SOUTH MIDDLETON TOWNSHIP – For many homeowners, painting on the walls is something that is frowned upon, but for the Craighead House, it was very much encouraged.
Part of the preservation efforts by the Craighead House Committee includes documenting and cataloging more than 250 distinct paintings made on the kitchen wall of the home.
Tom Benjey, a volunteer with the committee, said the “important historical artifacts” are in danger of being lost to time, which is why he has taken on the mission of detailing, researching and cataloging the pieces.
“If I don’t do it now, it’s going to be lost,” he said. “I hate to think of it but probably the majority of the people who did these are dead now, and if we don’t catalog them and identify who did them and get all the information about them, it will be lost.”
Benjey said the art itself is also in danger, since time is starting to wear down the pieces. Money is currently being raised to help preserve these paintings, he said.
Built in 1886, the house is best remembered as the summer retreat of renowned naturalists Frank Craighead Jr., his brother, John, and their younger sister, author Jean Craighead George. The three siblings spent a significant part of their childhood and young adult years at the house.
People are also reading…
In 1929, Eugene Craighead, brother of Frank Craighead, began the tradition of painting on the walls, Benjey said.
“One day he cleaned the wall above the kitchen fireplace,” he said. “I guess they had removed the stove because there is this round hole in the wall there going into the chimney where the stove pipe would go. There must have been some black paint sitting around because he just decided to paint some rats running into this hole.”
His painting expanded to include a cat, and when the children in the home saw what he had done, they wanted to join in the fun, he said.
From there, they cleaned a 6-square-foot area of one of the walls and started creating the paintings.
“Pretty soon visitors were invited to paint on the walls,” Benjey said.
Many of these visitors included family, friends and neighbors, but also guests from England and even India who were visiting the home, including an Indian prince who painted his family coat of arms on the wall.
“Very soon the walls had a lot of artwork on them, and over the decades they literally were covered,” he said. “It’s part of what makes the house a historical site that needs to be preserved.”
In his preservation mission, Benjey has assigned each piece a coordinate, identifying them by positon. He said more than 250 distinct pieces have been identified, as well as signatures and models.
“I am doing the artwork first because that is the most interesting, and I am separating them because with over 250 pieces of artwork to deal with, that is more than enough to work with at one time,” he said. “Some of them are just doodles; others are excellent pieces of artwork.”
He said he then researches the pieces, attempting to speak to family or friends of those who drew them, collecting information about the people who created the piece.
“I’ve come up with a description as best I can of what it is I am looking at with a particular item and any other information I have about it, if it is signed and dated, that sort of thing,” he said.
Some of the pieces, including two large black cats over the fireplace and a large black horse high on the wall above the cellar door have incredibly interesting stories, he said.
With those two paintings, they were painted in 1941 by two visitors to the home, Jim and Heather Champion, children of an Oxford professor who evacuated the children across the ocean to avoid the bombing of England at the hands of Nazi Germany.
Another painting of an air castle painted over a window was drawn by Ruth Chew in 1946. Benjey said he was able to track down Chew’s daughter, who provided diary excerpts detailing the painting.
“She talked about how it rained and while it was raining she painted that air castle,” he said.
Once the art is stabilized and the house is preserved, Benjey said he would like to see the room turned into a children’s activity room.
“... One of the things I would like to see happen is to have children’s workshops in the kitchen, where children can write and draw surrounded by all this creativity,” he said.
For those interesting in helping preserve the paintings, checks can be sent to the Craighead House, PO Box 335, Boiling Springs, PA 17007.
Email Andrew Carr at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @SentinelCarr.