By Jeff Woleslagle
On many Pennsylvania ridges you will find visual reminders of days long past. Whenever I encounter one, I can’t help but give it close inspection and ponder what the lives of its occupants might have been like. Sometimes they will be accompanied by a few oddly placed fruit trees-apple and pear varieties mostly. Depending on the season, you may even find flowers blooming like day lilies, that although non-native, probably gave the inhabitants a feeling of home and persist yet in some locations.
Often, these old homesteads have been reduced to their hand-placed, stone foundations, the wood frame that was built upon the rock long since returned to the earth. I’m always curious why a certain location was chosen. Most times there is a spring seep nearby and the builder had sun exposure in the winter in mind. Mountain stone fences that helped hold in livestock or protect a garden are normally close at hand. In one area I hunt, I can’t help but marvel at the stone fence work that still stands true and straight, and at the backbreaking labor it surely represents. With the valuable and fertile land in the valley floors already claimed and occupied, some families tried hard to scrape out a living in poorer soils at higher elevations.
When I was a kid, my mom got my dad a “new-fangled” metal detector as a Christmas gift and we had the perfect spot in mind to try it out. One brisk January day my dad, my brother, and I hiked to an old homestead on Blair County’s Powder Mill Ridge. It was a place we had often taken breaks to compare notes during deer hunting season. At first our efforts at finding anything didn’t yield much- a carelessly discarded pop-top from an old beer or soda can and a piece of something far too rusted to identify. As we fanned out away from the foundation, a distance of about 20 feet, we hit paydirt.
We had stumbled onto the old dumping grounds and we quickly unearthed some old square nails, a few metal buttons, something that resembled a railroad spike, broken pieces of dinnerware, and even an intact glass medicine bottle. We took this trash-turned-treasure home where we decoratively attached it to a board my dad had framed himself, with the simple title, “Remnants from the Homestead on Powder Mill Ridge”, engraved in the center.
“It was a mistake to think of houses, old houses, as being empty. They were filled with memories, with the faded echoes of voices. Drops of tears, drops of blood, the ring of laughter, the edge of tempers that had ebbed and flowed between the walls, into the walls, over the years. Wasn’t it, after all, a kind of life? And there were houses, he knew it, that breathed. They carried in their wood and stone, their brick and mortar a kind of ego that was nearly, very nearly, human.”
― Nora Roberts, Key of Knowledge
“Deep are the foundations of sincerity. Even stone walls have their foundation below the frost.”
–Henry David Thoreau
Forest Fridays is a feature of the DCNR Bureau of Forestry.