Homesteaders share their experience on moving to rural southern Alleghenies looking for privacy, affordable land and a slower pace of life.
Living in rural southern Alleghenies. Outdoor pleasures are available throughout the region and, for many, help make up for the relative lack of high-income employment opportunities.
PHOTO: RICHARD O. SPRINGER
Reports back from some new American pioneers who made the move to rural southern Alleghenies.
Most of the people who've been part of the recent immigration to the southern Allegheny region came looking for privacy, affordable land and a slower pace of life. Bob Lee, a civil engineer working in Lima, Peru, gazed down the corporate road of the international tire company employing him and decided he didn't want to spend the next 35 years moving around the world. In 1969, he requested a transfer back to the U.S. and was sent to Cumberland, where the small-town atmosphere reminded him of growing up in upstate New York—except the climate was warmer and the terrain gentler. Luck as well as intent had put him in a place where he and his family decided to put down roots.
Bill Hierstetter lived his first 30-some years in Baltimore, yet always knew he would rather be in the country. In 1981, his firm offered Bill a transfer to western Maryland. He jumped at the chance, and he and his wife, Janet, moved to a place so isolated that a car bumping along the dirt road to their home was an event.
Like Bill, John Wozney, though living in Springfield, Virginia, had always wanted a "hunk of ground." In 1974 he found eight acres and a house outside the tiny town of Hyndman, Pennsylvania. It was, by far, the best land value he'd seen, so he and his wife, Sandy, put together a down payment and moved. They were young, in love, and unconcerned about the fact that John didn't have a job.
In 1977, Ron Christensen, an artist in New York City, knew it was time to look for someplace else to live. He wanted a quiet place where he could retreat to paint. Then a friend showed him and his wife, Gale, an old hunting lodge in Bean's Cove, Pennsylvania. The building was in terrible shape, but the view looking up into the mountains was unbeatable, and the price was $10,000. They bought it that same day.
What They Found
Bill had never chopped wood, hammered a nail or fixed a leaky faucet. He didn't know about spending summer and fall preparing for winter and found himself chopping firewood in a howling wind-chill factor of 60° below zero and wondering what he had gotten himself into. When the plumbing went bad, the Hierstetters knew that paying the mileage to get a plumber there would be more than the whole bill back in Baltimore. "You learn to do for yourself," said Bill, not without pride. "You don't have any choice."
Not all skilled labor proved to be expensive, however. The craftsmen that Ron and Gale hired to reconstruct their house and build a new studio were not only excellent but more than reasonable. The freestanding, 20-foot by 40-foot studio, made of rough-cut poplar, was finished in 11 days for $4,500.
The newcomers, in general, found their neighbors to be independent, with a strong respect for each other's boundaries. Yet they could be counted on if a need arose. Neighbors stopped by to say hello and were happy to show the "city folks" how to handle an ax or plumb a line.
As children came along, the conviction that they'd made the right decision increased. The parents felt their children were safer where they were—away from crime, pressures to grow up too quickly and other problems associated with urban areas. But even though they felt they belonged and had chosen the right lifestyle, the exurbanites all had to face the harsh realities of the area's struggling economy.
In Baltimore, Janet had been working in a factory doing assembly work, making as much or more money than Bill. Now, she couldn't find employment, and their income was halved.
John managed to find a job as a roofer, but the pay was low and the work sporadic. At one point, after insurance had been deducted, his paycheck was under a dollar.
Ron soon discovered that though the area was rich in material for sketching and provided the quiet he needed, there was no nearby market for his paintings. Artwork was either a luxury the locals couldn't afford, or their tastes were too traditional to appreciate his impressionistic style.
Even Bob, who continued to earn as much as his counterparts elsewhere, felt he missed out on promotions by choosing to stay in the area. Furthermore, his wife, Sandy, a nurse, made up to 25% less than urban nurses with comparable backgrounds.
What They Did
John gave up working for someone else and started his own business, Tip Top Roofing. It was more lucrative in the long run, but when construction jobs were meager, so was John's income. By raising their own vegetables and beef, they managed to get by, but it was always precarious. When three major jobs didn't come through, the family got so far behind in their bills, it didn't seem likely they could make enough to pay off debts.
Bill and Janet moved to a rustic, 122-acre farm, paying very low rent in exchange for doing repairs. Janet started boarding, buying and selling horses. Now they've bought their own place, and Janet is not only making extra money, but has realized a long-time equestrian dream.
Gale commandeered part of Ron's studio and taught herself to frame his paintings. "I can do a better job for a fraction of commercial rates, and a nice frame definitely helps to sell his work. The materials tend to be cheaper here, too."
When John and Sandy faced the realization that Appalachia didn't have the resources to get them out of their financial hole, John went to work for a contractor in northern Virginia, coming home on weekends.
"I make more there in two months than I did the whole year roofing here," John stated. "But I'm lucky, because I can stay with my parents in Virginia. There are a lot of guys like me, who've come down out of the mountains to find jobs, and some sleep in their cars."
"I wish I'd sent him off before we got so far behind," Sandy added. "I said I'd never live this way, but here I am doing it."
Most of the people who have stayed have reconciled themselves to living on less money. "I probably haven't advanced the way I would have if I'd moved," said Bob, "but living here is great. You don't have the hassles of getting to and from work; it's calmer, prettier, and it's been good for the kids."
And Now . . .
"We'd never go back to the city," Bill says. "It's too dirty, too noisy and too dangerous. We live on a lot less money, but our expenses are less. This place has been good for us as a family."
John and Sandy can't say the same thing. Though they feel like honeymooners on the weekends, family life is very important to them, and, after a year, the weekly separations are taking a toll. They've put their place up for sale—but for a very high price, because they have mixed feelings about leaving.
"I love it here and so do the girls, but it's not worth being away from John. I'd hate to lose this place, but with the kind of money John's making in the city, maybe we could just close it up and use it for vacations and retirement."
Bob doesn't ever want to leave. "I'd rather be here than anywhere else. We've got the best of both worlds: The mountains are beautiful, and the beaches are just two and a half hours away. But we have to be practical. If my company were to shut down, I'd move to wherever they sent me. I'd never stay here without a job."
Ron and Gale spend less time at their mountain retreat than they did nine years ago. South Florida has proved to be a good market for Ron's paintings, so they winter there. The summers are divided between Bean's Cove and traveling to galleries.
"The retreat makes less sense than it did when we needed to get out of New York City. But even so, I'd hate to lose it. It's a great hideaway, and we can leave it for extended periods, because the neighbors are so great. We know they'll always watch it for us. If we can swing it financially, we'll keep it."
To Sum It Up
These people moved to western Appalachia to find space, beauty, privacy and a safe place to raise children. They wanted to live among neighbors they trusted and to put down roots. They found all that. They also found the harsh reality of a depressed economy. Those that have been able to stick it out are philosophical about their reduced incomes. In fact, they take pride in "doing for themselves." And their willingness to sacrifice buying power for a simpler lifestyle has been good for their environment. Their gardens are organic, and air-conditioning is often an open window with a fan. They don't drive powerboats or fast cars. And when they hunt or fish, it's to put food on the table. As a group, they probably wouldn't say they were trying to protect the land they've come to love but, in fact, that's what they do.
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