Donald Herbert Berkebile was an 18th Century man living in the 21st Century world. A genuine Renaissance man defined as a man who has broad intellectual interests and accomplished in areas of both the arts and the sciences. Anyone who knew him well were constantly astonished by his skills and accomplishments. Watching him fashion a piece of hardware for a restoration with his forge and anvil was watching an artist at work in his element. His restorations not only appear at the Smithsonian Institute, but in locations around the country and the world. The depth of his knowledge of history was not one full of dry facts. He lived immersed in history and would speak of it in terms he not only felt, but loved and deeply understood.
He was an avid story teller who spun tales of the past laced with humor, and attention to detail that would challenge any encyclopedia for facts. He could explain each artifact in his collection, be it guns, coins, or livery that would include the reason he purchased or acquired it, where it came from, its historical significance, how it was used, who owned it, and for extra measure add an amusing anecdote which might include the foibles or follies of an historic figure or a close or distant ancestor. Frequently when describing historic events or figures he added a little something spicy or shocking that would highlight the more personal/human side of his subject.
When he selected a retreat from his work at the Smithsonian, he chose a log house built in 1840. His property was located along a small stream in one location and the house was located elsewhere. So he took it apart piece by piece, labeled each one and meticulously reassembled it to its original glory where he wanted it.
Cannons were shot over the creek on the 4th of July, there was an upright player piano with about 100 rolls of music, a blazing forge, the sounds of metal being hammered on an anvil, and various Conestoga wagons, carts and stage coaches in different stages of repair upon which could be imagined the hot, dusty travels of our forefathers. Spending many summer days as a child at the “cabin” are happy memories, the value of which were never truly understood until years later.
Time stood still for Don, listening to him could encompass a day in the blink of an eye and leave you wanting for more. Being with him was not only a joy and a pleasure, but an education as well. In his passing the world lost a great man who contributed much to the world around him and delighted his fellow travelers along the way.
A life such as his was far from ordinary and by example he demonstrated the riches of our collective past. Fiercely independent and fully engaged in life, Don was viciously taken from us far too soon.
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Photo: Don enjoying a peaceful moment on the porch of his summer kitchen.
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