CARLISLE, Pa. (WHTM) – In the age of smartphones, hundreds of streaming services and heightened attention on space travel, there is something that feels elementally important about reconnecting with nature exactly where we stand.
The Craighead House in Carlisle, Pennsylvania is a rare oasis that offers a chance to feel this connection.
Walking through the trellis is like entering a portal back in time. To the right, you are greeted by the modern privy garden where an endangered monarch butterfly was busy on Aug. 10 fueling up on milkweed.
In front of you on the path sits the infamous Craighead House, which has been restored back to its original 1930s state. Around the large, half wrap-around porch is another garden where bees were busy in the mountain mint.
At the back of the house is an herb garden that is currently in its beginning phase.
Once you come around the back of the house, you are greeted with the view of the creek. Visitors are welcome to wade in the water or make use of one of the free canoes. This brings you back to the entrance to the Craighead land. The final, and newest, garden is situated at the front next to the old railroad tracks where butterfly weed, and a variety of other plants, are starting to develop.
There is a stage with seating in between the new garden and the creek where Ann Dailey shared the story of this magical homestead to the master gardeners in attendance for the tour.
“It was about maybe 10-12 years ago that the house was falling down, and a group of people got together to raise funds to turn it into a nature center based on the ideals of the Craighead family,” said Dailey.
Saying that the Craighead family were nature lovers is an understatement. This incredible family, which consisted of Frank and Carolyn, their daughter Jean Craighead George and their twin sons John and Frank Jr., dedicated their lives to the study and conservation of the natural world.
The Craighead house, which served as their summer home, was where the children all began following in their entomologist’s father’s footsteps. Jean became a children’s book author and wrote over 100 books, sharing stories from her childhood at the Craighead house which revolved around nature. Jean’s books “My Side of the Mountain” and “Julie of the Wolves” both won a Newberry Award.
The twins’ list of achievements is long. They wrote the survival book for Army and Navy aviators, they were the first in the United States to learn falconry and were published in National Geographic, they wrote the Wild Scenic Rivers and Streams Act, which is still used today, and they saved the grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park.
All of the children’s contributions to the environment and conservation began in Carlisle, Pennsylvania at the Craighead House. Here, Jean worked on her artistic skills, which later helped her illustrate her books, while her brothers climbed trees to capture birds to train them to be falcons and flew them in the fields.
Walking into this historical home, you are greeted by a gallery of artwork spanning decades plastered on the walls. The first painting is of cats chasing rats into a hole, which sparked the entire family, including lots of cousins and friends visiting, to add their own creations to the wall. There are many pieces by Jean on the walls; it was her canvas to practice for her future book illustrations.
Some of the pieces include detailed depictions of birds, drawings of surgical procedures and, of course, an array of wildlife. everywhere you look there is something new to see.
There are spaces set up for presentations in the house to continue the mission of educating the public on the environment, a space currently being worked into a museum honoring the Craighead family and three bedrooms upstairs.
A sleeping porch is at the top of the house where the twins would keep all of their critters and the family would sleep in the summer to take advantage of the breeze off the water.
The house is now being preserved to honor the family and their contributions, but also to offer educational programs for the public. Craighead camp runs in the summer for children to come and play in the creek and learn about bugs, there are talks from master gardeners held in the home and there is a falconer coming on Aug. 26 to hold a demonstration.
The gardens have specifically been designed using plants that would have been available to grow in the 1930s using seed catalogs from the time. Pennsylvania native plants and pollinator plants also take center stage. The privy garden was created as a nod to the past as the Craighead’s also maintained a garden that led to their outside bathroom.
The gardens were designed by master gardeners, including Heather Andrews, and are maintained completely by volunteers.
“We wanted to create gardens that they would have appreciated, so that would host birds, butterflies and insects, but that would also allow future gardeners to be able to maintain the gardens because formal gardens require a lot of input,” said Andrews.
Most importantly though, the home, the gardens and the creek are open to the public for free every day. This is a place where people can come rest and enjoy nature with no requirements, except curiosity.
“It’s getting people out in nature, getting them outside, which doesn’t happen a whole lot, especially with kids,” Dailey said. “That’s what we are trying to promote. I’ve had a number of people tell me that this place has turned into their happy place.”
The gardens are award winning installments. The pollinator garden, also known as the privy garden, earned first place in the Demonstration Garden category for the 2022 Penn State Master Gardener Search for Excellence Awards. They also received first place as a Garden of Distinction in the Pennsylvania Historical Society’s 2021 gardening contest.
“[It’s a] labor of love, but it’s nice to be recognized by the state and our peers,” Andrews said. “It’s exciting to hear that people are inspired by what we’re doing.”
The gardens and the house continue to enlighten and enrich people’s lives every day. Whether a child learns about a new bug at Craighead Camp, or a family reconnects with each other, and nature, with a picnic in the gardens, the Craighead House is making an impact on the Pennsylvania community.
The Craighead House honors a legacy from the past while educating the future generation on the importance and benefits of preserving the natural environment.