Preserving Historical Traditions with a Future in the Arts at Fort Ligonier Days

by Gina McKlveen

Every year the locals of Ligonier, Pennsylvania light-heartedly quip that George Washington must have signed a treaty with Mother Nature when Fort Ligonier was built to always provide perfect fall foliage, crisp cool temperatures, and clear skies during the town’s annual Fort Ligonier Days festival. This year, forecasts show Mother Nature is once again expected to hold up her end of the bargain during the annual three-day festival which will begin at 9:00 AM Friday, October 14th and end on Sunday, October 16th at 5:00 PM.

Over the course of these three days, the town expects to draw in crowds larger than 100,000 visitors to enjoy its over 200 juried craft vendors, more than 30 food vendors, annual Saturday parade, 5K run/walk, and live entertainment. At the forefront of this year’s Fort Ligonier Days festival, however, is its history. Jack McDowell, Chairman of the Fort Ligonier Days Committee, announced the 2022 theme of “Honoring Historical Traditions,” which includes both the history of Fort Ligonier and the traditions that locals and visitors to Ligonier have made over the years.

The decision to focus on the history of a place and the traditions passed down from generation to generation is something artists in this area are acutely trained to depict and preserve. Moreover, understanding these histories and traditions is a large component of the cultural preservation efforts among museums, public monuments, and other historic sites in our modern era that are increasingly conscious of the generational impact and legacy they wish to chart into the future.

A brief history of Fort Ligonier

A view of the fort.

The road which today connects Pittsburgh to Ligonier was forged many years prior, in the 18th century, as a part of the British military effort to eventually overtake Fort Duquesne from French forces during the French and Indian War. At the time, two simultaneous military efforts were underway, each led by two separate British generals, General Edward Braddock of the unsuccessful Braddock Expedition, and General John Forbes of the successful Forbes Expedition. As the British military traversed across Pennsylvania through its thick wooded wilderness, they built a series of forts established at key 50-mile intervals. Fort Ligonier was the last of these forts built in the late summer of 1758 before the British eventually captured Fort Duquesne, completing the Forbes Expedition, later that same year. During those late summer months into early fall, British soldiers continued to build up the Fort, adding storehouses, a hospital, and trenches.

On October 12, 1758, while Fort Ligonier was still being built, a militia of French forces from Fort Duquesne attacked the British soldiers there, resulting in a four-hour battle that the British eventually won, but not without suffering numerous casualties. This Battle of Fort Ligonier is what Fort Ligonier Days seeks to commemorate every October.

Creating a fort for the arts

Each Fort Ligonier Days, the authentically reconstructed Fort Ligonier welcomes visitors during its normal hours of operation to witness historical battle reenactments including several firings of the cannons. Visitors can also explore the recently renovated museum, including its esteemed Fort Ligonier Art Gallery which features portraits of former British monarchs, local landscapes, and historical paintings.

For Mary Manges, the Executive Director of Fort Ligonier, these opportunities to experience the Fort are intended to be accessible to everybody—past, present, and future generations.

“Not everyone thinks history is interesting, so we want to give that opportunity to see it in a different light. It’s not the textbook version that they learned in school, it’s so much richer and deeper than that and more interesting than just the one paragraph you read about.”

“Anytime we can instill a passion for history, whether it’s art history or some other area in history, just to spark that interest and get someone to see there’s so much more beyond history class and a textbook.”

She sees the purpose of Fort Ligonier, and Fort Ligonier Days by extension, as two-fold: being both a place to educate people who already have an intense interest in history and engaging those who may not have the same passion but can still learn something new as well as being an economic partner in the local community.

Living Quarters inside Fort Ligonier

Although Manges does not lead tours as often as she used to in her new role, she says focusing on the organization’s “why” helps keep her grounded. “I want these kids to know this is also a career path. Places like Fort Ligonier are great places to work someday, and they can pursue their passion and make a living doing that.”

One Ligonier-born artist, Chas Fagan, who’s historical painting, Flash Point, is now included among the Fort Ligonier Museum’s world-class collection, remembers his early years attending Fort Ligonier Days with fond and influential memories.

“Flash Point” by Chas Fagan is a Friendly Fire Incident.

“Fort Ligonier Days had a tremendous variety of artists that were inspirational for me.” Specifically, Fagan recalls seeing an artist who created artworks using an old engraving technique called scratchboard when he was about 10-years-old. “He was amazing. I’d never seen anything like it. Never seen it before in my life and it was just wonderful.” Later in his career, Fagan was searching for a new, but old inspired-look for a series of magazine illustrations. He remembered the technique he saw in his childhood at Fort Ligonier Days and ended up making several scratchboard pieces, “all because some guy who had a booth in Ligonier.”

Now, Fagan himself is the guy at Fort Ligonier inspiring the next generation of young artists and historians.

“Art was always something I liked as a kid. I liked to draw. I loved the pencil. Somehow, I just knew it. It was just in my head. Then you start growing up and try to be serious.” So, Fagan found himself enrolled in university, earned his degree in Soviet Studies, and studied in Leningrad in 1988, which was a challenging experience that altered his professional path.

After returning to the States, he began creating political cartoons that opened the door to his professional art career. In addition to political cartoons, Fagan is also a portrait painter, a landscape painter, and a sculptor. He has created portraits of the 45 prior Presidents, the official White House Portrait of First Lady Barbara Bush, and the official portrait of Mother Teresa at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. His sculptural works include historical figures like his Ronald Regan statute housed in the U.S. Capitol building and his Rosa Parks statute in the Washington National Cathedral.

“I am that guy that digs and has a ball diving into the historical detail and trying to bring some of that out. If it’s a sculpture, I try to slip some visual clues in the sculpture that no one will find until they do. Because I love fleshing out that story.”

The story depicted by Fagan’s Flash Point painting is an incident that occurred just a month after the Battle of Fort Ligonier, on November 12, 1758, where two groups of British soldiers, unable to see through the dense fog, began firing at one another because they mistook each other for the enemy. A young George Washington, realizing the soldiers were shooting at their own men, rode his horse through the crossfires to stop the groups from firing at one another.

The level of detail in Flash Point, Fagan calls the “basic core facts,” some of which come from George Washington’s own letters that are a part of the Fort Ligonier Museum and were the result of a decades long research endeavor, lead in a large part by Fagan’s father.

“I had a huge advantage because of my dad. This was a story that stuck with him for decades.”

While the history of this incident was generally known, Fagan’s father kept digging and collecting information from all sources including historians from colleges and the military to figure out the details. Eventually, he discovered in the clearing of the woods, the original Forbes Road.

“To physically be there is one thing, to hear of it and see where it should be on a map, but then to walk it, walk all the way down into the valley and visualize the progression of the events of that day in 1758 and trying to imagine, ‘What would happen if?’ Having witnessed that, I was able to ride in the wake of all the discoveries and the history and if I didn’t know the history all I’d have to do is call dad.”

Although Fagan’s father contributed to the groundwork in discovering the history of Fagan’s painting, the artistic development of Flash Point was guided by all the old paintings Fagan would see displayed in museums across Europe and the United States, including “The Painter of the Revolution” John Trumbull, who could summarize entire battles in rather small, historically accurate paintings. Before Flash Point, Fagan’s historical paintings were mostly Native American scenes with not a lot of figures, so the challenge for this painting was how to populate the painting in a way that engages the audience.

“Compositionally the challenge is to tell the story, to show the story, but still have people get involved in it. The goal with this was more to engage the viewers, especially to bring the younger boy or girl, to bring them into the scene.”

Much like his father before him, Fagan is focused on sharing his passion for history and the arts with the younger generations. He remembers during one of his visits back at Fort Ligonier an energetic young boy buzzed through the Fort Ligonier Art Gallery and promptly stopped in front of Flash Point, completely amazed staring up at George Washington on his horse riding through the crossfires. “He was stuck there for the longest time. It was the greatest personal reward because that’s exactly what I wanted. If that can be the legacy of the painting, I’ll be happy.”

Manges says that reaction, especially from young people and school groups, is one she hears all the time. “They are taken away by it. They are just amazed. It’s so fun to hear that repeatedly because if an 8th grader is getting that and is having that reaction to that giant painting on the wall, that’s impressive. And that’s something a textbook is not going to do. You could have that same painting in a textbook, but it’s not going to impact that kid in the same way as coming to a museum and seeing it in real life.”

Lasting impression for local vendors

The museum at Fort Ligonier is not the only place to experience the arts at Fort Ligonier Days. A number of local artists will be featured vendors in the various locations around the town and their works similarly leave lasting impressions.

Zack Landry, who graduated from Ligonier Valley High School in 2014 and started his own art business, White Sage & Sapphire, in 2017 will be returning to Fort Ligonier Days as a vendor for his third year.

Zack Landry of White Sage and Sapphire

“I never intended to become a jeweler, it just kind of fell into my lap. I was always the kid that was out collecting rocks and crystals. Now I’m just a bigger kid that still collects rocks except I just make things with them.” The things Landry makes include an array of earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and rings all handmade meticulously and curated personally by the artist.

“Right now, I’m working on bicolored sapphire stackers. There are some really soft muted fall colors like oranges and yellows. And because they are bicolored, they have some banding to them where there’s multiple shades within a stone. They feel like fall.”

Having grown up in the area, Fort Ligonier Days is also a nostalgic time for the 26-year-old business owner. “For me, Fort Days is the start of fall. It’s the weekend the trees all magically change and there’s magic in the air.” As one of the festival’s younger vendors, Landry remarks how as a high school student interested in the arts, he would have loved to see someone like him with a booth because he felt continually dissuaded from pursuing a career in the arts. Now, he has former classmates supporting his business and is even getting recognized for his work in public. “Last year felt like I was stepping into my own. While it was just my second year there and we had a gap year because of COVID, I had multiple people that came back and were repeat shoppers from 2019 to 2021.”

“This year, I’ll have some items with 14 karat gold accents, so this will be the first time I’m doing a large mixed metal release. The statement I tell everyone who comes into my booth is that all my metals will be sterling silver or 14 karat gold-filled, so customers are investing in a piece that is not going to irritate their skin and something that could potentially last a lifetime with the proper care. With that, everything in my booth is a natural gemstone as well. A large portion of what I use has not been dyed, treated, or enhanced.”

Landry emphasizes the physical properties of metal and stone that do not decompose, which make his pieces capable of being passed down for generations. “One of my favorite things about jewelry is the storytelling that goes along with it. There are themes in jewelry that transcend cultures and transcend generations. You think of people who have their grandma’s diamond and take it to have it reset into something new, they reconnect sentimental value to pieces. I love that my story becomes your story and then gets to live on.”

Andrew and Rachel Skovira, like Landry, have spent the past five years growing and developing their family owned and operated business, Mountain Top Engraving. The Skoviras are a husband-and-wife team who grew up in Western Pennsylvania and are familiar with region’s craft festivals like Mount Pleasant’s annual Glass Festival. The past few years Mountain Top Engraving has carved out its spot at the Ligonier Country Market selling personalized products like mugs, magnets, cutting boards, earrings, signs, décor and so much more, but this year will be the couple’s business debut at the Fort Ligonier Days festival.

A Christmas Cutting Board from Rachel Skovira at Mountain Top Engraving.

Andrew is a seasoned tradesman. Having worked in manufacturing plants that deal with all kinds of materials from glass to steel, he is well acquainted with the mechanical operations of the business. “I worked with machines for my full-time job, and now I’m in an office all day. Neither of these involve a ton of creativity, so this business is my creative outlet. A way to decompress after a long day at work.”

Like many family businesses, Mountain Top Engraving is operated out of the couple’s home with a set up comparable to most professional workshops, but with the convenience of working from home. This set up allows the whole family to get involved, including the couple’s three young kids, who are learning entrepreneurship at an early age because of their parents.

“The kids love to get involved and help at the markets. They’ll help Rachel paint some of the magnets and our oldest is learning how to run the machines.”

For Andrew and Rachel, the business is also about showing their kids how to continue to pursue their passions.

When reflecting on how much Mountain Top Engraving has evolved in the past five years, Andrew gets more excited about the direction the business is headed. “You never know where the next project might come from. But I hope we’ll do more commissions for businesses. I’ve been enjoying working with our glassware engraving and it’d be nice to do more commissions like that in the future.”

Jack and Marian Paluh of Jack Paluh Arts, Inc. are another husband-and-wife duo making their debut at the Fort Ligonier Days festival this year. However, Jack and Marian have been in the business of making and selling art for nearly 40 years. Still, the couple is always looking for new venues and opportunities to exhibit their works.

Jack and Marian Paluh’s Booth at Fort Ligonier Days.

“I’ve been painting 43 years, full time.” Jack says. He started his career at a trade school and after graduation he started to take plein-air painting courses with other artists from all over the country. “I would travel out West and plein-air paint with those groups. We still travel, so I’ll paint ocean scenes, too. But when it comes to home, I bring works with the landscape that’s here with the hardwood forest and wildlife.”

Depicting home for Jack means capturing those places in Plein-air. “I am an outdoors man. I am a hunter and I live here in Pennsylvania, so I try to depict my environment where I live with everything that I put on canvas. In Plein air you see colors better with your eye than with photographs.”

Marian adds that she paints with Jack and is amazed at his ability to capture a scene in his paintings. “It’s amazing how he builds his paintings dark to light and how he sees color and how color relates to each other, how some colors will bring out other colors. His is a talent that has been honed over the years.”

For Jack, “It’s a lifelong career. I want to paint until I can’t paint anymore. I enjoy it. I love it. It’s been a blessing and a wonderful job.”

No matter the age or the stage of life or career, the history and the arts have something for everyone.

– GM

For more information on Fort Ligonier Days, including an event schedule visit:


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