Family's reunion an opportunity to learn history of Pittsburgh Botanic Garden's land, official say
Beth Ellis long has held out hope that she would return with her three daughters to the place where she grew up, a swath of countryside in Allegheny County that sustained her and her ancestors through generations.
On Friday, her “heart's desire” will take shape.
“Everybody's converging,” she said of her daughters and their families, two of whom live outside the state.
Ellis, her husband, Alan, and one daughter who made the trip with her husband and two children from Texas, are to arrive by RV from Berks County, where Ellis lives. A banner including a photograph of her father, William McGill III, carrying sweet corn at the farm is to adorn the vehicle.
The reunion carries particular significance for Ellis, who has not gathered with her daughters on the farmland since they buried her mother in Oakdale in the late 1990s. She plans to offer her grandchildren a glimpse into her upbringing, telling stories and showing photos she compiled into a scrapbook as the only surviving family member from the farm.
“There's only me,” said Ellis, 79, whose sister died in the mid-1980s.
The farmland became part of the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, 460 acres in Settlers Cabin Park, whose partial opening is scheduled to take place a week after the reunion. The site in North Fayette is expected to include 18 gardens, a venue for weddings and a center for botanic research. The Woodlands section is scheduled to open Aug. 1.
Two volunteers with the garden coordinated the reunion, mailing about 100 invitations in spring, when Ellis called the garden about visiting the old farm before its opening. Besides her daughters and their families, invitees include elected officials.
“They are a family who loves the land,” said Linda Romito of Mars, who has volunteered with the garden for about 10 years. “It was their livelihood.”
Though the reunion is a way to promote the garden, it has offered an “opportunity to learn more about the history of the land,” said Kitty Vagley, director of development for the garden.
She noted that the garden hired a historian to gather records of the land but Ellis offered “more intimate” accounts in conversations.
The McGill family purchased the farm around the 1870s. It stretched about 100 acres, including crop fields and pastures for cows and pigs.
It was mined for coal in the early 1900s and underwent strip mining in the 1940s, leaving what Ellis described as a “big scar” on the land.
Three generations later, in the early 1970s, Ellis' father sold the land to the county; he no longer was able to maintain it because of his age. The purchase included neighboring farms.
In the late 1990s, the garden, then the Horticulture Society of Western Pennsylvania, started leasing the land from the county.
Plans to open the garden encountered setbacks. Among them: the remnants of Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Torrential rain stripped the land affected by mining.
But people persisted with restoring what Vagley called one of Western Pennsylvania's largest brownfields, drawing support from the county, state and thousands of volunteers.
A pond in the Woodlands section, once dead from acid mine drainage, bears Asian flowers and will include fish.
“I cannot imagine a better legacy,” Ellis said of the garden.
Ellis, a retired speech therapist and teacher of creative dramatics, is finishing a memoir about her upbringing. She left the farm when she graduated from college and married in the late 1950s.
“We grew up with life,” she said of her and her sister, recalling the many cats on the farm and the sights and smells of spring. “We have loved the soil and believed in the land.”
Jake Flannick is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Neighborhood movie theaters use unconventional methods to draw customers
- Arsenal hard cider now served at Soergel Orchards in Franklin Park
- Dormont library program to pay tribute to Japanese culture
- Event to offer glimpse of cemetery’s history at Old St. Luke’s
- Mt. Lebanon looks to tackle pedestrian safety issue
- North Allegheny grad earns international recognition for public speaking
- Mt. Lebanon church plans $2M expansion project
- Ross girl’s taco tower recipe earns her dinner at White House
- Allegheny County libraries getting upgrade with computer software program