Water Under the Bridge

By John F. Oyler
Copyright © 2017

Oliver Miller Homestead
December 07, 2017

The special event for November at the Oliver Miller Homestead was a Harvest Festival commemorating the way eighteenth century pioneers in Western Pennsylvania gave thanks for blessings received, including an abundant harvest. The Homestead was filled with re-enactors in period costume, providing an authentic picture of life well over two centuries ago.

My visit began in the Stone Manse, a large, rugged farmhouse that was built in the early 1800s. I was directed upstairs where there are three bedrooms and an interesting display of quilting. The docents there were quite knowledgeable and extremely helpful.

Before I had a chance to explore the downstairs we were advised that the mock worship service was about to begin at the log house. We arrived there in time to be greeted by (re-enactor) Mary Tidball Miller who promptly introduced her husband (re-enactor) Oliver Miller. He welcomed his neighbors and visitors and led them in a recitative reading of Psalm 100 ("Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.").

Mr. Miller then introduced visiting preacher (re-enactor) Reverend John McMillan. The good reverend expressed his pleasure at making his annual visit to the Miller Homestead, reminding Mr. Miller that the cold weather and "spittin' snow" seemed to be traditional with it. He "lowed as how" it was about time Miller and his neighbors built a proper church.

Reverend McMillan's sermon was from Corinthians 13, verse 5 ("Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith"); he eulogized Abel, Noah, and Moses as righteous men who should serve as role models for all of us. Following his sermon we all went into the Log House where Mrs. Miller related how she, her husband, and their nine children had come west in 1770 from Bedford and settled on this land. Mr. Miller then took us into the future by describing the events that took place there twenty four years later during the Whiskey Rebellion.

My next stop was the blacksmith shop where the smithy was busy forging a point on a short steel shaft. I was especially impressed with the large bellows mounted above the fire pit and the way the fire responded each time he operated it.

Although the barn was built recently, it was constructed using the same tools and methodology that were employed two centuries ago. The timber framing is particularly impressive. The barn houses a number of interesting exhibits, as well as the facility's gift shop. The Whiskey Rebels apparently had their own flag – alternating horizontal red and white stripes on which was inscribed "Liberty and No Excise".

On my way back to the Manse I detoured to an outdoor fire pit where a re-enactor was busy frying bacon, sausage, and corn meal mush over an open fire. He was quite generous sharing the product of his efforts; my only complaint was the lack of Karo Syrup for the mush.

Back in the big farmhouse they had a table set up with the meal that a family in 1780 would have enjoyed at a Harvest Festival. It looked pretty good to me – succotash, sweet potatoes, turkey, cranberry sauce, sugar cookies, corn pudding, apple pie, and pumpkin pie. It also included "Scotch eggs", which was a new one for me. Turns out you hard boil eggs, cover them with a thick layer of ground sausage and bread crumbs, and deep fry them. Despite my claiming to be the food critic for the Signal-Item, I couldn't get a sample.

A re-enactor was cooking in the open fireplace in the kitchen, quite effectively. She had a chicken baking in a reflector oven. I remember being very unsuccessful trying to use a reflector oven when I was a Boy Scout; I was surprised to learn it was a common kitchen appliance in colonial times. The kitchen boasted a massive corner cabinet, filled with utensils.

A working display of spinning and weaving occupies another large room on the first floor of the Manse. On a visit to the Homestead at least fifteen years ago I learned about the existence of a "drop spindle", a very simple tool used to spin wool into yarn. Actually it wasn't simple enough for me to make it work. I failed trying to make yarn from dog fur accumulate when Sundance was shedding.

When I raised the question of using a drop spindle, one of the re-enactors immediately picked one up, gathered a fist full of wool, and demonstrated how simple it really was. She and I eventually concluded that my problem was my raw materials. According to her, except for puppies, dog fur cannot be spun. At least that allowed me to save face.

They gave an excellent demonstration of starting with flax and ending up with fibers that could readily be spun into yarn. I was quite impressed with the whole process and the huge amount of labor that was required to produce fabric in those days.

In 1927 Allegheny County purchased, by eminent domain, purchased over 2000 acres of farmland to construct South Park. Descendants of the Miller family were living in the Stone Manse at the time, despite the absence of any utilities. Since 1971 a volunteer, not-for-profit organization, the Oliver Miller Homestead Associates has functioned as official curators of the Homestead, on behalf of Allegheny County.

The Homestead closes for the winter after the first Sunday in December and will re-open on the first Sunday in May. One of my New Year's resolutions will be to attend as many of their special events next year as I can. We are extremely fortunate to have such a valuable cultural asset in this area, and should be grateful to the dedicated group of re-enactors who have preserved it for all of us.

Water Under the Bridge

  • "Water Under the Bridge" is a column written by historian John Oyler. It appears weekly in the Bridgeville Area News, a TribTotal Media publication, as well as in a more expanded form on his blog.

The Author

  • Aside from being Bridgeville's foremost historian, Dr. John F. Oyler is also an associate professor at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh, where he teaches classes in civil engineering.

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