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PA Wilds: There’s far more to see in this stunning region than mountains and streams


The Renovo post office mural by Harold Lehman

Valley Gallery and Gifts on the PA Wilds Artisan Trail

Sawmill Center for the Arts on the newly expanded PA Wilds Artisan Trail

Part of the Cameron County Canvas murals in Emporium

Firestone Forge in Galeton is a longtime member of the PA Wilds Artisan Trail

Mixing art and outdoor recreation, the PA Wilds Artisan Trail map now includes the monuments for the Commonwealth's first purchase of state forest land and first purchase of state game lands.

Much of the public art added to the PA Wilds Artisan Trail captures the region's history and heritage

Several new craft wineries and distillieris have joined the PA Wilds Artisan Trail; Elk Mountain Winery is located near St. Marys.

Two new businesses join the PA Wilds Artisan Trail

Two new businesses join the PA Wilds Artisan Trail (Elk County Store)

“Unexpected wow. Devastatingly beautiful views. Art creations of world-class merit. More unexpected wow.” 

That's how PA Wilds Juried Artisan Tim Walck describes what visitors and residents can expect when traveling the newly expanded PA Wilds Artisan Trail

Walck, a photographer, spent six days this summer traveling 1,836 miles across the 12-and-a-half county PA Wilds region to capture images of the Artisan Trail for a recently released online story map

The map is the first step in a grand strategy to brand and connect assets across the large rural landscape, and to give creative entrepreneurs and artisans more opportunities to shape the visitor experience. 

“No one can influence our regional brand the way our artisans and other creative entrepreneurs can,” explains Abbi Peters, director of the ECCOTA Gallery in Elk County, a Trail member that also oversees the day-to-day operations of the program for the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, a new regional non-profit. 

Several months ago, as part of evolving tourism development efforts in the region, the Artisan Trail restructured and expanded, inviting craft wineries, breweries and distilleries, and 'experience art' venues such as local playhouses, to join its small network of retailers and galleries selling “Proudly Made in the Pennsylvania Wilds” products by regionally-juried artisans. The Trail has since doubled in size, from 30 sites to close to 60.

“Outdoor recreation is our main draw in the Pennsylvania Wilds, but when people are done seeing the elk, paddling the river, or enjoying the dark skies, they want something else to do,” explains Peters. “We want the Artisan Trail to be that thing.”

The Trail also added public art to its map, hiring a student from the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford to synthesize the close to 100 nominations that poured in last spring. So far 50 have been added to the map. 

“The region's public art really helps tell the story of this area and its people, so we felt it was important to include,” says Peters. “Having more dots on the map also helps us create clusters, which is important to in pulling visitors. Most people won't drive two or three hours to see one thing. But if you curate an experience of 10 or 15 sites to visit within an area, that changes.” 

Many of the public art sites portray the region's lumber, oil and railroad heritage, its patriotic culture and its local history. 

One mural in a post office in Renovo (pop. 4000), for example, was created during the New Deal era by the late Harold Lehman. The mural depicts railroad repair workers and is one of only a few commissioned at the time of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that acknowledges World War II. 

Similar murals have been lost around the country, torn down without so much as a word to the creators or their families. That's what happened to another of Lehman's murals at Riker's Island Penitentiary. Lehman's family has kept tabs on the Renovo mural ever since. The mural was featured in the 2009 “Common Canvas” show held at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, which helped raise awareness about its importance. But just in case, the family left a note at the Renovo post office asking to be contacted if the facility were ever to close. 

Reached at her home in New Jersey, Lehman's daughter Lisa Lehman Trager was pleased to hear the mural had been added to the PA Wilds Artisan Trail. She said she wasn't alive at the time her dad painted the piece but had heard about it from him. 

“The locals got to know him and were very fond of my father, even inviting him to come back anytime for a social visit,” she wrote in an email. 

“I think the most special thing about the mural he did for Renovo is that it captured not only the people of the town, but the times and even pressing political issues of the area,” added Trager. “If you look closely, you'll see that the hills in the background are almost devoid of trees due to the clear cutting that was going on at the time, which caused problems to the local habitat.…This mural in particular gives honor to the role that this town played in the war effort by highlighting the importance of the railroad.” 

Several new murals and other public artworks have gone up in the region in recent years. Many, such as the Cameron County canvas, have been added to the story map. Others — such as “Bases Loaded,” a new public art installation in Williamsport that turned an ordinary intersection into a baseball diamond with busts of runners on each corner — are in the queue to be added. 

“Our hope is that by creating this opportunity for communities to 'get on the map' at no cost, it will actually inspire more public art,” says Peters.

The PA Wilds Artisan Trail was launched in 2008 after a study led by Penn State Extension, the PA Route 6 Alliance and the Potter County Education Council showed the region’s artisan industry had growth potential, especially when paired with regional tourism development efforts. An evaluation survey released in 2010 showed that, in its first two years, The Trail had an estimated economic impact of $100,000. The program bounced around to a few different organizations while it incubated, and in July found a permanent home inside the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship. An 11-member elected Advisory Committee oversees the program. (Note: This reporter is director of the non-profit where the Trail is now housed). 

The Trail expansion is funded in part through membership dues and grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the PA Department of Community and Economic Development and the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) — all three have made other strategic investments in the effort to grow the region's nature and heritage tourism industry.

“The Artisan Trail is emerging as an important tool not only for sharing the region's heritage and encouraging small business development, but also for regional brand development and for connecting assets across the PA Wilds,” explains DCNR's PA Wilds director Meredith Hill. “That includes creating more links from DCNR's destination facilities and public lands to the communities around them, which is important to us and certainly aids in nature tourism development.”

The new story map was compiled pro-bono by the North Central PA Regional Planning & Development Commission, which was looking to demo the story-mapping software.

“The PA Wilds Artisan Trail seemed like the perfect story for us to jump in and get our feet wet,” says North Central GIS Director Kurt Barclay, who spent more 50 hours building the map. “Our region has a tremendous amount of talent to be discovered and shared.”

The map is a the first step in a larger strategy that will include developing interpretive signage for business trail sites, integrating the story map into the regional visitor site (, and creating in-market print map pieces by county. A passport program rewarding people who complete all 12 county maps is also being explored. 

A small team plans to visit the entire Trail this winter to better inform the voice of the story map and other marketing materials. 

“We thought it was important to get the map launched, but we also think it is important to circle back around and meet all the business owners in our program, and to experience the Trail as a visitor would so we can keep improving it,” says Peters. “The PA Wilds is a very large landscape, and it is easy to miss potential sites or linkages unless you go to that particular community.” 

Early results and feedback from associated artisans and businesses have been encouraging. 

“We think one day the Trail can become an attraction of its own,” adds Peters. “Something that helps build the region's sense of place and grow unique small businesses at the same time.” 

Clusters are already emerging. In Kane, for example, Artworks at the Depot, a gallery in a restored train station, has been joined by Flickerwood Wine Cellars, craft distillery CJs Spirits and the Laughing Owl Press, a letterpress shop and retailer. In Bennetts Valley, the Elk Country Visitor Center, itself a Trail site, has been joined by Benezette Wines, Nuthatch Studio, Elk Country Store and Grant's Pass Wrought Iron and Gifts

Clusters may warrant their own print maps eventually, and the Trail hopes to team up with local foundations and other partners to help pay for printing. 

For his part, Walck says he's excited to share his photographs of the Trail in the new story map. Now based in Potter County — known as “God's Country” — Walck traveled the world as a jazz musician before falling in love with the PA Wilds and settling down here in 2007. 

“I have literally been around the world,” he muses, “[I have] have sampled the scenery and cultures of over 30 different countries, but I still find the beauty of Pennsylvania to be a chart topper.”

TATABOLINE ENOS travels the Pennsylvania Wilds working with small business owners, artisans, entrepreneurs and residents who are helping grow the region's nature and heritage tourism industry. She lives in a small farming town in the northwest corner of the PA Wilds with her husband and two young sons. Follow Ta's work at or on Twitter at @pawildsTreps. To explore the PA Wilds region, check out 

Entrepreneurship, Features