Packing it In

Been a little lax on the blogging lately. Mostly working on recuperation. My left elbow got irritated after the gate project and the course with Ford Hallam, and, well, needed some dedicated attention. I’ve been dealing with lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow) for 11 years now, and for most of those years i’ve managed to keep it under control. When it has flared up, icing and anti-inflammatories have tended to be sufficient. When you go through a sequence of events which are tough on that area however, it is surprisingly easy to slip down what might be described as a pit of sand. You’re down at the bottom trying to heal the injury, but the climb up to health is really tough – the slightest misstep and you re-irritate the tendon, thus sliding back down to the bottom. A movie that comes to mind: “Woman in the Dunes”. Haven’t seen it, you say? Well, what are you waiting for? –  it’s a classic of Japanese film from the 1950’s with a place on my shelf… (don’t say I didn’t warn you)…

Actually, having lateral epicondylitis is no laughing matter, especially for those of us that work with our hands. You can’t get really rid of it in my experience, all you can do is manage it, or so it would seem.

This time, when it flared up again, I grew rather more desperate. It’s a total bummer when simple acts like lifting a cup of tea or scratching your ear irritate your elbow. I had to stop work altogether, and the future was looking, well, kinda bleak.

So, I decided to try something new – PRP.

PRP stands for ‘Platelet Rich Plasma’. They take a sample of your blood, spin it in a centrifuge and create a nuclear weapon. Er, I mean they create a condensed solution heavy in platelets and drain off the excess fluids. This platelet-dense extract is then injected into the injury site in multiple locations; in fact they perforate the end of the tenon in many locations where it connects to the bone. Of course, local anesthetic is employed and the injections are done with an ultrasound monitor as a guide. This PRP treatment process is thought to speed healing in an area which suffers from rather poor blood supply, one of the reasons why healing is generally so slow otherwise.

PRP is relatively new on the scene and is not covered by my medical insurance, however a treatment only cost $200, which wasn’t too bad at all.

I’m about 10 days out from the procedure now and am starting to feel like I’m climbing out of that sandpit. Apparently it will be 4~6 weeks before I notice definite improvement and 3 months before the mythical 100% level is reached again. The healing effect can continue for 6~8 months apparently. We’ll see. I’m feeling optimistic today about my elbow for the first time in quite a while.

Having time off allows for all sorts of mischief. My wife and I decided to take a little road trip down to Pennsylvania to visit her 97 year-old uncle in Pittsburgh. He’s the last surviving student of Oppenheimer.

Pennsylvania is a damn long state – getting to Pittsburgh from Western MA took about 9 hours driving, more than half of which took place entirely within PA.

Pennsylvania has some curious town names. These are the sort of things anyone from out of the state would surely notice. Real places with names like:

  • Bath Addition
  • Bird-in-Hand
  • Nanty Glo
  • Quiggleville
  • Gravity
  • Epharta
  • Blue Ball
  • Intercourse
  • Boring
  • Jim Thorpe

The last one, Jim Thorpe, came up after we had stopped for an overnight stay to break up our journey into a couple of more manageable chunks. The next morning, we had a bit of time on our schedule , so we googled ‘historic homes’ near to where we were staying. Jim Thorpe, PA came up and that’s where we went.

My wife is 10 years younger then I am and not into sports too much, so she had never heard of Jim Thorpe. I’d read about him when I was young, probably in the Guinness Book of World Records or somewhere like that. He was voted the Greatest Athlete of the Twentieth Century by ABC Sports at one point:

Thorpe was the quintessential multi-sport athlete. He entered the decathlon, pentathlon, high jump, and long jump in the 1912 Olympics, coming in to the meet with some pretty stout achievements:

 He could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat, the 220 in 21.8 seconds, the 440 in 51.8 seconds, the 880 in 1:57, the mile in 4:35, the 120-yard high hurdles in 15 seconds, and the 220-yard low hurdles in 24 seconds. He could long jump 23 ft 6 in and high-jump 6 ft 5 in. He could pole vault 11 feet, put the shot 47 ft 9 in, throw the javelin 163 feet, and throw the discus136 feet.

He won the decathlon in the 1912 Olympics, setting a record that would stand for 2 decades. He also won the pentathlon, winning 4 of the 5 events. He placed 4th in the high jump, and 7th in the long jump, despite the fact that someone stole his shoes and he had to compete in mis-matched footwear. Just for added fun, he also competed in baseball, which was an exhibition sport in those Olympics.

Thorpe had apparently received pay for playing baseball in 1909 and 1901 – we’re talking a grand remuneration of $2 per game. The newspapers did their usual muckraking, and, with the prevailing racist sentiment of the time, and those odd Anglo-American cultural ideas about the ‘pure’ ideals amateur athletes are supposed to represent, Thorpe was stripped of his Olympic medals. They were later reinstated in 1982 by the IOC, however the medals themselves, which had been on display at museums, had been stolen somewhere along the line.

After his athletic career, as Thorpe was part American Indian he found employment difficult to gain in our prejudicial society, and eventually became an alcoholic, dying in 1953 of heart failure. U.S. Senate Joint Resolution 73, proclaimed Monday, April 16, 1973, as “Jim Thorpe Day” to promote the nationwide recognition of Thorpe. I’m sure this is familiar to most Americans….

Following Thorpe’s death, however, the generous and open-hearted folks of the government of Oklahoma refused to erect a monument in his honor, due to Thorpe’s ‘tainted’ past. Thorpe’s widow, was then faced with looking to find an alternative place in which to inter her husband’s remains.
The towns on Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, PA had fallen on somewhat hard times in the 1950’s. Thus began an effort to revitalize Mauch Chunk. A newspaper editor, Joe Boyle, had persuaded ‘Chunkers’ to contribute a nickel each week to a fund that was to be used to lure factories to the town. Mrs. Thorpe found out about the situation and proposed a memorial to her late husband as an alternative means of gaining attention for the town, and the town devoted about $10,000 from the fund to pay for it. The name of Mauch Chunk, which you still see on the town’s railway station, taken from the term Mawsch Unk, or “bear place” in the Munsee-Lenape Delaware people’s language, was thereby retired.
We didn’t travel to Jim Thorpe to visit the mausoleum or museum dedicated to Jim Thorpe. We went there to check out the house of one Asa Packer. He lived from 1805–1879, was a coal and railroad magnate and founder of Lehigh University. He was a philanthropist. His mansion is one of the best preserved Italianate Villa homes in the United States.
I’ve visited many historic homes, from Newport to New York to Delaware Valley, Asheville NC and elsewhere. Whenever I travel I generally make it a point to visit an old classic home or two. This is as much out of an interest in architecture, strictly speaking, as it is a hope of finding examples of good woodwork, which are so rare to come across otherwise in this sterile plastic McMansion world.
The Asa Packer Mansion did not disappoint in that regard – it is rich in detail, just as you would expect a Victorian artifact to be. Let’s look at the exterior view as you ascend the path towards the house:
From the outside, nothing too exceptional, though I did very much enjoy the casing and detailing around the sash windows, and the curved rafters above the porch:

The house was completed in 1861 at a cost of $14,000 (@2.5 million in today’s dollars), and at that time, the client Asa Packer was the third richest man in the United States. In the late 1870’s the house was enlarged considerably as part of renovations to honor Asa and his wife Sarah’s 50th wedding anniversary, at a cost of $85,000. Now, 50th wedding anniversaries were rare at the time and some 1500 people attended the celebrations. The architect for the house was Samuel Sloan of Philadelphia. You might recall mention of this fellow in a past posting on this blog about octagonal houses in the US.

The view of the rear of the house shows the cupola (aka a belvedere) to great effect, along with the ice house just visible in the foreground:

It’s got a decent eave, I’ll give it that! The octagonal cupola serves as a venting device for the entire house and, with a spiral staircase below, allows for a view of the valley (not that you’re allowed up there to take a look however).

What makes this house a standout is the interior, which is completely intact. Think about that: a completely intact victorian high class interior, complete down to the occupant’s spectacles and napkins.

Upon the death of Mary Packer Cummings (then the richest woman in America) in 1912, Mr. Packer’s daughter, the home was willed to the Borough of Mauch Chunk to remain as a memorial to her father and his many accomplishments. The borough, not certain what to do with the home – not thinking that a victorian interior was anything but passé – closed it, and for 44 years the home sat idle. One can always count on politicians to be anything but forward-thinking I guess.

This place is like a time capsule, one with 18 rooms and 11,000 square feet of living space. The Asa Packer Mansion was reopened in 1984 and became a National Historic Landmark in 1985. The Museum operates as a nonprofit basis from entrance fees, donations, and a small trust from Mrs. Cummings. The Mansion has never received any Federal funding.

Most historic homes you visit in these here parts are stripped of their interior furnishings and you walk around in an empty shell, which certainly removes much of the context for understanding the built environment. Or there may be furnishings in place, but they are usually not original to the house. So, to visit the Asa Packer house is something truly special. It is authentic right down to the brushes and combs in the bathrooms.

Unlike most industrial tycoons, I suspect, Asa Packer had apprenticed as a carpenter in his youth so he appreciated fine woodwork – what I mean is, he could tell what was good woodwork and what wasn’t. This is unusual in and of itself. In fact, Asa was born in Mystic, Connecticut and grew up poor and in a log cabin. His father was unsuccessful in business and couldn’t provide much beyond sustenance for the family. Asa came to Pennsylvania on foot, and apprenticed under his cousin Edward Packer. After that carpentry apprenticeship, he found trouble obtaining work after a year of trying and soon after got married and became a farmer. In the winters, he used his carpentry skills to repair canal boats. After 4 years of penury in that field, excuse the pun, he got into canal boat running and canal boat building back in Mauch Chunk. Canals then lead him to railroads….

Asa began his career in Mauch Chunk by operating a canal boat hauling coal to Philadelphia. He captained the boat himself and was almost immediately successful. Within a few years he was enlarging and extending his business to include construction and merchandising. He persuaded a younger brother, Robert, to enter into partnership with him and soon they were operating two transportation lines down the Lehigh and another from Pottsville south along the Schuylkill. Asa and Robert were reputedly the first to send coal in unbroken cargoes from Pottsville to New York City. They started leasing and mining coal lands. These included the Room Run Mines of the Old Company, which the brothers took over in 1839. By the time of Robert’s death in 1848 they had increased by more than threefold the output of the mines. Asa also entered into business with others-for example, his brother-in-law James I. Blakslee for merchandising, and Ezekiel W. Harlan for rebuilding part of the Lehigh Canal after the devastation caused by the flood of 1841.


Later on Asa risked his entire life savings to get into railroads, a bet which paid off many times over. When Asa had made his money in railroads and coal, and set out to build a grand house, and he brought over Swedish carpenters and carvers to execute much of the interior work on his house. The building itself is framed in cast iron.

The Library of Congress has on file a set of building drawings for this structure which I’d like to share here.



A cross-section of the front elevation:

The plan view of the roof:

A look at some of the doors and windows:


As for the interior, it was incredible, however no photography was permitted. I of course honored that rule during my visit. Fortunately, some black and white photos of the house just before it was reopened do exist online:

Check out the ceiling:

The above is a view of the parlor. Lighting the parlor is a chandelier decorated with over 850 pieces of hand cut crystal. It was used as a model for the film “Gone with the Wind.”

The ceilings throughout the house were wonderfully varied, an aspect which reminds me of Japanese domestic architecture. If I might make a little word play at the expense of a coffered ceiling, it is a relief, I’ll tell you, to see a ceiling which isn’t simply white gypsum board.

The dining room:

The stained glass window planes were a later addition.

Sitting room:

Note the fireplace. When the house was renovated for their Golden Anniversary, Asa Packer converted the home to central heating. The fireplaces were closed and covered with a pink velvet drapery with gold threads imported from France.

The paneling throughout much of the house is Honduran Mahogany. It looks perfect today, a testament to the intrinsic superior qualities of that material. The main hall is lined in English oak. The Gothic motif is used throughout, and is particularly dramatic in the woodcarvings in the Main Hall and stairs and the bracketed ceiling and stained-glass windows in the dining room. Endless carved medallions are seen in the panel frames,  no two of which are alike. The above pictures really only hint at how awesome the woodwork inside the house truly is, so check it out for yourself.

The key thing to keep in mind is that the Asa Packer mansion is not a restoration; it exists essentially as the Packer family resided here from Oct. 16, 1861 to Oct. 29, 1912. A bit of money was put into the house in recent years to upgrade the heating system, but that is about it. Definitely a ‘must-see’ if you can get you and yours on down to Jim Thorpe, PA.

Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way.

10 Replies to “Packing it In”

  1. Thanks for the history of Jim Thorpe and the wonderful tour of the mansion. If you visit the Hudson Valley, check out Olana, (

    I had to give up my involvement in tennis as a tournament player and instructor because of the elbow issue. Tennis, guitar, tree farming, and woodworking stretched the tendon to the breaking point. It was cut by a surgeon, cleaned, and stitched back together, a butt joint that I won't trust to hold under the rigors of tennis. If the new PRP procedure had existed back then I'd have been the first to try it. Good luck with your treatment.

  2. Tico,

    yikes, a cautionary tale. If the PRP doesn't work, then I imagine surgery is the remaining option for me. Hoping I don't have to go down that path.


  3. Chris;
    Sorry to here about your elbow. Hope all works out for the best! Where at in Pa. does the house sit? I am 30 miles north of Pittsburgh in Butler,Pa. The house looks amazing I would like to try and visit some day.Have a good day and drive safe!

  4. Chris,

    Glad to see you're taking it easy! That tennis elbow is really unkind to carpenters and many just power through it only to see an early end to their career. If it's any help, a poultice made of shredded turmeric root and olive oil works wonders on my joints when they're feeling angsty.

    On an unrelated note, I was talking to a friend of mine the other day who was a miya-daiku in Kyoto in the late 70's through early 80's who might be an acquaintance to you. Does the name Daryl Morgan ring a bell? He seemed pretty esteemed with your work when I mentioned I follow your blog.

    –Joshua Cramer

  5. Joshua,

    I appreciate your comment, and I have been taking tumeric capsules, though after the procedure they told me to lay off of any anti-inflammatory medications, so I have been following that.

    And sorry, no, I haven't made the acquaintance of anyone named Daryl Morgan – glad the likes this blog though!


  6. Sorry to hear about your injury. Best of luck with the healing.
    Fascinating post on so many levels. Jim Thorpe, the Packer mansion, Pennsylvania town names, but what about theOppenheimer student? Years ago l talked with a student of Niels Bohr and he had some great stories.
    Anyway, get well soon !!

  7. Tom,

    thanks for the comment. The Oppenheimer student was a curious fellow – I think that's about all i will say.

    Healing proceeds slowly, but seems to be moving along a bit. I was able to use the salad spinner yesterday, which seemed like an achievement. I'm taking the time away from the shop to learn Rhino 3D CAD, and have been making good progress. I've also purchased a woodworking machine from Germany….


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