Collier's Woodville Plantation offers multi-generational glimpse of holiday history

| Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

A touch of holly, sprigs of pine boughs on a mantle and candlelit tours will provide a window into Christmases 200 years ago in Western Pennsylvania.

The Neville House on the Woodville Plantation in Collier is undergoing restoration, including work to its unique windows, as volunteers prepare for a holiday event on Sunday. The house almost can be overlooked from busy, four-lane Route 50, although it played a key role in the early United States.

“It's one of the most significant 18th-century houses in Western Pennsylvania, and is the oldest house open for tourism in Western Pennsylvania,” said Dan Ragaller, who dresses as an 18th century plantation overseer for tours during special events.

The Neville House also is one of the few historical houses that depicts authentic life during the 40-year span of the New Republic era, which followed the Revolutionary War. It also played a role in the Whiskey Rebellion, and its history is explained almost weekly by a core staff of 15 volunteers.

“A 200-year-old house is more common near Philadelphia. This house was built in 1775, at a time when fewer than 300 people lived in this region,” Ragaller said.

The Neville House once was part of a 1,200-acre plantation that would have included parts of Mt. Lebanon, Car­negie, Collier and Bridgeville. It was built by John Neville, who was the commander at Fort Pitt before the Revolutionary War and later was the tax collector assigned by President George Washington to collect the whiskey tax that brought on a farmers' rebellion.

A larger home, where Neville lived, burned down.

“By the grace of God, (Neville House) still exists,” Ragaller said. The Neville House Associates volunteer group owns and maintains the site.

Preservation projects include recent work on the house's outside wooden walls. “Our first priority is to preserve the historical structure. Each board has been renailed and replicated exactly,” said Rob Windhorst, site director.

The only change to the outside of the structure is a panel that now swings open to show the original log cabin at the site.

“This house provides a multi-generational approach to history covering the time period of 1780 to 1820, that shares the lives of the first three families that lived in this home,” Windhorst said. That family includes John Neville's son, Presley, and Christopher Cowan, who married the original owner's niece. “He's Pittsburgh's first industrialist. He does what Andrew Carnegie did a hundred years later, yet you never hear about him,” Windhorst said.

It was during Cowan's days there that visitors to the house used diamonds in their rings to etch their names in the window glass. A restoration project aims to preserve these original windows by filling cracks with polymer, then sandwiching the windows between hand-blown glass panes.

“We try to keep everything to how it would be during the New Republic era,” Windhorst said.

Projects could include putting in a retaining wall to improve the streetscape, and to reduce noise and dirt from the nearby road. A dehumidifier system also is needed to cool the house, because air conditioning is bad for historical houses.

For this weekend's Holidays at the House event, stories will be shared about Boxing Day and Twelfth Night.

Next year's special events include concerts, July's Whiskey Rebellion Weekend and an ongoing series of classes about life in the 18th century. The house is open every Sunday afternoon.

“Our cooking classes use reproductions of cookware used in 1780. It's one of the few places where you can use only 18th century ingredients to cook,” Windhorst said.

“Every week, we have somebody new who visits, and they say, ‘Wow! This is great. I have driven by this place thousands of times and never knew it existed.' ”

Jane Miller is a freelance writer.

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