The First Home in Richland
Around the year 1800, John Crawford built a log cabin here in Richland Township, which was then called Pine Township. John owned 403 acres, or 88 perches, of ground, and his homestead was the first human habitation for miles around. It was not elaborate. The logs were notched, hoisted to form walls and the cracks stuffed with mud, stones, and sticks. John Crawford’s bed was crude, a platform built on forked sticks rammed into the dirt floor and covered with oak leaves and cattails. A bearskin blanket provided warmth at night.
Current day Bakerstown sits on what was originally two lots of “Depreciation Lands” in Cunningham’s District 4. Each lot was 206 acres, and Main Street ran north and south between them. The lots, originally surveyed in 1783, had several owners, none of which were residents, before Thomas Baker, a Nova Scotian, bought them in 1810. Baker laid out the crossroads community, on Lot #10 of which, in 1820, William Waddle, a Scot, built a tavern at the crossroads of Packsaddle Trail (now Bakerstown Road) and the Venango Trail (now Route 8). The tavern was operated by William, by his son-in-law James Harbison, and then by his son John S. Waddle, who also operated Bakerstown’s first slaughterhouse and butcher shop.
Bakerstown became sophisticated by 1850 –it had street names! A post in Virgin Alley marked one corner of a five-acre lot which sold for $400.00 by John Waddle to John and Mary Ann Stirling in 1858. In addition to a tavern , John Waddle operated a distillery, and was among the community’s most respected citizens. Traditionally, the tavern keeper was always a man of high local prestige.
Waddle’s son-in-law, James Harbison, came to Bakerstown in 1824 and paid $25.00 to James Heginbotham for his 20-acre lot . It was located north of the Baker property. Harbison’s first home was a log building, called the corn crib, which was later remodeled into Wright’s livery stable. He built his place in 1831, three walls of logs with the front covered by a homespun blanket during the day. At night he slept under the blanket. This house was located between the Allen residence and the Civic Clubhouse. James Jones and his brother, Dr. Israel Jones, were important men when Harbison moved into the community. James Jones was postmaster, schoolteacher, tavern keeper, store proprietor, brick maker and school director.
Church services were held in the first schoolhouse for several years, but after some argument about who should fill the coal box, Dr. Israel Jones organized and built the Methodist Church. Dwight Thompson (according to the memoirs of James Harbison), bought some 400 acres from Ned Baker and Joe Britton and sold them to William Brickle, father of Sadie McMorran, for $8,000. James Allison superintended the building of the Brickle home. This building, now the Hull House, became an underground station for runaway slaves.
The early history of Gibsonia is interwoven with the history of the Gibson family. About the time of the Civil War, Charles Gibson, Jr., built the first steam flour mill west of the Alleghenies on Grubbs Road.
His granddaughter, Nancy Gibson James, recalls hearing her uncle tell of the farmers riding to the mill with sacks of grain across the saddles. The Gibson family homestead was built by her grandfather, Charles Gibson, Jr., in 1839. Just below the home, near the railroad crossing, still remains the foundation of Charles Gibson’s general store. This building, destroyed by fire in 1908, was also the first Post Office in Gibsonia. Also, for about ten years before it burned, it was in use as a mission of the Christian & Missionary Alliance Church.
The B&O Railroad
Gibsonia’s economic importance comes from its location on the B&O Railroad, and the grade in this section is reputed to be one of the steepest in the east. This right of way was originally granted to the Pittsburgh, New Castle, and Lake Erie Railroad, with a single narrow gauge track laid in 1870. This line ran from the City of Allegheny to New Castle, with connections there to the West.
Its first president was Charles Gibson, Jr., a man whose name appears in connection with so many phases of the early history of Richland Township. About 1880, the name of the railroad was changed to the Pittsburgh and Western. Double track, standard gauge replaced the narrower single track, stations were built along the line, and telegraph operators were on duty 24 hours a day.
The single track tunnel at Bakerstown station was eliminated when a cut was put through. Incidentally, this cut is the top of the grade that begins in Etna Borough. For many years this Railroad was the main contact Richland Township had with the outside world. Fourteen passenger trains a day testified to its importance. In 1920, the Pittsburgh and Western Railroad was absorbed into the Baltimore and Ohio system, and the southern terminus was shifted to the B&O station in Pittsburgh. The advent of the Short Line and improved highways gradually reduced passenger traffic, but it is still the main B&O line from Pittsburgh to Buffalo today.
The Butler Shortline Railroad
An important meeting was held in the office of Nathan Box, clerk and constable, on February 1, 1905. Charles Gibson, Jr., appeared before Commissioners Ira Crawford and Ross Patton, and requested a right-of-way through the Township for a new electric railway. Gibson, the Vice President of the Pittsburgh and Butler Street Railway Co., was granted the request.
The Butler Shortline was to provide transportation for the community for the next two decades. Beginning in 1907, big green interurban streetcars passed through every day at hourly intervals and more often during the morning and evening rush periods. The cars had upholstered seats, restrooms, a smoking compartment, and a coal stove to keep the travelers warm in winter. All kinds of service were provided by the Shortline. At 4:30 A.M. a special car picked up milk for the city. There was another for freight. The local farmers used the line to ship their produce to the Allegheny Market, and the company built special freight platforms at several of the regular stations.
Mrs. Lisinan, mother of Minnie Datt and Mary Wikert, took many quarts of berries into the market house for her regular customers. Valencia, State Road, Bakerstown Station, St. Barnabas, McKelvey’s, Dickey’s, Austin’s, Girty’s, Hardies, and Sample Roads were all scheduled stops for the Shortline.
The route can still be seen today as it winds through the community beside Route 8, along Ewalt Road, paralleling Meridian Road and crossing near St. Barnabas Home. Stops were provided with passenger waiting rooms, octagonal buildings with round peaked roofs. One was moved intact and is now located beside Neville’s store.
The fare from Gibsonia to Etna was 32 cents and a nickel more to travel into Pittsburgh. If the Shortline passed through your property, however, you received a pass and traveled free. But the fares were far too low — the company lost money. Management economized on maintenance and trolleys began to jump the tracks. The Pittsburgh-Butler Flyer wrecked at West Hoffman, killing one of the firm’s first conductors, James McMcekin. With shoddy upkeep, frequent accidents, lawsuits, and automobile competition, the Shortline fell into financial trouble. Management was reorganized, but service was still on a haphazard schedule. The Shortline finally went bankrupt in 1932, leaving the Richland community only with automotive and railroad transportation.
The Old Plank Road
There were three traffic thoroughfares between Pittsburgh and the north in the early days: the Perrysville Road (Route 19), by river to Freeport and overland to Butler, and the present Route 8. All followed Indian traces, meandering around hills and through valleys, and no one knows how many hundred years passed before a wheel turned on any of these roads.
With the growing commercial importance of Butler in the mid l9th Century, Route 8 became more popular and demand grew for its improvement. Successive generations of planners have straightened and widened the road, and today dim remnants of the former trails are becoming less and less evident.
Before it became the Butler Turnpike, travel was hazardous on horse or foot. There were no bridges, and the Connoquenessing or Thorn Creek would flush with spring floods. A gory landmark on the long journey was Girty’s Knob, a high ridge above Gibsonia. Girty was a name that spelled terror. Passing this promontory, travelers held their flintlocks ready for the savages that might spring on them. Simon Girty, a renegade, camped there with his red marauders. When travelers rode through, they watched their horses’ nostrils, because the horses could detect the smell of an Indian. If they got by the Knob, they breathed a prayer of thanksgiving. Gardeners still spade up an occasional arrowhead, a mute testimony of a sneak attack. Old timers recall when misbehaving as children, they were warned: “the Girtys will get you if you don’t watch out.”
In the first year of its operation, 1856, Plank Road tolls amounted to $9,080.64. The cost of travel was 2c a mile for one horse and 3 1/2c for a team except on Sundays when churchgoers were allowed to travel free. In 1918, a two lane macadamized highway was completed from Allison Park to the Butler County line, and in 1934, the road was straightened and widened to three lanes and named the William Flynn Highway. However, in less than two decades the Flynn highway was obsolete, as the National Safety Council proved that three lane highways are death traps. The road was later widened to its present four lanes.
Education – Richland Style
The community was served only by itinerant teachers who came and drifted on until 1886 when public schools were first established. Bakerstown’s first school was in the home of John Brown, where the Geisler residence now stands. The schoolmaster boarded around, his length of stay being determined by how many children each family had enrolled.
The first actual schoolhouse was a log structure, just across the street from the present Harry Walter residence. Accounts disagree on the date, but it served until a frame building was erected on the current location of the Civic Clubhouse.
The quality of teaching improved, and as more children were enrolled, the need grew for a bigger building. The Baker property had been donated for either school or church purposes and a “burying ground” had been established. However, the Methodist Church across the hill seemed adequate for religious purposes so the Baker site for a school was planned. A one-room structure was built, but soon was made obsolete by the growing population. As many as eighty-five students, two and three to a seat, were in attendance in this one room.
At the close of the 19th Century, a modern two-room school building was erected for $2000. This establishment is still used today by the Civic and Community Clubs. In 1908, the Township employed five teachers whose wages totaled $2322.05. There were 217 pupils enrolled that year, but in the spring and fall many children helped with farm chores, so the daily attendance averaged only 143. Education was still a casual affair with pupils furnishing their own books, tin cups, and other equipment. The boys sat on one side of the room, and the girls on the other, as precaution against the time-honored indoor sport of pigtail-in-inkwell-dipping.
In addition to Bakerstown, other Richland schools were located more or less conveniently around the community. Gibsonia’s first school was a one-room brick building on Gibsonia Road near the intersection of Lakeside Drive. A second frame structure, also one room, was built across from Sunnyside Farm on Hardt Road. At the turn of the century the two room building that now houses the Sportsmen’s Club was built. One room was adequate until 1923 when the upstairs was equipped and the four upper grades were taught by an additional teacher. In the meantime the one-room structure was used as a Christian Missionary Alliance Mission and finally added to the Sunnyside Farmhouse.
Land surrounding the Ewalt School was donated by the Ewalt family. Popularly known as the Yellow Frame Schoolhouse because of its color, records indicate that in 1888 it accommodated 80 pupils. The teacher (who was also janitor) earned $40.00 a month. In 1899 with the enrollment up to 140 everyone agreed that Ewalt school needed a bell for its belfry so a box social was arranged. Despite a deep snow on that date, March 17th, the affair was a big success. Folks came in sleighs and sleds from far and near and Ewalt bought its first bell.
Ground for the Grubbs School was donated by the Grubbs family. Now the location of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, one and two-room buildings successively occupied the area. The second building was destroyed by fire in 1930 and children in the northern area were sent to Valencia. The remainder were educated in makeshift fashion until the opening of the consolidated school, dedicated May 19, 1932. The consolidated school was originally named after George Washington because the country was celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth. Later it was realized that many other communities had the same idea at that time, and there were George Washington schools all over the map. So, the name Richland School was then adopted, and the eight-classroom structure with its gymnasium-auditorium, principal’s office, teachers’ room, library, lavatories, furnace room, and shower facilities became the pride of the community.
Located near the center of the Township, with a large level lot for expansion, the Richland School building cost $71,000 and opened with an enrollment of 350. Within several years the increasing birthrate posed a problem and four more classrooms were added, with the library converted into a classroom. On March 2, 1942, a fire swept through the auditorium and damaged several classrooms. Classes were divided into half-day shifts., and repairs were rushed in spite of wartime shortages. Overcrowding continued as war babies grew to school age, resulting in another addition added in 1951, making a total of 17 classrooms.
Methodist Church at Bakerstown
The earliest of the churches now located in Richland Township is the Methodist Church at Bakerstown, which was organized in 1832, the original building having been erected on ground donated by James Jones, and the brick for the same was made from clay taken from the old Baker Cemetery. The church was built in 1838, remodeled in 1883, was partially burned in 1890, and rebuilt in 1891.
First Presbyterian Church of Bakerstown
The Presbyterian Church in Bakerstown was first a mission church and an out-growth of the Cross Roads Presbyterian Church, whose minister began preaching services in the school house at Bakerstown. By 1870 it had reached such a degree of prosperity that it severed its connection with the Cross Roads Presbyterian Church. The Church was organized and built in 1871, the bricks for the same having been donated by John Ewalt. The first pastor was Reverend William G. Stewart through whose particular efforts the church was organized.
Christian and Missionary Alliance Church
Two centers that originated in Valencia and one at Bakerstown in the hall above the general store of Mr. R. M. Gibson were combined to form the present day Christian and Missionary Alliance Church of Bakerstown. The land was donated by James Grubbs and the present church was erected in 1916 under the supervision of Mr. Lincoln Staley. The first regular preacher was J. M. Broadwell P. R. Hyde.
The Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church
The church was founded by residents of the Gibsonia area who were members of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (located in present day North Park) and was an outgrowth of the Sunday School which was held in a private home across the road from the present day Gibsonia Post Office. Later the Sunday School was moved to the old Gibsonia Public School. The building was erected in 1911 and in 1915 Trinity joined St. Paul’s, forming a parish with single minister. Services were held every other Sunday for morning worship and every other Sunday for afternoon worship, alternating between the two churches. In 1947, the Trinity congregation voted to call and support its own full-time pastor, and terminated the parish affiliation with St. Paul’s, and Reverend J. Edward Schmidt was installed as the first full-time minister for the congregation. The congregation is affiliated with the American Lutheran Church, National Lutheran Council, Lutheran World Federation, and World Council of Churches.
Gibsonia Presbyterian Church
In 1911, through the efforts of Robert M. Gibson and Reverend George, a retired Presbyterian minister, it was decided to hold preaching services in Gibson’s Grove. The minister at the Cross Roads Presbyterian Church conducted the first Sunday afternoon service which was well attended by the residents of the Gibsonia district. If the weather was inclement, the Sunday services were held at some one’s home. After several services, the attendance having grown steadily, it was decided to organize a church. This organizational meeting was held at the home of C. S. Austen during the summer of 1911, and shortly thereafter there were sufficient subscriptions to erect a building on land which was donated by Samuel Austen. The church was incorporated under the name of the First Presbyterian Church of Gibsonia and the cornerstone of the building was laid in 1911. During the same year the basement was completed and services held therein in December. The Reverend David E. Thompson was installed as the first regular pastor.
McKelvey Stop Farm
The McKelvey Stop Farm was built on Meridian Road in 1878 by the McKelvey family for their oldest son, Robert Milt McKelvey, and his wife, Weslyann (as in present-day Weslyann Drive). The McKelveys then built a barn adjacent to the house in 1879. The farm became known as the McKelvey Stop Farm, because it served as a stop on the Butler Shortline Railroad, which ran rail cars between Butler and Pittsburgh, commencing at the turn of the 19th century. The farm and barn are built on property originally inhabited by American Indians, but was granted to George and Michael Gundaker in 1786 as payment for their service as soldiers in the American Revolutionary War. The house is most noteworthy as the site of a “stop” for the streetcars of the Pittsburgh and Butler Street Railway Company, and thus, the name “McKelvey
Stop” is associated with the farm house. James McKelvey had one of the original houses in the area (1868), residing in the old home and spring house about 400 feet off of Meridian Road by the cemetery.
The McKelvey Stop Home was owned by the McKelvey family until 1955. The farmhouse stands 3.5/10 of a mile beyond Dickey Road on the west side of Meridian Road. This home was built by the McKelveys in 1882 for Robert Milt’ s younger brother, David. For years, David’s son Harry lived in the home, which stands on Meridian Road, just beyond the cemetery (looking north). The Milt McKelvey barn burned down in 1938. Today, a concrete block home sits on the barn foundation. The accidental burning of the barn the early 1930’s and a turn-of-the-century producing gas well are other features for which the house is known.
A picture of the house and surrounding farm lands around the turn-of-the century appears in Richland U.S.A., a history of the township written by John O. McMeekin for 1951 publication. Other turn-of-the-century pictures of the house, the gas well, farm lands, and McKelvey family are displayed in the farm house.
North Pittsburgh Telephone Company
In 1906, citizens of the community of Gibsonia and the vicinity met to discuss plans for obtaining telephone service. After discussing the matter with the Central District Printing and Telegraph Company, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (now Bell), certain officials of that Company suggested that those interested in telephone service North of Pittsburgh should organize a local company which could be connected to the Telephone Company by trunk lines. On November 1, 1906 a perpetual charter was secured in the name of North Pittsburgh Telephone Company, operating under the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Within a period of two years from the inception of telephone service the company installed 258 telephones or certificates by bequest.
A new Western Electric switchboard was installed and the new exchange named “Gibsonia.” The Wexford exchange was installed on July 1, 1910, and Curtisville during World War I, to serve the coal industry. Until October of 1917, all lines and telephones of the company were serviced by horse and buggy. At this time it was decided to modernize, and an automobile, “Ford, Model T type,” was purchased. Mars was added in 1923 and Curtisville in 1940.
St. Barnabas Free Home
The St. Barnabas Free Home was founded by the movement of the Holy Spirit in the life of one individual. Those are the words of the Founder and Manager, Gouveneur P. Hance. To the folks in Richland Township, St. Barnabas Home is a living example of concentrated Christian living. In 1951, St. Barnabas’ Free Home at Gibsonia was an ivy-grown stone house of about 50 rooms in the midst of 147 acres, on which the home’s milk and meat was raised.
Eden Hall Farm
Originally the summer home of Sebastian Mueller, senior Vice President of the H. J. Heinz Co., Eden Hall Farm served as a resort for Heinz women employees, and as a memorial to Sebastian’s two daughters, Elsa and Alma, who both died in childhood. Four-hundred and seventy acres of beautifully groomed and handsome buildings make this estate an asset to the community.