6/10/01 rev. 5/9/13
In 1927, the County of Allegheny, Pennsylvania, served official notice to at least a dozen families on the proposed site of North Park that they would have to give up their homes and their work, pack their belongings, and move. According to my father, Ralph Hill Pearce (1917-2002), the most lasting impression of the takeover of the Pearce Mill and farm along Pine Creek by the County, was that “It made a complete change in the community.” Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “eminent domain” as, “The right of a government to take, or to authorize the taking of, private property for public use, just compensation being given to the owner.” But, what is “just compensation” to families who have lived and worked the land for over a century in the same place? Dad recalls that his father Wesley was paid $10,000 for the farm next to the mill at Pine Creek. Wesley and wife Bessie had four boys, Walter (16), Howard (13), Ralph (10), and Dale (9). They had located a farm for sale about 10 miles north in Butler County near the little railroad station and farming community of Mars. The problem was that the owners of that farm were asking about $3,000 more for the new property than the County was paying for the old. Fortunately, Wesley’s younger brother Wilbert, who had run the mill after their father Charles died in 1914 and was also compensated by the County, was willing to lend Wesley the money to make up the difference for the new property. Dad believes that his father worked at least a year doing odds and ends for the Park until things were ready at the new farm. He recalls “going with him one day taking machinery out from North Park with horse and wagon . . . taking stuff out there and storing it until we moved out there in March or April” (probably after the weather improved enough for plowing). Great Uncle Wilbert served as a patrolman on horseback overseeing the park grounds until he and Aunt Edith moved to Florida. Dad remembers that they would return once a year to collect interest on the farm loan and always brought fresh oranges for everyone.
Both Great Uncle Wilbert’s house and the adjacent Pearce family dwelling where Grandfather Wesley lived are still standing in North Park. We believe that the grand brick family dwelling, which serves today as the Park’s administration building, was probably built after Richard and Susan Pearce’s original wooden house had outlived its usefulness in the mid-1800s. Dad recalls several remodeling projects over the years. He was born in that house along Pearce Mill Road, except that when he lived there, the road ran below the house and above the mill. The Park moved the road because just upstream from the house they constructed a small lake, 17 acres, which today is known for its ducks and geese and a wooden bridge leading to Marshall Island. It was on this bridge that Ralph proposed to my mother Ruth in 1938. He loves to say that, “If she hadn’t said ‘yes,’ I would have dropped the ring through the boards and into the water.” Fortunately, she did say, Yes.” I also proposed to my wife Susan on that same bridge one spring evening in 1970. My wife also said, “Yes,” but in more of a hurry because a patrolman stopped to ask us to leave because the park was closed for the night.
North Park, now 3,010 acres, is filled with over 120 picnic groves and shelters. Some have names reminiscent of our family and facilities prior to eminent domain such as “Pearce,” overlooking the boathouse; “Mill,” just behind the administration building; and “Moon,” up a hollow where my grandmother Bessie Pearce’s grandparents lived. You’ll find animal names like “Buffalo” and “Deer Browse” and names of Pearce’s neighbors such as “Beveridge,” “Peebles,” “Connolly,” “Frazer,” “Miller,” and “Pigeon.” These family names are also inscribed on the tombstones at nearby Cross Roads and Salem Cemeteries. In addition, North Park has playgrounds, baseball, softball, football and soccer fields, tennis and basketball courts, and ice skating rink, horse show arena, dance hall, lodge and cabin, walking, biking, and horseback riding trails, nature center and 18-hole golf course. A larger lake, just south of the family homestead, covers 75 acres along Pearce Mill Road and has 4 ½ miles of wooded shoreline. It is stocked with a half-dozen species of fresh water fish. A magnificent stone boathouse, built in 1937 and reminiscent of a classic Ivy League structure, offers all sorts of human-powered watercraft for rent. The swimming pool, constructed in 1936 and once considered the largest in the world, is 350 X 164 feet (50 meters). It holds over 2.2 million gallons of water [rather large considering that mine holds 23,000 gallons] and requires 14 tons of chlorine each season. The kiddie pool is only 63 X 110 [compared to my 18 X 36] feet. I remember the excitement of standing under the giant fountain in the children’s pool and the enormity of the “big people’s pool.” My sister Ellen and I would go swimming with my brothers, Paul and Carl, paying just 50 cents to get in. The locker key was on an elastic band, which fit around wrist or ankle. But, before admission to the pool area, which always played the latest songs on the radio, we had to traverse the cold showers yet look like we were wet and clean for the guard stationed at the door. Often, on Pearce Reunion day, we would swim all afternoon with our cousins and show up back at the pavilion half-starved, just in time for supper!
Today as many as 200,000 people can be found at one of the major public parks to the north or south of Pittsburgh on a weekend. Those numbers equal nearly half of the population of the city itself. But, what was the motivation to invest in this combination of wilderness and farmland along Pine Creek, less than 15 miles from downtown Pittsburgh? According to R. Jay Gangewere of Carnegie Magazine, “In the 1920’s a tide of industrialization swept the Greater Pittsburgh area, and rapid urbanization began to show itself in the rural communities surrounding the business districts of Allegheny County.” Some opposition to county commissioner Edward V. Babcock’s plan to build two “people’s country clubs” was evident, so says a Park publication, “Parks – A Look to Past and Future”:
Many workers were still spending up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, in the mill with one Sunday off each month. When was there any time for recreation? Babcock’s persistence led him to acquire with his own money the nucleus lands that are now North and South Parks. Later the County acquired these lands at cost.
The Department of Parks was organized on April 14, 1927, and North Park was dedicated and opened to the public on June 18 of that same year. Gangewere reminds us that “the farmlands destined to become parks were not the woodlands and picnic groves we see today. They had to be physically created. Native trees were used: the maples, the oaks, the beeches, mixed with dogwoods, cherry trees, and pear trees to create color in the springtime, and fragrances.” Planner and landscaper Paul Riis, who helped develop Yellowstone and other national parks, was contracted for the controversial sum of $7,200 per year. Commissioner Babcock’s slogan of “The People’s Country Club” sought to make available the same recreation to common folk that the wealthier class had at private clubs: golf, tennis, swimming, and picnicking.
Babcock, a wealthy industrialist and timberman, owned a 15,000 acre estate in nearby Somerset County, most of which today has been donated as a state park. I live close to this park. Commissioner Babcock wanted the same “big game” animals at North Park as he had in Somerset County: deer, buffalo, and even moose. Well, the moose never materialized and in the 1940s the North Park Buffalo were sent to South Park, while descendants of the original 25 whitetail deer roam freely today. But, Babcock was the consummate politician, well-known for serving buffalo meat at his 600-acre summer home, Vosemary Farm in Pine Township in the 1920s. One neighbor, Alice Martsolf Carlson, remembered that it was bar-b-qued outdoors and served under a big tent with the University of Pittsburgh band playing in the background. A 1930 report on the state of the park said that the purpose of such wildlife [the animals!] was:
To add charm and sincere spirit to the parks, and to provide the opportunity of coming in more immediate contact with wildlife, because many large city dwellers have but a book knowledge of even domestic animals. (paraphrased in Oliver)
Originally, North and South Parks bought 36 buffalo, not from Babcock’s herd but from Gen. Harry C. Trexler’s farm in Schnecksville, near Allentown. The County paid $150 each for 30 animals, and the additional half-dozen were donated. North Park received the following: 4 large bulls, 3 medium-sized bulls, 3 young males, 3 mature cows, 3 medium-sized cows, and 2 yearlings. The ride from Lehigh County in early December 1927 took 15 trucks and two days. The caravan included reporters, county workers and officials, and a gasoline tanker to refuel the vehicles en route.
The fencing for the animals ran along Lake Shore Drive and Walter Road below Flagstaff Hill and cost about $8,500. The Cyclone Fence Company paid my late Uncle Walter $7 a day to install the six-foot high barrier. In a story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he said, “I hauled all the concrete for the steel posts on a one-horse sled.” He described the day the animals arrived at the park: “They came in big crates and [the park officials] had a lot of guards around in case the buffalo got rowdy.”
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the whole project was that the County brought in three families of American Indians from the Blackfeet reservation in Browning, Montana, to care for the buffalo. A family of Sioux Indians lived in South Park. The Native Americans attracted as much attention as the animals, but according to spokespersons for tribal councils and Indian cultural centers, Indians were often used like “circus attractions” in those days. Their titles were usually not authentic: Chief Big Beaver and wife Princess Lone Star, Chief Two Eagle and wife Princess Kouoa, Chief Eagle Ribs, and Joe Black Man. Native Americans don’t have princesses, and one must earn the title of “chief.” But, that’s the way European Americans of the day labeled persons of a different, exotic culture. That understanding emanated from the media and movies. Joyce Spoonhunter, of the Blackfeet Tribal Council in Montana, told PPG writer Judith Oliver that the last names of those early North Park Indians still exist on the reservation today, but that because of the size of it (1.5 million acres – bigger than the state of Delaware) descendants could not be located for comment. Apparently, all of the Indians had returned to their western homes within three years. Uncle Walt told Oliver that he “talked to them now and again.” Baird Hershey worked for the Park in the late 20s and recalled that Big Beaver “was a tall man over 6 feet, and he wore a buffalo coat and a western slouch hat.” He especially remembered how Lone Star could ride a horse even though “she was a short, heavy woman.” The couple appeared at the park’s riding stable one day and asked to borrow a horse. According to Hershey, “Big Beaver said just put a bridle on the horse and up she flipped, and she went flying out across the hills. It was remarkable how she could stick on that horse.”
Reichhold O’Brien, of McCandless, told Oliver that these people scared her: “When we were kids, we were afraid of the Indians. We’d stay away. Our parents said, ‘Now you watch out for them,’ and history told us that too.” School textbooks published as late as the 1920s described Indians as “savages,” and Native Americans weren’t granted citizenship until 1924. O’Brien reminded us that “Things were different then.” The Blackfeet didn’t attend church nor did the children go to the Walters School, and according to Pine resident Elsie Kidd Walter, “They might have felt they could not associate much.” The Indians had been accused of poaching, and some alcohol abuse was reported. What shocks us today is that the 1931 park report said, “It is, of course, to be expected that the red man sooner or later falls into the irresponsible ways of his people.”
The Animals and their caretakers had done what the commissioners had hoped they would do: draw people to the parks in increasing numbers (115 activity permits were recorded in 1927 compared to 1,299 in 1931). But while the deer population doubled every few years, North Park’s buffalo herd was shrinking, going from the original 18 in 1927 to only 10 in 1933. The official park report blamed the decrease on “Conflict among the older buffalo.” By 1931 some of the bulls were castrated. The report read: “The bachelors now have taken to themselves and, hence, the herd life is much more peaceful.” Aggression was just one of the problems with the herd at North Park. Often the bison would remain out of public view for days, and providing sufficient food became difficult. A wooden observation tower constructed on Flagstaff Hill helped, but eventually segregation fences were built to keep the animals within view. That made the man-provided hay even more necessary. In addition, 16 work and saddle horses were kept at North Park. Tons of hay had to be cut and stored. Corn and oats was also grown.
After the buffalo were relocated to South Park during World War II, a smaller deer pen was built along Pearce Mill Road. Vandals cut a hole in it in 1991, so the seven remaining deer were released with the idea of recapturing them once the fence was repaired. But, after the fence was fixed, the Pennsylvania Game Commission informed the Park that, because these deer had mingled with deer outside the fence, they were considered “wild animals,” and to confine them would be illegal. The alternative to buy deer from a licensed propagator was vetoed. In 1996 the fence was moved to the lodge area to separate two softball fields. Today, deer are so plentiful that one can see them grazing in all parts of the Park at anytime of the day or night.
In future articles we’ll provide additional detail on the move to Mars by the Wesley Pearce family. As the boys grew, some stayed with their families on the new farm while others headed off to war or jobs away from the homestead. But, beginning in 1926 and each year lasting through 1981, the Pearce family would convene at or near North Park for an annual reunion, a tradition begun a century earlier with the Austen family. Along with good home-cooked food and lots of recreational activities, the Pearces and their in-laws would share memories of the Pearce Mill and farm and all the changes wrought by “eminent domain.”
Selected Work Cited
Oliver, Judith. “Buffalo once had a home to roam in North Park.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 9 March, 1997: VN.
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