Volunteer works to identify Craighead House artists

CARLISLE, Pa. (WHTM) – There’s history everywhere you look in the Midstate. One man is trying to preserve it in a place many of us have not looked.

Back when East Old York Road was a dirt road, a family started a project.

“I had no idea anything like this existed here or anywhere else,” Tom Benjey said.

Now a historical landmark, the 1886 home of the Craighead family in South Middleton Township, Cumberland County is being restored.

The structure served as the childhood home of the late children’s author Jean Craighead George and twin brothers Frank and John, two naturalists credited with saving grizzly bear populations in Yellowstone and honored for their captivating photos of birds of prey.

But Benjey is focusing on just one room.

“I was just flabbergasted,” he said, recounting the first time he saw the Craighead kitchen. All four walls are covered in 80 years of ideas. “Fancy drawings, cartoons, little scribbles.”

“I could see that this is something that needed to be preserved,” Benjey said.

The plaster was cracking, the paint peeling. Three generations of work was at risk.

“It would be lost. In fact, a lot of it’s being lost already,” he said.

The walls reinforced and the paint preserved by a restoration company, Benjey spent this year mapping and cataloguing every piece; 290 of them.

“I have no idea how much time I’ve put in it,” he said. “And I’m not going to keep track. That would be too depressing.”

The first work, located on the kitchen’s south wall above a wood stove on a brick hearth, is dated 1929. It shows rats running into a hole in the wall.

Benjey attributes that work to Eugene Craighead. The story goes that he cleaned the wall surrounding the hole made for a stovepipe, “and for whatever reason – reasons only known to him – he painted rats running into that hole,” he said.

The gallery grew from there, courtesy of family, friends, and casual visitors. An Indian prince visited once and drew his coat of arms on the west wall.

The plaster canvasses feature a seemingly endless variety of images, from wildlife to school pride to a sketch of an eye surgery procedure, from games of tic-tac-toe to shout-outs to rock bands like AC/DC and Blue Oyster Cult.

“Each of these pieces of art has a story,” Benjey said.

That’s where Benjey’s exploration leads now: tracking down the stories. “Knowing what these things represent, why the person painted it, if there’s any hidden meaning.”

It’s a monumental task he didn’t even want to take on.

“I tried to find an art grad student, figured this may make a great, you know, dissertation project. Couldn’t find one,” he said.

So he plugs away for the greater good. “There’s so much history, especially local history, that’s been lost and being lost.”

“It’s important to capture these things.”

Benjey knows he’ll never be able to identify all of the artists. Many have since died. But if you think you can help, you can email craigheadhouse@gmail.com for more information about the works and to see pictures of the 290 pieces.

Read more about the history of the house here.

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