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The Field Station Has a History

Posted on Thursday, October 1, 2009

In my younger, student days I did not enjoy studying history. History meant old! But as I approached my present stage of life I began to enjoy retracing steps. I talked with anyone who might have memories of my roots and, especially, this place -- the Field Station and the old barn, now our Nature Center. Here are a few of the ways history has been studied, embraced and used to build a future.

Westminster College is the 14th owner of the property etched in time as the Field Station, 937 on the Fayette-New Wilmington Road. The College purchased this property from William and Virginia Offutt in1964. And we know all the previous owners. Those details were brought to light through the detective skills of Dr. Sam Farmerie, professor emeritus of education at Westminster. Prior to European settlement, the land that includes the 55 or so acres of the Field Station was occupied by the Lenni Lenape people (also called Delaware Indians). But they and those before them did not believe land could belong to any one person any more than air or water could be owned! The Federal Government of the fledgling United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania believed otherwise.

After the Revolutionary War, the lands of our region were surveyed and given as Donation Lands to veterans in lieu of cash payment. Our plot was claimed by George Evans; surveyed May 13, 1795; Patented December 6, 1799 to John Field et al. in trust Pennsylvania Population Co. and named "Beartree." There is a paper trail. We have photocopies of all deeds of transfer. Courthouses have public records and we have touched some of our history.

We are doing more than looking at paper, however. We are working to at least simulate the native forests of our region of "Penn's Woods." Here the William and Virginia Offutt Microforest is an attempt to recreate a plot that has the tree species of our area in 1795, before major European settlement on the Donation Lands. When our area was surveyed using the classic system of "metes and bounds," physical features including trees marked the corners. The trees noted were called "witness trees" - prominent and likely to be identified as corner markers at a later time. The witness trees of our area of Western Pennsylvania were predominantly white oak, American beech and maples (red and sugar). We've planted 1,300 of those and other witness trees in our Microforest for study in years to come.

One more example will illustrate our passion for history. While cleaning up the barn to become the Nature Center, we found a barn door etched with initials and names. Some of these were very recent. Just graffiti. But one neat set was especially significant, "WC 1877." I interpreted this etching as originating under the penknife of a Westminster College student who wished to have a shot at history. But about 10 years ago I had a telephone call from a great granddaughter of the man who built the barn. His name, she said, was William Cox. Voila! The light bulbs lit in my mind. WC could mean more than Westminster College! 1877 was the likely year this building came into being and stands to the present day as a monument to history and life. In my visits, I connected with Curly McCrumb, the former grocer and mayor of New Wilmington, who is a grandson of William Cox. Curly knew the barn and, in fact, recalled playing in its haymow as a kid. That haymow is now part of two classrooms, a project lab, an office and a bathroom.

And then there was the serendipitous meeting of the woman who placed that first, enlightening phone call, Doris Shenker of Volant. She and her sister, Nona Sarver of Tennessee, great granddaughters of William Cox, appeared in my office on Friday, September 25. They wanted to see "the door." I dug it out of a pile of other doors and they photographed it (as I had done several times myself). Then we talked. Three days later they came back for more. They brought photos of William Cox and his wife Adelaide. They had photos of Cox family reunions. They shared family history. I anted up my limited knowledge of the barn and the house that was on the property until shortly after 1969. These sisters recalled that house and the one also built by William Cox on Neshannock Avenue. We made beautiful connections.

They even confessed that they had sneaked into the ground floor of the barn in 2001 and took pictures of the cow stalls that were there. They gave me copies of those pictures for my collection. Both recalled that before the barn was painted its present color of slate blue, it was red and had a big front, sliding door. I showed them the picture that Virginia Offutt recently gave me of the yard, house and barn as it was in 1949 when the Offutts owned the property. Doris McCrumb Shenker, Nona McCrumb Sarver and I bonded over the barn. Its history has become our history as well.

Clarence Harms, Director
Field Station

Barn and yard in 1949
Nona Sarver and Doris Shenker, great-granddaughters of William Cox
Initials WC 1877 on barn door
Nature Center of today