"Oh, the sun shines bright on my old Westmoreland home . . . ."
As I have mentioned in other articles, since I was ten years old, I have wanted to return to West Overton, the one place I believed was my true home. Back then, my reasoning went something like this. The Overholts built West Overton; they lived and died and made history there. I am an Overholt, so West Overton is my true home, and all the history connected to that place belongs to me, too. That makes me somebody, and I have a place in the world. These were comforting thoughts for a girl whose nuclear family kept moving from place to place, year after year. Yet, here I am, marking my 54th birthday (June 16, 2003), and I still do not live at West Overton.
Of course, the place is not really a town anymore, and it hasn't been so for a very long time. Rather, it is something of a shadow-town or a pretend-town or a town-that-once-was and may-be-again-someday. Granted, it has been designated a historical site, but this honor was bestowed based upon the industry of the Overholt Family, not because Henry Clay Frick was born there. Now known as West Overton Museums, the advertising purports it to be a 19th Century Historic Village, but I have seen nothing there that resembles a proper historic renovation or preservation going on. And I have seen nothing that reflects much of the Mennonite experience there, either, which is a real shame.
It is plain that Abraham Overholt's house, distillery building and barns have become meeting places for many events sponsored by the surrounding communities. Of course, many of these events support the preservation of our nation's history in one way or another, but mostly, I believe the site is being used much as a neighborhood community center or park area or fair grounds. The newspaper articles I have collected readily indicate that the folks who have been running the site these many years have strived to be good stewards, trying simultaneously to keep the place going on a skimpy budget and to create a viable tourist attraction. However, very little of what made West Overton special to Western Pennsylvania can be seen there today.
Whatever the motives behind Helen Clay Frick's enterprise to buy the Overholt property and create a historical society, she certainly made many inexplicable changes that do not measure up to the standards of historic preservation, changes which had nothing to do with the way of life experienced by the Overholt Family. For instance, what was she thinking when she added that colonial-era hearth to Abraham's house? And what about that ill-conceived "historic mural" she allowed some obscure painter to add to the walls? And I'm curious to learn who added the modern plumbing, and curious to learn how many times the kitchen has been remodeled.
"Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee . . . ."
I have always suspected that Helen's enterprise had more to do with creating another monument to her father than to preserving the Overholt heritage. This opinion was supported when I found an obituary online for Anna Mae (Keller) Musgrove, aged 101, formerly of Scottdale, who passed away March 1, 2002. Included in the obit was the following statement. Anna was a retired curator with the H.C. Frick Memorial Museum at West Overton, where she worked for 13 years. She was one of the original organizers of the museum, established by Helen Clay Frick as a memorial to her father. I believe this statement tells the tale and explains why the Overholts are largely ignored, save to reiterate the connection between Frick and his maternal grandfather, Abraham Overholt.
At the turn of the century, family connections were utilized by writers of local history in their biographical sketches of regional personalities. There were also books that included photographs, like Notable Men of Pittsburgh and Vicinity, 1901, wherein no less than three distinguished Overholts were featured -- Benjamin Franklin Overholt, President of Donohoe Coal & Coke Company, and Abram Carpenter Overholt and Ralph Overholt of the United States Cast Iron Pipe & Foundry Company. The writers of that era mentioned family connections for all the obvious reasons, and when they did the same for Henry Clay Frick, it was primarily because Abraham Overholt was a man of considerable stature in the region. Descriptions of Frick's family background served to elevate him in the public eye just as he burst upon the horizon as an up-and-coming "coal king." Additionally, by connecting Frick with a well-known, industrious family, those writers literally (and literally) paved the way for him to enter the upper strata of the business arena, not to mention the parlors of the nouveau riche (newly rich). He must have been spared much of the distrust that hampered other newcomers of that era, making it hard for them to gain access to the inner circles of society. Just consider how the Mellons accepted young Clay Frick into their sphere of influence, almost as if he were a relative. Certainly it was his Overholt connections that helped him get those loans from Andrew Mellon! In every way imaginable, it was to Frick's advantage to be known by his Overholt roots, because, as everybody knows, it is always handy to come from a good family.
Martha Frick Symington Sanger also utilized this same literary device when she highlighted the connection between her great grandfather and the Overholts, devoting the first ten chapters of Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait to his life at West Overton and his relationships with various members of the extended Overholt family, but especially his grandfather, Abraham Overholt. Once again, this familial connection to the historically prominent American family serves to tag him for future greatness. However, just as Sanger highlights the accomplishments of Abraham and the Overholt family, she also disparages them in the language of her discriptions, allusions and patterns, melding disparate details into a distinctly Frick version of history. Overall, the reader is left with a poor impression of the Overholts and an impressive vision of Henry Clay Frick, who by comparison appears to have been far and away the better man. Just read carefully those chapters that mention Abraham and his kin, and then see if the impression Sanger paints jibes with the following obituary found in the Herald of Truth, Volume VII, Number 3, March 1870, page 46-47.
In my opinion, the tendency to see West Overton as a platform to promote the life and times of Henry Clay Frick has actually prevented its success.
To date, so much of the spirit, enterprise and creativity of the Overholt Family has been obliterated from West Overton, that upon visiting the site, my siblings and I have been hard-pressed to see much of our heritage preserved at all, beyond the big portrait of Abraham Overholt and a modest collection of Overholt blankets. The buildings themselves may be all that is left to stand the passage of time as the last testament to the energy and craftsmanship of an industrious Mennonite family and their community. The spring house (a temporary home for Frick's family) has been renovated into the Young Frick House, because he was born there, and Abraham's house is often called Frick's house in newsprint and other media. Adding to the misinformation, the new web site launched by West Overton Museums has problems regarding the identification of Abraham's house and the spring house. Abraham, himself, must bristle with ghostly annoyance to see how West Overton is invariably identified as "the birthplace of Henry Clay Frick," as if this event were the most important piece of history connected to the site. In 1999, Abraham's house stood on the corner of Overholt and West Overton. I may be wrong about this, but I get the impression one of those roads has been given Frick's name. I suspect that before long, Abraham's house will officially be called the home of Henry Clay Frick. To illustrate this, just turn to page 26 of Sanger's book, and you will see a tight shot of Abraham's house bearing the caption, The Overholt Homestead in West Overton where Henry Clay Frick spent the first thirty years of his life, which suggests the house was Frick's home for 30 years.
Yep, with this kind of historic preservation, my siblings and I are left with very few bragging rights from our direct descent from Abraham Overholt. Other than the genetic markers on our DNA that point to our ancestors, all we really have at hand to go along with the family name are the photographs we've taken of West Overton, and the bare bones of the history of all those people who used to be firmly rooted to that section of Westmoreland County -- oh, and the rock that my brother took as a keepsake. Like so many other scattered American families, we may have names and dates, but considering the contributions made by the Extended Overholt Family to both Western Pennsylvania and our nation's history, even on the best days, this hardly seems enough.
"Take these broken wings and learn to fly . . . ."
You may have read the account of my first visit to West Overton in 1984. That whole day was an exceptional experience from beginning to end. But every other time that members of my family and I have been there, like all other visitors to the site, we were subject to the price of admission. Our paying the few dollars was no problem. The problem was that this place was our family's ancestral home, but nothing there felt right. Instead, I always came away with a deep sadness for what had been lost, and feeling Abraham and his family would feel like strangers in today's version of their home town. Driving off at the end of the day, I would find myself in a wistful mood, and it was just so obvious why I felt that way.
Truth be told, following tour guides through my ggg grandfather's house bothered me, because I wanted to do my own exploring. I wanted to go up the steps and get close to Abraham's portrait (which I did despite prohibitions). And I wanted to see all the rooms that were roped off (which I never got to do). I wanted to stand silently in an empty room and feel the past ripple through my spirit, the way it does whenever I am standing in a place thoroughly filled with echoes of the past. But in the current version of Abraham's home, as we walked through the modestly dressed rooms, following a docent and listening to information about odds and ends kept in the house, I would find myself battling mixed feelings. To me, very little there looked historically accurate, especially since so little in the house actually belonged to the Overholts. Even during the Christmas season, the folks who run the site do not decorate the house according to modest Mennonite standards. For instance, are Christmas trees historically accurate?
In my travels, I have had the pleasure of walking through a number of historically renovated buildings, so I know what can be done to preserve and protect historical sites. Additionally, years ago, I worked as a secretary at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and during that time, I gained a lot of respect for museums and the artifacts they preserve and display. Putting aside my disappointment with the way Abraham's house is kept, let me turn to my reservations regarding the main museum of West Overton Museums. While Abraham's distillery building is advertised as a distillery and a museum, once inside the impressive structure, one never sees much to indicate it was in fact a distillery. There are all kinds of local and regional items in the building, but I never felt impressed by the manner in which the artifacts were preserved, presented or displayed.
Other than our happy discovery of the Critchfield Bell (an item only incidentally connected to young Clay Frick's school days) sitting inconspicuously in a corner of the museum, I was always appalled by what was missing. For instance, aside from a dismal lack of information about the items that are displayed in the museum, where were the historic accounts of the Oberholtzers, who lived for many centuries in northern Switzerland and for several generations in southern Germany? Where were the stories that described the political, economic and religious conditions that prompted immigration? Where were the details of many journeys made by Oberholtzer families and other immigrant families who came to Pennsylvania with William Penn? Where were the descriptions of life in Eastern Pennsylvania, and the story of the Mennonite communities?
Where were the accounts of the dangers faced by Henry Overholt and his kinsmen when they were soldiers during the American Revolution? Where were the accounts of the hardships that Henry and his family had to face as they drove their Conestoga wagons into the wild lands of Westmoreland County? Where was the map that showed their route from Bucks County? Where were the artistic renderings of the wilderness they found before the land was cleared, plowed and sowed? Where were the models of the first log cabin community, and diagrams of Abraham's first log cabin distillery? Where were the examples of the different crops sowed by the Overholt sons and daughters? Where were the artifacts and the descriptons of all the Overholt goods and services that later kept other wagon trains properly supplied on their own journeys West?
Also, where was the collection of Overholt Whiskey memorabilia? Why was the sole example of the vast Broad Ford distillery complex of A. Overholt & Sons located in the renamed "Frick" springhouse? Beyond that, where were the historic writings that highlighted the necessity of making whiskey and to the importance of whiskey in the lives of pioneering families? Where were the glowing reports of the importance of Abraham Overholt (called the Squire of Westmoreland County) to the development of the region? Where were the praises for the first man to discover coal on his property, and then find ways to utilize that coal in his home, distilleries and community? Where was the mention that Abraham's whiskey was known to be the favorite of President Abraham Lincoln? What about all the seed money that Abraham's industry supplied for budding local enterprises such as railroads, coal mines and coke production, long before young Clay Frick placed his borrowed cards on the table? Nothing about these things exists at today's West Overton Museums. In fact, most of what I now know about my family, I have learned through my own efforts via the World Wide Web and some history books at the Carnegie Library.
"All I have to do is dream, dream-dream-dream . . . ."
But all that is secondary to what has really, really bothered me regarding today's version of West Overton Village. Primarily, what always bothered me most was the reality that there were no Overholt relatives to welcome me to West Overton -- no aunts and uncles and cousins eager to swap family stories with me at their kitchen tables, and no one to impress with tales of my own journeys. When Jim and I were married, there were no Overholts to invite to our wedding, save my own siblings. And when our son Matthew came into the world, there was never anyone at West Overton to whom I could proudly present my newborn, bragging about his many perfections as, one after another, aunts and uncles and cousins held him in their arms. And as Matthew (now standing 5 feet 8 1/2 inches tall) has grown into a gifted artist and a talented stage performer, there have been no grandOverholts to pat him on the back and tell him he is a fine addition to the family tree.
Anyway, over the years, after much deep thought on the subject of West Overton, it dawned on me that I have been homesick for the place ever since I first heard about it. The only other place I was ever homesick for was Pittsburgh, which grew on me over time, despite my deepest doubts about ever having a permanent address. In fact, since my return to the city of my birth in the autumn of 1976, it took my being away from Pittsburgh several times (to and from Florida, North Carolina, California, etc.) to show me how much I really loved this city. And yet, since my first visit to West Overton, I have been seeing visions of Abraham's house, and wishing it was someplace I could call home. Actually, it is possible my visions of West Overton began before I ever actually set eyes upon it. Let me explain.
All of my life, I have had vivid dreams. Some of these dreams showed me living other lifetimes in different historic time periods, not all of them in the past. Sometimes, the dreams unfolded like revelations, showing me great truths through contrived situations and lots of symbolism. Often my dreams provided teachers or companions, who would talk with me or travel with me, helping me to discover something of importance. Some of these dreams have remained in my memory with such clarity that they could have been actual events in real time. These are dreams with details that seem as fresh today as they were the hour they were experienced in slumber.
In one particular dream, which came to me when I was very young, I found myself on a quiet country plain, walking toward a big house. I was aware of bright sunlight, green grass, big trees, a stretch of white picket fence, and a large gated garden. And when I approached, a lady came out of a doorway to greet me, behaving as if she had been waiting for me to arrive. She seemed to be very old and very young at the same time, also very serene and wise. I was just a child in an unfamiliar land, but I trusted her as if she were my own grandmother. After speaking with me for a few moments, she led me toward the garden, because she wanted me to see something.
Inside the well-tended garden, there were roses of many colors and varieties, and mixed in among the rose bushes, there were daisies of many colors and varieties. Roses and daisies, daisies and roses! It was a curious, amazing and beautiful sight! Even more amazing was the fountain in the center of the garden, which appeared to be made of crystal. It glittered so much in the sunlight, I could never actually see its true shape. Anyway, the fountain was situated in the center of a circular stone base, like a well, with a waist-high shallow pool that caught the water that sprayed from the fountain. The lady told me the fountain could be adjusted to spray the entire garden -- like a sprinkler, it could water all the flowers with ease. I remember thinking this fountain was a great invention! Then she directed me to look at the plaque near the fountain. It stood on a short signpost, about waist-high, and on the plaque was a question.
Which is more beautiful -- the rose or the daisy?
Well, I read the question, and immediately grinned. "I know the answer!" The lady smiled and waited for me to continue. "The rose is more beautiful in its complexity," I said, "and the daisy is more beautiful in its simplicity!" She was pleased with my answer, especially as it came from one so young. I remember feeling very proud of myself, almost as if I had just passed a test. This is a dream I have remembered all of my life, and I have often wondered why it remained so clear in my mind -- the situation, the location, the lady, the crystal fountain, the roses and daisies, the question and the answer. In recent years, I have come to believe the big house with the white picket fence and the garden is a real place.
The first time I saw West Overton, the season had been autumn and the day had been cold, gray and damp. I remember treading a thick carpet of autumn leaves and, of course, the ghostly meeting on the steps of Abraham Overholt's house. The second time I was there, it was a quick visit, having zipped over from the Laurelville Mennonite Church Center, where my church was having a retreat. I got a few minutes to look at the quilts on display. There was another short visit in crisp autumn weather, when my brother Fred came up from Florida. Fred picked up a rock and took it back home as a keepsake. Another outing occurred in the winter, when my sister and her fiance came to visit us. It was just before Christmas (and Matthew's birthday), and the area was covered with snow.
It was high summer the next time I was at West Overton -- Father's Day 1999 -- and the day was bright and warm and good for walking. Ignoring my tired husband's demands that we should get back on the road, I took a long walk and snapped those great landscape photographs which I used in my first AOL Hometown web pages. Taking my time, I walked around the back yard of Abraham Overholt's house (which still had a few ancient trees), and around the sloping front yard (that still had a few old apple trees), and walked through the gated garden space (that once had been Maria Overholt's garden). I tried to stretch my spirit and feel a sympathetic vibration that would speak to me of all the people who used to live there, people I never personally knew, but never would have known anything about, if I had accepted my isolation and lack of connection to my family as a permanent condition. But I knew Time is fluid and Change is our only constant, so I had pushed myself to learn how to use the Internet. On Father's Day 1999, I tried to create photographs that told a story beyond the surface reality. I wanted the empty space to speak volumes -- stuff like that.
Back in Pittsburgh, it dawned on me that something about that long walk had been just too familiar. Upon reflection, I slowly came to realize that if the garden area had been planted with roses and daisies surrounding a glittering fountain, my childhood dream could very well have happened there! And, subsequent to that visit, I came to believe I knew what the shape of the fountain had to have been. It had to have been a crystal tree -- a family tree -- whose many branches could alternately sprinkle like a happy fountain or spray the entire garden with a burst of fresh water. This has been a delightful idea to contemplate, considering that long ago, my choice of names for my Internet quest had been The Overholt Family Tree ~~ Karen's Branches. Now, even the two wavy lines make sense to me (two dashes or a colon never looked right). And so, concerning this particular amazing dream, I can only wonder about the identity of the Lady. She could have been the same Lady who has appeared in a number of other amazing dreams. Maybe. Or maybe not. I have toyed with the metaphysical construct that it was I, myself, appearing as both the woman and the child. Well, it could happen -- somewhere in the Eternal NOW!
"They say that waking up is hard to do . . . ."
You know, I am always wishing I could win a lottery, so I could put some money where my heart is, and rebuild West Overton. I would rebuild all the houses and invite Overholt families to come back and live in them! I would invite the local Mennonite community to help create ChildHaven there, which is another idea I had when I was ten years old. Together we would build a church and a school and a hospital, carefully constructing everything to look historically accurate on the outside and technologically up-to-date on the inside. And then West Overton would be a real town again, with a real future!
Yes, whenever my life has floundered in a particularly awful financial condition (which has happened quite a lot and on a regular basis), I got into the habit of daydreaming about finding the original recipe and restarting the Overholt whiskey business right there in the distillery building that Abraham built. I could see us adding an orchard of beautiful fruit trees (apples, peaches, pears, plums, etc.), so that the Overholts could make preserves the old Stauffer way, and brandy the old Overholt way. Later on, when our associated business concerns were doing well (for we simply had to weave Overholt blankets and refurbish the railroad tracks so that trains could again zip through the town), the Extended Overholt Family would reclaim what was left of the Broad Ford distillery and rebuild that one, too! I like to believe the spirit of Old Abraham would want us to do all that! He would be cheering us on from the sidelines every step of the way!
And now, it is time for a Reality Check! I'm sane enough to know this whole scenario springs from the wreckage of my own unrealized expectations. Yeah, they are my own feeble attempts to make myself feel hopeful about the future, especially when something or somebody disappoints me. These daydreams are meant to help me climb up and out of an episode of What will become of me? angst. My mother used to call such ruminations "delusions of grandeur." Okay, okay, Mom, but hope does springs eternal, and I still want my life to be worthwhile, even if only on paper! Or the Internet!
Along with reality comes a salient fact. I do not gamble, so I will never win a lottery. If my husband should take a chance someday, buy a ticket, and win some money, well, then, it will be his money, and his own daydreams which will benefit (for instance, he really wants a theater for Actors Civic Theater). Myself, I don't put any trust in numbers. My faith has taught me to put my trust in something that cannot be reduced to or explained by or quantified in numbers. Therefore, I would never buy the ticket. Therefore, my daydreams will remain strings of possibilities, tossed about in my mind when I am worried about all the stuff I get worried about. And so, let us wax philosophical.
You know, it is just too easy to bewail our lot in life, believing things would be so much better if only we suddenly came into wealth, for then we could accomplish all the wonderful good works we long to do, and certainly would do, if only we could afford it. Don't we all have a 10-year-old kid inside our minds declaring all our dreams will come true, if we wish upon a star? A person of faith believes we come into this world with a purpose, and things happen on earth according to God's will. And even though the grand design in His tapestry appears unfathomable, a person of faith "waits upon the Lord."
If I had been born at West Overton-as-a-thriving-town, in the lap of whatever is consider luxury by faithful Mennonites, no doubt my personality and priorities would be quite different. No doubt I would have spent my life reaching for other unreachable stars. Yet, here I am, such as I am, mindful of the disappearing heritage of Abraham Overholt and the unwritten biographies of the Extended Overholt Family past and present. These things might not be so important to me, if I were comfortable with my life. Certainly, it is doubtful I would have begun a quest to find my long-lost relatives, because they probably wouldn't have been lost in the first place, right?
Still . . . one of these days, I may yet unravel the mystery of why the Overholt Family found it wise to leave West Overton in the years following Henry Clay Frick's unexpected ownership of both the Broad Ford Distillery and the rights to use the company/family name. Whatever the reasons, and wherever the trail leads me, I am sure the data will weave a dynamic historical novel worthy of Abraham Overholt, the Family Weaver.
Better yet, it would be nice to help produce a television mini-series, telling a story that begins with the Oberholtzers in Switzerland and ends with the diaspora of the Extended Overholt Family. (Hey, it could happen!) There would be plenty of history to plumb (not just the Industrial Revolution), and plenty of colorful characters to explore (not just Henry Clay Frick). Not that Frick's life wouldn't add an important couple of episodes. An old family story passed down to me claims Henry Clay Frick, using less than honorable means, ended up owning everything the Overholts ever had -- lock, stock and barrel (whiskey barrels). But our production would be honest regarding the history of Henry Clay Frick, pointing out that the man ended up owning the land and goods of many, many Western Pennsylvanians, not just those named Overholt.
"Swing low, sweet chariot, comin' for t'carry me home!"
One thing I am sure about. It is my fervent wish that when I die, my ashes will be buried in a nice spot at West Overton. And I bet this is another thing that won't get to happen, for many and obvious reasons. To use another reference to gambling, as the cards are currently stacked, only the folks who have been entrusted to run the site as West Overton Museums, and the members of the extended Frick family (via their Foundation funding) will be deciding the future of West Overton. As far as I know, there are no plans to solicit a consensus among Abraham's descendants as to the best way to preserve and renovate West Overton. Therefore, unless members of today's Extended Overholt Family begin to make ourselves heard, we will have absolutely no practical or political impact on matters at hand.
Judging from newspaper articles [see my new feature, West Overton in the News], it appears the remains of Abraham Overholt's town could eventually be turned into some version of the Williamsburg tourist attraction, but the board of directors does not seem to have the money or other financial support to accomplish this feat. They are currently engaged in another fund-raising venture, which may or may not get them closer to their goal. I have seen a painting that shows how a new parking lot will carve up a large area near Abraham's house [see Found Bottles & Artifacts]. And there are other plans for the standing buildings to be renovated for local businesses -- some of which has already been done. And this is where I question the organization's prevailing vision and their declared dedication to historical renovation and preservation.
I wish to offer my own vision for the future success of West Overton. It is my hope that the buildings that are still standing will be renovated as to their actual historical uses, in true preservation style. For instance, a building which was an Overholt general store should not be turned into a restaurant. It is also my hope that West Overton will become a real town, which cannot happen without the help and cooperation of the citizenry of all neighboring towns. I pray it becomes a vibrant, living community, with Overholt families and their family-owned businesses side-by-side with farming the land. And I would like to see some distilling, too, in a working log cabin distillery built more for edification and fund-raising, than as a real bid for producing great quantities of whiskey. And I hope Abraham's distillery and mill will be put back into working order, producing whiskey and milled goods of such quality that Internet sales alone will fund new buildings projects. And I hope the Mennonites of Western Pennsylvania will be actively involved, in order to provide a clearer vision of what West Overton once was and yet could one day become.
"Don't stop thinkin' about tomorrow!"
You are cordially invited to visit the pages of my new feature, West Overton in the News, so you can read about what has been happening at West Overton over the past few years. You will discover that there are a number of very interesting events held on site every year, and the local newspapers appear to be giving these events plenty of coverage.
You will also read about the recent dismissal of Rodney Sturtz (which came as a big surprise), and the board of director's choice of Dr. Mary Ann Mogus as their interim executive director. Judging from a quote from Dr. Mogus, she seems to appreciate the Overholt legacy. I hope to meet her sometime and discover how deep her conviction on that subject really is.
Anyway, I hope my new crop of web pages will serve to
help us all stay better informed and more interested in
what happens at West Overton. As always, your feedback is
END OF PAGE -- Return to the first page of Karen's Branches, or go on to West Overton in the News.