- Written by Jason J. Tabor Jason J. Tabor
Visitors to historic Cornwall Iron Furnace in Lebanon have the opportunity to learn all about the Revolutionary-War-era forge from local history buff-turned-tour guide Pat Freeland.
“The furnace opened in 1742 and has a lot of historical significance. Cannonballs and cannons used by the Navy during the Revolutionary War were made here, but not a lot of people know about it,” he says.
Freeland, now retired from a wide-ranging, eclectic career, lives with his wife of 40 years, Vicki, close to where he grew up in Lebanon County. A fan of all things historical, Freeland’s own personal history could fill a book or two.
“I never knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life when I was young, and I still don’t think I’ve figured it out,” he laughs.
After graduating from Cornwall High School, he attended Lafayette College to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology, with the vague notion that he may one day become a school principal.
He attributes his interest in education with his passion for language, including a “passing familiarity with French, Latin, German, and Pennsylvania Dutch.”
Shortly after his college graduation, however, Freeland’s career plans were put on hold when war broke out in Vietnam and many young men in the U.S. faced military conscription or enlistment.
“It was 1966 and the draft had begun. I figured my best option would be to go ahead and enlist in the Navy,” he recalls.
Freeland spent the next three years based in Rhode Island as an officer on a destroyer escort ship, a small vessel with a small staff that was tasked with patrolling waters in the Caribbean.
Freeland was in charge of the communications division of the operations department (while also serving as tactical signals officer, cryptosecurity officer, communications officer, postal officer, Protestant lay leader, and legal officer.
After his stint in the military ended, Freeland returned to the area and began his career in education as a sixth-grade English teacher — a job he enjoyed for 17 years, first in Maryland and then in Massachusetts after moving there to pursue a master’s degree in educational administration at Northeastern and Boston universities.
Along the way, he and Vicki married in 1978 and soon had a son and a daughter.
While in Massachusetts, a co-worker at his school introduced Freeland to flying small single-engine planes, and he soon received his own pilot’s license.
“My friend took me flying a few times, and as usual, I wanted to know how all of those dials, levers, and instruments worked, and I ended up becoming a pilot myself,” he remembers.
Tragedy was narrowly averted on one of Freeland’s first solo flights when the plane’s engine sputtered to a stop shortly after takeoff.
“I was relatively inexperienced, so instead of letting the plane spiral downward and reduce speed, I just wanted to get back down on the ground as soon as possible,” he laughs.
He guided the plane back down to a rough landing on a dirt runway at 120 miles per hour, stopping just short of a stone wall bordering a cemetery at the edge of the airport.
“I lost a couple teeth that day, but kept flying for years afterwards,” he remembers.
After almost two decades in public education, Freeland would make the first of many about-faces in his career.
“The best part of teaching was dealing with the kids each day. I loved teaching the kids, but ultimately I just got tired of dealing with the parents day in and day out,” he laughs.
After teaching, Freeland dabbled in real estate sales, but ultimately found his niche doing home renovation and maintenance, founding a company that would perform these services for realtors before homes went on the market.
“I’ve always enjoyed tinkering, problem-solving, and being handy, so this was a much more natural fit for me than sales,” he says.
Two years later, he would jump into a completely different career field by chance, when his neighbor offered him a job in computer software programming — a field in which Freeland had no formal training.
“It was the late ’80s, and software companies were getting huge and needing to increase their staffing. I just dove into coding; I really loved it. There is something about problem-solving combined with creating something new that has always appealed to me,” he says.
Freeland contributed coding to what would become one of the world’s most popular business email and calendar programs, Lotus Notes, and would go on to co-author a Lotus Notes for Dummies book and other tech-related publications.
After retiring from the tech industry in 2002, he and Vicki moved back to the Cornwall area to be closer to family, including their five grandchildren.
While living in Massachusetts, Freeland spent his free time volunteering as a tour guide at WGBH Boston, a PBS television and radio affiliate.
He also served as a guide aboard sightseeing ships in 1992 during the visit of the tall ships to celebrate the 1492 voyage of Columbus, “narrating the arrival of the ships and describing anything I could think of about Boston, its history, and its sights.”
Those experiences, and his interest in teaching local history, led him to volunteer at Cornwall Iron Furnace in 2003, where he has been ever since.
A unique survivor of the early American iron industry originally built by Peter Grubb in 1742, Cornwall Iron Furnace underwent extensive renovations in 1856-57 under its subsequent owners, the Coleman family, and closed in 1883, according to its website (cornwallironfurnace.org).
It is this mid-19th century ironmaking complex — furnace, blast equipment, and related buildings — that survives today as a National Historic Landmark.
“I continue to do tours at the furnace and can supply lots of information about its history and the processes involved in the production of iron,” Freeland says.
“Recently I created a PowerPoint ‘Virtual Tour of the Cornwall Iron Furnace’ for people who could not manage the 90-plus steps in the furnace building. We hope to present it in the future to retirement homes around this area.”
After Freeland returned to Central Pennsylvania he had also put his jack-of-all-trades skillset to use renovating homes with Habitat for Humanity, where he worked with a crew of volunteers to build and restore homes for needy families in Lebanon.
But in 2016, Freeland was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel and liver cancer and told by his doctor that he may have only six months to live. Doctors advised him to discontinue the home renovations due to the possible infections that could result.
“I started chemotherapy immediately, and within a few months the lab results showed that the cancer had gone into remission. I’m really lucky, but I’m still here tickin’.”
Cancer may have slowed him down a little bit, but at 75 Freeland remains busy.
“We see our grandkids every day, and when I’m not puttering around the house or yard, working, I’m at the furnace giving tours or doing maintenance work,” he says.
“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned through all of my experiences is the importance of treating everyone you meet with respect. Every one of us has a story to tell, and we can learn a lot if we take the time to listen.”
Visit the Cornwall Iron Furnace website at cornwallironfurnace.org or call (717) 272-9711.