Life on the Campbell Farm (1850-present)

Larry Pearce

Willis Errol Campbell (1912-1995) and Blanche Campbell Wick (1910-1986) were the children of George Crawford and Lillian Datt Campbell [see “Descendants of Thomas and Mary Crawford Campbell”], through Crawford (1861-1930), the son of second generation American, James Crawford Campbell (1832-1910) and his first wife Mary Borland. Writer Frances C. Hardie recorded many hours of interviews with Willis and Blanche in preparation for her book, Fox Chapel: A History of an Area and Its People. Mrs. Hardie granted permission to a committee of Campbell cousins to use excerpts of her book in compiling “The History and Genealogy of the Descendants from Thomas Campbell” for a 1996 family reunion in Cranberry, PA. A second celebration was held in Butler in 1998. We gratefully cite her work in this article about our family farming tradition. We’ll share another tidbit about one of our Campbells, whom we’ll call “The Tomato King,” and thank Rose Norton Campbell. Her writing is also included in the reunion book in what she calls “A Glimpse into the Life of William Jennings Campbell.” A fourth generation American, this William was the son of William Oliver through the second marriage of James Crawford Campbell, the eldest son of patriarch Thomas. Because James Crawford Campbell was the brother of my Great-great grandfather Thomas Anderson Campbell (1837-1925), I just call all of his male descendants “uncles.”

Our Crawfords and Campbells, both Scotch-Irish families who settled the highlands northeast of Pittsburgh in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, intermarried several times [see “Introduction to the American Descendants of Thomas and Mary Crawford Campbell”]. Their farms were not far apart and their experiences were common to all who lived off the land from the mid 1800’s to just before the Second World War. Before that time, life on the Western Pennsylvania frontier could be considered primitive. [One of the best discussions of that time is found in Jack Larkin’s book, The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790-1840, Harper & Row, 1988.] After 1930 the Great Depression took a devastating hold on the American farmer and with our country’s preparation for and participation in World War II after 1941, many area men found better paying work in the nearby Pittsburgh steel mills or an opportunity to serve their country overseas by joining the military. But, what was life like a century and a half ago in the hills and valleys of Western Pennsylvania? Let’s listen to Errol and Blanche as they recall the stories of their ancestors growing up on the farm. What follows is in the order it is listed in the reunion publication mentioned above:

• Kids were sent to bed, then mother cleaned, baked and darned socks at night.
• Farmers raised cattle, chickens, and sometimes pigs. The crops were oats, wheat, corn, and alfalfa hay for feeding the cattle in the winter. Hired hands who helped with farm labor weren’t very reliable.
• Besides selling farm products, farmers often also owned oil wells, which were maintained by the oil companies. The area was studded with oil wells in the early part of the 20th century. Natural gas from the wells heated greenhouses [for an idea of gas and oil’s importance in the local economy see “E-Gen: Pearce” and “Settlement at Pine Creek: Part II”].
• Some farmers also worked in the Etna steel mill, an hour walk each way.
• Muddy roads were a problem, especially for school kids. The roads were covered with slag, but it sank in the springtime, allowing the mud to surface. We usually carried extra shoes. Some farmers used a team of horses to dig shale and put on the roads to work off their taxes. Much of the low land crossed by present day roads are filled with local stone placed there over the years by early farmers. Before paved roads, logs or boards were laid side by side, thus some local thoroughfares like Rt. 8 were once called “plank roads.” Before bridges, creeks and rivers were simply crossed at shallow places, thus some of our town names end with “ford.”
• Grandad Crawford Campbell said that James Crawford and other men had to go back to the fort each night for safety [from Indians] when they were building their cabins. When the houses were finished, the women and children came out.
• Blanche remembered that when she was little (before 1920) coal was used in the furnace to heat water. Oil and acetylene lamps were used for light.
• Before electricity and refrigeration, food was smoked, dried, canned, or stored in a springhouse or cold cellar dug out under a porch or the cellar floor.
• In the summer the ice man peddled blocks of ice in 50 or 100 pound chunks door to door. The kitchen ice box held the frozen block in a chest with a removable metal box underneath to catch the water as the ice melted. The ice man came once or twice a week and put the ice in the ice chest himself.
• To cool the milk at the Campbell Dairy they flooded a pond on Squaw Run Road, just south of Old Mill Road. In the early spring they cut large chunks of ice, packed them in sawdust, and stored them in an ice house to preserve them for summer use (Hardie 35).
• The area along Old Mill Road was still rural in the 1920’s. Blanche sometime helped her brother Willis set traps for weasels, kit fox, muskrats, and an occasional mink. The skins were sold to a leather dealer, but sometimes they kept some to make their own fur and leather goods.
• They ate rabbits, squirrels, and pheasants, which had been imported from China in the early 1900’s. There were few deer in those days because deer like brush and woods to forage and hide. Their area had been cleared for farming.
• On both sides of the Campbell lineage [James Crawford and Thomas Anderson] a mother or an aunt would promise a young boy a special present at the age of 21 if he had not smoked cigarettes. Cliff [my grandmother’s brother – see “Memories of my Great Uncles”] received a gold watch from his aunt Sarah Craig. On the other side of the Campbells, a buggy horse was the reward.

William Oliver Campbell (1868-1939) owned the farm at 250 Old Mill Road in what is now the affluent northern suburb of Pittsburgh known as Fox Chapel. According to his granddaughter-in-law, Rose Norton Campbell, William and his son William Jennings (b.1904) would start 18,000 to 20,000 tomato plants in the spring of each year. When the ground reached just the right temperature, they placed them in the ground with a bed of straw around each plant to keep the tomatoes clean as they developed. In the late summer and early fall, before the first frost, the ripe red fruit was carefully picked, placed into baskets, and delivered across the Allegheny River to the H.J. Heinz plant to be made into their world-famous ketchup and other tomato products. She says that her Granddad William Oliver became known as “The Tomato King” of Allegheny County because of the quantity and quality of his produce.

As an aside, Rose records that neither William Jennings nor his brother, Lawrence, chose to keep their family farm going and it was sold after the death of their mother. William worked for General Motors, but became known for his green thumb with many varieties of roses in the back yard and some 500 African violets in a specially constructed area inside his home. The younger William’s son, Dr. William Jennings, Jr., went into the ministry, responsible as the chaplain for four nursing homes and two retirement complexes. Rose and Bill’s children are also serving in the ministry and mission fields. You could say that this “branch” of the family, if they weren’t growing tomatoes or flowers, were nurturing human fruit.

Our thanks to Mrs. Hardie for her painstaking work in recording, transcribing, and editing her conversations with the Campbell siblings so that future generations may enjoy and be enlightened by them. Also, thanks to Rose Norton Campbell and all the cousins who contributed to the creation of the reunion book. Their voices will be heard long after they are gone, and we’ll remember the contributions of our Campbell farmers to the growth of the Pittsburgh area, called “The Gateway to the American West” by historians.

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