For nine generations, family has tended to Murrysville's Gearhard Farm
There's a lot of family history on Herb Gearhard's piece of land — 240 years worth, to be exact.
Handed down from the Hayes to the Gillespies to the Elwoods to the Gearhards, the sprawling farm along Mamont Road in Murrysville has been the site of prosperous crops, Native American raids and a well-known corn maze.
Next week, the Gearhard Farm will become the eighth in Westmoreland County to receive a Bicentennial Farm designation as part of Ag Progress Days in State College. Just 165 farms across the state have met the requirements for the designation.
“I always knew the family history roots were old, but I didn't realize how far back,” Gearhard said. “It's overwhelming almost to think about.”
Records show that Robert Hayes bought the property in 1769 for 45 pounds, 2 shillings, 6 pence — which, according to an online historical currency converter, is equivalent to about $6,445 in today's American dollars. A “tomahawk” survey, which is a method of measuring land that was used in the late 1700s, showed the property was 339.5 acres. The farm has been passed down from generation to generation; Gearhard's children are the ninth generation to call the property home.
Tracking down information on the old homestead has been tough, Gearhard said. For example, old tax-office documents list the property's barn as “very, very old,” he said.
But during his research on the property and family roots, Gearhard found several fascinating stories — including the fact that despite having survived three years of captivity by a Native American tribe, Hayes was killed on the front porch of his log cabin while defending his home.
Gearhard said his mother, who died in 2004, passed down stories about how some ancestors who lived on the farm hauled pipes for the famous Murrysville gas well. Years later, her uncle lost an arm in a farming accident and died, which prompted her father to relocate from California and pick up the family business.
“It's interesting to think how things could have changed,” Gearhard said. “It's like a disease in your bloodstream. Just knowing it goes that far back, it's amazing.”
According to state Department of Agriculture records, the Bicentennial Farm designation is pretty rare. Of the more than 62,000 farms harvesting 7.7 million acres of land in Pennsylvania, just 2,098 — less than 4 percent — meet the requirements for either a Century Farm or Bicentennial Farm.
To qualify, the same family must have owned the farm for at least 100 or 200 consecutive years. A family member must make a permanent home on the farm, which must consist of at least 10 acres of the original deeded property. If the farm has been subdivided or doesn't have enough of the original acreage, it can qualify by grossing more than $1,000 annually from the sale of farm products.
A similar program in New York inspired the Century Farm program. The Bradford County Historical Society enacted the Pennsylvania designation in 1948. After receiving several requests for a bicentennial designation, the state Department of Agriculture began the new designation in 2004.
Gearhard said he was surprised to learn about some of the farm's history. Though he knew his great-great-grandfather was born on the property in 1813, he didn't realize that Hayes built the second house in Franklin Township – which nearly two centuries later became Murrysville. The first was built by the Meanor family on property that now houses Meadowink Golf Course.
Carl Patty, president of the Murrysville Historical Preservation Society, has helped Gearhard trace some of the historical information through books and records. There's a treasure trove of history throughout the municipality, but the number of people trying to celebrate and preserve it are few, Patty said.
“All of Murrysville used to be farms, but it's changed so much,” Patty said. “It's a sad commentary that the vast majority of people in Murrysville don't care about history more.”
But this fall, those who know Gearhard's farm for its popular corn maze will come face to face with a bit of history. Gearhard said he will honor the designation with this year's theme for the corn maze.
While the farm is most known locally for its corn maze, Gearhard keeps to his roots by continuing to harvest field crops. Corn, oats and hay grow across the approximately 150 acres he tends to by day.
“We're committed to keeping this property as much as we can,” Gearhard said.
Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627, or firstname.lastname@example.org.