MIFFLINTOWN — Buildings like the Tuscarora Academy Museum preserve historical relics, but Jessica Eaton Guyer wanted to find a way to preserve the stories behind them.
“Visitors who tour the museum often remark on what a special place it is,” Guyer says of the Juniata County landmark. “Visitors also often ask if we have a book about the Academy.
“Initially, I was curious as to why we didn’t have one, despite the museum’s 50 years of existence,” she adds. “I apologetically responded that there should be one.”
When Guyer began volunteering at the Tuscarora Academy Museum for the Juniata County Historical Society in 2019, she quickly became enamored with the history of the area and the “otherworldly feelings of comfort and awe that came over me every time I visit the tiny hamlet of Academia.”
At that point, Guyer admits she had already completed a great deal of research on the academy, as she was working on a massive inventory project with the museum’s collection in 2020, after the pandemic started.
“The silver lining of the pandemic was that it afforded many people the extra time to spend on their passions and hobbies, and I was no exception,” Guyer says. “For me, it led to writing the book that the community had been requesting.”
On Oct. 31, 2021, “Tuscarora Academy: Providence Is Here” was published. Guyer’s book is an exhaustive history of the Tuscarora Academy, which was established in 1836.
Labor of Love
Guyer is curator of the Tuscarora Academy Museum and is active within the historical society as a board member, chair of the Accessions Committee and social media facilitator.
“For me, getting back those 10 commuting hours every week allowed me to spend more time volunteering for the Juniata County Historical Society,” she says.
She has an ardent passion for the history, places and people of central Pennsylvania, which led her to write her book. She also enjoys assisting people with historical research, helping several breakthrough genealogical barriers. These tools also made her research work for the book easier.
Located in Academia, the Tuscarora Academy was a premier 19th century secondary educational institution for 80 years. During that time, thousands of students from more than 30 states traveled to Academia for their college preparatory courses, and their stories are collectively embedded into the history of the Tuscarora Academy.
Using newspapers, letters, school records, documents from descendants of alumni and the collection of the historical society, Guyer authored a comprehensive history of the academy from its inception, through its many decades of education that ended in 1916, to the sole remaining building’s current use as a museum exhibiting relics of Juniata County’s past.
The first half of the 828-page book details Tuscarora Academy’s administration, perseverance through four devastating fires and steadfast adaptation to the changing educational landscape in Pennsylvania, while intertwining first-hand accounts about students, faculty and trustees.
The second half contains short biographies of more than 1,300 known alumni, faculty and trustees, which is one-third of the total number of students to have passed through the Academy’s hallowed halls.
After receiving educations that helped shape their minds and characters, Academy alumni went on to settle in every state, with many establishing new towns, creating inventions, building landmark infrastructure and filling important positions in courtrooms, legislative chambers, universities, churches, banks and hospitals. Combined, their stories create this detailed history dedicated to the pioneers of early American education.
The book also contains many photographs.
“It’s both a historical non-fiction and an ease-of-access research tool,” Guyer says. “When our historical society researchers are asked if a specific individual attended the school, volunteers can now easily answer the inquiry.
“In fact, historical societies in most Pennsylvania counties will find Academy graduates who were either born in or moved to their counties as well,” she adds, referring to the students from 47 Pennsylvania counties who attended the school.
Of the known alumni featured in the book, more than 1,000 came from Juniata, Mifflin, Huntingdon, Perry and Centre counties and the surrounding areas.
The Academy’s sole remaining building, originally erected as a church in 1816, opened to the public as a museum in August 1970 and two years later, was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It was owned by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission from 1962 to 2016, when ownership was transferred to the county’s historical society.
“It really tells the entire story of that sole remaining building of the campus and all of the people who contributed to its history,” she says.
While the historical society’s archives are in Mifflintown, the county museum, owned and maintained by the society, is housed in Tuscarora Academy’s sole remaining building in Academia. Since the museum couldn’t open to the public for regular summer Sunday hours in 2020, it afforded Guyer the perfect opportunity to create a long overdue master inventory and to give the museum an extreme makeover with new exhibits and signage.
“While spending many hours at the Academy and doing deep dive research in the society’s archives, I discovered many things I had been told about the history of the institution weren’t accurate,” Guyer says. “In fact, what I learned made me realize its importance is even more significant than anyone realized.
“I became madly passionate about making sure accurate facts about the institution were known,” she adds.
The fact that the historical society receives research requests from all over the country via email and social media, asking if an ancestor attended the Academy, was also a driving factor in the book project.
“For years we’ve heard ‘not much is known about Tuscarora Academy,’” she explains of her research process. “… The more I realized that we could know a lot about it, but it would require assembling thousands of scattered puzzle pieces.”
All these factors made Guyer realize that if she wanted the true story of Tuscarora Academy to be told, she would have to be the one to tell it.
“I never expected the incredible things I would discover from January until September 2021,” she says. “At the beginning of the process, I quickly realized the intricate and daunting task ahead of me and understood why neither a book on the Academy or a list of known alumni was never created.
“Volunteers simply didn’t have the time to tackle such a massive project before, and for that I am grateful because it allowed me the great honor of being the one to write the book.”
Sold exclusively on Amazon upon release, her book ranked 23rd among Amazon’s best sellers in U.S. State and Local History category. There was Guyer on the same page with actor, humorist and “New York Times” best-selling author Nick Offerman.
“I was very relieved,” she says of the book’s publication. “I never thought I would write a book. It just kind of happened organically. It’s been all consuming for me ever since I started. I’m just glad it’s finally out there.
“I was kind of like a dog with a bone,” she adds jokingly. “I just wouldn’t let up. I made a goal and I wanted it out before I turned 40. I hit my goal.”
The publishing process was all a bit overwhelming for Guyer, a lifelong resident of Juniata County whose parents took her and younger sister, Valerie, for their first tour of the Tuscarora Academy Museum in 1988. She never imagined how that tour would impact her life and family — she and her husband, Matt, have two children.
“They were very understanding of me neglecting them for 10 months, but they were also very supportive,” Guyer says. “When I received the first copy ever printed in the mail, my husband said, ‘Is this a Bible? Because of its thickness’ It worked out I think because it was supposed to.”
Her daughter Alanna illustrated the 1816 imagining of what the church-turned-academy building looked like until the second story was added in 1850. Academy volunteer Austin Willi and Guyer’s friend from Michigan, Carri Wellington, also contributed illustrations included in the book.