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Adams County Pa. Related Historical Articles

Requiem for a Heavyweight of
County History:
Jacob Melchior Sheads (1910-2002)

Charles H. Glatfelter

Since the death of Jacob Melchior "Met" Sheads on February 17, 2002, we have heard and read a lot about the many facets of his long and eventful career. This memoir will focus on one of these facets: his long association with the Adams County Historical Society.

Abraham Lincoln believed that he had a binding kinship with the American Revolution and the men in all ranks who carried it to a successful conclusion. From time to time he would speak on this subject, often close to July 4. In 1838 he took the occasion to proclaim that, for Americans, the founding fathers were "the pillars of the temple of liberty." Now that, one by one, they were crumbling away, that temple would surely collapse, unless "we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason."

As one whose association with the Adams County Historical Society began in or around 1958, the death of Met Sheads has removed from our midst the last surviving member of the five pillars who secured its incorporation on December 16, 1940. One by one the others have passed away: Dr. Henry Stewart, Frederick Tilberg, Hugh McIlhenny, and Franklin Bigham.

Met Sheads was on his way to becoming a pillar when the historical society was reorganized in October 1934, just two years after he had been graduated by Gettysburg College. He was elected secretary. This second effort stalled after its president died in 1936, but when a revival of the society occurred in 1939 he was again chosen secretary. The following year he became one of the five incorporators. Except for time off during World War II and the Korean conflict, by 1968 he had served as secretary, president, or director of the society. Even after he was no longer an officer or director, he functioned as a sort of Stratton street branch of the society, giving people information or copies from the large library and archives which he had accumulated. When the society established emeritus board membership in 1996, he was the first person chosen for that honor.

Given his knowledge and interest, for 50 years Met was one of the first persons called upon to participate in observing important county anniversaries, in all of which the historical society was prominently involved. In 1950 he was a member of the historical committee for the county sesquicentennial celebration. In 1975-1976 he was vice chairman and program chair of the committee for observing the United States Bicentennial. In the midst of this observance, on May 30, 1976, Gettysburg College honored Met by conferring upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Pedagogy. In 1986-1987 he lent his hand in several ways to celebrating Gettysburg's Bicentennial. Observing the county bicentennial in 1999-2000 would not have been complete without Met Sheads as honorary chairman of the effort. His presence at several bicentennial events, in his wheelchair, is evidence enough of his continuing interest in county history.

Met Sheads believed that a sound understanding of the past, difficult as it is for us to achieve, is necessary in ordering our everyday lives. We need a working memory for almost everything we do. Without it we are what years ago the historian Carl Becker called "lost souls indeed." Met made his understanding of the past - his memory - an integral part of his life and in so doing made his history "come alive." He also tried to do the same for anyone else who would listen. He succeeded.

While working closely together on many occasions during a third of a century, Met and I agreed on the value of history for our lives and the necessity of trying to make it "come alive." We differed from time to time in our judgment of what parts of the past were most important for us to know about and stressed more heavily, even if they appear to be less lively than other parts. In short, we agreed to disagree on some points and still remained friends.

American liberty is not the only institution which has a temple with its human pillars. County historical societies have them, too. Every person who cherishes the Adams County Historical Society and who wishes it and its mission well should remember Met Sheads and the other pillars of 1940, honoring them always for having served us well. We honor them best by having, if possible, even more sturdy pillars.

Do you know of an individual who helped shape the Adams County?
If so, send their story to us at: History@myGettysburg.net