WHY GO: Carlisle is a “College Town” – for both the Art of War and Liberal Arts (US Army War College, Dickinson College). A portion of its history is controversial – as the site of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which removed Native American children from their homes to educate and Anglicize them. But Carlisle is also where the most fascinating US Army Heritage Museum and Library in the country is located, where you can tour the largest gourd crafting factory, and where you’ll find popular art galleries, a fine noodle house and a historic luxury inn.
VISIT: US Army Heritage and Education Center. With very little signage, you just might miss this fantastic, interactive, well designed homage to our military men and women that “tells the Army’s story one solder at a time.” Encompassing an indoor museum, a mile long outdoor Heritage Trail, and a large, personal-papers archival library (as opposed to the National Archives which are Government documents), you can spend several engrossing hours here. And it’s FREE.
Begin at the reception counter for your scanable “dogtag, ” which personalizes information as you walk through the museum. Try to lift the weight of a backpack donned by Iraq and Afghan-bound troops (I couldn’t), turn the “rattle” that warned men during WWI of a gas attack, try your hand at parachuting 700 ft. into enemy territory via a cool interactive simulation, imagine you’re at the controls of a Vietnam-era Huey helicopter, listen to messages from US Soldiers in Iraq that were left on loved-ones’ answering machines (one from a woman who couldn’t believe that she was standing in Sadam Hussein’s bedroom). It will blow you away.
The outdoor Heritage Trail features interactive war era recreations exactly like the real things, from the Colonial Period to a Security Checkpoint in Iraq. You’ll find a Cobra Helicopter, a Sherman Tank, WWII barracks, Civil War winter cabins, a Revolutionary War “redoubt,” an extensive, maze-like trench system from WWI and much more. It will take an hour to walk and explore, so plan accordingly.
The Archival Library is staffed by historians with extraordinary knowledge of the history of warfare dating to the Colonial period. The oldest book dates to 1494 – just two years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue. At least one Pulitzer Prize winning author – Tom Ricks – has researched background for his books here. Museum open all year, Mon-Sat 10-5, Sun 12-5, Heritage Trail daily dawn to dusk, FREE.
VISIT: Cumberland County Historical Society. You can tell that the Cumberland County Historical Society, one of the oldest in Pennsylvania, is well funded. It’s run like a first-class museum and staff is “constantly busy doing research for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC as well as other institutions.” The upstairs museum is repository for the largest collection of Wilheim Schimmel, “a local drunk who became the embodiment of folk art in the United States,” according to one docent.
In one of the most riveting exhibits, artifacts and photos from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School will both confuse you and break your heart. Established in 1879 (and in operation until 1918), the Indian School sought to assimilate Natives into White Society. Before and after pictures, group photos, and information about the school’s most famous graduate, Olympic Gold medalist Jim Thorp, are disquieting at best, forcing a dialog about good intentions and bad ideas.
Exhibits range from quirky (Schimmel folk-art) to hometown poignant (the peanut cart owned by “an Italian fellow” that stood right outside for 50 years, when the train ran right down High Street) and lots more. Come in to get to know Carlisle a bit better – 30 minutes will do it. Monday 4:00 – 8:00 p.m., Tuesday through Friday 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., Saturday 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. FREE.
TOUR: Meadowbrooke Gourds. If you’re into adorable holiday handiwork, you’ve probably received catalogs from this hardshell-gourd crafting company. Come to Meadowbrooke’s 200-acre farm, to see the whole gourd-crafting process from ground to store. These cousins of squash are not edible, but once they dry can be carved like wood.
Employees work on 3,000 pieces a week, and a tour takes you from the drying sheds to cleaning tanks, de-seeding room (the TV show Dirty Jobs filmed this portion of the process), to the workshops of craftsmen and women. You’ll end up in the gift shop, of course, where you can score a birdhouse for $12 and large lightbulb-lit lanterns for $65. 45 minute tours every Tues at 2pm. Free. Groups of 10 or more by appointment.
VISIT: Carlisle Arts Learning Center. A beautiful two-story art gallery, try to time your visit to attend an opening reception. Free and open to the public, they occur nine times a year whenever exhibits change.
Where to Eat and Drink in Carlisle
EAT: Issei Noodle Shop. Yum, is all I can say for this casual spot for great food on a budget. Momma and Poppa Pham offer traditional flavors with a new “Phamily” twist. Signatures Egg Noodle Delight with ground pork, garlic sweet soy sauce $11, and Rice Bowls like Asian Sesame Don-Buri – Mongolian seared beef with fresh veggies are “phamominal.”
DRINK: Castlerigg Wine Shop. When it’s warm, sip local wine on the front porch of this colorfully funky wine “Bar, Shop and Tasting Room.” Perfect for conversation and people watching.
Where to Stay in Carlisle PA
STAY: Carlisle House. If you drive a Tesla or a Leaf, you might know that this historic luxury inn is, incredibly, the only B&B in the area (in the whole State?) with its own EV car-charging station. Though The Carlisle House, on the Select Registry, does draw its share of electric car owners who know nothing about the accommodations, most guests come for the unmatched service and six baronial rooms and four suites that are painted in surprisingly vibrant “Historical Preservation” colors.
Owners Mary and Alan Duxberry go out of their way to make your stay here wonderful: in each room, you’ll find locally made treats, like Snyder’s pretzels and Sweet Jubilee Brittle Bark, and a mini-fridge stocked with water and sodas (complimentary) upon arrival. The most romantic rooms feature crystal chandeliers, wood stove fireplace, four-poster beds, an arrangement of antiques and double Jacuzzi/shower – sporting double power-jet rain heads – perfect for honeymooners or anniversary-celebrating couples.There’s also a sitting room with a small kitchen and wet-bar, designed for entertaining your Dickinson student and a few friends.
In the morning, breakfast is served buffet style and includes fresh fruit, a toothsome “Quiche of the Day” and a rich, brownie-like tart of some kind. Even locals hang around for the quiche. It’s that good. Rooms $159-$269 include welcome treats, free wi-fi, free parking and gourmet breakfast.