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Always-charming Oakmont celebrates 125 years

| Wednesday, July 2, 2014, 9:15 p.m.
Dan Speicher | For Valley News Dispatch
Gary Rodgers, of Oakmont, president of the Oakmont Historical Society, poses for a portrait inside the 'Oakmont School Room' containing yearbooks and memorabilia from the old Oakmont Schools, inside the societies Allegheny River Boulevard location in Oakmont on Sunday June 29, 2014.

Gary Rogers has a history with Oakmont.

He traces an ancestral line to the first settler there, Michael Bright, who came from the eastern part of the state and cleared trees for farmland in what then was considered the frontier. Rogers has an enduring fondness for a place that has retained charm over its 125 years.

“You can walk the streets,” said Rogers, 56, president of the Oakmont Historical Society. He has accumulated a lifetime's worth of newspaper clippings and other reading materials about the history of the borough.

The historical society is among several organizations that have scheduled activities for each month this year, to mark the anniversary. A garden tour last weekend drew about 500 visitors to 10 sculpted locales, including a Japanese-style garden at one home overlooking the Allegheny River.

Besides using the occasion to draw attention to the borough, such activities are meant to offer a window into a place “where neighbors all know each other by name,” said Christine Little, a member of the Garden Club of Oakmont, which arranged the self-guided tour.

The borough is home to 6,400 people who live within its single square mile. Gas lamps line two red-brick thoroughfares, Allegheny Avenue and Allegheny River Boulevard, which run parallel to each other and are separated by a rail line that once transported people into Pittsburgh.

Many small businesses have helped Oakmont weather occasional economic doldrums. The chamber of commerce has 300 members.

Oakmont has many historic houses. Among them is the Kerr Memorial Museum, which was built in 1897 and which stands as an emblem of the lifestyle of an upper-middle-class family during that period, said Joan Stewart, who serves on its board and leads weekend tours there as a docent.

The Queen Anne Victorian house opened to the public in 2002. It was bequeathed to the borough by the daughter of one of the first medical doctors who settled there.

For many who tour it, Stewart said, “It reminds them of their grandmother's house.”

Rogers will continue holding monthly presentations that tell the history of the borough.

Oakmont, whose naming was a nod to the area's abundant oak trees, incorporated in 1889 as result of population growth, he said.

“It was very amicable,” he said of the founding of the borough, which previously made up the 2nd Ward of Verona. That town grew out of Plum, among the first seven townships in Allegheny County, incorporating in 1871, he said. “I think it was all positive.”

The borough gained a reputation as a weekend getaway spot, where boat and canoe clubs abounded. It's about 12 miles upriver from Downtown Pittsburgh, which for decades was marred by industrial smog.

The borough draws many visitors to its restaurants, shops and the nearby renowned Oakmont Country Club.

Rogers said he left his hometown after college, and to raise a family in Plum, only to return years later and many other people do the same.

“They would want to move back to where they grew up,” he said.

Jake Flannick is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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