Burtner House celebrating sweet history

| Thursday, June 17, 2010

Strawberries and history have proven to be a tastefully winning combination for more than 35 years in Natrona Heights.

They come together again Saturday at the 36th annual Burtner House Strawberry Festival.

The offerings range from the edible to the historical with strawberry shortcake and ice cream, among other foods, including sandwiches; period music; a visit by Abraham Lincoln, as presented by Rick Miller of Cranberry; military demonstrations; face painting and crafts for children; and guided tours of the Burtner House, named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

The cornerstone was laid in 1818. Through the years, this residence for generations of Burtner family members has been a reflection of the history of the community. During elections, the house served as a local polling place, including presidential elections for Andrew Jackson; and for town meetings such as the planning sessions for construction of the Pennsylvania Canal.

It was that canal that brought Charles Dickens through Tarentum aboard a packet boat in 1842. In 1817, Phillip Burtner visited Pittsburgh to see James Monroe, and, in 1825, he and his wife attended the grand reception honoring LaFayette in Pittsburgh.

The property once was a working farm. People would stop at the house to water their horses before proceeding up the hill of what is now Burtner Road. Prior to 1800, a Cornplanter Indian settlement was located nearby.

Phillip Burtner and his two brothers, George and John, arrived in the Allegheny Valley in 1793 as scouts on the frontier.

"The house is open for people to enjoy," says Pauline Arnold, president of the Burtner House Association. She loves to give tours.

"I tell people, 'We can't even begin to imagine the work that went into everyday living,' " she says.

The cellar, which has not been seen by visitors for a few years, has been re-opened after restoration work. Stored there is a butter churn, a large apple butter pot with stirrer and tools.

In the living room are display cases containing Martha Burtner's wedding dress and bonnet; a replica of a drummer boy's costume; and a portable spinning wheel with a showcase of wool and linen.

"Every family had at least one spinner. A lady could carry what she was working on in a covered wagon or when she went to visit somebody. Their hands were always busy doing something," Arnold says.

A huge fireplace awaits in the kitchen, along with items used for cooking. Arnold says visitors are surprised to find a block of tea there. "It was the type thrown overboard at the Boston tea party," she says, "and there's a cone of sugar, wrapped in beautiful blue paper, a rare commodity in the 1700s."

Three bedrooms and the attic can be visited upstairs. The Burtner's "great bedroom" has a trundle bed, an early 20th-century brass crib and a small rug room. "We need to hang on to things from the past. They need to be preserved," Arnold says.

The children's room displays youthful clothing and old-fashioned baby bottles. A second bedroom contains a rope bed with straw mattress. "That's where the phrase, 'Sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite,' came from," Arnold says.

There also is a display of clothing the early Burtners wore to bed. "There were special socks and hats to sleep in to keep warm, or to try to keep their hair in place," she says.

Arnold also enjoys taking visitors to the attic. "It's wonderful up there with a great loom," she says. "They claimed when a lady spun wool on it, she walked five miles back and forth while she was spinning."

Festival goers will order their food outside in the summer kitchen. An oven was constructed beside the fireplace where the Burtners baked their bread.

It is important to preserve such historic locations, says Arnold, because "grown-ups and children need to know about the past. That's the way you make the way to the future."

Additional Information:

Burtner House Strawberry Festival

When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday

Where: Burtner House, Burtner Road, off Route 28 (Exit 15), Natrona Heights

Admission: $3; free for children; separate charges for food

Details: 724-224-7999

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