McConnell’s Mill State Park, New Castle, and Pittsburgh Pennsylvania
The day before Patti and Dick arrived, we took the Jeep over to Slippery Rock Creek gorge to see the famous McConnells Mill. The mill and the adjacent covered bridge have achieved national fame and are listed as National Historical Landmarks. The mill is visited by over 500,000 people yearly. It remains one of the few standing water powered functional (sort of) grist mills in all of the U.S. The nearby covered bridge spanning Slipper Rock Creek is a very popular spot for marriage proposals and many lovers paint their initials with hearts. The Mill has even been a wedding venue. The river that runs by the mill is known for its great white water kayaking. We had the opportunity to watch a couple of brave souls traverse the water way. Doug and I love to kayak, but only on a quite lake like our beloved Whiskytown Lake. Initially we did not drive down into the deep gorge – our mistake! We parked at the top of the gorge and got quite a workout coming and going using the steep switch back pathway on the sheer gorge wall. Laurie and my hiking gals from Redding would love this. The park and the mill have been beautifully maintained.
The mill was rebuilt at the site of a previous mill which was struck by lighting and burned. The “new” mill was opened in 1874 with state of the art water turbines and the covered bridge spanning the famous Slippery Rock Creek was built to enable the new mill to serve farmers on both sides of the gorge.
The man who built the new mill was Thomas McConnell a former captain in the U.S. Army. He was wounded PRIOR to the horrible Gettysburg confrontation and thus was NOT involved in that confrontation. Doug’s dad had often reflected that had Thomas McConnell been sent forward as an infantry field commander at Gettysburg he well may not have survived – thus that line of the McConnell clan including Doug’s father would not have existed. No descendants! So is this an example of a “good” wound? Direct descendants of Thomas McConnell and cousins from New Castle Thomas Hartman (a banker), and Malcolm McConnell (Doug’s grandad a U.S. Steel executive) arranged for the transfer of the mill, the bridge and the surrounding property to the State of Pennsylvania. The transfer was completed after the death of the one remaining employee, Mose (Moses) around 1955.
Mose himself is an interesting story that Doug has always talked about. It appears that Mose was born in the south prior to the Civil War and thus was a slave. After the civil war as a young free man he moved north with his mother. He soon took a job with Captain Thomas McConnell at the mill. We know Mose worked at the mill for over 74 years and he was a well respected community member. He always lived at the mill and never married. There were several cute stories about the man. One in particular…..whenever families came to visit the mill and they returned to their cars or wagon….Mose would leave an apple, an orange, and a piece of candy for each of the children. People loved to come to the mill on errands. It is said that Mrs. McConnell and later Mrs.Hartman (different from Doug’s grandmother) would always have a piece of pie or cookies waiting for customers or visitors.
Doug met Mose for the first time in 1950 when Doug was 5. It was his impression that Mose was then near 100 years old! He has a treasured picture of his grandfather, Mose, and Doug standing by the mill. It seems the McConnells and Hartmans would regularly bring supplies to Mose down in that gorge long after he ceased to be self sufficient. By 1950 Mose was living in the owner’s home next to the mill.
Doug recalls that it had been decided by the extended family that Mose would live out his days in that home at the mill where he had been his whole adult life. On those summer trips Doug and his grandfather would bring supplies to Mose about every weekend. When Mose died the transfer of the property and mill to the state was soon completed – some time in the mid-1950’s.
Mose was truly loved and respected by the McConnell and Hartman families and all the visitors to the park. This is a touching, very human story of a family dedicated to “Ol’ Mose”. They kept him on the payroll and provided housing all his remaining days. Mose is buried in a nearby church next to his mother. Doug said he learned a lot from his grandfather – including how the family treated Mose in those later years.
Moraine State Park is really just across the road from McConnell’s Mill State Park and has a 32,000 acre lake with beaches, great camping facilities, miles of hiking trails, and a 7 miles biking trail. We enjoyed a short 8 mile ride. Unlike a rails to trails bikeway this one had hills…..after climbing out of the gorge earlier, my legs felt like jelly.
New Castle C.S.I.
Our first day out with the Lanni’s was to New Castle. Our first stop was Patti and Doug’s grandfather’s house. This was the home he retired to after 40 years at US Steel. It was empty. There was no car in the drive, so we took to looking in the windows……we felt like the ultimate “peeping Tom’s” since there were 4 of us converging on the house and many windows. Remember the letter I mentioned earlier that Doug wrote hoping for admission to the house? Our investigative skills led us to the mail box which we unashamedly went through. We found the letter delivered but not received. Other mail produced the current owner’s phone number which we called. As it turns out the house was purchased by the local mortician who is also a realtor. That seemed to be quite a combination of professions…..any conflict of interest there? This house was purchased about 7 years ago for $110,000. This leads us to the “State of the City” of New Castle.
It seems the city that Doug so fondly remembers has steadily declined since about the 1960’s. As the steel industry moved to bigger cities the population slowly decreased from a high of about 48,000 to 23,000 today. The downtown is erie with little traffic and many empty buildings. This was really driven home in a conversation with a local gentleman about our age. He said when he graduated from the local high school in 1967 there were 600-700 graduates. This June that same school had a graduating class of around 100. Growing up in Southern California where there has been nonstop growth since I as long as I can remember……it seemed almost surreal.
The highlight of the day was visiting the country club were Doug’s grandpa was a member. Doug remembers going there every Sunday for dinner. His grandad let him drive in New Castle when he was only 14 years old! Apparently the neighbors felt that Doug was probably safer than his grandad. Doug loved that. Despite not being members, we were graciously invited to look all around and have lunch there. The golf course reminded me of Virginia Country Club. It was a wonderful afternoon!
At trip to the cemetery ended the day. Finding the McConnell grave site was another adventure. First of all there are three cemeteries in New Castle. To narrow the choice required a call to Doug’s other sister in Ventura for the exact cemetery. Once we had the right place this old cemetery has no central office with a simple listing of grave site locations. Finding grandad’s grave site required joining a local association, and searching the archives of the newspaper obituaries from the 1960’s in order to find the exact date of death. Apparently they had NO way to find a grave if you didn’t know the date of death. Well we did that. With that new information, an unhappy volunteer had to return to the office to locate the grave site in their records. She also wanted to make sure a donation was made to the association. Was it worth it?….ask Doug & Patti. (Doug here: YES it was. We did feel a little like CSI New Castle!)
June 15, 2016 McConnell’s Mills – Again
Today we returned to the mill with Patti and Dick Lanni. We had a very informative tour by, Natalie, a ranger that has made the history of McConnell’s Mill her personal quest. This was a grist mill which meant it was equipped to grind corn, wheat, and buck wheat. If the wheat harvest went bad, buckwheat could be grown in a very short period of time and thus provide grain for a family for a season. A bushel of raw wheat yielded only 44 lbs of white flour. At that time, white flour was very desirable for the fluffy cakes and breads it produced. This 1800’s mill was eventually so automated that wheat could be ground to flour in approximately 40 minutes – all from water power. Electric motors and the internal combustion motor had not been invented yet! The miller was paid a portion of the final product.
Fireflies, fireflies, fireflies…….I finally saw fireflies…..how magical they are. I wonder what God had in mind when he created them….perhaps, like the birds, purely for our delight.
June 16,2016 Pittsburgh
Doug’s grandad was eventually the superintendent of Homestead Steel Mill which was the most productive steel mill in the world and part of US Steel. Our goal for the day was to find his grandfather’s house in a suburb of Pittsburgh called Munhall – “at the top of the hill”. Doug’s father said he would walk to the Carnegie Library in Munhal to swim, which was “just down the street”. As it turns out the house (or I should say mansion) was next door to the library, built on one entire square city block. Unfortunately it was torn down in the 1960’s and a retirement facility was constructed on the grounds. Always the detectives, Doug and Patti only learned this from one of the retirement home residents. Doug’s dad had recalled as a child going with his dad(grandad McConnell) on Sundays to visit any employees that were sick. It was to his grandad’s credit that during the years that he was the superintendent, there were no major labor conflicts.
This place looks like it was “adequate” for entertaining. We also have pictures of Doug’s grandfather escorting Albert Einstein around the steel mill during a visit.
As we were heading back to New Castle, we all got flood warnings on our phones. I have never been in such a deluge in my life. I was secretly hoping that we would just stop and wait it out…..but we were on a mission to get back.
We had experienced several days of investigation and discovery of family roots with Patti and Dick. They were great company and we loved sharing the experience and some of the frustrations together. Dick was a former Naval Officer and we were glad he was driving because as we left Pittsburgh it seemed we had become a submarine! We were glad to have the three days together.
Friday June 17, 2016 Incredible Family
The people we meet have been half the fun on this journey. Today is no exception. As I was loading up the washing machine at our camp ground a gal came in with 4 loads of laundry to do. I thought that was rather odd to be doing so much laundry on a Friday…..school is just getting out…..surly they just recently arrived. I kid you not, it took the machine 20 min just to fill with water. She said to me “ya it is always like that”. Hum??? With 20 minutes to wait she told me her story.
Her husband is a contractor and currently is building a Nordstrom’s Rack in Pittsburg. She and their 4 children travel with him. The kids are 3, 7, 14 & 17. They live in a large 5th wheel and, up until February, her dad was also with them. They have a home in Tennessee, but decided that they were rather be together with their dad. All the kids enthusiastically love this life style. Dottie, a former teacher, home schools all the kids. It seems they are in one location about 6 months at a time. The kids get involved with sports where ever they happen to be. Most of the past winters have been in warm climates. This winter they will be in Chicago. This weekend they are all going to Washington, DC. They have his work truck to pull the 5th wheel and she drives behind in a Suburban. The two older kids, a boy and a girl, have been to 42 states. What an eye opening experience for them. This is a gal that ‘does not shit the small stuff”. The kids are delightful. Both of the teenagers seem very outgoing and friendly, even to a stranger like me. No grousing when I asked if I could take their picture. The 3 year old even put her high heels on for the the occasion!
Doug and I finished the day with a couple of hours kayaking on the lake.
The US Open was being played near here at Oakmont Golf Course. The deluge of Thursday had to affect the playability of the course. One of our fellow campers gets to be a marshall and is hoping to play a round if the Open concludes early. The rain didn’t help that hope. He is retired for the third time and has his PGA card. He says he is going to play golf and mow his lawn. Lawn mowing is an art form here….it can consume days, I think.
June 18, 2016
We just got on the Ohio Turnpike and are not seeing many trucks…..We may have made a mistake and have a hefty toll.
As it turns out, it is not as bad as we anticipated……..$27 for 120 miles.
Congratulation Madam President
A big congratulations to my “youngest” oldest granddaughter…….she was just elected president of the ASB at her school, Newcomb, in Long Beach. She won with these two slogans. “Vote for me Regan D” & “Regan will go the extra mile to make you smile.”
Happy Father’s Dad to all my favorite fathers June 19, 2016 Ann Arbor
We made a detour to Ann Arbor for a brief visit with a friend of Doug’s from his UCLA days as a resident. Dave Bloom is chairman of urology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. We had a delightful brunch at their home which is nestled in a beautiful forest. A few years ago they added on a huge screened porch…..it really is like sitting in a tree house. We are so appreciative that we were able to squeeze into their very busy schedule. Martha, Dave’s wife, had a wonderful brunch just waiting for us. We did spend some hours as Dave and Doug relived their early days at UCLA. They met on the first day as brand new medical school grads with all their new responsibilities. What an exciting time in their lives. Dave has as many stories to tell as does Doug! Hard to believe but true.
Thank you Dave & Martha