Walkable, hospitable, and oh so livable … that’s Carlisle in a nutshell!

Photo By Lauren Groos
Story By Randy Gross
rgross@harrisburgmagazine.com

Carlisle, Pennsylvania has received its share of high marks for livability. In fact, Livability.com ranked them #16 on its 100 Best Small Towns list, and #4 for Top 10 Cities for Veterans. In recent years, Forbes has rated the city as one of the cheapest places to live, as well as one of the best places to raise a family. No doubt, those are tremendous accolades for this sister town of Carlisle, England and seat of Cumberland County government. But to truly appreciate what it’s like to live and make a living in Carlisle, it would be wise to move beyond statistics and rankings, and instead discover what exactly makes the town “tick.” And, to do that, let’s go back more than a few “ticks,” to Carlisle’s founding.

George Washington slept here

In this case, the real estate cliché is actually true. President Washington did stay over-night in Carlisle on his way to squelch the Whiskey Rebellion. And he also attended services at First Presbyterian Church, the oldest building in Carlisle, on October 5, 1794. But Washington’s visit was just the tip of the historical iceberg, because the development of Carlisle as a livable community relies on many more names and events.

Settled by Scots-Irish immigrants in 1751, Carlisle has hosted other notable figures, including Declaration of Independence signers James Smith and James Wilson, and is home of Revolutionary War legend Molly Pitcher. It is easy to see and understand the significance of such men and women – and the honored places they hold in the city’s growth – by taking a quick walking tour of downtown Carlisle.

Since the name Molly Pitcher has already been mentioned, start at the Old Public Graveyard on Cemetery Ave., where she was interred in 1832. Remembered for her bravery in carrying pitchers of water to soldiers while under enemy fire, she embodies the kind of “help thy neighbor” character that’s ubiquitous in contemporary Carlisle. Alas she didn’t receive a recognizable headstone until 1876, or her statue till 1916.

The Centenary Building on High St. and Empire Hook & Ladder Co. on Pomfret St., share a resiliency and “rise from the ashes” destiny – the former, as a Methodist church and site for Dickinson College commencement services in the 1800’s that was ravaged by fire in 1999, and the latter, as both the home of the famous local fire company from 1859 to 2006 and the beloved team of horses known as Tom and Jerry. The Centenary was reborn as modern apartments and retail space (while maintaining its historic exterior) and Empire’s unique art deco space is now home to Carlisle Arts and Learning Center (CALC). Another must stop: the Union Fire Company No. 1, the oldest continually-operating fire company in the entire state of Pennsylvania, which now has two floors dedicated to a fire museum.

Three of Carlisle’s “marquee” attractions can all be beheld while walking east-to-west on High Street. The Old Cumberland Prison’s castle-like façade can’t be missed when driving into town and is yet another “reclaimed” project, as the landmark now houses county offices. Carlisle Theatre, of course, features an actual marquee, as this “gem of downtown” has been entertaining locals with movies, musical concerts, and other cool “live” shows since 1939. (See the accompanying sidebar for more background on the theatre). Finally, the Bosler Library, with its striking Greek temple architecture, was established in 1900 by the heirs of J.H. Bosler who wanted to “give the young men in town something to do.” Bosler has become one of the most visited libraries in Cumberland County.

Perhaps no site captures Carlisle’s “never-say-die” attitude better than Lincoln Cemetery. Many decades ago, Carlisle’s black community buried their loved ones in the segregated grounds, but in the 1960’s the land was converted to park space, and only one headstone – belonging to Fleta Mae Jordan – was left standing. In 2019, descendants of those once buried at Lincoln undertook restoration efforts, with the current entrance archway being gifted by that year’s U.S. Army War College’s graduating class. As a result of the community coming together, just last year, Carlisle passed a resolution apologizing for the removal of headstones and pledging to work toward a more equitable future.

Other notable historic gems to visit: Dickinson College, the first college established in the new United States of America, and Penn State Dickinson Law, one of the oldest law schools in the country; the Old Court House, which still retains damage sustained during the 1863 confederate shelling of Carlisle; the Carlisle Meat Market (now home to retailer Miss Ruth’s Time Bomb), precursor to Giant Food Stores; and the Old Train Station, where giant steam locomotives stopped 24 times per day from 1838-1936.

Small businesses make for a larger-than-life community

The backbone of every city’s downtown area is its collective of small businesses, and it’s easy to see why Carlisle’s downtown isn’t just alive-and-kicking but thriving. All one must do is take a walking tour of the city’s business district – on this occasion, kindly provided by Jennifer Germain, Development & Marketing Director for the Carlisle Area Chamber of Commerce – and you instantly discover that the “hustle and bustle” of these city sidewalks is real, as is the camaraderie between the assorted shops and restaurants.

Walking past American Artistry Gallery on North Hanover St., a building (once home to the Bon-Ton department store in the early 1900’s) showcasing works by nearly 90 different fine artists and craftspeople, owner Pam Fleck greets us with a smile and the words “we just had anniversary number 8, and we’re still going strong.” It becomes quickly apparent that Carlisle is rich with artists and filled with an eclectic array of galleries, so the tour is at an excellent starting place.

“I think the great thing about Carlisle,” says Germain,” is that we have little things that you might not find other places. It’s kind of like a big-city find, but a small-town kind of feel.”

That small-town feel extends far beyond the three primary streets for Carlisle’s line-up of small businesses, but those streets – Hanover, High, and Pomfret – are must-visits for anyone desiring a delightful afternoon of shopping and dining.

Hanover Street

A must-stop for lovers of antiques and vintage items is the Carlisle Antique Mall. Built in 1918 as the iconic Montgomery Ward Department Store, the four-floor facility still features many different “departments” – everything from antiques (Victorian to primitives), to upcycled décor. And the Underground Marketplace area is filled with fashions and accessories suiting any age.

Speaking of fashions and accessories, Miss Ruth’s Time Bomb is “exploding” at the seams with a variety of vintage and retro clothing items for both women and men, and they also buy items.

And, if you’re in the gift-giving mood, be sure to stop by The Greatest Gift, where the mission is “to provide unique gifts and beautiful things” crafted by artisans. Shoppers will find a selection of bath & body products, candles, children’s gifts, clothing, handbags, jewelry – and more.

If shopping makes you hungry, Hanover Street has a number of enjoyable restaurants to dine – or wet your whistle – at. Market Cross Pub & Brewery, with its English pub fare and extensive beer list, has been deeply involved in the Carlisle community for more than 20 years. Hook & Flask Still Works – owned by ex-firemen and the first distillery in Carlisle since Prohibition – has burgers, loaded waffle fries, and salads to go along with their own whiskey, moonshine, rum, vodka, and gin. And 1794 Whiskey Rebellion not only features juicy steaks and meats from Newville’s Eleven Oaks Farms but is housed in the city’s only downtown hotel – Comfort Suites – making it easy to nap after a delicious meal. For those craving a more pampered respite, continue south on Hanover St. to the Carlisle House Bed & Breakfast, a beautifully restored 1826 Civil War house.

High Street

When it comes to food, High Street is like the “main” street of Carlisle. From West to East, there are variety of choices for dining, for all tastes and budgets!

Your tastebuds – and wallet – really can’t go wrong with a stop by Taqueria Laurita. The fact that it’s small reflects the owners’ original intention of opening a food truck; and it’s easy to miss when walking by. But miss at your own risk, because their tacos, burritos, and empanadas are exquisite. Another budget-friendly option: the Hamilton Restaurant, whose Hot-Chee-Dog is so famous that the city recently recognized the cheese-chili-mustard concoction with an historical marker outside the restaurant.

For a truly one-of-a-kind evening out, Grand Illusion Hard Cider is no illusion when it comes to a broad tap list of fresh-brewed ciders ranging from Mystic Citra Pineapple to The DeCider: Presidential Peanut Butter. An assortment of soups, dips, salads, and flatbreads round out the short but satisfying food menu; and, true to its name, the restaurant hosts plenty of “magical” events, including their regular Family Friendly Table Magic on Monday evenings. 

Further good libations can be had down the street at Molly Pitcher Brewing Company, very bright and modern with a tremendous tap list of its own – featuring a wide assortment of its handcrafted brews, from IPAs to its own hard seltzer. You can also play trivia on Sundays, and live music is gradually making its post-Covid return. Oh, and don’t forget the food: Burgers, crab cakes, IPA Braised Bacon Salad … bet your mouth is starting to water!

Have a sweet tooth? Helena’s Chocolate Café and Creperie is a popular choice (Jennifer Germain recalls a student saying “the whole reason I came to Dickinson College was for Helena’s!”); and Leo’s Homemade Ice Cream isn’t just a local institution, it’s ranked as one of the best ice cream stores in the U.S.!

Don’t leave High Street without browsing the books, puzzles, and games at Whistlestop Bookshop, a fixture in downtown Carlisle for over 30 years!

Pomfret Street

Last but certainly not least is Pomfret Street, whose first block of exclusive boutiques and eateries is affectionately known as the SO-HI Arts District. On a normal day, not only will you be exposed to unique art installations up and down the block (can you say “photo op!”), but you’ll also be pleased aesthetically – and, in some cases, culinarily – by these great local businesses.

Check out the handmade utilitarian pottery at K. Olsen Ceramics. Take a few steps and you’re at Pat Craig Studios, an award-winning custom-framing store that also has handcrafted jewelry, fine arts and prints, and other unique gifts. Right next door is Boutique on Pomfret, featuring elegant clothing for the mature woman; and around the corner, on Hanover St. (but still considered SO-HI) is Castlerigg Wine Shop, where you can buy fine Pennsylvania wines by the bottle, or taste some of them at their beautiful wine bar. Speaking of “tasting,” head further west and across the street on Pomfret and you’ll come to Spoons Café, a welcoming little restaurant situated in an historic home with a health-conscience, farm-to-table menu (don’t leave without trying their tasty homemade soups!). Then, if you’re a chocolate lover, head back east to Mummert Chocolates, a family-owned maker of gourmet Swiss chocolates and customized confections. Make your own box or ask them about their gift baskets!

A hub for activities

As a college town, it only goes to figure that Carlisle is host to more than its share of entertainment and activities. In addition to Farmers on the Square, a weekly (bi-weekly in Winter) farmers market featuring open air vendors on both sides of the square, there are a variety of seasonal events and offerings.

And, with a venue like the Carlisle Fairgrounds nearby (and planning for its 50th anniversary!) it also goes to figure that many of those events are car-themed! (Cue “vroom, vroom” SFX here).

Yes, Carlisle Events has so many car shows on tap at the fairgrounds every year, it’s hard to keep track. From Ford Nationals in June and Chrysler Nationals in July to Truck Nationals and Corvettes at Carlisle in July, and finally Fall Carlisle in October, the city is definitely a car enthusiast’s dream town.

This month (Nov. 27), Small Business Saturday will promote a special day of shopping and dining in support of neighbors, friends, and families who own Carlisle’s local businesses. On December 3rd, Santa comes to Veteran’s Square for the annual Christmas Tree Lighting plus photos. And old St. Nick will make another appearance Dec. 18th and 20th at the Carlisle Expo Center for the 3rd Annual Winter Wonderland, featuring food vendors and gift-shopping, galore (plus the event doubles as a fundraiser for the Salvation Army!) 

Looking ahead to the New Year, button up your overcoats and check out the more than 50 sculptures at the 2021 UPMC Ice Art Festival, Feb. 5th thru 7th at various downtown sites; and all fingers are crossed that the annual Taste of Carlisle, Cumberland County’s premier tasting event featuring the best of the best from local restaurants, pubs, caterers, cafes, bakeries, and chocolatiers, will return.

Other fun activities within a short driving distance of downtown: the Carlisle Country Club & Golf Course; the Army Heritage and Education Center (AHEC), featuring a museum and enjoyable walking tour; the Carlisle Sports Emporium, billed as an “all-age family fun zone” with arcade games, go-karts, laser tag, and miniature golf; and, in nearby Boiling Springs, you can see a show, partake of a fine meal, and even stay overnight at the historic Allenberry Resort, which, because of its proximity to the Yellow Breeches, is also a popular choice for trout fishing and fly fishing. In the mood for other outdoor activities? Go hawk-watching at Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch, hiking along the Appalachian Trail or hiking and fishing at LeTort Nature Trail.

The Downtown Carlisle Association can help keep you abreast of upcoming Carlisle events and activities at www.lovecarlisle.com.

Also a hub for education

For anyone contemplating a move to Carlisle, good educational opportunities are, of course, a priority if you have children. As already mentioned, the city is home to Dickinson College (ranked #50 in National Liberal Arts Colleges by U.S. News & World Report), as well as Penn State Dickinson Law (ranked #60 in Best U.S. Law Schools), plus the renowned Army educational institution, U.S. Army War College. For K-12 education, families can take comfort in knowing that the city’s public schools are also well-graded: Carlisle Area School District (in the Top 50% in PA); Big Spring School District (Top 30%); South Middleton School District (Top 25%); and Cumberland Valley School District (Top 20%). The area also has three highly regarded private schools: Carlisle Christian Academy, Saint Patrick School, and the Merakey Autism Center.

All of which brings us to our apt summation: you have to be pretty darn smart to know a good thing when you see it. And Carlisle is a good thing.