Rural Life in The Southern Alleghenies

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Tourism and agriculture form the backbone of the region's economy.
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Map of Southern Alleghnies.
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Snow can be expected after Thanksgiving, but really violent weather is rare.
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Mixed hard-and softwood forests are abundant, offering trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding.

A rich and rewarding region of “New America.” Cream of the country: The Southern Alleghenies. The continuing series of the best sections of America to live a rural lifestyle.

Rural Life in Southern Alleghnies

The valleys lying between the wooded mountains of the southern Alleghenies were once considered to be the Gateway to the West. Millions of years of erosion left natural corridors in the Allegheny Plateau that allowed earlier-day emigrants to leave the comparative civilization of the east coast for the unsettled, unpopulated land to the west. Today, because of alternate east-west routes and the airplane, this part of western Appalachia retains the remoteness, beauty and quiet so important to lovers of rural life. Its mountains, which divide the rivers emptying into the Atlantic from those draining into the Gulf of Mexico, are rich with springs, natural watersheds, lakes, creeks and the fertile meadows these water systems produce.

Four counties–Allegany (Maryland), Garrett (Maryland), Bedford (Pennsylvania) and Mineral (West Virginia)–though in three different states, form a natural grouping that is both rural and nearly equidistant (some two and a half hours) from three major cities. Their main employment and retail center is Allegany’s county seat, Cumberland (pop. 25,233). This official Gateway to the West, intersected by U.S. Highways 220 and 40, is located 130 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, 140 miles west of Baltimore and 140 miles northwest of Washington, D.C.

Much of this four-county area is preserved in national or state game lands. Garrett County alone has over 74,000 acres of state forests, and manmade Deep Creek Lake spreads tentacle-like through the center of the county, providing miles of shoreline for private homes as well as for a state park. Allegany County contains Dan’s Mountain and Green Ridge state parks; Rocky Gap, another manmade lake, reflects the surrounding mountains in its clear waters. Bedford County, to the northeast, has Lake Shawnee State Park, and numerous creeks and rivers in all four counties are excellent for swimming and fishing.

Allegany, the most densely populated of the four counties, has suffered economically over these last years. Strong unions and shrinking railroad and coal businesses have caused some of the area’s largest manufacturing firms to slow production or close their doors. Small industries, however, are moving into the area, and agriculture (primarily beef cow-calf enterprises and fruit production) still plays a significant role in the economy. Frostburg State University, seven miles north of Cumberland, provides over 500 jobs, and its current enrollment of 4,186 is expected to increase steadily.

Garrett County’s business center and county seat is Oakland (pop. 1,909), a town renowned for its expansive Victorian homes, built when fortunes were made from coal. With its higher elevation (900 to 3,300 feet above sea level), Garrett is Maryland’s mountaintop playground. One-fifth of the county is made up of lakes and publicly owned park-lands. Tourism is the backbone of its economy, with the continuing importance of agriculture evidenced by the area’s many scenic farms.

Bedford County, in neighboring Pennsylvania, has a county seat, Bedford Borough (pop. 3,205), that’s rich in history and also enjoys a healthy tourist trade. Bedford Springs Hotel, famous for its mineral springs, is a major employer, and the 72-acre Old Bedford Village re-creates a world of pioneer America, where local craftspeople display techniques and skills dating back to the 1790s. Those people located south of Bedford often commute to Cumberland for employment, while those north travel to Altoona, Pennsylvania.

West Virginia’s Mineral County is the smallest of the four, yet it has over 75,000 acres in farmland, and family-owned farms are common. In Keyser (pop. 6,564), the county seat and largest city, a lumber mill, glass container factory and garment industry account for some jobs, but many people, once again, commute to Cumberland to work.

In terms of serious crime (homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft, auto theft and arson), this definitely seems to be a safe neck of the woods. Compared to a national average of 5,222 per 100,000 people, Allegany’s average is 2,414; Garrett’s, 1,822; Mineral’s, 979; and Bedford comes in at a mere 655.

Southern Alleghnies Land and Water

Cumberland’s rental property is plentiful and inexpensive. Spacious two- and three-bedroom homes can be found for as little as $200 to $400 a month. Two-bedroom apartments span a range of $150 to $500. Rental property in outlying small towns can also be found for comparable prices, and farms sometimes rent for as little as $50 to $100 a month.

There’s also a variety of housing available for purchase, ranging from $15,000 to $200,000, though real estate prices have increased over the past year. In Cumberland, for example, it’s possible to find a three-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot brick house for $30,000, but the average price for this area is $48,000.

City lots range from $7,500 to $22,000, while an acre of lake-front property on Deep Creek Lake can cost from $130,000 to $160,000. Wooded mountain land sells for as little as $300 per acre, however, and an acre of fertile, rolling grassland goes for $800 to $1,000. (Then again, a small farmette close to town can run up to $5,000 an acre.) In general, the more land you buy, the lower the price, so 100- to 200-acre farms sometimes sell for $500 an acre.

Deep, rich earth covers large areas of these four counties. Garrett County, for example, is primarily made up of well-drained topsoil, 20 to 40 inches deep. Here, the ground contains small fragments of rock that are abrasive to farm tools but don’t hinder cultivation. In Bedford and Mineral counties, the rivers and floods that brought loamy soil also left substantial stony deposits. These rockier areas are good for pasture, though, and if the rocks are removed, the rolling land can be productive.

The Allegheny area has plentiful rainfall, and very little irrigation is carried on by local farmers. Many of the homesteads don’t even need wells, thanks to more than adequate springs. Even during droughts, which occur infrequently, the water continues to roll out of mountain sources, and after filtering through carbonate rock and sandstone formations, it generally arrives clean, clear and good for drinking. Wells typically come in at about the 100- to 200-foot range, but– in rare cases–might have to be dug to 500 feet.

In Allegany, Bedford and Mineral counties, killing frosts usually end in April and begin in October. The first snow doesn’t fly until Thanksgiving, and hard winter doesn’t set in until after Christmas. Though mountain weather patterns vary from year to year, January and February typically include some days below zero, and you can count on the thermometer topping 100° F once or twice during the summer. August and the first pan of September sometimes see high humidity, which can make the days oppressive, but the nights are almost always relatively cool.

Garrett County, with its higher elevation, is about 10 degrees colder than the other counties, and it tends to get a lot more snow.

Really violent weather is rare, but high winds blow in the spring, and impressive summer thunderstorms are relatively common. Minor flooding can be expected, and flash flooding caused by snowmelt or heavy rains sometimes occurs. (In 1984 and 1985, floods caused considerable damage to some small towns and homes along the rivers.)

Allegany County sits on the western edge of a major fruit-growing area, well known for its apples, peaches, cherries and strawberries, with much of the fruit harvested by pick-your-own customers. Grapes are comparatively new to the region, but the hilly, well-drained topography is proving conducive to their production.

Southern Alleghnies Cultural Factors

The famed Mason-Dixon Line forms the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, and the entire region is steeped in history. George Washington’s headquarters, for example, stand preserved in Cumberland. Old Bedford Village has over 40 original log homes and craft shops, and Oakland, Bedford and Cumberland have restored many of their old, beautiful downtown buildings.

This area also has a surprisingly rich fund of excellent and varied music. Bedford Springs Festival, held for six weeks in the summer, features internationally acclaimed artists. In Cumberland, the Community Concert Association presents five shows a year. And for those who like some knee-slapping and foot-stomping with their music, there’s the annual Blue Grass Festival. In addition to the many local theater groups, Garrett County hosts summer stock, and Frostburg State University can be counted on to present a number of nationally touring entertainers.

Any discussion of the area’s culture must include the many annual festivals. The people in this region rejoice at the seasonal nature of their lives, and Winterfest, Autumn Glory, May Day and the Great Pumpkin Festival are only a sampling of the fetes that bring them together to celebrate.

When one thinks of Appalachia, one often envisions mountainous terrain that forces its inhabitants to eke out a living amidst the rocks and gullies. The truth is that the land in this particular part of Appalachia can be rugged. It also can be benevolent, gentle and generous. The same can be said for these independent people. Mostly native-born, white Protestants, they’ve spent years in a geography and climate that invite an outdoor, un-confined lifestyle. Privacy and time to spend with family and friends are considered basic necessities of life, as is the freedom to roam, hunt and fish.

Though the four counties cover some 2,435 square miles, residents are likely to cross each other’s paths more than once. Here, “neighbor” can be a permanent designation. As a result, people tend to treat each other well. You think twice about being rude to or cheating someone you’ll be running into over the next several decades. And when natives find a newcomer in the neighborhood, they assume he or she will be there awhile–so they extend a warm welcome. With what might be termed country manners, they come to call and to fill their new neighbor in on any particulars about the area that might be helpful. They also show an open curiosity about the new kid on the block–but they don’t pry. Located at the very northern boundary of what is loosely considered the South, the people seem to have made a nice marriage between Southern hospitality and rugged individualism.

When you talk to natives about their home territory, you might hear wry comments about the possible limitations, but it also becomes clear that the ties that bind them to home are strong.

“Sure,” states one such Appalachian, “I’d love to go someplace else–maybe near an ocean or where there’s more money. But I’d have to take these mountains, Wills Creek, my family and friends with me.”

Room Enough

The southern Alleghenies don’t need to worry about running out of elbowroom any time soon. Currently, the populations of the four counties are either staying the same or shrinking. The move of industry to locations farther south for cheaper labor has had a limiting effect on the area’s growth. Cumberland, for example, is going through major changes as an economic entity. Small industry is beginning to take the place of large firms that have either shut down or had sizable cutbacks. Town and state leaders are starting to look at the unspoiled beauty of the region as a source of revenue via the tourist trade. But these developments are in their infancy, and the losses caused by the departure of big industry are still being felt. This makes most land inexpensive, but anyone moving into the area also needs to consider that the economy will be struggling for the next few years.

What it seems to boil down to is this: If you come here for a quiet, beautiful spot to enjoy rural living, you’ll find it. If you come well financed–or can keep your expenses to a minimum and are prepared for a simpler life–you’ll probably be fine. It’s not likely you’ll make “big bucks” quickly, but then, if that’s what you’re looking for, country living is probably not for you anyway.

Southern Alleghnies Facts and Figures

Allegany 421 sq. mi.
Garrett 657 sq. mi.
Bedford l,017sq. mi.
Mineral 330 sq. mi.

Allegany 77,655
Garret 26,851
Bedford 48,060
Mineral 27,583

Allegany 182.3 per sq. mi.
Garrett 40.5 per sq. mi.
Bedford 47.2 per sq. mi.
Mineral 83.6 per sq. mi.

1. retail trade; 2. service; 3. manufacturing
1. service; 2. retail trade; 3. manufacturing
1. retail trade; 2. manufacturing; 3. agriculture, forestries, fishing, mining
1. manufacturing; 2. government; 3. trade

Per Capita Income
Allegany $8,771
Garrett $7,406
Mineral $7,916

Allegany 10%
Garrett 10.2%
Bedford 9.6%
Mineral 5.3%

Maryland Taxes: 5% sales; 5% state income; property, $2.50 per $100 of assessed value
Taxes: 6% sales; 2.1% state income; no property, but school tax, $.094 of assessed value
West Virginia Taxes: 5% sales; 3%-6.5% state income; property, $1.35 per $100 of assessed value
Allegany Taxes: 2.5% county income
Garrett: Taxes: 2.5% county income

Allegany, Bedford, Mineral
Avg. precipitation, 36 inches; avg. snowfall, 34 inches; growing season, 170 days; 1987 daily July high and low, 91.1 degrees Fahrenheit and 65.8 degrees Fahrenheit; 1987 daily
January high and low, 37.8 degrees Fahrenheit and 22.4 degrees Fahrenheit
Avg. precipitation, 47 inches; avg. snowfall, 82 inches; growing season, 170 days; 1987 daily July high and low, 82.5 degrees Fahrenheit and 59 degrees Fahrenheit; 1987 daily January high and low 32.3 degrees Fahrenheit and 17.3 degrees Fahrenheit

13 elementary, 3 middle, 4 high schools, 1 vocational school, 1 community college, 1 university. Teacher ratios: 25: 1, elementary; 15: 1, high school. Graduation rate, 97%
13 elementary, 2 middle, 2 high schools, 1 community college. Teacher ratios: 23.6:1, elementary; 18.2:1, middle; 19.3:1, high school. Graduation rate, 98.1%
10 elementary, 2 middle, 3 high schools,
1 1st-12th, 1 private. Teacher ratios: NA
2 kindergarten-12th, 2 kindergarten–8th, 6 kindergarten–4th, 2 9th-12th, 1 5th-8th, 1 vocational. Teacher ratios: 13.6:1. Graduation rate, 97.1%