Lycoming County's Own Explorer
by Cindy Davis Meixel, writer/photo editor.
As a young boy, James P. Bressler was so enamored with natural history that he wrote a letter to Roy Chapman Andrews, an American explorer and paleontologist. Bressler wanted to join one of Andrews’ renowned expeditions to the Gobi Desert to find dinosaur eggs. Andrews, who is speculated to be an inspiration for “Indiana Jones,” never wrote back, but Bressler unearthed his own life of exploration and adventure just the same.
For more than 60 years, the Schuylkill County native has channeled his inquisitive passions into Lycoming County, leaving large footprints at the foundations of local education, history and archaeology where he stood strong, sleeves rolled up, hard at work, digging and discovering.
Bressler, 97, was recently honored with the Society of Pennsylvania Archaeology’s “Lifetime Achievement Award.” The distinguished recognition follows other accolades in recent years, including the dedication of the James P. Bressler Heritage Trail on Canfield Island at Loyalsock Township’s Riverfront Park along the Susquehanna River’s West Branch and the creation of the James P. Bressler American Indian Gallery at the Lycoming County Historical Society’s Thomas T. Taber Museum.
When asked if the honors give him a sense of personal satisfaction, Bressler, ever the pragmatist, said: “Of course they do, but it’s satisfaction not so much that I did it, but the fact that it got done. Now, if we want to know who was here, when they were here and how they fit in, we have answers.”
It was Bressler who led excavations at numerous local archeological sites, including investigations at Canfield Island that led to its placement on the National Register of Historic Places. There – between Williamsport and Montoursville – he and fellow members of the Northcentral Chapter 8 of the state archaeology society unearthed evidence of a number of American Indian cultures, with one in particular, now referred to as the Canfield Culture, dating back 3,600 years.
“James P. Bressler’s lifetime of dedication to local archaeology has put northcentral Pennsylvania’s prehistoric past on the map, forging new connections to regional archaeology,” wrote his Lifetime Achievement Award nominator, William A. Turnbaugh, professor emeritus of anthropology at The University of Rhode Island. “He has inspired and guided generations of students, members of the general public, and amateur and professional archaeologists alike toward a better understanding of ancient mysteries.”
Turnbaugh lauded him as “a patient and good-natured mentor to generations of budding archaeologists” – Turnbaugh included.
"James P. Bressler's lifetime of dedication to local archaeology has put northcentral Pennsylvania's prehistoric past on the map."
Archaeology isn’t the only arena into which Bressler’s inspiration was cast. He spent 30 years as an accomplished agricultural and English educator and administrator at Pennsylvania College of Technology’s predecessors, Williamsport Area Community College and Williamsport Technical Institute. When he retired from the college in 1975, Bressler embarked on his “second career” at the age of 60 – dedicating his full-time energies to archaeology. There, he achieved another 30-plus years of passionate purpose.
Today, anticipating his 98th birthday in mid-August, Bressler’s mind still flows with facts and memories, but his body is unable to achieve what it once did. Six years ago, a stroke forced him to hang up his trowel, but he continues to receive visits from newer members of the local archaeology chapter, who still seek his expertise. His Williamsport living room, decorated with his own landscape paintings, brims with archaeological documents and remembrances of more active years.
“There’s never enough time in this world to do things the way you want to do them,” Bressler lamented, “but we got quite a bit accomplished. I’ll leave some things for someone else to do.”
His curiosity still strong, he continues to marvel at archaeological discoveries and ponder historical connections.
“It could be mighty!” Bressler responded when asked to comment on the significance of the area’s archaeological history.
He went on to explain that the Indian culture known as the Clemsons Island/Owasco, who resided in the area from about A.D. 800-1300, moved north into New York where they became the Mohawk Indians, whom he calls the “godfathers of the Iroquois Confederacy.”
“The Iroquois Confederacy was the first representative form of government known in this country. William Penn got his idea for his government from the Iroquois Confederacy. And where did the United States get their idea? From William Penn. It could well be that the originators of the American dream of a representative form of government lived right down here (on the banks of the Susquehanna). That’s merely a possibility. I’m not saying it as a fact, but it’s entirely possible,” Bressler speculated.
Possibilities and connections have stirred Bressler since his boyhood days on his family’s farm.
“Since I can remember, which is a long time ago, I’ve always been interested in archaeology,” he said. “Early on, my dad sent me down to the field to water some plants. There was a bad drought on that year. And there I saw, lying on the ground … something. I dropped everything! I couldn’t believe it! No one had ever heard of an arrowhead around there, and here was this beautiful arrowhead!
“I picked it up, and from there on, that was the beginning. I was terribly interested in finding out to whom did this belong, how old is it, can I reconstruct the scene that he went through. It became an obsession, trying to imagine a world that was thousands of years ago,” Bressler reminisced, adding, “I don’t know what gets into you, but you do it for the satisfaction of it, for the challenge of it.” ■
An Educational Pioneer
“Now, if you're the man I think you are, you're going to take this and make a department out of this,” ordered George H. Parkes to James P. Bressler.
In front of them stretched a “huge space just full of junk and dirt and grime and grease,” Bressler recalled in a Williamsport Technical Institute Oral History interview, conducted in 2006. “Now, this was a challenge, and that was the beginning of that.”
It was July 1945, and Bressler had just arrived at WTI, charged with establishing an agricultural program, mainly focused on agricultural mechanics for World War II veterans.
Parkes, director of WTI, had set Bressler up in a basement space in the institute's shops along Susquehanna Street. A Pennsylvania State University graduate and former editor-in-chief of Penn State Farmer, Bressler rolled up his sleeves and set to work, proving Parkes' initial edict.
“George Parkes was a pretty stern taskmaster, but he was one of a kind, with great vision and great persistency,” Bressler said, adding, “He was able to improvise, to make do. And that philosophy pervaded everything he did. We were able to improvise.”
After improvising a functional instructional space, less than a year later, Bressler's shop was inundated by the 1946 flood. He recalls traveling in a rowboat to the shops. “The windows were open, and we saw fish swimming in and out of the windows,” he said. “My shop, of course, down below ground, was completely under water.”
But as usual, WTI's group of visionaries “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” and moved forward. It was just another day at the office.
Around the same time, an off-site training spot emerged at the Brock Farm, which offered more than 700 acres near the present-day Lycoming Mall in Muncy Township. Bressler led operations at the farm, which included training in production, as well as agricultural equipment repairs. The sprawling instructional space teemed with veterans, seeking training and peace, along with high school-age farmers, bused in from the outer reaches of the area's countryside.
The experimental facility was, according to Bressler, “a new thing in the annals of agricultural education,” and the Brock Farm drew various spectators, including student teachers from Penn State, as well as international visitors gathering wisdom to take back to their homelands.
As veterans' training needs receded in the mid-'50s, WTI concluded its educational outreach at the Brock Farm, but what happened there laid the groundwork for majors now offered at Penn College's Schneebeli Earth Science Center.
The multitalented Bressler transferred to teaching and leading the English department. Later, when the college became Williamsport Area Community College, he served as dean of applied arts, responsible for all vocational and technical programs (a position equivalent to today's vice president for academic affairs). He retired from the college in 1975.
“Jim is one of the pioneering giants of both WTI and WACC,” said Daniel J. Doyle, professor emeritus of history at Penn College. “His can-do spirit, vision and commitment to teaching and learning set a course for excellence that enabled those who came after to build on.”
“The biggest satisfaction that I ever got out of education was the effect I had on the students,” Bressler said. “Every time I go somewhere, someone comes up to me; this old man comes up to me – a much older man – and reminds me of the fact that he was my student, and … they're still my friends. And I find that they have made successes of themselves, (that) they have become good citizens, productive, and that, somehow along the lines, you had a little tiny influence in causing that.
“That is the biggest satisfaction of anything, is the fact that you meet students and you have helped them in some way to become productive citizens. There is no greater satisfaction than that.”
-- Cindy Davis Meixel
Editor’s Note: Oral history interviews were conducted by Daniel J. Doyle.