Settlement at Pine Creek: Part II

Larry Pearce
6/5/01 rev. 5/9/13

Richard & Charles Pearce house c.1900, today North Park Administration HQ

According to the Original Family Narrative (OFN), my Great-great-grandfather Richard Pearce and Great-great-uncle Charles Austen sailed to America in the spring of 1820 to look for land. Early Pennsylvania promotional programs offered wilderness property for free under the “indentured servitude” program and for as little as 20 cents an acre without obligation. [The Tice narrative confirms this while the OFN suggested a price of 50 cents an acre.] William Penn’s “holy experiment” of religious freedom had opened the fertile farmland of Eastern Pennsylvania to the Amish and Mennonites a century earlier [the maternal side of my wife has Amish roots. The Ulster Scots, or Scotch-Irish, were streaming into Western Pennsylvania to establish farms [my mother’s Campbell and Gray roots]. By the end of the Napoleanic Wars (1815) the British economy was suffering a downturn, and even the English were seeking new opportunities in the New World. Richard was a working man, a “miller by trade,” while Charles was an ex-military man and “gentleman farmer,” but apparently neither was prepared for the hard work it took to clear and settle the wilderness in “Indian Country” north of Pittsburgh. While we have no record of their coming to America in 1820 and agreeing to buy the property at Pine Creek from Robert Davis, the attorney, caretaker, and brother-in-law for the owner, WilliamCochran, while on a stagecoach from Philadelphia, we do have written proof of their bringing wives and family and officially transferring deeds the following year [see earlier OFN commentary by Pinkers]. So, what follows here in Part II of our story are some anecdotes of life at the Pearce Mill and on the surrounding Pearce and Austen farmland prior to the takeover the property for a public park in 1927 based on North Park documents, interviews with my father, Ralph Hill Pearce and late Uncle Walter, and personal observations.

Today, Pearce Mill Road runs about 5 miles right through the heart of Allegheny County’s North Park, so one might assume that the family once owned more property than it actually did in the present day park. While today’s park is comprised of over 3000 acres, the Pearces only lost about 200 acres to the rule of “eminent domain” in 1927, which was farmed in equal parcels of 100 acres by Richard’s grandsons Edward and Wesley (my grandfather). Richard’s youngest son Charles (Great-Grandfather) had taken over operations at the mill sometime around 1861 when his father died, the time of the American Civil War, and turned it over to his son Wilbert (pronounced “Wilbur” by my dad), when he died in 1914. One can never be certain of why some sons got property and why others may have received money or other assistance. No doubt, such matters probably had to do with who was still around, helping and showing interest in the family business. But, one thing was pointed out by my dad, “The women never got much.” That’s just the way it was before women’s rights.

Apparently the Austens had sold their property on the west side of Pine Creek prior to the 20th Century. Park maps refer to it as Kummer’s Woods and mention neighbors such as the Walters, Bessys, and McKinneys. We haven’t confirmed yet that one of them bought the land. But, the old wooden grist mill on the east side of the creek was an institution in the Pine Township community before the Pearces arrived. With the restoration of the 40 X 50 foot mill in the early 1820s, area farmers continued to bring corn, oats, wheat, and other grains to the mill in 100 pound burlap bags for grinding and in some cases mixing the grains for animal feed. Some of the processed grain was used for human consumption: rough cereals and flour for baking. Uncle Walter said that trains from Baltimore would deliver oyster shells, potash, and fish blood to the local Wildwood station for the Pearces to grind and mix into fertilizer. He said that the farmers could buy this rich substance for their fields, and the Pearces would sometimes be sent fresh shellfish for their own personal consumption.

To me, the two-story building wasn’t much to look at; several photos and oil paintings still exist. I have to admit being disappointed the first time I saw the old Pearce Mill. It didn’t remind me of the romantic New England or Virginia mills of calendars and movies. It just sat there, along the road, void of the majestic water wheel that probably existed in its earliest days. There just wasn’t time or extra money, I guess, to replace damaged exterior boards and keep everything painted, and that is probably why the county decided to tear the mill down in 1927 rather than restore it. How unfortunate, because this was a working mill with origins before 1820 and the arrival of the Pearces. The OFN states that Richard “repaired the mill and mill-dam and mill-race course.” In other words, at first the great stones were turned by water power from a small pond that was fed by the Pine Creek. When natural gas was discovered on adjoining farmland in the late 1800s, a giant gas engine was installed to run the workings for Western Pa’s role in oil and gas and for the incredible story of the Haymaker family of nearby Murraysville, the gas explosion of 1878, and fire that lasted 1 ½ years. The North Park area boasted of 150 oil and gas wells in 1916]. Incidentally, the adjacent homes of Great-grandfather Charles and wife Permelia and Great Uncles Wilbert and wife Edith and Edward and wife Maud were heated with a centralized natural gas furnace then too. The mill pond was then apparently filled in as it was no longer needed. Unfortunately, at least one youngster, had drowned in the pond. [We believe that it was 3-year old Bertha Susan, Charles’ third child (1868). But it could have been 2-year old Pearl, Edward’s oldest (1898). They are both buried at the Cross Roads Cemetery.]

But, there were other dangers around the noisy and dusty mill. My father Ralph laughed as he told about his brothers, cousins, and him getting too close to the large bags of grain and the open chutes and bins. The mill’s hired man, Dave Irwin, would grab them, put them over his knee, and with a long feed bag sewing needle, fasten a piece of heavy thread through the back of their britches. When the kids got home, and the parents saw this, they knew that the youngsters had been too close to the mill works. Needless to say, the children were further disciplined.

The milling operation took several men. The whole grain was emptied into bins, which fed the continuously spinning, massive horizontal stone grinding wheels. The resulting meal was pushed out through grooves and into empty bags on the bottom floor, where they could be loaded onto wagons for transport. It’s ironic that the English surname “Miller” is somewhat rare, as compared to the original German “Mueller,” because the British were always suspicious of these workmen, thinking that they would be cheated (Bryson 203). In other words, the farmer usually thought that he had more coming to him after the grinding process was complete. He thought the miller was holding back some of the product, when in actuality the grinding process had greatly reduced the volume of the grain. A full 100 pound bag of corn might grind up to be only ¾ of a bag, but it still weighed 100 pounds. The bags had to be carefully weighed and certified. This was generally a cash business, although most farmers would ask for credit until they could raise cash by selling milk, meat, or meal on the market at some time in the future. Pearces probably took some product in exchange for services, but they were very careful, a testament to the 106 years they were in business. Ralph Pearce remembers that one man was allowed to work part time at the mill to pay off a debt.

Grain was usually ground only as the farmers needed it for several reasons. First, the whole grain could further dry naturally over the winter months and not spoil. Secondly, farmers could space out their paying to have the grain ground. An exception was in the late fall when the grain, especially corn, was harvested. This was a staple for all livestock: cattle, horses, hogs, sheep, and chickens. Farmers were anxious to get it ground and into storage before bad weather when the animals were in the barn and transportation was a little more difficult. Also, as a cash crop, the grain converted to dollars provided repayment to the banks and individuals who had provided the spring seed money. So then, my Grandfather Wesley, whose main job was running the farm next to the mill, would work the second shift at the mill, 4 p.m. to midnight, during this busy time in the fall. After a quick night’s sleep, Wesley was up before dawn to milk his 8 – 10 cows, feed the chickens, and collect the eggs for the egg route in Allegheny City, now known as Pittsburgh’s North Side. My Grandmother Bessie usually helped there. She also sold vegetables in season from their enormous garden next to the house. Dad said that she and her boys would also help in the fields, gathering hay or potatoes. Grandfather took the 4 or 5 jugs of milk each day to the streetcar stop about 6 miles away for transport to the dairy in Pittsburgh. That was done in the family Ford touring car, not by tractor (they didn’t own one) or wagon. As you can see, farming and milling was a fulltime, family affair.

Farming was a seven day-a-week job. Sunday was the only day “out of the ordinary.” After milking, the families would go to church at Salem Methodist [more in an upcoming article], and then afterwards visit relatives like the Neelys (Wesley’s sister Adda) or they would visit them. Sometimes they’d share dinner or a picnic. Wesley and Bessie’s boys were my Uncles Walter (1911-97), Howard (1914-90), Dale (1918-81), and my father Ralph (1917 -2002)[more details about their lives in “Sons of Wesley” series]. High schools were scarce in the early part of the 20th century, so Uncle Walt went to work after the eighth grade, first for the county, building fences for the deer and buffalo that were a part of the new North Park, and then in the nearby Wildwood Coal Mines. My dad and Uncle Dale attended the Walters one-room schoolhouse for several years atop the hill across Pine Creek. One teacher attended eight grades and about 25 children in those days. School started at 9:00, probably after the morning chores were done. They each brought lunch, and in wintertime, a sled. At noon, after gulping a sandwich, they would slide down the hill, a distance of almost a mile. The ones who could negotiate the sharp curve at the halfway point could make it to the Pine Creek bridge. The rest flew up over the bank and into a pile of brush or maybe a tree. When I asked my dad about cars on the road, he said, “There weren’t many cars to worry about in those days.” Imagine sledriding down a main road today!

When asked to recall other memories from that one-room schoolhouse, Dad cited the time a girl in the first grade wet her pants, and the teacher made him get a rag and wipe it up. I asked him why he had to do it. Laughing modestly, he replied, “Well, somebody had to do it, I guess.”

The younger children were dismissed from school at 3:00, while the older ones were sent home at 4:00. My dad’s favorite subject was arithmetic, and he recalls that books were rather scarce in those days. He and brother Dale attended the newer Ingomar School in McCandless Township for several years before moving to Mars in 1927. That meant a ride in a community touring car in the time before school busses: 2 in the front seat next to the driver, 3 in the raised middle seat, and 3 in the back seat. A man named McKinna was the driver. The Walters School was closed around 1928. Two of the three graduates that year were my relatives: Edna Grubbs Keil (still living and remarried at time of this article’s first draft) and Joseph Moon. Keil related in a story for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “I always said when I graduated from eighth grade they couldn’t keep the school open.” Fire destroyed the building in 1938 and three years later the Park built “The Schoolhouse Shelter,” which is still used today and was the scene of many Pearce reunions over the years.
Across the road from the Walters School site stands St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran church, built in 1854 on land also donated by the Walters family, who, in 1849, after the Pearces and Austens, also bought some of William Cochran’s original 400 acres patented with the Commonwealth in 1809. The hill where the school stood and where the church stands has had some interesting names. Cochran named it “Delight,” probably because of the wonderful view of the Pine Creek Valley. Sometime later it was called “Chocolate Drop Hill” because of its shape similar to a Hershey’s Kiss. Today it is “Flagstaff Hill” because of the American flag that waves proudly from the highest point in the park. How we kids used to love to climb that hill during Pearce reunions for the view, the breeze, and the absence of adults.

Apparently, the farm and mill properties had one of the first telephones in the area. Dad said that his mother and father “insisted upon it,” probably because of the remoteness of the Pearce homes and businesses. Those primitive connections were driven by direct current batteries, independent of electric lines. Subscribers, many on the same “party” line, were notified to “pick up” when the operator turned a small generator crank activating a bell in the customer’s home with a certain number of rings. Anyone down the line could listen in on a conversation. Ironically, Ralph Pearce spent 17 years with the North Pittsburgh Telephone Company later in his life installing phones, climbing poles, and splicing cables, a job so important in this region so vital to the American war effort that it exempted him from military service. Ralph doesn’t, however, remember electricity at the Pine Creek property before they moved to Mars. He claims that electrical power didn’t make its way north of the city until the 1930s.

My father’s father, Wesley, was in his 40s when Dad was born, and Ralph never knew his 80-year old grandparents, Charles and Permelia. They had died just three days apart in 1914 at the onset of World War I. Charles’ parents had each died during the American Civil War, 50 years earlier. With those great age differences and so many aunts, uncles, and cousins moving all over the country, we are fortunate to have any accurate recollections of this bygone era. My wife and I have been to Switzerland several times where we studied the small farms, the birthplace of her ancestors, the Amish, and we can only imagine what the Pine Creek family settlement must have been like before 1927. Switzerland, the world’s oldest democracy, unlike America, has records in her cantons (county/states) dating back 700 years. In many parts of Switzerland today the farms are only a few acres and a few cows. Much of the cutting and raking of hay and grain are still done by hand because the land is so steep, and entire families help with the work. Similarly, at Pine Creek, except for the novel touring cars with lanterns-for-headlights, and the natural gas engine that powered the mill, all the farm work at Pine Creek was done either by hand or primitive, horse-drawn machinery. Where I live, in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, the Amish are still a thriving community, getting the most out of every acre of land by primitive means. I believe that my wife’s thriftiness has been passed down to her by, among others, her Amish grandmother. If I hadn’t seen how the Swiss and the Amish survive and prosper with so little, I wouldn’t believe that the Pearces and Austens and all the other early settlers on the advancing American frontier could have lived. The question comes to mind, “Are we really that much better off today with our corporate farms and industrialized society?” What would it be like to return to those more simple times like the ones in which our ancestors lived at Pine Creek?

The final installment of this series [Part III] will detail the displacement of the Pearce family from Pine Creek in 1927 as Allegheny County constructed North Park, known then as “The People’s Country Club.” We’ll follow Grandfather Wesley and his family to a new farm near Mars, Pennsylvania, and return to the Park for family reunions and memories of days gone by.

Selected Works Cited

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English & How it Got That Way. New York: Avon Books, 1991.

County of Allegheny, PA. “Welcome to North Park.” Dept. of Parks, Recreation, & Conservation, 1953.

Oliver, Judith. “A Delightful History.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 26 January, 1997: VN

Pearce, Ralph H. Personal Interview. April 7, 2001.

Return to PART I

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