendships and honor days gone by on the eve of a new time.

This helps explain why Mount Nittany, by all accounts an ordinary Pennsylvania mountain, is nonetheless sacred for Penn Staters and the people of the valley. As with the stories of the past, we’ve infused the Mountain with a distinctive meaning. Penn State Professor Simon Bronner writes that we “inspirit the land” of Mount Nittany and places like it. We do this in a thousand distinct ways, through hikes alone to learning and sharing the same stories to nights spent with friends around a small fire.

The Mount Nittany Conservancy is what makes our experience of the Mountain possible—specifically what makes our experience of it as a natural space, protected from development, a perpetual part of the Nittany Valley experience. Even if you’ve never heard of Henry Shoemaker, and aren’t inclined to pick up his stories, the Mount Nittany Conservancy has made it possible to encounter a bit of the legend, mythology, and history of the Mountain through two new podcasts. The first, “Mount Nittany in Myth and Legend,” is a digestible seven minutes and is concerned with origins:

The second podcast, “The Story of Mount Nittany,” is a meditative 40-minute encounter with the reason the origin stories matter. In it, we hear from the people who conserve the Mountain for all to enjoy, from personalities as varied as Nittany Lion’s letterman Bob Andronici and student-volunteers combating erosion, to trailblazer Tom Smyth recounting decades of history (at 13:30), to Vince Verbeke’s “wayfinding stations” (18:21), to Penn State Arboretum director Kim Steiner’s insight on Mountain forestry (21:25), to Mount Nittany Conservancy founder Ben Novak’s experience of the “ordinary” Mountain (24:04), vision for land acquisition (28:08), and creation of square-inch deeds (31:55), to Bob Frick’s experience with less-preserved mountains (25:30), to Ben Bronstein’s historical markers (26:15), to Sue Paterno’s reflection on the Mountain (32:37) and Coach Joe Paterno’s affection for Mount Nittany as one on the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s inaugural board. Bob Frick, a Mount Nittany Conservancy board member, served as the executive producer of these podcasts, which were co-produced with WPSU’s Katie O’Toole and Patty Satalia.

Nearly a century before many of us were born, Henry Shoemaker declared: “There is no spot of ground a hundred feet square in the Pennsylvania mountains that has not its legend. Some are old, as ancient as the old, old forests. Others are of recent making or in formation now. Each is different, each is full of its own local color.”

Mount Nittany is one of those Pennsylvania mountains, and the Nittany Valley remains a place where legends continue to take shape. Thanks to Henry Shoemaker’s stories, and the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s new podcasts, you can get a better sense for why the Mountain matters and why hiking it is such a special experience.

Hiking Mount Nittany” is one of those things that finds its way onto the Penn State bucket lists of most students, and it’s something many make a ritual pleasure. A single hike often serves as an occasion for encounter with “local color” of the Mountain and the valley, a color which has a radiance that outlasts every autumn.

Who was Henry Shoemaker?

In speaking to Penn State students earlier this month on “Inspiriting Mount Nittany,” I mentioned Henry W. Shoemaker, Pennsylvania’s first folklorist. I thought I’d share a bit more about him, because his life was remarkable not only in Pennsylvania history, but for its lessons about the value of human beings sharing stories with one another and how whole cultures can be stronger and more remarkable as a result.

Shoemaker wasn’t just Pennsylvania’s first folklorist. He was also a prolific journalist, and Progressive-Era friend of people like Teddy Roosevelt. He’s most remembered for his many volumes of American Indian folk stories and legends collected throughout Pennsylvania. Shoemaker preserved settler-versions of what were claimed to be some of the last surviving oral stories of the American Indians of Pennsylvania—the Lenni Lenape, the Iroquois, Shawnee, Susquehannock, Tuscarora, Oneida, and others.

A few of his more well known collections include Juniata Memories: Legends Collected in Central Pennsylvania, Black Forest Souvenirs, Allegheny Episodes, Susquehanna Legends, and Penn’s Grandest Cavern. Simon J. Bronner, a Penn State professor, wrote a biography of Shoemaker in 1996 called Popularizing Pennsylvania: Henry W. Shoemaker and the Progressive Uses of Folklore and History.

It’s at least in part thanks to Henry Shoemaker that the world knows the “Nittany Lions” of Penn State, and that we know of the Indian legend of Princess Nita-Nee. A few years ago I helped the Nittany Valley Society compile a special collection of the folk stories and legends specifically pertaining to the area of Central Pennsylvania where Penn State is located. The book is called The Legends of the Nittany Valley, and is a small way we hope to perpetuate not only the stories themselves, but also memory of Shoemaker and other American folklorists incredible efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to perpetuate a spirit and feeling for the American Indians who we so thoroughly wiped away from their historic homes.

When I was initially learning about Shoemaker, I particularly liked this language used to describe him and his work:

In many ways, Henry W. Shoemaker (1880-1958) embodies the spirit of the Progressive movement in America. A prominent reformist newspaper publisher in Pennsylvania, he used his wealth and position inherited from industrialism to promote the preservation of America’s wilderness and native cultures. He fell in with such national leaders as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, who hoped to rekindle a rugged American nationalism. He became America’s first State Folklorist and a pioneer of national conservation. Shoemaker’s consuming passion was for preserving the cultural and natural heritage of his home state. He authored hundreds of pamphlets and books on Pennsylvania’s nature, history, and folklore. Today his memory lives on in the legends he helped promote…

Ken Poorman also provides a convenient snapshot of Shoemaker’s most notable achievements:

  • Newspaper publisher, author, folklorist, raconteur, diplomat
  • Mobilized interest and public funding to preserve historic and natural heritage
  • Leading conservationist, promoter of state parks
  • Romanticizer and popularizer of folktales, legends, and history
  • First official Folklorist in America
  • Director of Pennsylvania Historical Commission
  • Responsible for planting thousands of historical markers
  • Connection with Juniata through serving on M.G. Brumbaugh’s staff in Harrisburg
  • For many years after 1930 conducted pilgrimages to MGB’s grave near Lake Raystown

Despite pioneering folklore as an interest of Pennsylvania government as a means of “inspiriting the land” and cultivating civic pride and common experiences in an increasingly diverse and pluralistic America, folklorists who’ve come along since tend to look down their noses at Shoemaker and his contemporaries, like Katharine Berry Judson in the Pacific Northwest or William W. Canfield in New York.

Shoemaker opens himself to the criticism of contemporary folklorists because he injected too much of his own voice and his own era’s sensibilities into lots of his folklore. This has led to the charge that Shoemaker simply wrote all of the folklore himself. I’m far from convicted that Shoemaker created all of his folklore. Even if true, it would mean that he was incredibly creative and prolific, deserving of honor in and of itself. But more to the point, he frequently cites people he spoke with on trips throughout Pennsylvania and discloses the towns and places he heard stories, and thanks specific people by name. If all of this was purely fictional, in other words, practically everyone would have known it at the time. And the historical record doesn’t seem to bare that out.

In any event, the nature of oral stories and tradition is that the details of the folklore tend to change with almost every telling even while the stories attempt to retain the essence of their narrative. That’s what oral tradition is: the histories and stories of people passed down by the person-to-person telling. I wish Shoemaker interjected less of his generation’s own attitudes, biases, etc. into many of the stories. But it’s still easy and worthwhile to read them and enjoy them for what they are: fantastic stories that might just reach back into the earliest human stories and experiences of Pennsylvania shared by American Indian peoples, who we can still try to honor as our cultural ancestors.

The photo above shows Henry Shoemaker at Restless Oaks in 1913 with “Ramsden Rex,” his “English-bred Russian wolfhound.” I think the Juniata College Archives has the original version of this photo.

Inspiriting Mount Nittany

I spoke to the University Park Undergraduate Association, the student government at Penn State, on Wednesday, February 14 (Ash Wednesday) on Mount Nittany’s significance and historical conservation efforts:

As part of the talk, I presented the students with a Square Inch Life Estate Deed to Mount Nittany, a gift from the Nittany Valley Society. Life Estate Deeds are available through the Mount Nittany Conservancy, and are a true, legal square inch deed recorded in the Centre County Office of the Recorder of Deeds.

To learn more of the Mountain’s history and significance, be sure to read Conserving Mount Nittany: A Dynamic Environmentalism or listen to the audiobook version for free.

It was a fun talk, even though it was incredibly difficult to pack much of the substance and depth of either the folkloric or practical conservation efforts of Mount Nittany into what was roughly a 12 minute presentation. There was so much that I didn’t have time to address, particularly the relationship between Mount Nittany and Hort Woods, and some of the more interesting aspects of the “Magic of Mount Nittany” fundraising campaign of the 1980s and the narrative of the Princess Nittany legends themselves. But that’s what the book is for.

Since I served in UPUA, it has developed for the better. I’d guess there were at least 70 people in attendance. (We were sometimes lucky to meet quorum requirements to even conduct meetings in the first year.) I stayed for the entire meeting, and heard about their campus and community initiatives which each seemed to be positive and important for building a better Penn State.

Mount Nittany and Joab Thomas

I’ve been spending some time recently on scanning and digitizing a few boxes worth of early Mount Nittany Conservancy archives that Ben Novak provided to me. As the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s founder and first president, Ben was instrumental not only in the organization’s major land preservation and fundraising efforts throughout the 1980s and early 1990s that we covered in Conserving Mount Nittany, but also in creating and promoting the distinctive “Square Inch” Life Estate Deeds, which provide a true, legal square inch of Mount Nittany for the life of the donor—recorded with the Centre County Recorder of Deeds—in exchange for a beautiful, framed deed certificate.

Over the course of these scanning and archival efforts, a number of prominent Penn Staters and State College names appear, including Dr. Joab Thomas and his wife. Dr. Thomas was Penn State’s president from 1990-1995, and he and his wife ordered their Square Inch in the early 1990s:

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Mount Nittany’s hiking stations

When I was on Mount Nittany over Arts Fest weekend in July, I pulled out my iPhone to check Google Maps at one point when we had been walking for a while. We had left the Mike Lynch Overlook- Station 3, and were heading toward the site of the Deeded Square Inches between Stations 5 and 6. But there were a lot of us in tow, and some were leery about the distance, and about getting back down the Mountain to eat at Cafe Lemont before breakfast time was over.

I noticed at the time that only three of the 11 hiking stations were listed on Google Maps, and that the site of the Square Inches was missing, too. Worse, my cousin arrived late to the Mountain with her friends, because Google Maps listed “Mount Nittany” a few miles to the east of where the trailhead and parking are located. So I spent some time last week adding the missing stations, the Square Inches, and the trailhead location to Google Maps. They’re now listed:

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I also updated the GPS coordinates for “Mount Nittany” on Google Maps, which apparently pulls from Wikipedia. We’ll see if it’s updated; until it is, I suspect many would-be hikers are deterred after driving for miles without figuring out how to get themselves to the trailhead.

Mount Nittany Conservancy makes these trail maps and guides available on their site, but I suspect a lot of people go straight to Google Maps or an equivalent.

Mount Nittany Conservancy refresh

Shortly before the release of Conserving Mount Nittany a few years ago, I volunteered to refresh the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s website.

It was a somewhat cumbersome refresh, because I was moving lots of content (100+ posts and dozens of pages) from a manually created HTML/FTP context to a more flexible and self-hosted WordPress context. The site we launched is the fourth below—each of the first four screenshots below is courtesy of Archive.org from the years 2001, 2006, 2011, 2014, and 2017:

What we launched in 2013 was good for its time and introduced a lot of new things including a responsive design for mobile devices, but showed its age more quickly than I hoped when we launched it. So I spent some time earlier this spring moving everything from a self-hosted WordPress context to WordPress.com for greater stability, more security, and an overall more robust platform that requires only basic consumer technical experience.

What’s now live is the fifth major refresh of the Mount Nittany Conservancy site, and the second I’ve done in the past five years.

I hope it introduces Mount Nittany to residents of Happy Valley and visitors in a welcoming and exciting way.

Mount Nittany Marathon, 2014

Earlier this year I shared my reflections on my first Mount Nittany Marathon, which I ran in 2013 over Labor Day. The marathon was sponsored by the Mount Nittany Conservancy as both a way for people to run a marathon in Centre County and as a novel way to experience the Mountain and surrounding areas. They stopped after year three (which I registered for, but ending up not running), but I did run again in their second marathon in 2014, again over the Labor Day weekend. Sharing what I wrote at the time:

The Mount Nittany Conservancy hosted its second Mount Nittany Marathon on Sunday, and I ran it for the second year. Running last year’s inaugural Mount Nittany Marathon was also my first marathon. This year was different; most noticeably I was more at ease through the whole run. Now familiar, the 26.2 mile course and its highs and lows felt more manageable.

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I tweeted that out after the run, and it turns out I finished just a bit faster than I thought, in 4h:34m:35s, placing 119th of 193 finishers. Consistency is reassuring, so I can’t complain.

Like last year, the marathon started and ended at the intersection of Beaver Stadium and Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. A key difference in the experience of the run from last year was the sky opening up and pouring blankets of heavy, thick, warm raindrops just as the race began and continuing through Mile 12 or so. The marathon also began at 7am, an hour earlier than last year; so coupled with the rain, the entire thing felt much funner since more of the run was in less of that late summer dead-heat sort of weather.

The course was largely the same as last year, except for a change between miles 14 to 16 that took us off of Atherton and through Scenery Park. This was much nicer, though in talking with John Hook afterwards apparently meant that stretch’s terrain was a bit more difficult.

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I’m thinking of write up something more for Onward State, but for now I’ll highlight what I wrote last year and still applicable:

It’s safe to say that the Mount Nittany Conservancy really succeeded with the Mount Nittany Marathon, bringing people together from across the community to put on a great new event. A takeaway from Conserving Mount Nittany is that this is the epitome of the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s founding mission: it’s meant not only to steward the Mountain, but also to create cultural experiences that enhance through first-person experience the magic of the Mountain.

I was again grateful to Jerry Harrington for capturing the runners as we neared Mile 17 where we crossed Atherton Street. For whatever reason in both years I’ve managed to be mid-blink for these photos, but this one does give a good look at how wet everything was even late into the race.

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I wasn’t sure if I’d run the Mount Nittany Marathon again, but I’m glad I did. Every supporter of my crowdfunding campaign came to mind over the course of the run, particularly Gavin Keirans’s comment:

Pace and certainty will get you to the finish line.

It did.