Jim Bressler’s Legacy

Area archaeologist dies at 99

By Robin Van Auken

Jim Bressler sets a stake at Datum
during the 2004 Snyder Site excavation.
Northcentral Chapter 8, Society for PA Archaeology mourns the passing of its most-beloved member. James P. Bressler has died at the age of 99. 

Despite his advanced age, his death was unexpected. His family intended to celebrate his 100th birthday anniversary Aug. 13. He is survived by his wife, the former Barbara Slocum.

“He went peacefully,” his niece-in-law, Mae Allvord, said. “He had a cold, but nothing serious. We were planning for his birthday party.”

The family will host a memorial service at 3 p.m. July 19 at the Faith Alliance Church, 2405 Bottle Run Road, Williamsport. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Northcentral Chapter 8.

Memorial donations may be sent to: Northcentral Chapter 8, c/o Lycoming County Historical Society, 858 W. Fourth St., Williamsport, PA  17701


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NCC8 has established a membership memorial in Bressler's name. Fee memberships (youth or adult) will be granted each year to two, new members of the archaeology chapter.

A self-taught archaeologist, Bressler studied Indian technology, or at least what remains of it after hundreds, even thousands of years buried in the soil. His dedication and interest resulted in the 1956 formation of Northcentral Chapter 8, and the identification of numerous local Native American sites.

Bressler's final year in the field was during the chapter's 2004 summer dig at the Snyder Site. My Lycoming College archaeology students joined him for a few weeks. We didn't always get to dig together, but whenever possible, I wanted my students to meet him.

Undeterred by aches and pains, he spent the morning on his knees in the hot sun, scraping the rich, brown soil with his trowel. I spoke with him about his decades spent in the field. He called them his “glory days.”

"My old buddies are all gone. They're probably watching from some cloud up there," he told me as he gazed at the sky. "Oh boy, we had enthusiasm. We had real momentum."

We talked about his work at the Ault, Bull Run, Canfield and Snyder sites, all components of a larger prehistoric complex, which includes the ancient Indian village of Otstonwakin. His archaeological and his historic investigations in the area have been well documented in a series of monographs and reports, adding immensely to the area's knowledge of Native American culture.

Bressler's life was dedicated to knowledge and he shared this knowledge freely. To the end, he could lecture on myriad topics, from geology to paleontology, to archaeology and history. A painter, sculptor and a creative writer, Bressler was Lycoming's own Renaissance Man.

Jim Bressler and his SPA
Lifetime Achievement Award (2011).
In 20011, the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology presented Bressler with the Lifetime Achievement Award. 

In his nomination of Bressler for the award, William A. Turnbaugh, professor emeritus of anthropology at The University of Rhode Island, wrote, "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. 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 spoke from experience. A former Williamsport resident and Lycoming College graduate, Turnbaugh spent his early years in the field with his "patient and good-natured mentor." Together, the duo discovered and registered dozens of local archaeology sites.

A former educator and driving force behind the creation of the Williamsport Technical Institute, (former Williamsport Community College and now Pennsylvania College of Technology), Penn College interviewed Bressler for its Fall 2012 issue of One College Avenue magazine after he was honored by SPA. The college also interviewed him for its Oral History Project. (Follow the links to learn more.)

James P. Bressler American Indian Gallery
The Lycoming County Historical Society also honored Bressler with the naming of its state-of-the-art American Indian Gallery. Bressler had input in its illustrations, graphics, dioramas and locally discovered artifacts. In addition to the Indian Gallery, the museum houses Northcentral Chapter 8's archaeology lab. For decades, Bressler spent each Tuesday and Thursday morning in the basement lab, researching and writing about local prehistory. 

Another legacy is the James P. Bressler Heritage Trail, a walking track that is as invigorating as it is educational. This tranquil spot is part of Loyalsock Township's Riverfront Park. Located on Canfield Island it overlooks the Susquehanna River's West Branch and the trail is lined with signs that tell of the area's prehistory and history.

It is a tribute to Bressler that the township acknowledged his historic contributions and the significance of his archaeological research. Bressler relished the gesture.

I spoke with him after the trail opened. He said, "Seldom ever, in my life, has a dream come about as this one has. This whole thing is an answer to a dream."

Jim Bressler celebrates the opening of the
James P. Bressler Heritage Trail on Canfield Island.
The story of how the trail  came about is interesting, he explained. "Some years ago (the mid-1990s), we were working on the Ault Site. Call it inspiration if you like, but I thought it would be a good idea to put together a synopsis of the events that have occurred in the area of Canfield Island. I call it the 'Loyalsock Historic Complex; A Rationale for commemoration.' It's a synopsis of many things, historic and prehistoric.

"At the time we did not know that it would be a trail, but one way or another we ought to be proud of what we know of our history. How we were gong to do that, I had no idea. After that, things just fell into place. The island became available and Loyalsock Township recognized, 'Yes, indeed. Here's an opportunity to put up a park with river frontage, a beautiful spot.'"

He continued, "It gives you a background of the area, of its importance in the scheme of things. This is a unique attempt to integrate a number of different things and to combine a pleasant walk, a history lesson and nature study. It's just a pleasure to walk around there."

Because of Bressler, Canfield Island is on the National Register of Historic Places.

His research and excavations were, Bressler said, "The Alpha; the trail is the Omega. It's all a part of what we call heritage. This is what everybody inherits."