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‘God’s blessing’: Murrysville family farm predates America

August 17, 2019
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Herb Gearhard holds up a map showing the family's original farm boundaries in pink, with the current boundaries highlighted in yellow. (Patrick Varine/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review via AP)
1 of 2
Herb Gearhard holds up a map showing the family's original farm boundaries in pink, with the current boundaries highlighted in yellow. (Patrick Varine/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review via AP)

MURRYSVILLE, Pa. (AP) — The Murrysville land farmed by Herb Gearhard and his family is older than America.

The Gearhard farm, the oldest continuously worked farm in Westmoreland County, dates to the late 1760s, and marks its 250th anniversary this year. On April 3, 1769, Robert Hays paid 45 pounds, two shillings and sixpence for 339 and one-half acres in what would shortly become Franklin Township.

Hays and his son were once captured by Native Americans and held captive for three years.

According to “History of the County of Westmoreland, Pennsylvania,” an 1882 book written by George Dallas Albert, “during their stay with the Indians the son acquired such a taste for the wild life of the woods that he was with difficulty persuaded to leave them, and after his return to the settlements he spent nearly all his time in hunting and fishing.”

Not long after returning to his farm, Robert Hays was killed in his doorway during a Native American raid on the area, according to Albert.

Nowadays, things are considerably less hazardous.

This time of year, Herb Gearhard is keeping an eye on his cornfields and beginning to cut the corn maze that marks its 20th anniversary in 2019. Each year, it features a different design and has paid tribute to Pittsburgh’s bicentennial as well as the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11.

Gearhard’s sister, Ellen, lives in the second farmhouse built on the family’s Mamont Road homestead. Gearhard and his wife, Nancy, live nearby on Steele Road. But they might not be around at all without a few strokes of luck.

“Our grandfather, Roy Elwood, left the farm to become a lawyer in California, and he was selling cars,” said Gearhard’s sister, Linda Gearhard Chicka of Saltsburg. “He came home to attend his father’s funeral, and while he was home, his brother died after getting his arm caught and torn off in a thresher accident. Roy stayed on, got married at 39 and had my mother and sister.”

Unlike a lot of family farms, it wasn’t always passed down through the paternal side of the family. Roy and Venia Elwood’s daughter Jane, a trained biologist, married John Gearhard and the farm passed to Herb’s father.

Both of Gearhard’s parents were teachers in what was then the Franklin Township School District. When school was over, they would come home and work the farm, and used the opportunity to teach their five children the value of a dollar and a little hard work.

“When we’d go to the cattle auction, they would buy us a calf, and that was sort of the start of our own herds,” Gearhard said.

If the calf was a heifer and had its own calf, the children’s herds would grow.

“My first year of college was paid for with my calves,” Chicka said. “There were five of us, so there wasn’t a ton of money around.”

Roy Elwood farmed poultry and ran a dairy operation. Elwood would slaughter chickens and transport them to places like Wilkinsburg, New Kensington and East Liberty, Chicka said.

Over time, the family’s bovine operation transitioned from milk to beef.

“We had a beef meal every Sunday,” Gearhard said. “And we were busy every summer. I baled hay, I milked cows by hand, and we’d go to cattle auctions in Homer City.”

In 1978, Gearhard’s father sold his remaining cows and the farm began growing more crops for local farmers markets.

In 1982, Gearhard married his wife, Nancy — a Rubright, the family who owned the farm next door — whom he met when she would come from Monroeville to visit her grandfather. By 1988, Gearhard was farming oats, hay and corn and taking on more of the day-to-day responsibilities on the farm.

The Gearhards are the first generation of the family that do not farm full time. Gearhard works as a mechanic in Allegheny Ludlum’s Brackenridge facility.

His son, Michael Gearhard, 30, of Irwin, works full time as well, but he has begun to dabble in high-tunnel farming, growing organic produce to help carry on the family’s 250-year tradition.

“It’s still a hobby at this point,” Michael said.

He hopes it will become more, particularly because Gearhard is the one who performs the majority of maintenance and work on the farm’s mechanical equipment.

“Once Dad can’t do that anymore, I’m looking for ways to do it with less heavy machinery,” Michael said. “It comes down to, how can you keep moving forward without getting left behind?”

Michael and his sister both got married on the farm, and that got Gearhard thinking about the future.

“Creating a venue for events, that’s something we’re looking at for the kids down the road,” he said.

For now, the family’s main goal is to keep their land green and productive.

“It doesn’t matter where I live right now — this is home,” Chicka said. “There’s a lot of pride, knowing our family roots.”

In the farm’s earliest days, Robert Hays would host the occasional church service for a congregation that still exists today, at Poke Run Presbyterian Church in Washington Township.

“A lot of the church family names are part of our genealogy,” Gearhard said.

The upper branches of the Gearhard family tree include plenty of names familiar to longtime residents: Hays, Gillespie, Elwood, Rubright, Steele.

“It’s mind-boggling when you start to think about all the connections,” Gearhard said.

Chicka agreed.

“To have that rich history and, as Herb says, to be the temporary stewards for the land God’s given us, it’s a real blessing,” she said.

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Information from: Tribune-Review, http://triblive.com

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