One of the early advocates for a Mennonite historical society in Lancaster County was pastor and farmer Ira D. Landis. According to his children, Landis saved all kinds of Mennonite church documents in drawers and cabinets at home. When Christian E. Charles, a deacon at Landisville Mennonite Church, donated his large theological library to Lancaster Mennonite Conference, Landis became secretary of the committee to find a permanent home for the collection and create an archive for additional historical materials.
The first meeting of this new historical society was in May, 1958. In the same year, Lancaster Mennonite Conference founded the Mennonite Information Center as an outreach to Lancaster County tourists. In 1964, the two organizations began sharing space in a new building at Lincoln Highway and Millstream Road. According to historical society accounts, Landis and Charles moved the theological library from storage in Salunga to the new library in Lancaster by pickup, with Landis driving and Charles holding onto box lids in the back.
Although unpaid, Landis worked five and sometimes six days a week at the new historical society. In 1969, the Society purchased the 1719 Hans Herr House in Willow Street. Archaeological excavation and restoration began in 1971, and the house was officially opened to the public in 1974. In 1975, Mennonite Information Center moved into its own building beside the Historical Society. The following year, Landis became the Society’s historian-genealogist, and Carolyn (Charles) Wenger became its first paid director. Landis passed away in 1977.
Under Wenger’s leadership, in 1992, LMHS completed a major building project, including a new reception area, book shop, museum exhibit space, museum storage and archive. Text from Psalm 78, “That future generations might know,” guided the fundraising campaign and was etched in stone on the front of the new addition. Many of the Society’s ongoing commitments—Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage, the annual Bookworm Frolic, the annual Family History Conference—began during Wenger’s tenure.
Wenger resigned as director in 2001 but continued to work for the Society through four subsequent directors: Brinton Rutherford (2001-2006), Beth Graybill (2006-2010), Rolando Santiago (2010-2017), and Jean Kilheffer Hess (2018-present).
Wenger passed away in April 2020. Her commitment to the organization has left an enduring legacy.
In 2010, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society and the 1719 Hans Herr House in Willow Street organized “Lancaster Roots 300,” a county-wide celebration for the 300th anniversary of Lancaster County’s first permanent European settlement.