Historical Markers
George Herman Wirt Historical Marker
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George Herman Wirt


Marker Location:
PSU Mont Alto campus, approx. 120 yds. E of Slabtown Rd. & south of PA 233

Dedication Date:
October 2005

Behind the Marker

"A hundred pound ball of fire…he scared the tar out of me. He was caustic… sarcastic… not generous with praise. But I realized later that this was a device, so to speak, of his in order to find out how a young forester reacted to adversity. In time, as I got to know Mr. Wirt better… I revered him as much as I did any man, including my own father. He was absolutely honest; he was candid; he was forthright. He was not infallible by any means, but he was the kind of man whom I took great pride in serving under."
-Henry Clepper, Mont Alto State Forestry Academy (Class of 1921); Pennsylvania Department of Forestry, 1921-1936.

Head and shoulders photograph
George H. Wirt, Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry Chief Forest Fire Warden.
Born in McVeytown, Pennsylvania, on November 28, 1880, George H. Wirt graduated from Juniata College in 1891with the intention of pursuing a career in engineering. Influenced by family friend Joseph T. Rothrock, Wirt instead opted for studies in forestry, enrolling at the Biltmore Forest School in North Carolina.

When Wirt graduated with a Bachelor of Forestry degree in 1901, Rothrock, who that year had become the Commissioner of Pennsylvania's newly created Department of Forestry, appointed twenty-one-year-old Wirt the state's first professionally trained forester. Wirt's job was to survey and enforce protection of newly acquired tracts in the state "Forest Reserves," including 33,000 acres in Franklin and Adams Counties on the South Mountain Reservation. This was no easy task. To protect himself from "mountain people" fearing dispossession and to deal with timber thieves he carried a Colt revolver at all times. In a 1959 interview, Wirt explained that "it wouldn't have been healthy for anyone to disturb me… I wasn't very fast on the draw, but once it was drawn it was a marker dead give away."

These early conservation efforts came at a time of crisis for Penn's Woods. One of the largest timber producers in the second half of the 1800s, Pennsylvania had lost more than 60 percent of its forests by the turn of the century. Exploitation by business interests left the forests increasingly vulnerable to forest fire devastation, compounding the damage clearcutting already had done to Pennsylvania's woodlands and the state's economy. Though Rothrock oversaw large acquisitions of land for preservation, the state forest system increased from about 100,000 acres in 1901 to more than 500,000 acres by 1903, he ultimately recognized that forest protection meant little without professional management and development as well.

In the foreground are students on horses and Wiestling Hall is featured in the background of the photo
Students at the Mont Alto Forestry Academy, Mont Alto, PA, December 1903.
With professional foresters in short supply, Rothrock proposed a school to provide training for work in the state's forests, with a practical curriculum tailored to Pennsylvania's environment. After the state legislature authorized this in 1903, Rothrock and Wirt created Pennsylvania's first state forestry academy at Mont Alto, on a plot adjacent to the South Mountain Reservation. Formerly owned by the Mont Alto Iron Company, the area provided a favorable base for professional forestry instruction with its surrounding woodlands, and an accessible railroad nearby. Intended to "prepare forest wardens for proper care of state forestry lands," Mont Alto State Forestry Academy was the first and only school in the nation created with the sole intention of training foresters for work in state forests.

When Mont Alto opened, Commissioner Rothrock appointed Wirt to serve as its first director. Wirt provided most of the Academy's early technical instruction and designed the nation's first curriculum for the training of state foresters, which proved remarkably effective. When he left in 1910 to become Chief Forest Inspector in Pennsylvania, forty-six of the state's fifty professional foresters in the Department of Forestry had graduated from Mont Alto.

Group photograph of a men and women in front of a lodge, posing on the porch and steps for a photo.
Gathering of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association at the Graeffenburg Inn in...
In the early 1900s Pennsylvania was suffering annual losses of more than half-a-million acres of forest, so Wirt's challenge in his new position was to reduce this destruction. Attributing the greatest cause of forest fires to carelessness, Wirt considered education the principal remedy. To raise public awareness, he lectured throughout the state on the economic consequences of forest fires. Considering its forest the most essential natural resource for Pennsylvania's continued welfare, Wirt believed that failure to address the danger of forest fires equated to economic suicide. "It is like killing the goose that lays the golden eggs."

As Chief Forest Inspector, Wirt also criticized Commissioner Ralph G. Conklin and others in the Department of Forestry for their disorganization and inefficient response to fires. Challenged by Conklin to do better, Wirt sent inquiries to foresters throughout the country, and compiled successful strategies into new legislation. Passed in 1915, the Pennsylvania Forest Protection Law created a Bureau of Forestry and the position of Chief Forest Fire Warden. Appointed as the first Chief Forest Fire Warden, Wirt created an organization of forest fire wardens, "with no other purpose than protecting the forests from fire."

Wirt then spent the next two years traveling the state in search of committed and reliable individuals willing to give their time to the community, whom he organized into fire suppression crews. Wirt would later attribute his success to "pure and simple flattery… appealing to their better side and the fact that they weren't fighting fire for the protection of forests from fire, but they were fighting fire for protection of the community."

By the time he retired in 1946, Wirt had appointed close to 4,400 forest fire wardens, who received assistance from 30,000 crew members. Under Wirt's management, Pennsylvania's average forest fire loss declined from half-a-million to 25,000 acres annually. After his retirement, Wirt continued to support forest conservation efforts until his death on November 8, 1961.
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