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Cats, cannons collide at feline-themed war museum

Plus, the Pa. quest to build a perfect T-shirt.

Welcome to PA Local, a free weekly newsletter about the great people, amazing places, and delicious food of Pennsylvania.
Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen

September 1, 2023
Inside this edition: Lake effects, long-distance home, perfect T-shirt, winter is coming, lanternfly recipes, dirt farmers, and Civil War cats.
🏆 SMART SCORE? Did you stay on top of Pennsylvania news this week? Prove it with the latest Great PA News Quiz: Election day conflict, troubled waters, and broadband blitz.
A Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

Which Pennsylvania lake is being eyed as a new national marine sanctuary?

A. Raystown Lake
B. Eagles Mere Lake
C. Lake Erie
D. Lake Nockamixon

(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)

Our five favorite Pennsylvania stories of the week.

» One place worth seeing: How does one move a century-old barn from Pennsylvania to the Dominican Republic and make it the centerpiece of a luxury home? Architectural Digest has the story and stunning photos

» One shirt worth wearingA Los Angeles-based apparel company has bought an old textile mill and sewing factory in Berks County. The goal, according to the Times (paywall): perfecting the art of the T-shirt.

» Two forecasts worth reading: Pennsylvania can expect a cold and snowy winter, both farmer's almanacs say, via TribLIVE. The publications claim 80%-95% accuracy rates, though that may be overselling it.

» One bug worth eating? Researchers want to know if you see something eating a spotted lanternfly. They're looking for natural predators, while a Redditor in besieged Pittsburgh wants to know if we can eat them too.  

» One dirt worth farmingEighty-six percent of MLB teams source their infield dirt from a single Pennsylvania business, the Wall Street Journal reports, because of a special ingredient: Pittsburgh red bed clay.

The top stories published by Spotlight PA this week.
» Pa. budget bills move, but key cash still stuck
» First-time Pa. lawmakers reflect on a wild session
» Shapiro won't intervene on police data disclosure
» Penn State football’s low academic marks
» 5 obstacles Pa. faces as it expands broadband

📅 Upcoming events: 

» A live panel on incarceration and mental health in Pa.
» Spotlight PA headlines first-ever Philly Story Fest
» Spotlight PA hosts “Path to Equity” summit in Harrisburg
Support Spotlight PA's vital journalism for Pennsylvania.
Miniature cat figurines in battle.
Miniature cat figurines in battle at the Civil War Tails at the Homestead Diorama Museum in Gettysburg. (Photo submitted)

Before cats ruled the internet, the felines ran the battlefield. At least, that's history as told by Gettysburg's Civil War Tails at the Homestead Diorama Museum. The museum features painstakingly detailed miniature scenes that portray pivotal battle moments using handmade clay cat figurines — 8,000 of them and counting.

Rebecca and Ruth Brown, the twin sister co-owners of Civil War Tails, were gearing up for their annual Labor Day scavenger hunt when Rebecca spoke with PA Local in late August. They'll have visitors intently studying their dioramas to find quotes, facts, and items within the scene. "We try to make it a mix so that kids and non-history-buffs can do it, but it's not too easy for history buffs!" said Rebecca.

They may not draw a crowd as big as the long-weekend visitors to Gettysburg National Military Park roughly two miles away, but the event will mark the special niche they've carved out in a town steeped in war history.

Though the Browns opened their museum in 2015, the labor of love dates back to the sisters’ childhood in suburban Philadelphia, where the home-schooled 11-year-olds first became captivated by Civil War books. "I read biographies on generals Lee and Grant," said the 39-year-old Rebecca. "And since I liked them, I made them out of clay."

Cats, she explains, were just easier to sculpt than people. "We've always had cats as pets. Everything we did was cats," she said. "So when I made Lee and Grant, they just automatically came out as cats." A hobby was born, and both sisters began making hordes of feline soldiers. In high school, they used their figurines to teach other home-schooled kids about the Civil War.

The Browns currently have close to a dozen dioramas on display. Each consists of a landscape reproducing a Civil War moment, with buildings and nature elements to scale, and one 1-inch-tall cat for each soldier. In addition to the full tableaus, there are also smaller scenes and older figures on view. Their biggest project depicts the Little Round Top battle on the second day of the fighting at Gettysburg, and is 10 years in the making. 

The moment enacted in the 11-foot-long diorama, Rebecca tells PA Local, is a dramatic one. It takes place "just after the arrival of the 140th New York. Companies A & G have followed Col. O'Rorke's call, 'Down this way, boys!' and have come into line on the right of Col. Vincent's brigade. The other eight companies are still on the crest; soon, they will left-oblique down the slope to join A & G, but by then the fighting will be mostly over. Meanwhile, on the left of Vincent's brigade, the 20th Maine is beginning their bayonet charge. The left wing of the regiment is swinging forward."

Right now, there are 2,000 "cavalrycats" in this scene; each cat takes 10-15 minutes to make. The sisters continue to update the diorama while it’s on display. 

The Browns try to keep their depictions of carnage family-friendly. Originally, Rebecca said, "we had one cat whose head had gotten blown off. I mean, his head was there — next to him." They opted to remove that figure, deeming it a little too graphic, though there are others with missing or severed limbs. 

Ruth works as a lawyer, while Rebecca runs the museum. The Homestead, a 6,500-square foot Civil War-era house that was originally a dormitory for a girls' orphanage, is also their home; they live upstairs, and the dioramas are exhibited on the first floor.

"The original building, just north of us, was here during the battles,” Rebecca told PA Local. “And then our house was built in 1869 to expand it."

Living in Gettysburg is a dream come true for Rebecca, whose favorite landmark is The Angle battlefield. "It's really cool to be able to just walk down there and hang out,” she said. “Or to just go down to Little Round Top when I need photos of rocks."

The Homestead has many battalions of clay cats, but only two live ones, Kenzie and Aubrey. 

The two-year-old siblings mostly stay on the third floor, where they can't get into kitty shenanigans (Kenzie has a penchant for knocking T-shirts off the merchandise shelves). But the Browns are not exclusively cat people, it turns out: The day after we talk, they’re getting a new dog.

So who is the target demographic for a cat-themed Civil War museum? "It runs the whole gamut," said Rebecca. "It's fun having cat people who aren't into history, because they go home wanting to read more [about the Civil War]." The place has also become popular with staffers from nearby Gettysburg National Military Park, Rebecca says.

"We have licensed battlefield guides and rangers coming in and enjoying seeing, to scale, a specific point in time on the battlefield. We had one fellow who works at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum come up and totally geek out that we had the right number of guys on the turret of the [USS] Monitor."

Every so often, they’ll get a social media mention that generates viral interest, and inevitably, polarized commentary, but the sisters welcome skeptics to Civil War Tails. "We'll have people come in who admit they didn't think they'd like it, and then they end up enjoying the detail, and seeing the history it’s grounded in,” said Rebecca. “And I'm like, kudos to you for shelling out admission to something you didn't think you'd like. That's cool."

Sara Stewart for PA Local

Civil War Tails is open daily except for Wednesdays, Sundays, and first Thursdays. You can find out more at their website, civilwartails.com.

Our favorite quote about Pennsylvania — or from a Pennsylvanian — this week.

"They're finding their assigned seat that they had 20 years ago, and now their child is sitting on their lap ... that kind of feeling is a wonderful thing."

Retired school bus driver Reid Moon of Zelienople who's stayed in touch with many students, officiating their weddings and recently one last ride

Our favorite reader-submitted photo of the week.
Correction: Last week's photo caption misidentified the bird as a silver-spotted skipper instead of the butterfly. This week we've got... A juvenile wood duck at Clear Creek State Park, via @johnmcculloughphotography.

Have a photo you want to share with the whole state? Send it to us by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
A golden-brown duck on water that appears to match its color.
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

C. Pennsylvania's share of Lake Erie is being eyed for national marine sanctuary status by the federal government, and advocates tell WESA it's going to be an inadvertent shipwreck museum.

That's because there are an estimated 196 shipwrecks within the roughly 740-square-mile swath of the lake being considered.

Cue the Gordon Lightfoot.

Thanks for reading PA Local. We'll see you back here next week. But first ... send us your feedback. What did you like? What didn't you like? 

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