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Family's reunion an opportunity to learn history of Pittsburgh Botanic Garden's land, official say

| Wednesday, July 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Oliver McGill, Beth Ellis' grandfather, farms the family's Allegheny County land with his team of horses.
Beth Ellis' great-grandfather, William McGill Sr., was the first in the family to own the Allegheny County farm that became part of the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden.
Beth Ellis (at right) with her father, William McGill III and her sister, Peggy.

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.

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