Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Historical Landmark Is Gone-Burning Of The Gilbert Farm House

As darkness fell on Sunday September 26th, I paused by the glowing embers of the remains of the Gilbert farm house. As I stood there a great sadness came over me as I thought of the hopes, dreams and hard work of those that lived there. Now they were gone, and it was gone,. As I stood there in the darkness, the piercing bugles of  bull elk provided a fitting requiem for the passing of a way of life on Winslow Hill that is gone forever.

Glowing Embers Mark The End Of An Era: Photo by W.Hill
It is PGC policy to raze buildings such as this when they acquire the land, so this was to be expected, yet one  still felt a great sense of loss. As I stood there, I could still picture Kenny Gilbert, the last inhabitant, standing in the doorway as he talked to a visitor, and I wondered how long it will be until few visitors to Winslow Hill will know there had ever been a Gilbert Farm. This area was referred to as "The Gilbert" when it was first purchased from Betty Gilbert, Mr. Gilbert's Widow, and I still refer to it as "the Gilbert Viewing Area, but the PGC christened the area, "The Porcupine Run-Winslow Hill Viewing Area" and I can understand the reasoning to a certain extent, as the Gilbert is a but a small part of the entire viewing area.

Gilbert House And Worker's Vehicle: Photo by W.Hill
Gilbert House-Facing Dewey Road: Photo by W.Hill
I  learned that the buildings were to be razed some time ago, and late in the week of September 19th, I found that Sunday morning September 26th was to be the day that the house was to be burned. I photographed elk in the backcountry near there that morning and when I came into view of the house I found that the burning was underway.

Early Stages Of Burning: Photo by W.Hill
This was a highly controlled burn, with several fire companies on the scene.  Flames were immediately dampened with water when they appeared.

Photo by W.Hill
Water Was Pumped From Nearby Ponds: Photo by W.Hill
 Photo by W.Hill
I mentioned the proposed removal of the buildings in a previous post concerning the opening of the visitor center and other updates on conditions on Winslow Hill. Click Here to read that post.  As a result I received an e-mail concerning this house and the efforts of John and Kathy Myers to save it.  Mrs. Myers kindly granted permission to reprint it here.  It is well worth reading and I highly recommend that you do so.

Here it is in its' entirety:

Hi, Willard - I found photos of the Gilbert farm on a blog page and wanted to make a comment.

The Gilbert House In Winter: Photo courtesy of Kathy Myers
 I am a Winslow descendant whose 3rd great grandmother lived in that house, she being a Mayflower descendant. I began a project to save that house and asked the state to consider turning it into a visitor center. While DCNR had all kinds of reasons why it couldn't do that, I did receive some encouragement elsewhere to try to preserve the house. The Game Commission did agree to give us the house, but it had to be moved off the property.

I formed a 501(c)(3) non profit corporation, Winslow House Heritage Council, in order to save it. The state asked us for a feasibility study and gave us a $22,000 grant to conduct same. It was done by a local architectural firm. The results were that in order to meet current code (we wanted to operate it as a B&B and museum/shop) we would take the house down, salvage parts, and rebuild it elsewhere on Winslow Hill over its original footprint, only larger.

As you are aware, prices have skyrocketed on Winslow Hill. We were initially offered the remaining one acre parcel that was attached to St. Cecelia's Cemetery which is surrounded by the visitor center property; however, Rawley Cogan and RMEF arranged a land swap with St. Joseph's Church, the group that oversees the cemetery, and the priest who offered us the land and was a member of our board, was actually somewhat dismayed at the plans in progress to build the visitor center. For that reason, we lost our opportunity to get that land.

We tried to establish a heritage shop, for which we were given a grant, but there was nothing available for us on Winslow Hill or in the town of Benezette. We attempted to purchase the Don Wood property, but USDA thought we would have a hard time making a go of it "selling souvenirs" on Winslow Hill.

Possibly if the Game Commission had just given us the house with a little land around it as we first requested, we would have something going today. My letters to the Governor, where I asked him to override the Game Commission and just give us the house, went unanswered even though we had received two grants from the Commonwealth.

While Mr. Cogan wants to preserve Winslow Hill, I am concerned that the history of the early pioneers will be lost. When RMEF had its initial study done shortly after it purchased Elk Mountain Homestead, I was asked to meet with Rawley Cogan and the person who was conducting the study for RMEF. As a matter of fact, RMEF suggested our two organizations work together which never happened.

I attended a meeting at Game Commission Headquarters in Harrisburg in August of 2007 that was arranged by Senator Joseph Scarnati's office. In attendance was Dennis Duzia, PGC, Meredith Hill of DCNR, a representative from PA Historic and Museum Commission, the Senator's aide, Casey Long, and my husband and I. I was shocked at our treatment. Mr. Duzia was adamant that there would be no further extensions on our efforts to save the house. His words to my husband and I were that not many people were interested in the project "other than you people", and that they were going to take a "big D9 dozer in there and bulldoze it over and it won't be a pretty sight." DCNR and PHMC could offer no assistance, even though the house was listed as endangered by the PA Preservation group. In January, 2008, I contacted Carl Roe, PGC Director, about Mr. Duzia's comments. Mr. Roe did say that as long as the house was standing, if Winslow House Heritage Council could present him with a plan and timetable for moving it off the property, we would still have that opportunity. And he noted that Mr. Duzia would not be taking down the house without notifying us.

When RMEF pulled out of the visitor center and it was turned over briefly to another state agency, I contacted that agency and asked that Winslow House Heritage Council be given space in the visitor center to operate a heritage shop, noting that I had many good ideas for such a shop. I also discussed my concerns for the lack of information about the early pioneers, etc., which I feel should be presented for those traveling to this area. I was asked to list what I thought should be part of an educational display which I did. But then the management of the center was turned over to the Elk Country Alliance people and that was the end of the dialogue.

There is more to Benezette than the elk.

Kathy Myers

I wish to thank Mrs. Myers for sharing this information with us and I hope to discuss some of the issues involved with this type of situation in a future post.

Originally posted at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill


bobshank said...

Willard, this is indeed a very sad story. I wish Kathy and her husband could have been successful in preserving the Gilbert house. I remember when they still lived there and they were lovely persons. About the only thing I can do now is recall the memories and continue to call this area the Gilbert Viewing Area, which I will do. If I ever forget, please give me a nudge to remind me. I do worry about some things that are already being lost on Winslow Hill. Do you know if the barn was razed yet?

Anonymous said...

It is sad for the people but I suspect if the wildlife could talk they would be thrilled that human habitation is disappearing.

Willard said...

I had heard that it was to be burned the following Sunday, but a DWCO from our area, visited Elk County that afternoon. I asked if the barn was gone, and he wasn't sure. He noticed the house was missing of course, but thought the barn was still there. Maybe someone who knows for sure can chime in.

Kritter Keeper at Farm Tails said...

thought provoking post...sad to hear that the former owners were unsuccessful. i can just imagine the wonderful moments had on the farm. bad karma will come to the hateful man that was rude to need for disrespect like that.

imac said...

Sounds a very sad story Willard, times pass and thoughts forgotten, lets hope some good will become and overcome the sadness.

Heather said...

I am saddened by the loss of this historical building and hope that the current politics in the area do not continue to destroy what so many have come to love.

Camconative said...

Kinda sad to see this historic house gone.
This is off-topic, but I couldn't help but wonder if the PGC removed shingles, asbestos, or any other toxins from the house before it was lit. Doesn't appear so from the photos. Not just anyone could get away with that!

V.L. Locey said...

What a sad story. What a shame to lose such a historical building.

Unknown said...

This is sad. It does not surprise me though as all my dealings with the PaWilds, the RMEF and the new visitor center chief in charge have fallen on deaf ears--not even the courtesy of a response.