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An older white man in a hard hat addresses a group of four in an industrial setting.

Immersed in the Battle of Homestead

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A Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshop

As we reflect back on the accomplishments of 2022, one of this year’s highlights was a collaboration with the Archives & Special Collections Department at the University of Pittsburgh Library System to present a Landmarks of American History and Culture workshop, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Two men gaze out from a riverboat towards downtown Pittsburgh, while one takes a pictures of the skyline.

Workshop participants traveled upriver, following the route taken by the Pinkerton force in 1892.

Entitled The Homestead Steel Strike and the Growth of America as an Industrial Power, the program hosted sixty-seven teachers from across the United States for a weeklong immersive experience.

Divided into two cohorts over two weeks in July, the educators explored the circumstances that led to the 1892 Battle of Homestead and its lasting impact on the United States.

An older white man stands at a podium in a brick room, in front of a slideshow projection for a group of people.

Les Standiford addresses the group at the Pump House.

Their first visit? The Pump House, once part of the former Homestead Steel Works and the site of the actual Battle of 1892. During an evening reception, the group had an opportunity to meet with one another and greet many of the speakers who would be giving sessions later in the week.

Even for this first meeting, the participants were prepared to surpass small talk. They were tasked with reading in advance three books that would provide context for the week: Paul Krause’s The Battle for Homestead, Thomas Bell’s novel Out of This Furnace, and Les Standiford’s Meet You in Hell.

Each day, teachers attended a morning lecture series that featured local and national industrial history, immigration, and labor experts, including: author and professor Dr. Charles McCollester, filmmaker and labor educator Steffi Domike, author and historian Edward (Ted) K. Muller, historian Tammy Hepps, interdisciplinary educator Joel Woller, author and steelworker Ken Kobus, author and professor Quentin Skrabec, author and historian Paul Kahan, and author Les Standiford. You can check out their bios here.

A group of 30 people pose for a photo in front of an industrial structure.

The group at the Carrie Blast Furnaces.

Afternoons were spent visiting various attractions in southwestern Pennsylvania that relate to labor history, immigration, and steelmaking. Field trips included a tour of Clayton at The Frick Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh home of Henry Clay Frick; a tour of the Bost Building, a site that received National Historic Landmark status for its role as the strikers’ headquarters during the Battle of Homestead; a narrated river tour of the former industrial sites on the Monongahela River on the Explorer riverboat; a stop at the Carnegie Library of Homestead; an Industrial Tour of the Carrie Blast Furnaces; and a visit to the Born of Fire exhibit at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, which was interpreted by the museum’s former curator, Barbara Jones.

A white man in a work shirt gestures towards archival images on a table adressing a small group of women.

Interpretive specialist Ryan Henderson shows part of the group items from Rivers of Steel’s archives during the visit to the Bost Building.

Beyond lectures and site visits, the educators also had the opportunity to view and photograph primary source materials related to the strike in the University of Pittsburgh and Rivers of Steel archives. Highlights from the Archives & Special Collections Department at the University of Pittsburgh Library System included the Allegheny County Coroner’s inquest reports on the fatalities at the Battle of Homestead and the papers of William Martin, who served as Carnegie Steel’s Chief of the Bureau of Labor during the period of the strike. Rivers of Steel displayed the Daily Record of Allegheny County Prison featuring Alexander Berkman’s name in the arrest records and letters from a Pinkerton guardsman.

Cursive writing with a fountain pen on slightly yellowed paper.

A 1892 letter to the coroner detailing the events around the death of one of the laborers.

While the workshop focused on America’s well-known industrialists, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, teachers also delved into information on the immigrant experience and additional content on iron- and steelmaking to set the context for the events of 1892.

The end result of this unique experience? Participating teachers developed lesson plans based on themes from the workshop, most of which can be found here: The Homestead Steel Strike and the Growth of America as an Industrial Power (pitt.edu)

Initially, this workshop was to be offered in 2020, but it was postponed twice due to the pandemic. It was worth the wait. Given the response by participants and collaborators, Rivers of Steel and our partners at the Archives & Special Collections Department at the University of Pittsburgh Library System plan to apply for another NEH grant to offer this workshop again in the near future.

To view and search the resources on the 1892 Homestead Steel Strike in the University of Pittsburgh Digital Collection, click here: https://pitt.libguides.com/homestead.

To view and search the Rivers of Steel Archival Collection, click here: https://riversofsteel.pastperfectonline.com/.

Interested in reading about other Rivers of Steel education programs? Check out this story featuring Community Collaborations in 2022.

Rivers of Steel’s 2022 Year in Review

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A Preservation Story, 35 Years in the Making

2022 Marked a Significant Turning Point in Rivers of Steel’s Journey 

 

Setting Out to Save Carrie

When Rivers of Steel’s founders set out to save the Carrie Blast Furnaces in the late 1980s, they knew there would be challenges ahead, but they likely didn’t grasp the enormity of the task that would consume the then-burgeoning organization for the next thirty-five years.

But what those community advocates were sure of was that this iron mill—a place that literally built our nation and produced the arsenal of democracy that would save the world from tyranny—represented the very heart of southwestern Pennsylvania’s heritage. They knew that with each steel plant that closed and with every former steelworker who left to live and work outside the region, the hard-working culture that built the 20th century was fading into memory.

 

Progress along the Way

Since its inception, Rivers of Steel has helped to share this historical legacy, through our archives, oral histories, research, and interpretive exhibits. And as we have moved forward, we have also worked to help rebuild communities from the ground up. At times, we built trails and redeveloped brownfields. More recently, our efforts have included supporting the creative economy and community collaborations. All the while, we were pioneering what is now known as heritage tourism.

Throughout those thirty-five years, the preservation of the Carrie Blast Furnaces mirrored each of those efforts. But first, critical parts of the site had to be saved from the wrecking ball and National Historic Landmark status needed to be secured. Even now, ongoing preservation efforts are required to keep grounds safe and the structures standing as we work to conserve and stabilize the site for future visitors.

 

Redevelopment of the Carrie Furnaces Site

Each step of the way, we have been working in concert with our community partners in Rankin, Swissvale, Braddock, and North Braddock, along with the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County, and now, RIDC on the preservation and redevelopment of the land that surrounds our historic site. Ground has finally broken—and with that, we are on the precipice of a new era.

 

What’s Next

We have a vision. Exciting things are on the horizon. Your support today will help us reach the next step. After all, you—citizens of this region and friends of industrial heritage preservation—have been with us from day one, and with each advancing step, we find more and more support to move us forward. Thank you for joining us on this exciting journey.

 

Donate Now

Rivers of Steel’s 2022 Year in Review Video

tudents holding a rope in a lot across from a church

Community Spotlight—Dragon’s Den

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Homestead youth engage in a group activity across from Dragon’s Den, which occupies the space that was formerly the St. Mary Magdalene church.

Community Spotlight—Dragon’s Den

The Community Spotlight series features the efforts of Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer

A long view of the former church which has a ropes course occuping two levels of the former sanctuary.

The two-story ropes course at Dragon’s Den.

Helping Homestead Youth Reach Great Heights

When Giulia and Bill Petrucci purchased the former St. Mary Magdalene church in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 2015, they knew they wanted to create a space where the community, especially its children, could come together. At the time, they never imagined the space would be centered around a two-story ropes course and a zip line that ran from the old choir loft to the altar.

While the couple was working out how to restore such a large, open space in a way that was financially feasible, they considered closing off the top half of the cathedral to make heating and cooling more practical.

“We knew we wanted to do something for children, but the issue was that in a part of our church, we have the ceiling that is more than fifty feet high. So the challenge was how are we going to heat this big, open space,” says Giulia Lozza Petrucci, Executive Director of Dragon’s Den. “And so the initial idea was to build a second floor because this way you could heat one floor and not the other one, but then that would mean having to cover all the beautiful details of this church. The ceiling is absolutely stunning. We have terracotta medallions with different faces on top of each window, and everything would have been, you know, hidden.”

Since a key piece of their mission was also to preserve the history of the space, installing a second floor that would cut off visitors from the church’s grandeur was not an option. Luckily, a trip to Italy provided unexpected inspiration.

“When my kids and I went to Italy that summer, my kids went to tour a ropes course with my aunt. They came home and they started talking about being terrorized and walking in the air and thinking that they were going to die,” says Petrucci with a laugh. “But then actually they didn’t. And they loved it so much, and I could see a difference in self-confidence and joy from my own children.”

Curious about their experience, Petrucci visited the ropes course the following day to learn more.

“In Italy, field trips must be educational. But I really didn’t understand what was educational about moving from one platform on a tree to another,” she says with another laugh. “To me it looked more like a physical thing, like a gym or something. I really didn’t see the connection until I talked to the teachers, and they told me that it’s part of the curriculum because there are so many studies that support how doing ropes courses helps team building and working together among participants, and also following directions, problem solving, and an increase in self-efficacy, self-control, focus, and self-confidence.”

After doing some more research into the benefits of participating in a ropes course, the Petruccis had made up their minds.

“So that is when the decision was made,” Petrucci continues. “We realized that we could do a second floor without covering the beauty, because our ropes courses would allow people to move on two different levels as if there were two floors. But it’s open, so you see all the beautiful details while walking next to it. Imagine when you go to a cathedral, you see things that are, what, thirty feet away, right? Well, in our case, you walk next to it.”

A younger black girl in a harness on the ropes course gives the camera a thumbs up.

A youth on the ropes course at Dragon’s Den.

A neighborhood Oratorio in Homestead

Beyond the benefits a ropes course would add to their programming, Petrucci saw potential in the location of St. Mary Magdalene to recreate a space familiar to her from growing up in Italy.

“We have one little church in every little town in Italy, and next to each church is a safe space called an oratorio, where children are free to walk to after school,” explains Petrucci. “And there are structured and unstructured activities, a space to run, a space to do homework there.”

A desire to create an oratorio for the Homestead community solidified the concept of Dragon’s Den.

“The position of St. Mary Magdalene being across the street from Propel Charter School and a block and a half from Barrett Elementary school and across the street from a park makes it very, very easy for the kids to just walk to us independently,” says Petrucci.

Dragon’s Den has been deeply embedded in the community from the start. The Petruccis were drawn to St. Mary Magdalene not only for its beauty, but also because of the stories they had heard about how hard the neighborhood rallied to keep its doors open. The organization’s name—a nod to the church’s former school whose mascot was a dragon—was chosen through a large community-wide naming contest.

“One of the people that submitted a name, actually I remember that email because it was a turning point, like a light bulb went off,” says Petrucci. “This person was saying, ‘You want to preserve our church? Please also preserve our past.’”

Recently the Petruccis were afforded a unique opportunity to do just that. Thanks in part to funding from a Rivers of Steel Mini-Grant, the organization will be able to restore an original model of the church that was found in the rectory.

“It’s an historic model because it’s assumed that it was built in 1895 by architect Frederick Sauer, who is the architect that built St. Mary Magdalene,” says Petrucci. “But what happened at that time, there was a huge fire in 1934 that destroyed completely the old St. Mary Magdalene. So what you see now, the building we are in, it was rebuilt—but that model, it’s the only remaining evidence of what the historic building looked like before its destruction.”

Two white women in gloves carry the model out.

Removing the model for restoration.

Mary Wilcop, an object conservator at the Carnegie Museum of Art, will clean the model, which provides a unique architectural glimpse into the Steel Valley’s past. Once the restoration is complete, the model will provide an invaluable tourist attraction as part of the area’s heritage.

This attention to the site’s history and the neighboring community, along with the distinctive programming a ropes course offers, has endeared Dragon’s Den to the Homestead families it serves. Despite opening at the onset of a pandemic, the programs at Dragon’s Den have been wildly popular out of the gate. The ropes courses and open space of the church naturally lent to social distancing while offering a chance for physical activity and social interactions. Since then, the programs at Dragon’s Den have grown to include after-school programs, summer camps, community events, and facility rentals for corporate retreats and team building.

Giulia Petrucci is eager to point out that beyond reading about it and seeing pictures, you really need to see the space to appreciate all that it has to offer. She recalls how even a colleague of the ropes course designer, who had seen hundreds of photos of the space, marveled during his first in-person visit. “He said, ‘Well, I believe that Dragon’s Den is like the pyramids in Egypt. It doesn’t matter how many pictures you’ve seen, it doesn’t matter how many words you have read—you don’t fully appreciate them until you are there.”

Learn more about the history, programs, and ropes course opportunities at Dragon’s Den at dragonsdenpgh.org.

About the Mini-Grant Program

Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program assists heritage-related sites and organizations as well as municipalities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to develop new and innovative programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours, and other initiatives. Funded projects support heritage tourism, enhance preservation efforts, involve the stewardship of natural resources, encourage outdoor recreation, and include collaborative partnerships. Through these efforts, Rivers of Steel seeks to identify, conserve, promote, and interpret the industrial and cultural heritage that defines southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is one of twelve supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). Funding is provided via DCNR’s Community Conservation Partnerships Program and the Environmental Stewardship Fund to Rivers of Steel, which administers the Mini-Grant Program. Dragon’s Den is one of eight organizations who received Mini-Grant funding through this program in 2022.

Gita Michulka is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years of experience promoting our region’s arts, recreation, and nonprofit assets.  

If you’d like to know more about community projects supported by the Mini-Grant Program, read Gita’s recent article about Meadowcroft Rockshelter.

A medium skinned black girl with long curly hair raises a spray can to paint a outdoor mural while another girl paints in the background.

Community Collaborations

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Community Collaborations

In the past couple of years, we’ve had fewer opportunities than usual for student engagement. However, 2022’s student programs resembled something much closer to normal—and for us, “normal” is far from average. In fact, beyond our regular field trips, Rivers of Steel had the opportunity to work with two area schools on special projects this year thanks to support from The Grable Foundation and the National Park Foundation. It was an engaging and exciting time for local students in Braddock Hills and Woodland Hills.

Students gather in disucssion while one is painting in front of a mural that reads "BHMS Pride"

Braddock Hills Middle School Pride Mural

Braddock Hills Middle School’s Mural Project

For the first project, funded by The Grable Foundation and part of the Remake Learning Network, Rivers of Steel partnered with Propel Braddock Hills Middle School for an artist residency project. Art teacher Susan Sarabok’s students in grades six through eight worked with Rivers of Steel teaching artists who combined two established forms of style-writing traditions not often thought of together—modern graffiti and traditional Turkish calligraphy. Shane Pilster and Max Gonzales, two graffiti writers and mural artists from Rivers of Steel’s staff, led the workshops, along with calligrapher and frequent Rivers of Steel collaborator, Benjamin Aysan.

In addition to learning style-writing techniques, students also worked with the artists to design and paint a mural at their school. The school year finished with a field trip to the Carrie Blast Furnaces so students could learn more about the history of the site and see dozens of large-scale graffiti-style murals created by local, national, and international artists.

A long haired self-identified latino man in a ball cap positions a stencil in front of the mural for a black girl in a covid mask to spray paint.

Max Gonzolas helps a student with her stencil.

“This mural project with Propel Braddock Hills was one of the most involved mural education opportunities we’ve ever had,” said Max Gonzales. “Not only was this a chance to create a mural with the designs and paintings of these middle schoolers, but we also gave them a semester-long education on the origins of graffiti, lettering, and muralism. We were able to tie together the ideas of professional calligraphy and lettering to the typographic art form of graffiti. This was an important opportunity to develop a relationship with the students to ensure that we were allowing their voices to be heard and for them to have significant input in the painting and design of the mural. The end result of this project is much more than just a mural; it is a source of pride for the students and an experience that they can now share with their personal communities.”

Student feedback included excitement over being part of a mural that will be visible at the school for years to come. Students also enjoyed their visit to the Carrie Blast Furnaces, where they had the opportunity to paint on the same walls as professional muralists and learn more about the history of the site itself.

A group of students in white hard hats gather near the car dumper of the Carrie Furnaces.

Students from Turtle Creek Elementary STEAM Academy at the Carrie Blast Furnaces.

Woodland Hills and the Steelworker Project

The second project, funded by the National Park Foundation’s Open OutDoors for Kids initiative included fourth-graders from Turtle Creek Elementary STEAM Academy, part of the Woodland Hills School District. Students participated in a pilot of The Steelworker Project, a three-part program focused on local steel history.

JaQuay Carter, Rivers of Steel’s interpretive specialist and outreach coordinator, kick-started the project with a visit to the students’ classroom, engaging them with activities and artifacts from Rivers of Steel’s Steelworker Trunk. This experience included opportunities for students to try on steelworker safety gear.

A student in steelworker silver protective gear.“It was an overall wonderful experience to work with the staff and students at Turtle Creek Elementary STEAM Academy,” said JaQuay Carter. “The young scholars were well prepared, thoroughly engaged, and very interested to learn about the process of making iron and steel. These were some of the brightest and best-behaved students I have ever had the pleasure of instructing. One lucky student per class got to try on heat safety gear and experience the clothing required to work at a blast furnace.”

Following JaQuay’s classroom visits, the students visited the Carrie Blast Furnaces to tour the site and learn more about iron production and working conditions there. After the visit, JaQuay recollected: “The four groups of students then got to see the Furnaces and learn how iron was made, and they loved it!”

A group of students look at the car dumper

JaQuay Carter with a group of students from Turtle Creek Elementary STEAM Academy.

As a follow-up to their visit to the Carrie Blast Furnaces, students met with Rivers of Steel Tour Guide and retired steelworker Bill O’Rourke over Zoom. Students prepared questions for Mr. O’Rourke to find out more about his firsthand experiences working in the steel industry, including his time as an industrial engineer at the Carrie Blast Furnaces.

Rivers of Steel’s Director of Education, Suzi Bloom, created this program to pilot a multi-experience opportunity for a younger audience to visit Carrie and also to host students who live and go to school near the National Historic Landmark. “Providing students with an opportunity to learn about the history that took place so close to their homes is so important for their sense of pride in their community,” said Suzi. “The historical significance of places like the Carrie Blast Furnaces and the people who worked there is so essential to convey, especially as our younger generations become further removed from having living relatives who worked at these sites.”

Interested in reading about other Rivers of Steel education programs? Check out this story featuring the Environmental Science on the Three Rivers program.

Members of local tribes share a recently brewed drink.

Community Spotlight—Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village and Fort Pitt Museum

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“Life with a Shawnee Family” at Meadowcroft.

Community Spotlight—Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village and Fort Pitt Museum

The Community Spotlight series features the efforts Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer

An an archaeological site with a massive rock overhang

The Meadowcroft Rockshelter

Amplifying Historic Voices of Western Pennsylvania

Taking an authentic look back in time over 400 years has a deeper meaning when you can hear directly from descendants of the people who lived in this region during that time. New fall programming at Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village and the Fort Pitt Museum aims to amplify the perspectives of native tribes within the historic stories that shape western Pennsylvania.

Meadowcroft recently hosted Life with a Shawnee Family, a two-day event where ten members of federally recognized American Indian tribes traveled to western Pennsylvania to participate in recreations throughout the site.

Visitors at Meadowcroft, a 275-acre site in Washington County, have a unique ability to travel through several distinct periods of time. The Rockshelter, a National Historic Landmark, houses the earliest known campsite in North America, with signs of life dating from 19,000 years ago. Nearby, there are three other outdoor historic areas: a sixteenth-century Monongahela Indian Village that looks at life after agriculture but prior to European settlement; an eighteenth-century frontier trading post; and a nineteenth-century rural village, which includes a single-family home, a one-room schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, and a covered bridge.

A young man with a bare chest and leather bottoms wearing beads holds an arrow while gesturing while a white family of four listen.

The “Life with a Shawnee Family” event.

For the Life with a Shawnee Family event, the focus in each of these areas across Meadowcroft was a historical interpretation from an American Indian tribe’s perspective. Tribal members were located in the Monongahela Indian Village to talk about pre-contact life and in the eighteenth century frontier area to talk about life during that period. The program also aimed to offer a native perspective on the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the effect it had on the indigenous people. Across the site, members of the tribe also offered visitors a chance to see how tasks were performed by their ancestors in the early days of agriculture and how Ohio Valley tribes lived off the land.

“One of the major initiatives that we’re partnering with the Fort Pitt staff on is what we’re calling our American Indian initiative,” says David Scofield, Director of Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village. “We’re developing relationships with the tribes that were here historically but were forcibly removed and pushed west to reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma or north to New York. The Shawnee tribes, the Delaware tribes, Seneca, and the Seneca-Cayuga.”

Scofield continues, “Our goal is to involve those tribes that were here historically as we develop programming and we develop exhibits so that they can have a voice here once again in a place where they no longer have a physical presence but were a major part of our region’s history.”

At the Fort Pitt Museum, the timeline picks up where Meadowcroft leaves off, highlighting the mid-to-late eighteenth-century wars that further shaped our region. Displays in the museum showcase Pittsburgh’s pivotal role in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution and also what life was like in the early days as the city was developing.

 

A woman in traditional native dress stands by a smoking spit talking to a family in front of the Fort Pitt Museum.

Cooking demonstration at the Fort Pitt Museum.

A recent program at Fort Pitt also highlighted the interactions between the historic tribes that once called Pittsburgh home, including a cooking demonstration from Shideezhi Emarthla, a citizen of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation. The program was held on the museum lawn in Point State Park and was free to the public.

Additionally, the Fort Pitt Museum has opened a new exhibit titled Guyasuta: The Life & Legend of a Seneca Chief. The exhibit looks at the life of one of Pittsburgh’s eighteenth-century leaders and includes the bronze scale model for the “Points of View” sculpture on Mount Washington by local sculptor Jim West.

A bronze sculpture of Chief Guyasuta and George Washinton looking one another in the eye perched atop Mt. Washington with the Point in the background.

Point of View sculpture on Mount Washington, courtesy of Jim West.

The effect of physically being at these historical sites is never lost on Justin Meinert, education and living history manager at the Fort Pitt Museum. “At Fort Pitt you get to experience the historical significance of Point State Park and be in the atmosphere of downtown Pittsburgh,” he says. “While at Meadowcroft, you are standing in a historically significant spot of 19,000 years of human inhabitation, and for a slight moment may be able to feel as if you are in a 1620s Monongahela Indian Village or eighteenth-century town—and all the while you are surrounded by the best views Western Pennsylvania’s countryside has to offer.”

“By implementing American Indian Programing—mainly living history programs—at both sites, it allows not only a large, diverse visitor base to experience the programs, but our presenters themselves,” says Meinert.

Scofield agrees. “Because of our American Indian initiative, we have cooperated in both directions where, you know, Fort Pitt staff will come here and help us with programming, and then we’ve participated in programs there as well,” he says. “So we’ve been doing that a little bit, but this is a growing initiative, and I expect a lot more of that over time.”

Life with a Shawnee Family and these recent programs at Fort Pitt were funded in part by the Rivers of Steel Mini-Grant Program. Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village and the Fort Pitt Museum are part of the Senator John Heinz History Center, a Smithsonian affiliate that also houses the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum and the Detre Library and Archives.

Upcoming fall programming at Meadowcroft includes Archaeology Day, in partnership with the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology; Insider Tours of the Rockshelter with James M. Adovasio, Ph.D., lead archaeologist on the site; and a Taffy Pull and Fall Finale. Visit heinzhistorycenter.org/Meadowcroft for details. The Fort Pitt Museum offers both guided and self-guided tours that meet the needs of a variety of audiences. For a listing of exhibits and events, visit heinzhistorycenter.org/fort-pitt.

All images courtesy of Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village and Fort Pitt Museum, except where noted.

About the Mini-Grant Program

Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program assists heritage-related sites and organizations as well as municipalities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to develop new and innovative programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours, and other initiatives. Funded projects support heritage tourism, enhance preservation efforts, involve the stewardship of natural resources, encourage outdoor recreation, and include collaborative partnerships. Through these efforts, Rivers of Steel seeks to identify, conserve, promote, and interpret the industrial and cultural heritage that defines southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is one of twelve supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). Funding is provided via DCNR’s Community Conservation Partnerships Program and the Environmental Stewardship Fund to Rivers of Steel, which administers the Mini-Grant Program. Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village and Fort Pitt Museum is one of eight organizations who received Mini-Grant funding through this program in 2022.

Gita Michulka is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years of experience promoting our region’s arts, recreation, and nonprofit assets.  

If you’d like to know more about community projects supported by the Mini-Grant Program, read Gita’s recent article about the West Overton Village and Museums.

The word "Community" written in graffiti style-writing.

Community Spotlight

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Shining a Spotlight on our Heritage Area Partners

The Community Spotlight series features the efforts Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. Take a look!

(Listed in order of publication)

2022

2021

September, 2021: Kelly Strayhorn Theater

 

Red apples on a tree with text reading Picked An Apple Trail

Picked: An Apple Trail

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Exploring PA in a Tasty Way—Culinary Trails

This week we are excited to shine a spotlight on the Center for Regional Agriculture, Food, and Transformation (CRAFT) at Chatham University.  The CRAFT team created four culinary trails for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development—trails that highlight the foodways traditions in southwestern Pennsylvania and throughout the Commonwealth. In the article below, guest writer and Program Manager for CRAFT, Cynthia Caul,  offers a taste of the Picked: An Apple Trail.

By Cynthia Caul, Program Manager, CRAFT at Chatham University

A gravel road with trees in fall colors

Fall is upon us. The air has turned cool and crisp. The leaves are changing colors, falling to the ground, and crunching underfoot. People are drinking pureed pumpkin frothed with warm milk and sugar, and in Pennsylvania, apples are ripening on the trees to be turned into delicious ciders, sauces, pies, and so much more. You can check out these apple treats for yourself on the Picked: An Apple Trail. This story highlights the fourth and final trail that we at Chatham University’s Center for Regional Agriculture, Food, and Transformation (CRAFT) created in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

Pennsylvania Apples

Pennsylvania is one of the largest apple-growing states in the country with over 20,000 acres of apple orchards producing up to 500 million pounds of apples per year. A little under half of these apples are sold fresh, and the rest are sold in a myriad of value-added forms.

In this region, the Appalachian Mountains have bestowed us with rolling hills and the well-drained soils that so often accompany them. You may be most (and unpleasantly) familiar with this phenomenon manifesting as a wet basement or collapsing retaining wall. However, this phenomenon is also responsible for creating great soil and conditions for apples trees to flourish and thrive.

The south-central part of the state is most conducive to apple growing. However, throughout history, apples have been grown throughout the state. At one point, almost every farm in the state included an apple orchard. The trees were usually grown from seed, and the apples they produced were called “spitters.” This was because when you ate the fruit, you’d usually have to spit out the sour-tasting seed.

Because of this sour taste, these apples were often processed into alcoholic cider or vinegar rather than eaten fresh. This made these orchards vulnerable during prohibition; the FBI burned down many orchards during this period.

Where orchards still remain and are plentiful in the state, there is often a vibrant culture of seasonal markets and food traditions that include fresh apple cider (alcoholic and nonalcoholic), apple butter, and handmade apple dumplings and other baked goods. Nowadays, there is wide variety of apples grown that are sweeter in taste—due to grafting, a form of plant breeding—which are better suited for these types of treats.

However, in spite of conducive growing conditions and this rich history, apples are not indigenous to this area—or to this country or continent at all. They actually originated in modern-day Kazakhstan in Paleolithic times and did not make their way to this continent until the 1500s. First, the presence and popularity of apple trees spread across Europe. Then, they were brought to Mexico and South America by Spanish colonizers. A bit later, the apple trees were planted in other parts of North America; British colonizers were the ones to bring them to our region. One such colonizer who is so often associated with apples and their prevalence in this region was John Chapman. You may know him as Johnny Appleseed.

A drone shot of a farm with green rows of trees

Johnny Appleseed

Chapman was born in Massachusetts and found his way to Pennsylvania, where he gathered apple seeds from the cider mills along the Monongahela River and carried them throughout the state, as well as Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, planting as he went. This in effect granted him legal claim to these lands. At that time, roughly the early 19th century, one way homesteaders colonizing the western frontier were able to gain recognized ownership of lands was if they planted at least fifty apples trees on the land. So as these individuals and families traveled westward, Chapman sold them his newly acquired plots of land and the orchards that grew upon them.

This was a rather lucrative business venture for Chapman. It also effectively seized ownership of these lands from the indigenous communities that had inhabited, cultivated, and cared for them for generations, moving into the hands of frontier families and European colonizers. In the 19th century, our beloved apples that have graced this earth since 10,000 BCE became instruments of an injustice that has not yet been rectified.

Chapman or Johnny Appleseed is often mythologized as a pacifist and environmentalist, but his actions contributed to land theft and new forms of land ownership and farming that were even contrary to his own environmental beliefs. For example, he would have opposed the sweet, grafted apple varieties that we’ve come to love today, as opposed to the sour spitters, as he did not believe this form of plant breeding was appropriate. Grafting is a form of plant breeding where the roots of one plant are attached to a new shoot or branch of another plant, and it is required to produce these sweeter varieties.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, when we decided to take a food systems approach to developing these trails, we were looking to answer and unpack questions about who was growing and making what where, as well as how these food practices and traditions came to be in this region. This process of exploration and self-reflection can often be as rich as it is fraught. In the case of apples, we carry the dissonance that exists between these beloved fruits of the earth, the joy and traditions that accompany them, and the complicated role they played in our region and country’s colonial history.

With Gratitude

As I wrap up this final blog in the series, I want to thank Rivers of Steel for giving me this space to highlight this work.

Additionally, I want to give a special thanks to Mary Miller, the culinary historian we worked with on this project, who shared an absolute wealth of knowledge and spent a monumental amount of time driving around our state visiting the businesses you can now find featured on all four Baked, Chopped, Pickled, and Picked trails.

Hitting the Trail

Finally, I want to thank you for reading along! I appreciate your time and attention. I hope you get a chance to experience some or all of the trails and that it is a truly meaningful experience for you that leaves you feeling full, including but not limited to your stomach.

As you are headed out on your travels this fall, here are a few highlights from the western portion of the trail:

Apis Mead in Carnegie, where you can find a seasonal cyser made from local apples. Cyser refers to a mead, which a type of wine, that is made with apples.

Emmett’s Orchard in Mercer County. This is a family-owned farm growing apples and making fresh apple cider, muffins, and jams—all of which they sell in their gift shop!

Furhman’s Cider Mill & Luminary Distilling in Erie. Fuhrman’s cider mill has been producing cider for over 125 years. They more recently joined forces with their neighbor, Luminary Distilling. One of the most popular collaborations is the Apple Pie Moonshine.

Twin Pies in Linesville, where you can find all the pies—including the classic apple pie, an apple raisin crumb pie, a Dutch apple pie, and pies made with other seasonal fruits as well. This a family-owned business that makes pies from old and new family recipes.

Tavern on the Square in New Wilmington. We almost lost this ninety-one-year-old tavern and former Underground Railroad stop to the pandemic, but it is under new ownership and renovation and is set to open in 2023. I’m leaving this here for future reference (and to nudge the new owners to bring back those renowned apple dumplings!)

Further Afield

If you’re looking to travel a bit further and take in more of that fall foliage, you might want to check out:

Tait Farm Foods, in Centre Hall, PA, which provides spiced apple shrub and apple butter, as well as a variety of other shrubs, jams, butters, mustards, and more.

Mile Level Farm Market in La Vale, MD, where you can get Pennsylvania Apple Pie Cheddar cheese, apple dumplings, and apple teas.

Case’s Mansfield Cider Mill in Mansfield, PA, is a 125-year-old cider mill that produces ciders, jams, dumplings, and more from locally grown apples.

Schlegel Farm in Dalmatia, PA is a fifth-generation eco-farm that grows over thirty varieties of apples.

The Markets at Hanover in Hanover, PA (of course), where you can find apple snitz (schnitz), apple wine, and other local goods to accompany your apples, including honey and cheese.

National Apple Museum in Biglerville, PA—yes, that’s a thing. The museum is located in Adams County—the heart of the apple-growing region in Pennsylvania. You can learn all about the history of apple growing here.

Apple Valley Creamery in East Berlin, PA. As the name suggests, this is a dairy, but relevant for our purposes, they sell smoked Applewood cheddar, apple griller sausage, and Oyler’s apple cider at their farm store.

About CRAFT

The Center for Regional Agriculture, Food, and Transformation (CRAFT) works to support robust regional food systems that are equitable, inclusive, and sustainable in Western Pennsylvania and beyond.

CRAFT works with a number of regional partners to develop culinary trails that support economic development particularly in our region’s rural communities.

These trails aim to highlight the rich heritage and food traditions of the region, as well as include the history and culture of all of the region’s historical and current residents. We take this inclusive approach in order to acknowledge, learn, and inform about the fraught and complex history of land ownership and food production in our region and country, recognizing and celebrating the contributions of displaced indigenous and enslaved peoples.

The trails provide regional farms and food businesses with increased markets and promotional opportunities, and provide tourists with a deeper understanding of the regional food system and the unique value and history of the food grown and prepared within it.

Cynthia Caul is the program manager for CRAFT at Chatham University and graduate of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School for Public and International Affairs, where she studied International Development. Cynthia’s research has focused on food and nutrition security, land access, and the role of agricultural smallholders in an increasingly globalizing economy. She also worked at the Ford Institute for Human Security, conducting research on human rights-based approaches to improving agricultural land access for women farmers and was the 2017 recipient of the Simon Reich Human Security Writing Award. Prior to her current role, Cynthia worked on public health programming in Ghana with the U.S. Peace Corps.

If you’d like to know more about the culinary trails, check out her most recent post in this series, which features the Pickled Trail,

A four-story red brick barrel house which has "West Overton Distilling Co." and "Old Farm Rye" painted on it.

Community Spotlight—West Overton Village and Museums

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The West Overton Distilling Company, part of the West Overton Village and Museums

Community Spotlight—West Overton Village and Museums

The Community Spotlight series features the efforts Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer

A three level colonial style farm house with 13 window on the front side, several doors situated behind a white picket fence with trees around it.

Finding Your Way to West Overton—New Exhibits and Wayfinding to Tell a Broader Story of the Overholt Homestead

In a nutshell, the West Overton Village and Museums (WOVM) is a collection of nineteen historic buildings nestled amongst thirty acres—the homestead of Abraham Overholt and birthplace of his grandson, Henry Clay Frick. The German Mennonite village was established in the early 1800s and soon blossomed into a hub of industry. And though the story of the Overholts is fairly well known, new exhibits and wayfinding are helping guests of the village explore how much more there is to the site’s history.

“This started as a family farm in 1803, but by 1880 it had just blossomed into this industrial community, built around a rye whiskey distillery, a grist mill, a coal mine, a coverlet weaving business, and all the auxiliary businesses needed to make all of this operate,” says Aaron Hollis, co-executive director of WOVM.

A lot is known, documented, and celebrated about the Overholt family. Visitors to West Overton can tour a museum dedicated to the industrial enterprises of the family, as well as walk through preserved rooms in the 1838 Overholt Homestead and tour the springhouse where Frick was born. But WOVM wanted to dig deeper and has recently unveiled a new exhibit that shines a light on the hundreds of residents who made a living as mill workers, coal miners, coopers, rail workers, and store clerks.

“You know, the Overholts are a wealthy, prolific, large family. Fricks, even more so. So people found their stories, their images, everything worth preserving. We have our museum, we have websites, we have photo albums—we even have albums of hair of the Overholts,” says Hollis with a laugh.

Hollis is eager to share more about the lesser-known residents of West Overton. “We were able to go through ledgers of the Overholt company store and pick out names. And as best we could, we researched these residents through tax records, through census records, what they bought and sold in the store—just trying to scrape together details of these people’s lives to try to tell stories of this community through their eyes and see how they were impacted and also impacted the industrialization happening around them.”

This new exhibit is now part of the permanent exhibitions at West Overton Village and Museums, and museum staff are hopeful that over the years, as people come to tour the site, they will recognize their ancestors on display and reach out to share more.

Three liquor bottles: Monongahela Rye, Pennsylvania White Rye, and a Rye Whiskey cobranded with Dad's Hat.

West Overton Distilling Company Products

Rye Whiskey at West Overton

The rebirth of an Overholt legacy is also on display these days at WOVM.

“We started making whiskey here on site in our new education distillery for the first time since prohibition,” says Hollis. “It had been a hundred years, almost exactly, from when the stills last ran here and when we were able to reopen a distillery here on site.”

Visitors can now tour the pre-Civil War stock barn that WOVM renovated to become the West Overton Distilling Company. And even though it is outfitted with brand new equipment, the style of whiskey that is being produced is a similar product to what Abraham Overholt and family would have enjoyed at the height of the region’s industrial era.

“It’s not like we could turn on a hundred-year-old still,” laughs Hollis. “But we are making a very similar style product—Monongahela Rye. And visitors can tour the distillery as part of their museum experience, sample the product, and buy cocktails and bottles as well.”

Wayfinding at West Overton

Hollis notes that guests are welcome to tour the grounds even when WOVM staff are not present. “If you come here on a day that we are closed, you can still walk around, read signs about the buildings, and still have a valuable experience, even if you’re not in person with a tour guide.”

A self-guided walking tour booklet is available for the site, which includes historical notes about the land and settlement along with particular attractions.

Thanks in part to funding from a Rivers of Steel Mini-Grant, WOVM has begun to implement the first phase of a wayfinding project that will enhance guest experiences both during and outside of museum hours. Signs will be installed to aid with parking and site directions, as well as signage on the main attractions for a more interactive and educational experience. Over time, the museum hopes to add more interpretive signs throughout the village that will highlight the key aspects of West Overton from a century ago for a more thorough understanding of WOVM, its history, and its relevance to the region.

No matter how you experience the attractions at West Overton Village and Museums, Hollis hopes you’ll take a minute to reflect on the spaces themselves. “The beautiful thing about this settlement is that these buildings—they’re all original, they’re all authentic. I think that’s what, in part, makes West Overton so unique—all the buildings that we have here are the original structures, and the site is in its original layout. When you tour the Homestead, you are sharing the floor with Abraham Overholt and Henry Clay Frick and people of the 19th century, and that really offers such a unique connection to our region’s past.”

West Overton Village and Museums is located in Scottdale, PA, and is open Thursdays through Sundays from 10am to 4pm (the last tour begins at 3pm). Visit westovertonvillage.org for more details and seasonal events. 

All images courtesy of West Overton Village and Museums.

About the Mini-Grant Program

Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program assists heritage-related sites and organizations as well as municipalities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to develop new and innovative programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours, and other initiatives. Funded projects support heritage tourism, enhance preservation efforts, involve the stewardship of natural resources, encourage outdoor recreation, and include collaborative partnerships. Through these efforts, Rivers of Steel seeks to identify, conserve, promote, and interpret the industrial and cultural heritage that defines southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is one of twelve supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). Funding is provided via DCNR’s Community Conservation Partnerships Program and the Environmental Stewardship Fund to Rivers of Steel, which administers the Mini-Grant Program. The Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy is one of eight organizations who received Mini-Grant funding through this program in 2022.

Gita Michulka is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years of experience promoting our region’s arts, recreation, and nonprofit assets.  

If you’d like to know more about community projects supported by the Mini-Grant Program, read Gita’s recent article about the Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy.

Two women bikers on a converted rail road bridge with blue skies, puffy white clouds, green hills and a healthy green river.

Community Spotlight—Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy

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A ride on the Riverton Bridge with the Veterns Leadership Project.

Community Spotlight—Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy

The Community Spotlight series features the efforts Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer

A group of bikers cross the Hot Metal Bridge in Pittsburgh

Riders on the Hot Metal Bridge.

Great Allegheny Passage’s People of the Trail

The name “Humans of New York” might already be taken, but “People of the Great Allegheny Passage” has a nice ring to it.

Utilizing the power of a good story, the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) Conservancy hopes to highlight the essence of the trail towns along the GAP in a way that draws the attention of locals and tourists alike and shines a light on the living history of our region.

“This beautiful trail, the Great Allegheny Passage, took thirty-five years to build. But moreover, it has been built and maintained by local hands, and it is local entrepreneurs and risk takers who have started businesses in the trail towns along the way—folks who are tied to the land and have a deep appreciation for the history of the landscape through which the GAP runs,” says Bryan Perry, executive director of the Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy.

“I want our audiences, especially folks new to the GAP—tourists, out of towners, folks who are really just coming to have a great bicycle adventure—to get to know the people who have built this trail, who have put down a stake in the health of its towns, those who are protecting natural areas, and those who are preserving and interpreting the region’s history. There are so many wonderful stories to tell, and this project will begin to tell just a few of the diverse stories of folks who’ve been committed to the land and its features for such a long time.”

A rider on the Whitker Bridge

A rider crosses the Whitaker Bridge.

This storytelling project began in 2020 as an outlet for human connection during the beginning of the pandemic. Since then, nearly twenty stories of GAP trail stakeholders have been captured, along with inspiration for a new angle to share the narratives with an even broader audience.

Thanks to funding from Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program, the Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape, and Westmoreland, Fayette, and Somerset Tourism Grants, as well as the Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy itself, these static vignettes will be turned into ninety-second videos, even as the Conservancy is working to capture additional stories.

The GAP, which is open year-round, attracts about a million and a half visits a year, with people traveling from all fifty states and over thirty-five countries to experience the trails. Perry notes that these stories will be shared “as a way to alert tourists and folks coming to bike that this is a place of rich history and beauty and risk taking and deep love among constituents, and that it’s well worth their overnight stay and their appreciation for all that’s been built ahead of them.”

Cyclists on the Port Perry flyover.

The Living History of Western Pennsylvania’s “Industrial Might”

Along its 150-mile path, the GAP follows the paths of decommissioned railroad lines from Cumberland, Maryland continuously up to Pittsburgh.

“The GAP really traces a significant section of our country’s industrial development. The railroads themselves, both the Western Maryland Railway and the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad are the corridors on which the GAP is now built,” adds Perry. “And those railroads, in addition to carrying passengers, carried coal and coke into Pittsburgh and steel products back out in other directions. These railroads were commodities that were part of the region’s industrial heritage.”

But Perry is quick to note that the patch towns along these corridors are not a thing of the past, despite the region’s decline after the steel mills closed.

“You’re riding across from the Carrie Furnaces, and of course you’re passing by the Pump House and through the old grounds of the Homestead Steel Works. The region’s industries were dependent upon the rivers and the railroads. So you’re really riding through history in one sense, yet it is living history. People are still earning a living and supporting their families in the Mon and Yough valleys.”

In fact, thanks to the work of local businesses along the trail, tourism had a staggering impact of 121 million dollars in the five counties through which the GAP runs, according to Fourth Economy’s recent economic impact analysis, a study commissioned by the GAP Conservancy in 2020 and published in 2021.

“In Allegheny, Westmoreland, Fayette, and Somerset counties in Pennsylvania and Allegany county in Maryland, 75 million of that 121 is direct tourism spending in a very narrow band right along the Great Allegheny Passage—most of this in trail towns, including Homestead, including McKeesport and West Newton, Connellsville, and then further on out,” explains Perry.

“Entrepreneurs have started up bed and breakfasts, and distilleries and cafes, and inns and ice cream shops, and shuttle services and bike shops. And while these jobs won’t replace the industrial jobs that built those towns, it’s making a significant difference in the health and well-being of those towns along the way. So, you know, prosperity is aided by tourism, and really tourism serves local folks first. The very restaurants and bike shops and cafes that tourists are using, they need to be sustained throughout the year. And if those new businesses are focused first on local residents who frequent them and buy meals and supplies there, then they’re good for those towns, and the tourism dollar is just icing on the cake.”

Perry is hopeful that by sharing the stories of the region’s residents, greater attention will be paid to their labors of love.

“We’re hoping that tourists, as they come through, might say, ‘Hey, I recognize that volunteer or I recognize that business owner from the website—let’s spend a night at their bed and breakfast, let’s hear more of their story.’”

“Truly, the GAP is locally beloved,” continues Perry. “And so local folks are the ones working to, you know, cut grass and take care of fallen trees and take care of public art in those towns and promote walking tours and local bike routes within those towns. So local folks have the best stories. They’ve been at it the longest. And our goal with this project is to really bring the narratives and stories, at least pieces and slices anyway, to the forefront.

Visit gaptrail.org for more information, and be sure to check out The Great Ride: Landmarks Along the Trail, a new documentary by WQED Pittsburgh featuring twenty-one historic, geologic, and human interest vignettes between Cumberland and Pittsburgh along the Great Allegheny Passage. Head to www.wqed.org/ride for details.

All images courtesy of Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy.

About the Mini-Grant Program

Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program assists heritage-related sites and organizations as well as municipalities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to develop new and innovative programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours, and other initiatives. Funded projects support heritage tourism, enhance preservation efforts, involve the stewardship of natural resources, encourage outdoor recreation, and include collaborative partnerships. Through these efforts, Rivers of Steel seeks to identify, conserve, promote, and interpret the industrial and cultural heritage that defines southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is one of twelve supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). Funding is provided via DCNR’s Community Conservation Partnerships Program and the Environmental Stewardship Fund to Rivers of Steel, which administers the Mini-Grant Program. The Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy is one of eight organizations who received Mini-Grant funding through this program in 2022.

Gita Michulka is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years of experience promoting our region’s arts, recreation, and nonprofit assets.  

If you’d like to know more about community projects supported by the Mini-Grant Program, read Gita’s recent article about Brownsville’s Perennial Project.

canning jars with pickled items surrounded by tomatoes, peppers and beans with a landscape background and some flowers

Pickled: A Fermented Trail

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A display of pickled and fermented products. Image courtesy of The Pickled Chef, Latrobe.

Exploring PA in a Tasty Way—Culinary Trails

This week we are excited to shine a spotlight on the Center for Regional Agriculture, Food, and Transformation (CRAFT) at Chatham University.  The CRAFT team created four culinary trails for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development—trails that highlight the foodways traditions in southwestern Pennsylvania and throughout the Commonwealth. In the article below, guest writer and Program Manager for CRAFT, Cynthia Caul,  offers a taste of the Pickled trail.

By Cynthia Caul, Program Manager, CRAFT at Chatham University

Sliced pickles with a graphic for the trail

“Pickled: A Fermented Trail” Offers Travelers Unexpected Flavors and Variety

Do you know what cheese, vinegar, wine, hot sauce, beer, olives, and yogurt all have in common? They are all (or at least often are) fermented foods.

What is fermentation exactly? The production of energy from nutrients in the absence of oxygen using a community of bacteria and yeast.

There are also different types or processes of fermentation. For example, some processes require “feeding” this community of bacteria and yeast. You may have heard of this, or even become intimately familiar with it, during the renaissance of sourdough and other bread baking we witnessed at the outset of the pandemic. Some fermentation processes involve “culturing,” where the bacterial community (or mother culture, as some refer to it) is added at the outset. Butter and cheeses are fermented in this way. Still other processes are wild or spontaneous, where the community or culture presents naturally and begins the fermentation process, creating a rich regional terroir—a taste that can only be produced in that specific place because of its unique soil, climate, and surrounding environment.

Got it? It’s okay if you don’t. You don’t need to understand all the scientific intricacies behind fermentation to enjoy and appreciate the fermented foods featured on our Pickled: A Fermentation Trail.

It’s similar to how people often debate whether tomatoes are a vegetable or a fruit. Scientifically, however, there isn’t really much to debate. Tomatoes are, in fact, fruits. And so are cucumbers and zucchini because they bear seeds and grow from the flower of the plant. Botanically, this is what makes a fruit a fruit.

You know what else? Strawberries aren’t berries.

And you know what is a berry?  A tomato.

This may feel relevant for those of you who find yourself saying, “I don’t like fruit on my salad,” when you may more specifically mean, “I don’t like (insert apples, strawberries, cranberries, sweet things, etc.) on my salad.” But ultimately, it’s not that relevant at all. You can keep saying the former, even if you mean the latter, and everyone will know what you mean.

That’s culture. Culturally, the debate about whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable is far richer. There is a science to food. But food is also, and just as importantly, cultural. It’s spiritual. It’s about taste, and no single one of us can experience taste in the exact same way.

All of this is just one example of what we mean when we say we took a “food systems” approach to creating these four culinary trails or when we say we take a “holistic” approach to food systems. We’re not just referring to how a plant reproduces or where its seeds are housed. We’re referring to how the food was cooked or grown, who cooked or grew it, and for whom. How and when was it eaten? What was the experience? What significance did that experience hold for a community?

In much this same vein, this trail includes pickles, even though pickling and fermenting are two different processes. They produce similar, sour tastes that many people associate with one another. Pickling refers to soaking a vegetable, fruit, or other food in a vinegar or brine. In this country, when we think of pickles, we often think of those jarred, little cucumbers, but pickles consist of much more than that. And sometimes, those jarred, little cucumbers aren’t even pickled at all. Sometimes, they’re fermented. (But don’t worry, a lot of the time, they’re pickled.)

a bowl of sauerkraut

Fermenting and pickling are both practices that have a rich history and vibrant presence in this region, and they connect us to people all over the world who have originated and used these practices to preserve and prepare a variety of foods and beverages. For example, pickling dates back to 2030 B.C.E., where it was used to preserve cucumbers in India’s Tigris Valley. And the regional favorite sauerkraut that is often associated with German traditions is actually believed to have originated in China. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1870s that this fermented cabbage really found favor in the region. Prior to that, it was once referred to as ”pickled manure” in a Chambersburg newspaper. The culture surrounding food matters, and it’s also ever-changing.

So, with all of this new or revisited information under your belt, you’re primed to take a trip through one or all of our pickled and fermented itineraries.

Here are some highlights from the itinerary for southwestern Pennsylvania:

Five shelves lined with about 100 jars of different teas.

In addition to probiotic teas and kombucha, Abeille Voyante Tea Company offers a wide selection of all kinds of tea.

Abeille Voyante Tea Co., where you can get probiotic teas and kombucha.

 

A variety of Heinz Pickle Pins. Image courtesy of the Heinz History Center.

Heinz History Center, where you can brush up on your pickle trivia as well as see a 160-year-old jar of pickles.

A grower and bottles lined up on a wooden counter with a chalk board of beer listings in the background.

Strange Roots exists at the intersection of farmhouse brewing tradition and creative, locally-driven experimentation. They are passionate about celebrating our environment through the use of local ingredients, varying fermentation methods and micro flora, and strive to create unique artisan ales inspired by our surroundings here in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains.

Strange Roots Experimental Ales, which carries an array of wild (remember regional terroir?) fermented beers and vinegars.

Taiwanese Bistro Café 33 with a full menu of Taiwanese dishes, including fermented favorites like stinky tofu and kimchi hot pot.

The Pickled Chef has so much pickled and fermented goodness, including pickled ramps, kohlrabi, okra, and green beans, fermented sauerkrauts, and kimchi.

Lapp’s Family Market, which carries local water kefir, yogurt, and buttermilk.

Barrel & Flow Fest, a local beer festival, which I mentioned in my first blog post on grains but is also relevant here. It’s coming up in August, and tickets are on sale now.

If you’re looking to travel a little further, you might also be interested in:

Meadville Market House with a variety of unique pickled items, including golden eggs and spicy shrooms.

Core Goods, carrying a variety of products from familfarmers, including Clarion River Organics sauerkraut and Moody Culture kombucha.

Calkin’s Creamery, a family-owned creamery since the 1880s known for their award-winning cheeses.

Mister Lee’s Noodles, located in a historic public market, serves Japanese specialties, including fermented miso, kimchi, sriracha, and house-pickled vegetables from local farms.

Franklin Fountain, where you can get a refreshing, house-made root beer float. Root beer is a fermented beverage that was commercialized in Pennsylvania in the late 1800s, with the practice itself having a longer history originated by our nation’s indigenous peoples.

If you’re planning a trip, also be sure to check out my past two blog posts on the Baked and Chopped trails we developed alongside this one at Chatham University’s Center for Regional Agriculture, Food, and Transformation (CRAFT) with regional culinary historian Mary Miller for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

Happy travels!

About CRAFT

The Center for Regional Agriculture, Food, and Transformation (CRAFT) works to support robust regional food systems that are equitable, inclusive, and sustainable in Western Pennsylvania and beyond.

CRAFT works with a number of regional partners to develop culinary trails that support economic development particularly in our region’s rural communities.

These trails aim to highlight the rich heritage and food traditions of the region, as well as include the history and culture of all of the region’s historical and current residents. We take this inclusive approach in order to acknowledge, learn, and inform about the fraught and complex history of land ownership and food production in our region and country, recognizing and celebrating the contributions of displaced indigenous and enslaved peoples.

The trails provide regional farms and food businesses with increased markets and promotional opportunities, and provide tourists with a deeper understanding of the regional food system and the unique value and history of the food grown and prepared within it.

Cynthia Caul is the program manager for CRAFT at Chatham University and graduate of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School for Public and International Affairs, where she studied International Development. Cynthia’s research has focused on food and nutrition security, land access, and the role of agricultural smallholders in an increasingly globalizing economy. She also worked at the Ford Institute for Human Security, conducting research on human rights-based approaches to improving agricultural land access for women farmers and was the 2017 recipient of the Simon Reich Human Security Writing Award. Prior to her current role, Cynthia worked on public health programming in Ghana with the U.S. Peace Corps.

If you’d like to know more about the culinary trails, check out her first post in this series, which features the Baked Trail.