Photo Story: Centre Furnace Mansion and the birth of Penn State

Laura Waldhier and Patrick Mansell
July 10, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In September 1855, local dignitaries gathered at Centre Furnace Mansion in Centre County and signed a document establishing a site for an idea that, at the time, was considered a bit of an experiment — The Farmers’ High School of Pennsylvania.

The fledgling institution's aim was to encourage the application of science to farming. The charter to establish the new agricultural college — which, despite its name, would have the power to grant baccalaureate degrees — had been signed on Feb. 22, 1855, by Pennsylvania Gov. James Pollock.

A portrait of Moses Thompson

Moses Thompson

IMAGE: Penn State University Archives

The new school, to be built by the Pennsylvania Agricultural Society, did not yet have a location. An offer of a donation of 200 acres of fertile farm and woodland in Centre County — with the option to purchase more at a favorable price — from Gen. James Irvin, of Bellefonte, and his brother-in-law Moses Thompson, won out over all other considerations.

The school was to be situated at the confluence of Nittany and Penn's valleys, near the Centre Furnace ironworks, owned by Irvin and Thompson. It was only natural to make the deal official at Centre Furnace Mansion, Thompson’s home on the property.

Founders Room

The Founders Room was the location for most of the negotiations regarding the donation of land for the Farmers' High School.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

The ironmaster’s home

The signing event drew great interest in the area, despite its isolated location — Mary Irvin Thompson, Thompson’s wife, received fame for hosting a ‘sumptuous’ dinner at her home earlier that day for 150 guests. The new school’s trustees, along with Thompson and Irvin, are believed to have signed the land agreement in the east front parlor, now called the Founders Room, located on the mansion's first floor. A copy of the contract is on display.

Irvin Land Offer

On display in the Founders Room is a copy of the 1855 letter, penned by Gen. James Irvin, that offered the state of Pennsylvania 200 acres of land for creation of The Farmers' High School.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

When the Centre County Historical Society took ownership of the mansion in the early 1980s, its members restored and furnished the house to reflect the period of residency of Thompson and his family. These exhibits have been made possible through many donors, including Thompson family descendants.

Centre Furnace Mansion kitchen

The Thompson family kitchen at Centre Furnace Mansion.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

The first floor of the home is an homage to what life was like for an upper-class family in 19th-century Centre County. The home’s entryway, dining room, kitchen and two additional parlors are filled with authentic furniture from the time period.

Moses Thompsons desk

Moses Thompson's desk located in the 'men's parlor' at Centre Furnace Mansion. It is easy to imagine him at work here, in his several roles for the ironworks and the Farmers' High School.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell
Piano in ladies parlor

The piano in the 'ladies parlor' provided entertainment for Mary Thompson's many guests to the mansion.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

Thompson’s parlor contains a portrait of the ironmaster, and his desk. It is easy to imagine Moses working here in his several roles for the ironworks and the college. This room also would have been the men’s parlor, where they retired after dinner in the adjoining great room. Women guests would have gathered in Mary Irvin Thompson’s parlor, as was the practice at the time.

master bedroom Centre Furnace Mansion

Moses and Mary Thompson's second-floor master bedroom suite.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell
doll in nursery

The children's nursery is adorned with several dolls, cribs and toys from the late 19th century.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

The second floor of the home contains several bedrooms with period furniture and items that tell the history of Centre County. One room has been decorated as a child’s room, featuring both Thompson family heirlooms and donated vintage pieces.

fireplace in original home

In the very early days Centre Furnace Mansion was a simple one-room cabin centered around this impressive fireplace.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

Portions of the basement date back to 1791, when the house was a log cabin and included a kitchen that likely served food to Centre Furnace's employees, who lived in nearby housing on the property. Now called the Hearth Room, it houses exhibits on the history of Centre County, how iron is made, and what life was like for the furnace workers.

scale from iron village store

A scale from the charcoal iron village store, also known as the company store, is on display at Centre Furnace Mansion. The company store provided all the necessities of life for furnace employees and their families.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

A legacy not to be forgotten

James Irvin and Moses Thompson’s work greatly contributed to the production of iron coming from the region. At its peak, Centre Furnace was one of the most profitable furnaces in the area, providing jobs for local residents and diversifying industry in the county. The Thompsons also were prominent farmers, and investors in the roads, canals and railroads that connected Centre County with the outside world.

iron furnace

A part of the original iron furnace stack, located at the corner of Porter Road and College Avenue, stands as a reminder of the early days of Centre County industry.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

Moses and Mary Thompson resided at the mansion for 49 years and hosted many trustee meetings and college guests. Though Centre Furnace ceased production in 1858, Moses served as secretary to the board of The Farmers’ High School from 1859 to 1865, and from 1867 to 1874 he served as the school’s treasurer.

The family lived in the house until Moses’ death in 1891; at the time, he was the largest landowner in the county. Mary had died the previous year. The Thompsons’ had eight children, six of whom survived beyond childhood. Members of the Thompson family lived in the house until 1912.

Mary Irvin Thompson

A portrait of Mary Irvin Thompson is on display in the second-floor hallway of the mansion. Mary, the sister of Gen. James Irvin and the wife of Moses Thompson, was well-known for making their home the center of hospitality for the new college.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

Visitors welcome

The mansion today serves as headquarters, library and archives for the Centre County Historical Society, featuring year-round programming and events, permanent and rotating exhibits, and landscaped grounds with walkways and period-inspired gardens. The mansion, the furnace stack and the surrounding eight acres are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Centre Furnace Mansion, located at 1001 E College Ave. in State College, is open to the public for tours, 1-4 p.m. Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Tours are free, with donations welcomed. The gardens and walking paths also are open to the public, dawn to dusk. Interpretive signs can be found around the gardens and along the trail to the iron furnace stack. Call 814-234-4779 for more information, or visit https://www.centrehistory.org/.

Last Updated July 12, 2019